A Male Cyclist Coasting Without Hands On The Bars On A Road In Sunsetting Light.

Why Balance Training is NOT Core Stability Training

BY Menachem Brodie

Forget what you know about "the core." Discover the true definition and how to train it for optimal performance in your athletes through progression exercises.

Setting the Foundation

Core stabilization is often thought of as training on unstable/labile surfaces…take, for instance, the Bosu ball.

The root of this mistake stems from the terms “stability training” and “balance training” being used interchangeably by uninformed or ill-informed trainers and coaches instead of referring to them as either “balance training” or “whole-body stability.”

These two types of training, stability training and balance training, are incredibly far from one another, both in their application and the results obtained from their uses. This often leads to poor outcomes for those who think they are training toward peak performances, as they may improve their balance but are completely missing the mark in their core stability training for more power and/or speed.

True core stabilization comes from the body creating stiffness where it needs it, in the right amounts, to allow for movement where it is required, in the right amounts.

The Oxford Dictionary defines stabilizing as the process of making something physically more secure or stable.

Training on an unstable surface, also called balance training or whole-body stability, does not make the core more stable. Rather, training the core to stabilize appropriately creates stability.

It’s the SAID principle in action: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demand.

Failure to train the individual in a way that promotes appropriate stiffness and control of the core, with the joints in positions that they are designed to work and with the muscles firing in a proper sequence, only further delays the individual’s progression toward resilience from injuries, and improved athletic performances.

Put simply, you or your athlete do NOT need to learn how to balance on a Bosu ball to improve core stability. That is training your proprioceptive system to find its center of gravity/balance and balance in an unstable/labile environment.

For actual core stability training, one needs to learn how to create appropriate stiffness through the torso to allow movement to occur from the hips and shoulders.

But before we get into learning how to best train for core stabilization, we first need to create a new mind map of what “the core is.”

Your TRUE core

While the media has been saying “your core” for years in reference to our bellies and abs, they have been misleading us and painting a poor picture.

Your TRUE core is everything between your neck, elbows and knees.

These muscles must work in chorus to create proximal stiffness to stabilize the spine and connect the rib cage and pelvis together. You can learn more about this here.

Understanding the full roles of the muscles and tissues between the neck, elbows and knees will give us plenty to think about and re-frame, so let’s start there.

The Basics

The muscles of the torso have no agonist-antagonist relationship. Instead, they all work together as a system to deflect forces around the spine.

Let that sink in for a minute. Your torso muscles are designed to keep forces from going through your spine and instead be guided around the spine.

There is no one singular most important “core muscle.”

Understanding the role of deflecting forces around the spine makes it easier to realize there is not one singular muscle of the core. Rather, like a radio tower with guy wires, we must make sure that each muscle, or guy wire, is tuned to the right amount. There must be balance in the system.

Failure to keep this balance will result in the stresses being placed onto tissues and through joints in ways that they are not built for, leading to tissue breakdown and, thus, increased risk of injury.

How Core Stabilization Allows Expression of Athleticism

Core stabilization comes down to the simple principle of “proximal stiffness to create distal motion,” as Dr. Stuart McGill terms it. Simply put, your rib cage and pelvis are locked together, allowing force to be created from the hip and shoulder to express athleticism.

Specifically, we want to create appropriate and sufficient stiffness through the torso and spinal column to allow pulses of power to be created in our sports of cycling and triathlon while having some extra stability to give us a margin of safety.

For example, the task of wiggling your index finger. If you want to wiggle your index finger in a “come here” motion, you need to have appropriate stiffness at the wrist, elbow, shoulder and core (as defined above) to get the desired movement alone.

Now, shift that thought process to running, biking or swimming, and we can begin to really understand the challenge that many endurance athletes face through what are currently being called “energy leaks.”

However, when it comes to our core firing for our sports, we need correct muscular synchronicity to create appropriate stiffness in our joints. This helps to avoid tissue breakdown due to forces being directed through tissues not designed for that task and/or loads/loading vectors.

Why Cyclists & Triathletes Have Poor Core Stabilization

Simply put, our sports are those of highly repetitive movements, with little variations, next to no lateral movements, as well as high demands for training time. These factors, combined with modern living practices putting us seated in front of some kind of screen for many hours a day, put cyclists and triathletes at a big disadvantage.

Lots of energy is needed for our sports, with seemingly little “extra” time to “get in” strength training.

While the paradigm is changing, and more coaches and athletes are beginning to recognize the absolutely pivotal foundational role that proper strength training plays in performance, these still remain challenges to be figured out on an individual basis.

Our sports also challenge us due to the postures and positions we need to hold for long periods.

The big bowling ball we call our head sits atop our body with a relatively small (yet highly influenced by posture) connection to the torso via the neck. Spend long hours on the bike or sitting, and we tend to let gravity pull our shoulders and head forward, leading to joint positions being changed:

  • Loss of our ability to get air into the upper chest and mid-back
  • Rounding forward of our shoulder joints, making overhead movements difficult or impossible
  • Our hips spill either forward or backward (depending on the individual’s strategy to counteract the above changes), placing our diaphragm and pelvic floor out of alignment and thus disrupting the guy-wire system, as mentioned earlier.

And that’s just to name a few.

These changes, even in relatively small amounts, lead to the body shifting strategies of the different muscles and connective tissues bearing the stresses in order to allow us to keep going.

In order to progress toward better human function, let alone performances, we must train any athlete, and especially endurance athletes, to breathe better, attain more advantageous postures and properly tune all the guy wires (muscles, ligaments and fascia) of the core, to work together. (3)

To be clear, we need to get into better postures and joint positions because joint position dictates muscle function.

This allows us to teach the body to better/more efficiently and effectively create the proximal stiffness for distal motion

Furthermore, the individual has access to all the tools they possess in order to stabilize their core (again, everything between their neck, elbow and knees) so that they can perform.

Training Core Stabilization for Performance & Health

Up until now, we’ve talked a lot of theory, but that won’t help you unless you learn how to put together the different pieces of the puzzle and begin at the appropriate starting point for yourself or your athlete. So here are a few progressions that we’ve developed and used here in my coaching at Human Vortex Training over the last 15+ years. These have helped a number of endurance athletes, from master athletes to world-class track cyclists.


  1. Crocodile Breathing

Our most rudimentary breathing exercise, crocodile breathing, helps the individual learn how to use air to mobilize their mid-back, lower back and hips, and use gravity to release often tight muscles on the front of their body. It also helps the individual start to learn what purposeful breathing truly means. Additionally, crocodile breathing is a great post-workout breathing exercise, helping them return to a more relaxed state after training.

  1. Active Preacher Stretch (Breathing Focus)

The second step in our breathing progressions helps the individual not only learn how to better move from their hips (think hinge pattern with a neutral lower back). This is also a great way to begin to regain upper and mid-back (thoracic) extension, get a gentle and solid stretch of the lats and helps them learn how to breathe into their mid-back.

  1. Feet On Box Breathing Variations

These exercises help the individual regain alignment between their diaphragm and pelvic floor, as well as help them begin to learn how to “direct airflow” with their breath.

Feet on Box Breathing with Reach plus One Arm Y is one variation we use here to help the individual learn how to reach from the scapula while simultaneously opening up the front of the shoulder and upper chest on the opposite side.


  1. Front Plank Max Effort

Planking; So many are “doing it” yet missing the full benefits these have to offer due to simply hanging on to passive tissues and joints. The Max Effort Front Plank helps the individual learn how to fire their muscles and get into an athletic front plank.

These are max efforts, not for static time blocks, but rather a maximal firing of the muscle of the body to stiffen up into the plank (from 3-10 seconds), followed by short periods of rest (3-5 seconds).

  1. McGill Crunch

Advancing from the Max Effort Front Plank is done via the McGill Curl-up/Crunch. Widely butchered by those who see “crunch” or “curl-up” in the name, appropriately performed, this exercise helps one learn how to fire up their entire 360-degree midsection and lock their ribcage and pelvis together—the foundation for true peak athletic performance.

Be sure to take the time to learn how to do these correctly from a McGill Method Certified Practitioner/ Someone who has learned how to execute and teach these to be done properly; otherwise, its benefits are lost.

  1. McGill Crunch with Breath Behind Shield

Progression of the McGill crunch comes only after the individual has mastered their ability to perform at least one set of 10 repetitions, holding each repetition, with correct posture and muscle firing, for 7-10 seconds each.

We increase the challenge by having the individual breathe behind the brace without losing tension. Start with 1-2 short breaths and build from there.


Training the body to resist lateral forces is an essential skill. We do this through the highly researched (3) progressions into the side plank, top foot forward. While the commonly performed side plank is done with the feet stacked, this position is, in fact, far more a balance challenge than the spine-saving, core-bolstering move, as found through Dr. Stuart McGill’s over peer-reviewed published research articles on the lower back.

Note that these movements, along with the Max Effort Front Planks above, are not held static for long periods but rather follow the “Russian Pyramid” approach. We build endurance by challenging the muscles for shorter bursts of time (5-10 seconds), with short rest intervals (3-5 seconds). Performing the movements in this fashion, as opposed to a static hold, prevents the working muscles from becoming ischemic (lack of blood flow in or out), which keeps the muscles working in a way that better builds strength and endurance.

  1. Fully Modified Side Plank

We begin our progression for those whose shoulders may not be up to the task of weight bearing with the Fully Modified Side Plank. Attention must be given that the top leg only comes even with the outer hip, and the lower leg comes only to the midline. Otherwise, the advantages of this exercise can be easily lost.

The bottom shoulder and upper arm may be on the ground to prevent rolling/ loss of balance, but the work should be focused on the top midsections obliques and glute medius, while the lower leg’s adductors work in chorus.

  1. Side Plank-Bottom Knee on Ground

For those whose shoulders are up to the weight-bearing task, we begin by teaching the Side Plank-Bottom Knee on the Ground. This setup allows us to learn the movement with a shorter lever arm on the lower back, making it much more advantageous in learning the proper positioning and mechanics.

The focus should be on keeping the ears, shoulders, ribs and hips in a straight line, with the ribs and pelvis locked together, getting movement only from the hips and knee. Without this alignment kept throughout, the benefits of this exercise are lost, and the desired results will not be seen.

  1. Side Plank-Top Foot Forward Hinge — Endurance style

The next progression is where we have the individual fully on both feet, with the top foot forward. It is important to keep alignment through the back leg’s ankle, knee, hips, ribs, shoulders and ears, which allows the learning of full-body muscle coordination for proximal stiffness. The top leg should be straight at the knee, with the inner thigh muscles also contributing to the work done.

Posterior, Lower Body-Focused

These exercises place the individual in an all-fours position, allowing us to focus on the muscles along the spine, learning how to lock the ribs and hips together and get movement from the hips (glutes) and, later in the progression, the shoulders.

  1. Straight Leg Kickback with Slider

Often performed with extremely poor focus on quality and/or core stiffness, the simple-looking Straight Leg Kickback with a slider, when performed correctly, can have the strongest athlete shaking and sweating bullets when focusing on form.

Only go as far back as you can keep the glute doing the work, no hamstrings. In addition, keep appropriate core stiffness, with the ribs and hips locked together throughout, but you should be able to breathe behind the brace.

  1. Straight Leg Kickback with 5-sec Squeeze

The advancement is removing the slider, requiring more stability through the core and firing of the glute, with appropriate midsection bracing, for a full five seconds. This allows for the mind-muscle connection to be reinforced and metabolic stress placed on the muscle. This combination allows for faster strength and neural gains.

  1. Bird Dog Progression

The next step in the progression is to move to the upper and lower body movement from the ball and socket joints together. However, this can be a big jump for some individuals, which is why we have progressions for the Bird Dog. Again, this exercise is often performed incorrectly for the outcome of core stability, and thus the spine-sparing and core-strength building benefits are lost. Intent and technique matter most. Here are a few common Bird-dog mistakes and how to address them.

Posterior Upper Body Focused

In our Core Stabilization training, many cyclists and triathletes alike neglect their upper body, instead opting for what they perceive to be the “bigger engines” of their performance: their hips and legs.

While these body parts certainly are important, and we definitely feel them when we practice our sports, I like to ask the following question, which usually gets a confused look. “How much better would you be if you could get in more air into your lungs?”

Well, your VO2 max would likely see an “increase” simply because you’re getting closer to your maximal physical capacity (tidal volume) of air. Your heart rate would most likely be lower during the activity. And, well, there are a lot of benefits we can likely assume will come from this increase in oxygen intake.

But the upper body work also comes with performance benefits. The body, specifically the fascia and other tissues, can move more freely, thus allowing you to put less effort into faster speeds.

Think of it like this. if you tie a knot into your exercise band and try to use it for any exercise, how the band acts will change significantly, and you’ll be working much harder than what the band is actually designed and intended for.

The same goes for your upper body.

Here is one of the progressions we use here at Human Vortex Training to help get our clients’ and athletes’ upper bodies more connected, moving and looking better!

  1. Wall Spinal Stabilization

This deceptively difficult exercise allows us to work out some common “kinks” endurance athletes tend to have: Poor upper back mobility, poor mid and lower trapezius connection, and poor rib cage and pelvis alignment.

The Wall Spinal Stabilization exercise is performed in the Russian Pyramid style, as it allows us to gently coax the nervous system and muscles into better working order.

Be sure to keep the toes up, ankles and knees together and the lower back flat against the wall. The feet should be 6-8 inches away from the wall and as you improve, you should be able to get the upper back and, eventually, the back of your head against the wall while looking straight ahead.

  1. Wall Scap Slide-Facing Wall

Next in this progression, we teach you to correctly and appropriately brace your entire 360-degree core while getting movement from the serratus anterior, serratus posterior, and mid and lower trapezius.

As simple as this may look, Wall Scapular Slides-Facing Wall are actually incredibly difficult to perform. But following the Core Stabilization programming and progressions as we’ve laid out here, you’ll see some nice progression each week as you come through these.

  1. Wall Angels/Wall Scap Slides

Wall Angels are a physical therapy favorite. When done with the feet and knees squeezed together, knees slightly bent and the entire spine on the wall, are incredibly difficult and rewarding. Much like the Wall Scapular Slides-Facing Wall.

Start by focusing on keeping the elbows against the wall with the rest of the posture spot-on, and progress the exercise as you’re able to until the entire arm is flat on the wall for the movement (hand, forearm, elbow, upper arm).

  1. Reach, Roll, Lift

By the time you’ve progressed to the Reach, Roll, Lift, you’ve already seen and felt the improvements in your, or your clients, ability to stabilize their core. This exercise allows you to focus on rotary stability for an upper body movement- something many people in modern society just don’t have.

The focus is on keeping core stiffness, getting movement ONLY from the ball and socket joint of the working shoulder, and the scapula. Have the mid and lower trapezius do the work, not the shoulders (deltoids).


Core stability is integral to improving performances for us as human beings, especially endurance athletes. It’s important for us, as a community of athletes and coaches, to be able to properly define and train true core stability. The ability to deflect forces around the spine while keeping appropriate stiffness so that we can express athleticism through the hips and shoulders is key to long-term health and performance.

In order to develop core stability, we must look at training the core to stabilize from a few different postures and positions so that we can build the strength and resilience needed to perform. Not just mimicking positions we already get loads of while practicing our sports.

Taking the time to work through the progressions we’ve outlined above can help you move better, look better, feel better and perform far better.


  1. Low Back Disorders, third ed. McGill pgs 161
  2. Low Back Disorders, third edition, McGill
  3. Low Back Disorders, third edition, McGill pg 155
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About Menachem Brodie

Menachem Brodie is a USA Cycling Expert Level & Power Based Training Certified Coach, Training Peaks Level 1 Coach, SICI Bike Fitter and Strength Coach who holds the NSCA-CSCS Certification and the only McGill Certified Practitioner who is a Triathlon, Cycling & Strength Coach. Since 2007 he has been helping endurance athletes from around the world to increase their in-sport abilities, return from injury, and attain new levels of performance. He has worked with Professional Cyclists, Triathletes, NBA players, EuroLeague Players, USA National Champions, and Amateur athletes from around the globe. Learn more from Coach Brodie at www.HumanVortexTraining.com or by purchasing one of his Pre-made Training Plans offered exclusively on TrainingPeaks.com!

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