The New Rules of Instability

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

Fitness trends tend to follow a frustrating pattern: New ideas and equipment become popular before researchers can figure out if they live up to their claims. Take instability training: When wobble boards and Bosu balls came along, we started using them for everything, including big-muscle moves like squats and presses. We called it "functional" training, but good luck finding a function these tools actually trained. But what if we flip the whole instability concept and instead make the thing we lift unstable? It can be anything: a sandbag (like musclemorphosis.com), a slosh pipe (a length ...

Fitness trends tend to follow a frustrating pattern: New ideas and equipment become popular before researchers can figure out if they live up to their claims. Take instability training: When wobble boards and Bosu balls came along, we started using them for everything, including big-muscle moves like squats and presses. We called it "functional" training, but good luck finding a function these tools actually trained.

But what if we flip the whole instability concept and instead make the thing we lift unstable? It can be anything: a sandbag (like musclemorphosis.com), a slosh pipe (a length of PVC pipe filled with water), a child, or even your body weight if you use a suspension system like TRX. Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., the co-owner of Results Fitness in California, calls it "alive" training because the unstable load shifts during the exercise. As it does, your body adjusts to manage it, making each rep slightly different from the last. You can also adjust the load and your body position to crank out more reps, boosting your muscle-building stimulus.

Take inverted rows with a suspension system: You can keep the set going simply by changing your grip or bringing your feet closer to your torso. If you squat with a sandbag, you can move it from back to front to stave off fatigue, extending the time your muscles are under tension.

"This is what functional training was meant to be before the industry went crazy with balancing," Cosgrove says. The strength you build, in other words, is strength you can use. And that will never go out of style.

Lou Schuler, C.S.C.S., is an award-winning journalist and the coauthor (with Alwyn Cosgrove) of musclemorphosis.com