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



Leave Comment

  1. Great Post Mike!
    I’m currently training a 14 yr old boy with zero training experience and is an absolute mess! He was brought to me to improve his “speed and agility”. His mother has since complained at the lack of direct agility work in his program. I have explained to her why I am doing what I’m doing with her son and why “agility” training is inappropriate. But she doesn’t get it! This post has made me more confident in what i’m doing, even if I do lose the client as a result.

    Thanks Mike!

    • Mike –

      You’re on the right track!

      One thing I try and explain to parents like this – if you don’t have stability/control, you can’t get out of cuts quickly. Moreover, when you can’t control your body going into cuts, this is when you get injured!

      I always try to explain that what we’re doing IS speed and agility training, just without movement and/or at slow speeds.

      And if you give them all the knowledge in the world and they don’t capitalize on it, it’s their loss, not yours 🙂


  2. Mike,

    Great article. Straight forward explanation as to how to make a few changes that can impact an athletes progression. Question on the ‘runners brain’. As you mention they want to get back out on the pavement far too soon. Are there any quick explanations you use that are effective in telling a avid ‘jogger’ that they no longer qualify for said activity. I find that the struggle is not so much in creating the proper progressions, it is more in the implementation and changing of mindset on their part that is the difficulty. For some reason runners just don’t want to put in the time that is necessary that many other athletes are….. Ideas? Keep up the great work.


    • Ryan –

      I think the key is to give them an outcome they can focus on, as long as an “end” point.

      If you use the FMS here, the goal is to get to Bilateral 2’d in the hurdle step. Explain to them that they are at an increased risk of injury without those scores, so you would recommend they don’t run until they hit that goal.

      This not only gives them something objection to shoot for (versus your subjective opinion), and typically motivates them to work harder so they can get back to their desired activity.

      Does that help?

      Great question!

    • Ryan,

      My two cents worth is that you have to understand the runners brian first. It’s an addiction-most of the times healthy but still an addiction. There is no way you are going to sell giving up running for the period of time that it takes to develop the static stability and then dynamic stability. I’d like Mikes opinion here, but as a former runner who ran at a high level but had numerous problems that fit in the context of what you are discussing, maybe going to running drills that address the problem and shorter intervals may go a long way to achieving a balance?

    • Phil –

      Trust me, I get runners – we have a ton of them coming into IFAST.

      And along those same lines, I also train powerlifers, who are every bit as neurotic about their sport. Try telling someone who can eat you for a light snack that they can’t squat, bench or deadlift for a while…

      Regardless, if someone is coming to me for professional advice and that aren’t willing to take that advice, then they probably aren’t a great fit.

      Personally, I do everything in my power to “keep people in the game.” But, if you’ve demonstrated time and again that you’re not physically capable of doing your beloved “sport,” you need to take a step back and figure things out.

      Sorry for a bit of a rant, but as an athlete myself, I get the need/desire/addiction to training. But if you come to me and want professional advice, only to ignore it, then I probably won’t be of much help.

  3. I also would add eyes into the equation. Close your eyes while standing on both legs. Stand on one leg, when that’s solid, close your eyes… Before I even have older or unstable moving I test out balance.

  4. I’m quite unstable myself and this post has helped me to better understand how to train myself in an effective manner. I find that I have to start off really light and progress very slowly from there, otherwise my joints start to hurt. I do this both within a single exercise as well as over the course of a training program. Soft-tissue work, breath-training and relaxation seems to help a lot as well.
    Thanks Mike!

  5. Great Post Mike! I took this approach with a girls basketball team 6,7,8 and 9> grades, and its worked out great so far. But once in a while a parent will approach with questions concerning the SAQ factor and I have no problem letting them know why I’m doing what I’m right now. The number of injuries have dropped from the year before which is really why the coaches hired me.

    I plan on asking my wife for your “Bulletproof Back and Knee Manual” for Christmas.



  6. This article speaks to me. I was born with a slight case of scoliosis (to the left side) and it’s probably caused every injury I’ve had since:

    Tendency to have pain/stiffness of back/hip – left side
    TMJ – left side
    Shoulder Impingement – left side
    Golfer’s Elbow – left side
    Tight IT-Band/Runner’s Knee – right side

    My left shoulder sits differently than my right, and my collarbone is higher on the one side – so most upper body fixed lifts are out (i.e. pull-ups and push-ups). Squatting and benching irritates me, so I can only deadlift or use a football bar to bench (which, coincidentally, irritates my right elbow instead of the left).

    I am a mess of body problems – I foam roam and use a Knobble II for hours (literally hours) before every workout and I’m still stuck with the same body issues. I always progress only so far (physique and weight-lifted), before something gets irritated and I fall back to where I was before I started.

    I have so many issues that I don’t even know what to do at this point to address all of my issues. Massage, pelvic stabilization, mobility work, etc. They all work to a point, and then something else pops up. The poor lady who massages me is always completely baffled whenever I lay on her table with another issue she’s never seen before.

    I would pay anyone any amount of money (as I have, to unsuccessful results, in the past) if they could actually help to ‘fix’ me.

    (I hope this didn’t sound like whining. I’ve accepted the hand I’ve been dealt – it’s just extremely frustrating to be ‘hurt’ for the better part of the last six years with no real end in sight. Plus, the 2+ hour warm-ups really cut into my ability to work out now that I’m engaged.)

    • @Justin – what worked well for me has been getting orthotics and then dry-needling from a physiotherapist. I found that foam rolling is okay, but in some muscles the pressure is too diffuse, so you’re there forever. Try a wooden rolling pin or a baseball instead and you’ll feel the difference, or use tight rubber bands and movement like Kelly Starrett prescribes (search for ‘tack and floss’) The hard stuff is still a daily ritual but it’s over much more quickly than when you use foam!

    • Justin –

      I mentioned this below, but check out the Postural Restoration stuff, too. Until you address the underlying causes and alignment issues, the soft-tissue work you’re doing isn’t going to get any traction. This is why you can foam roll/soft-tissue for hours and it may feel good for a short time, but doesn’t stick.


  7. I am interested in learning more about SI joint instability and proper training, would you be so kind and suggest a book, current research, website…etc to begin studying?

    I am so appreciative of your posts! Thank you for caring.

    All my best,

    • Kimberly –

      Check out the Postural Restoration institute. SI issues aren’t necessarily tricky, but which side of the body they are on will help determine the appropriate training program/intervention.

      If possible, start with the Myokinematic Restoration course first.


  8. Great post. As a postural alignment specialist, I strongly believe in “straighten then strengthen” and proper progressions are key. @Justin, I have a scoliosis and just finished my 4th trail 50K ultra marathon this year with no pain. The key for me was the Egoscue Method. Try out the nearest clinic and pick up the book Pain Free by Pete Egoscue. Good luck!

  9. If I purchased your Assess & Correct program, would that help me to know how to train my unstable clients? Or do I need to purchase other programs you offer?

    • Becca –

      That would be a good starting point, yes. However, you’d need not only a corrective warm-up (via A&C), but also to use some of the insights I provided above with regards to their strength training programs.

      I hope that helps!

  10. I might as well be your “unstable client” myself. After years of back trouble and sciatic neuropathy, I had major lumbar reconstruction surgery five years ago. An examination this week showed I have very little sensation in my feet — I couldn’t differentiate between the sharp and dull end of the probe — as well as numbness along the tibia, parts of the quads, and the triceps, of all things. I have major radiculopathy from problems in my neck, radiating down both arms, and I literally “cannot” run. My extensors have never really recovered, and haven’t grown in strength in three years despite my best efforts.

    Yet, the trainer I turned to refused to recognize the problems — kept trying to get me to squat, and I kept falling over. Couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do step ups or plyometric jumps, and kept telling me to “work through it”.

    Yet, despite all that, I’ve managed to become a competitive bodybuilder at age 58. Yeah, I have issues with the “flap” of skin around my waist from when I weighed over 300, and my quads are too small relative to the rest of my body. I’m still healthier than 99% of men my age.

    I’d love to find a trainer who could help me work around these issues as much as possible. Failing that, I’m finally taking courses to become a trainer myself, and we’ve come to the unit this week about working with “challenged” and “senior” trainees. Mind you, I don’t like the term “senior” — I prefer *ahem* “mature” athletes.

    • Jim –

      Where do you live? If you give me a location I can try to hook you up with someone in my network.

      Let me know man!


      PS – I love the term “mature” athletes 🙂

  11. Mike, I’m in Berea, Kentucky, about 100 miles south of Cincinnati, right off I-75. Closer cities are Richmond (about 13 miles) and Lexington (about 40).

    I’m trying to figure out some combination of proprioceptive therapy, e-stim and I don’t know what else to get these quads to fire — if there were a decent acupuncturist around here, I’d probably try him. As of an exam Tuesday, the quads haven’t improved much in a year, or at least the extensor function hasn’t.

    I can squat 2 plates a side, but only in the smith, and leg press 7 or 8 plates a side for 4-6, but frankly, I think I’m using more glutes than anything else (even when I try “low and close” on the leg press plate). I don’t have the balance for lunges. I love hack squats, but my current gym doesn’t have one. When I’m going down stairs, it’s one step at a time, and usually sideways.

    BTW, I first discovered you by an article you wrote some time ago called “Core Training for Smart Folks.” It’s still in my reference notebook.

    • Jim –

      If you’re anywhere near Lexington, you MUST check out J&M strength and conditioning. The owners (Molly and Jim) have been to our courses and are really top notch.

      You can find them here:

      Good luck!

  12. The absolute best post yet! Coincidentally, the “slow eccentric/concentric” -variable one/other – I started changing up my training just over 4 weeks ago, and incredibly – I’ve been injury free almost within a week of starting. I’ve been plagued by hip/knee/foot injuries repeatedly from moto cross training, mountaineering, and ice climbing, trail running, strength training, equestrian riding. I always trained “fast” – thinking if I added too much “slow” training I would become “slower”. Guess what? I rocked it out almost immediately – my cycling improved, running, and strength went up – I can press, push, squat, and lunge, press – all primal patterns are solid and stronger. Woo – hoo! Thank-you – super post! Great tips for client training as well.

  13. Mike,

    Just wanted to say thanks for posting that pyramid as a performance model. I’m seeing now that there are lot of opinions on what is the “foundation” which athletic qualities are built upon. We’ve read for years that strength comes before speed (or vice versa) or energy systems generate the energy for strength, etc. However, Cook’s model is both new to me and seems applicable to all human movement from walking to jobsite to sprinting to lifting. It’s inclusive and I hadn’t seen it before, so again, thanks!

  14. Hi Mike

    Excellent post as always. Wholeheartedly agree with the apporach yourself, Gray Cook and co promote, the development of functional movement and in particular working on mobility and stability. There are too many athletes out there suffering serious injuries that could possibly be prevented if their movement was assessed and improved. I work with the girls national U18 Field Hockey squad in Ireland and last season implemented a programme based on inproving their functional movement, many of the players functional movement was terrible at the beginning of the season, the programme not only improved them as players, it also made them faster, fitter and more importantly we had only 1 major injury (mild hamstring tear) in a squad of 27 players. Keep up the good work. Enjoy reading all the good stuff you put together.

  15. Excellent post! As an “unstable client” myself, it’s always nice to see that there are some great options for getting to a point where deadlifts don’t lead to hospital visits!

  16. Great Post Mike
    I really liked your #2 rule about time under tension. With most of my new athletes I am constantly telling them to “slow down” in order for them to perform the movement correctly. Not only does it train them how to move properly I feel that I am able to see how they are moving better so I can make corrections as well.
    Also I have found that moving too fast too early inhibits proper linking of the kinetic chain especially where the core is involved. Their initial hip movement might seem fine during a deadlift but they are moving so fast the core is not stable and the upperbody is out of alignment and the movement is compromised at the top.

    Great Work as usual Mike, have a wonderful Thanksgiving

  17. Mike, I love your website and products. I bought the bullet-proof-knees manual and it has helped quite a bit. I am an obsessive runner and I think I need some extra help with strength and stability but its hard to find quality people who actually know what the hell they are talking about. I have been to 2 sports chiropractors, 2 physical therapist/trainers and a few other let-downs. None of these people seem to have any real knowledge about muscle testing and function. I’m looking for a recommendation, know any good people in the Sacramento CA area? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks- JAcob

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