June 24, 2012

Intrinsic Stability - Tips Everyone Needs To Know To Increase Strength Instantly

Stability or lack thereof, in my opinion, is the most important variable associated with lifting ‘heavy ass weights’ (as Ronnie Coleman would say). If at any point stability is compromised when lifting a weight, regardless of the exercise, performance will suffer.

What happens when there is a lack of stability is the nervous system will struggle in an attempt to create stability, even though you only really care to lift the weight. If the nervous system is ‘distracted’ with trying to fix the stability issue, than you can bet that much of the energy that would have gone into lifting the actual weight itself, is lost.

You see, the body’s primary concern is to remain safe, and it does so byattempting to create stability. It doesn’t care to lift heavy weights, as muchas we all wish it did. This is primarily why we can lift much more weight using machines as opposed to free weights.

With free weights, the body has to create the stability all by itself which can be very neurologically demanding. With machines, the movements are restricted to a set path, and there is no additional focus needed to create stability, which is why you can handle more weight. This isn’t to say that if you want to get strong you should use machines, since you can use more weight. That’s not the point here at all. If anything, the strength gained from training solely on machines will have little carryover to movements that are not on a restricted path because the nervous system will not develop the appropriate motor pattern to generate force, while creating stability.

The point more so is, if you want to lift as much as possible, with free weights, you need to remain as stable as possible, should you not, it will negatively affect your ability to lift maximal weights.

Now that you have a better idea of the importance of stability, and the role it plays as far as you being able to lift as much weight as possible, let’s go over some key points that you can apply immediately to increase your stability, and thus strength, while lifting.

First off it’s important to note that there are two different kinds of stability as it relates to strength training – intrinsic stability and extrinsic stability. Extrinsic means that some external factor is providing the stability, such as a machine would, as described earlier. Intrinsic is when the body has to create stability within itself, as it would when lifting a free weight, also described earlier. The focus moving forward will be on how to maximize intrinsic stability.


This tip can only be applied to lifts performed with a barbell, as trying to apply lateral, or even medial forces, with a pair of dumbells could have catastrophic consequences, especially at high intensities.


Whenever you are pressing a barbell, you have the added benefit of being able to apply what are called lateral, or medial, forces to the bar. What that means is, instead of just pushing the bar up, you can also try to mentally focus on either pulling the bar apart, or bringing your hands together. Both will affect the recruitment pattern, and thus the end result.

For example, if you want to direct more stress onto your pecs while bench pressing, you could try to bring your arms towards each other as you raise and lower the bar. This may not in fact improve performance, as far as increasing your ability to lift more is concerned, but if you are primarily training for aesthetics/bodybuilding then it’s a good way to direct more tension onto the pecs and keeping them constantly engaged.

Attempting to pull the bar apart while pressing is a different story altogether. When you do that, you increase the triceps involvement in the lift (amongst other things, which I will get to), which does a few things. Because the triceps are powerful arm extensors, increasing their involvement will directly influence the amount of weight that can be lifted.

Aside from increasing the triceps involvement in the lift, you also contract the rear delts and rhomboids, amongst other muscles in the back, which increases stability in the shoulder, back, and elbow. This increased intrinsic stability will give you a more solid platform to press off of.


The same sort of technique can be applied to squats to enhance intrinsic stability, only in this case, instead of trying to pull the bar apart, you push your feet apart on the floor, or at least try to spread the floor apart with your feet. This will increase the activity of the deep external rotators of thehip (primarily the piriformis) responsible for maintaining alignment in the upper thigh during compound lower body movements.

Attempting to spread the floor will also help reduce the likeliness of theknees coming together that often takes place, especially in those with relativelyweak VMO’s. Not only are the knees caving in indicative of weak VMO’s, but theyalso compromise stability which negatively affects the performance of the lift.


This tip can be utilized for pretty much any exercise, and isn’t limited to barbell lifts like the previous tip about applying lateral forces.

Most people understand the importance of controlling the eccentric portionof any given lift as it relates to strength and muscular development, but most DO NOT maximize the eccentric. While you may think that simply lowering the weight slowly is good enough to reap the benefits from the eccentric, it doesn’t really do much by way of maximizing intrinsic stability and giving you a solid platform to lift off from once you complete the full range of the eccentric repetition.

To really maximize the eccentric portion of the lift, and give yourself the most solid platform to lift off from, you must focus on using the antagonistic muscle group to do the lowering. Another way to look at it is the eccentric portion of the lift for the agonist, is also the concentric portion for the antagonist (not literally, but try to envision it that way when lifting to reap the benefits of intrinsic stability).

Example #1 – Instead of simply lowering your hips down towards the floor when squatting, try to think about using your hip flexors to bring you down to the floor as you flex your hips. This will alter the recruitment pattern of the movement in your favour, as the intrinsic stability that comes from having the hips and core tight during the eccentric portion of the squat will enable you to really explode up out of the hole.

Example #2 – When lowering the bar while bench pressing, think of pulling it down onto your chest with your lats, rear delts, rhomboids, biceps, etc. This will increase the intrinsic stability in all the major joints involved in the movement, so when it’s time to reverse the movement, you can fully focus on pressing with as much force as possible, and not trying to fight within yourself to balance the bar while trying to press it up.

The examples to which you could apply this technique are endless, but by now you should get the point. To maximize the eccentric portion of the lift, not only do you need to focus on slowly lowering the weight, but you also need to focus on contracting the antagonistic muscle group to provide yourself with the most solid foundation to lift off of as you transition to the concentric portion of the lift. Remember, the body works as a whole, not as a bunch of isolated muscle groups, so use as much of your body as possible to get the most out of it.


This tip isn’t necessarily primarily geared towards increasing intrinsic stability, it more so just ties in directly with the last tip. This tip is best used with isolated (single-joint) movements.

Aside from utilizing the antagonist to increase intrinsic stability while lowering the weight, you can also use it to increase the pre-stretch and activate the stretch reflex of the agonist, and thus increase the amount of motor units in the following concentric contraction. This can be done by isometrically contracting the antagonist at the end of the eccentric range of motion.

Example #1 – At the end of the eccentric range of motion of a biceps curl, flex your triceps hard to increase the pre-stretch of the biceps.

Example #2 – At the end of the eccentric range of motion of a leg curl, flex your quadriceps hard to increase the pre-stretch of the hamstrings.

*You may, or may not have noticed, that both examples above are geared towards flexion type movements. The reason for that is because it is much easier for an individual to fully extend a joint than it is to fully flex it. The amount of flexion a joint can go through is limited to the size of the individual. For instance, a bodybuilder with 20+ inch arms may not be able to flex their arm to the same degree as someone with smaller arms. Therefore, this technique may not be effective for extension oriented movements, as there may not be much of a pre-stretch for those whose range of motion is limited for whatever reason. If a person can only minimally flex their arm, it isn’t likely that their triceps would receive enough of a pre-stretch by contracting the biceps to activate the stretch reflex, which is responsible for the increasedmotor units sent at the onset of the concentric repetition.

If you have any questions about intrinsic stability, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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