Training the Unstable Client

We’ve all had ‘em before.

That really tricky athlete…

…the one who just can’t seem to stay healthy….

…the one who just can’t seem to put the pieces together on the field, court, or in the weight room…

…and of course, the one who just can’t seem to get bigger, stronger or more powerful.

You’ve racked your brain and you can’t seem to figure it out – but you could be you’re training an unstable athlete!

Unstable clients and athletes are tough to deal with. They are prone to injury, typically aren’t the most athletic clients on your roster, and they typically demand more from us as a coach.

Does that mean we just forget about them?

No way!

The goal is to have a set series of “go-to” protocols that you can use to give these clients stability. If you can teach them to effectively stabilize your body, the sky is the limit with regards to their performance going forward.

A Quick Look at Performance Model’s

Gray Cook’s Performance Pyramid

I love Gray Cook’s performance model. In case you haven’t seen it before, here it is.

As you can see, the foundation of the pyramid is quality movement. Both literally and figuratively, this is the base you want to build athletic development on top of.

Without high-quality movement, you’re simply laying strength, power or sport-specific development on top of a cracked foundation.

But let’s break that foundation down a bit further (and hopefully guys like Gray and Charlie Weingroff would agree here).

Within that bottom tier, you have at the very least two primary goals:

  • Mobility, and
  • Reflex stabilization/motor control.

You have to have mobility first, as it drives proprioception and body awareness. Charlie has talked about this extensively, especially with regards to the core pendulum theory. Every joint wants to be in a neutral position, and from that neutral position, must be able to demonstrate full range of motion in all available planes.

If your body lacks any of these prerequisites, your brain is constantly going to be getting altered or flawed feedback from the muscles, joints, etc.

Once you have adequate mobility, now we need to focus on building stability. As Gray is famous for saying, “stability doesn’t mean strength.”

Here’s a direct quote from his book, Movement:

“The motor program to move and the motor program to resist are two completely different pieces of software.”

Stability can be even further broken down into static stability and dynamic stability. An example of static stability would be training someone in half-kneeling, whereas a lunge or split-squat would be training dynamic stability.

Once you have good mobility and stability, I believe we’ve earned the right to load those patterns. Each of us has our own way of going about that, but I feel that once you have adequate mobility and stability, loading those squats, deadlifts, etc. helps cement these quality movement patterns in our brain.

Now that we have a baseline understanding, let’s look at some of the ways I try to improve stability with unstable clients. We’re also going to assume (just to make things simple), that the client in question has no obvious mobility deficits or asymmetries.

Option #1 – Use Your Continuums

We all know that trying to fit a round peg into a square hole doesn’t work.

So why would we train athletes with a “one-size-fits-all” approach? Or list of exercises?

This is why every coach needs a list of progressions and regressions. Without it, you’re really just throwing exercises at your clients, hoping they will stick.

Rather than give you specific progressions and regressions, today I’m going to give you some principles that you can use to create your own. Here are just a few factors to consider when developing progressions and regressions for any movement pattern:

  • Low to High Speed
  • Isolated to Integrated Movements
  • Low Complexity to High Complexity
  • Small to Big Ranges of Motion
  • Single to Multi-Joint Movements
  • More External Stability to Less

With these five parameters alone you should be well on your way to crafting some awesome progressions and regressions, but let’s flesh this out a bit.

If your goal is to teach someone to deadlift (or a hinge/bend pattern), you probably wouldn’t want to start them off with a kettlebell swing. It’s a fantastic exercise, but the speed of movement may make it difficult to dial-in the technique (more on this in Option #2).

Another option could be if someone simply can’t figure out to hinge in a standing position, you may want to give them a more isolated regression of that same pattern.

This is why hip thrusts (as popularized by Bret Contreras) are great for those who want to get some of the benefits of hinging, but maybe can’t figure out the pattern in a standing/vertical environment.

Option #2 – Slow Down Time Under Tension

Too often, people like to use black and white comments when it comes to developing training programs (or training in general).

One of my favorites is that you should NEVER lift a weight on the concentric (or lifting) portion slowly.

Who says?

Who makes up these rules?

Bodybuilders have used slow concentrics for years to build muscle, so it really comes down to using the right task for the job at hand.

For those who are unstable, I like to use times of slow concentrics, as well as a ton of slow eccentrics.

Slow eccentrics provide several benefits for unstable clients:

  • They improves proprioception and body awareness,
  • They shift the focus on active stability versus passive (it’s harder to hang on joints when you’re moving slow!),
  • The develop strength in the muscle, and
  • They develop connective tissue strength (tendons, ligaments, and joints).

Too often, people who are floppy and/or unstable get overuse injuries. I’m immediately reminded of a client I worked with for years, who every time she did something for more than 2-3 weeks ended up with some sort of “itis” or “osis.”

When we dialed in her movement patterns, and made slowing down her tempos a dedicated component of her training program, we saw an immediately shift in her stability and performance.

Finally, isometrics are an excellent choice as well. When you force someone to pause and control a motion at the midpoint, they really have no choice but to learn how to stabilize more effectively.

Option #3 – Add External Stability Initially

While Option #2 is my favorite, I know that this option works well, too.

Too often, we assume that just because our clients/athlete walk around every day, that they have earned the right to exercise on their feet.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, the group that is most appalling is runners. Now I’m definitely not anti-running – I want to help people get back to the sports and activities that they love.

But I’ll admit, I do get a chuckle when a runner can’t even stand on one leg without falling over in my assessment room, and then immediately want to know if they can go out and run that night.

The answer is NO, YOU CAN’T.

In this case, you need to dial someone back as far as necessary for them to get some traction. Again, you have to earn the right to exercise standing up!

It may look something like this…

A Stability Progression

Which one should your specific client be doing? That’s hard for me to tell, without evaluating them myself. I will tell you my personal philosophy, though:

There should be a nice blend of challenge, yet progress. If someone isn’t challenged, you’ve regressed too far. And if they’re falling all over the place, you’re not going to see much progress, either.


Training unstable clients can be challenging. They’re more prone to injuries, and furthermore, the progress they do see isn’t as significant as their more athletic (and stable) peers.

However, with a smart training program you can absolutely make these athletes more resilient and improve their athleticism. Try incorporating some of the options outlined above, and let me know how they work out!

All the best


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

33 Responses to Training the Unstable Client

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>