February 15, 2022
Even if you've never heard the term “unstable load training…”
…it's likely that you've done it before during a workout, or even while carrying groceries out to your car, doing yard work, or cleaning the garage, and didn't even realize it.
Unstable load training is the single most effective training concept when it comes to developing the neuromuscular and stability adaptations necessary to perform effectively in just about everything, from competitive to tactical and even recreational events. It essentially consists of combining traditional resistance exercises with an “irregular load apparatus,” using equipment such as bands, chains, plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, oscillating barbells, and more.
Doesn't sound too foreign, right? However, if you haven't learned about the fundamentals of unstable load training and the best ways to incorporate it into your workouts, you're missing out on some serious functional strength gains.
I very recently hosted Jeff Banman on my podcast, a recognized leader in the area of human performance and human behavior in high-stress environments, to chat about how he blends traditional fitness with unconventional training methods, including unstable load training, as a way to maximize functional fitness and strength for competitive and tactical athletes alike.
With over thirty years of experience across multiple domains including the Fire Service, the US Army Special Operations Command, and the Central Intelligence Agency, Jeff now serves as the COO & Chief Human Performance Officer for the global fitness brand Brute Force Training. Brute Force has developed a variety of training programs with an emphasis on unstable load training, and their unique fitness gear—which includes a variety of sandbags, “Brute Balls,” and “Barebones”—can now be found all over the world, from home garage gyms to the front lines of the U.S. Military.
So, since Jeff is such a renowned expert in the realm of tactical training and functional fitness, I thought I'd let him personally fill you in on unstable load training, how to do it, what equipment you need, and exactly why you should incorporate unstable loads into your exercise routine–whether you're a 16-year-old football player looking to improve your strength and stability, or a 65-year-old grandmother who wants to maintain her youth and continue to play with her grandbabies for years to come.
What Is Unstable Load Training?
Unstable load/object training (ULOO) is a form of “functional” training, in which the resistance used is shifting throughout the exercise.
Functional training, which has continued to gain momentum in the fitness world and consistently climbs the rankings for the most popular fitness trends, is the combination of traditional and unconventional training methods using a variety of different equipment and movements.
“Unstable load training” specifically refers to the ability to lift or unconventionally move an odd object or unstable, uneven load efficiently and effectively with the intent of improving functional work capacity and performance. (However, it's important to note this is a different concept than “unstable surface training,” in which an athlete is placed on an unstable surface such as a Bosu ball while performing resistance movements.)
Unstable load training uses a variety of unconventional equipment such as sandbags, kegs, stones, specialty barbells, or by varying the resistance in either unilateral or bilateral exercises, and most commonly placing the user on a stable, firm surface.
Think of it this way: imagine lifting up a jug of water, but the jug is only half full. The water will move as you move, forcing your body to re-stabilize and react to the new resistance or area of force.
The idea behind unstable load training is to provide realistic training that allows your mind and body to produce force in an open environment. While standard exercise programs are both excellent and vital to success in any competitive or tactical activity, ULOO helps you get to the next level by prepping your mind and body for the ever-changing world. The goal is to effectively perform the unconventional task at hand and train the body as a fully functioning unit, not to simply exert maximum force and isolate individual muscle groups.
The Science Behind Unstable Load Training
While traditional weight training focuses on isolating muscle groups, the shifting load created by the unstable objects engages smaller fixator and neutralizer muscle groups, giving you more bang-for-your-proverbial buck with each movement. As stated before, the biggest benefit of the unstable load is the strengthening of stabilizer muscles that are harder to train but equally as important.
Using a barbell or standard load, the resistance is equal throughout the entire movement. However, an odd object like a sandbag is continually changing form, which makes it a challenge just to pick up and hold. Lifting it and throwing it is that much more difficult and requires a lot more skill and finesse compared to a typical bar-based workout.
When the resistance in the sandbag or unstable load moves, the brain is alerted, forcing neuromuscular coordination to find the solution, activate the proper muscles, and recover the force. This chain reaction pushes your mind and body further than it is usually forced to go—and most importantly, it more closely replicates the practical situations you will face in sport, competition, or a tactical setting.
The intentional training outcome is to move the resistance effectively, efficiently, and precisely. As odd objects, sand, and water are uneven and/or shift, joint, muscular, and neuromuscular activities increase as the maximum force of prime movers decreases. This is considered “inhibitory postsynaptic potential” or the need to produce force in an open environment as well as to stabilize the body as force is exerted, necessary in nearly all sports and tactical occupations.
According to a recent paper, participants significantly activated more stabilizer muscles when bench pressing with an unstable load than a traditional bench press, suggesting that more motor neurons were being recruited in order to “balance” the load. Specifically, they were attempting to activate musculature to achieve the desired joint positioning and limb orientation for the purposes of completing the lift safely and with reasonable efficiency. The researchers concluded that the main benefit of unstable load training may be that the lifter better attempts to constrain his stabilizer muscles to control an unstable challenge, rather than just providing a strengthening stimulus. Another study from 2015 focused on the effects of unstable load on force and muscle activation during a parallel back squat, stating that, “unstable loads have demonstrated an increase in EMG (a measure of muscle activation) compared with traditional loads.” What's more, the ability to recruit more motor neurons—neuronal cells in the central nervous system that control muscle contractions—is highly beneficial as an athlete, as it makes you faster, stronger, and more agile.
If you think about it, rarely in competition do you face an obstacle with a resistance that is equal throughout. For example, if an offensive lineman needs to keep his quarterback safe, he will have to react and push back against the movement of the opponent across from him. This will include chest presses, single-arm pressing, twisting, and activating the proper muscle group to produce force back onto his opponent. This is why unstable load training can be so effective for athletes and competitors alike.
Who Can Benefit from Unstable Load Training?
If you play contact sports, unstable load training is a must. Let's take hockey, for example. Hockey is filled with hundreds of small reactions throughout a game: whenever the puck changes directions, a player makes a move, or a defender steps up for a hit, you must react. It's a sport that relies heavily on core strength and function.
Of course, core strength and health are needed with the actions of shooting and passing but they are also used in less obvious patterns as well. For example, if you are pinned up against the boards in a battle for a loose puck, your opponent is going to be unpredictably moving. Like the offensive lineman, you must react to his movements to contain him, gain leverage, and ultimately win the battle.
Similarly, when defending an attacking player, you are forced to use odd angles and points of leverage to alter their path or steal possession of the puck. How often does a hockey player find himself with resistance evenly positioned in between his chest pushing out in one direction against them? Not often. Yet, for so long, athletes only trained in the traditional form. Nowadays, if you watch an NHL player train, you would be surprised to see how much of it takes place outside of the traditional bench, squat, and clean barbell movements.
Whether you're military or law enforcement, you are always required to be on high alert, ready to jump at a moment’s notice. One second, you can be sitting in a car, and the next, you're engaged in a foot pursuit with a suspect or HVT.
On top of that, you spend a lot of time moving, ducking, laying prone, jumping up, leaning around corners, and reacting to the environment you are in. Not only is unstable load training an effective tool for this type of job, but it is also one that can be used to replicate many exact situations.
Of course, training with a sandbag can give you all of the benefits listed above and will greatly improve your core strength and stabilizer muscles. However, sandbags can also be used to train scenarios like dragging or lifting an injured teammate, loose rubble, or another obstacle faced in your day-to-day.
Lastly, sandbag training is one of the best methods for increasing your heart rate and testing your anaerobic capacity. Many law officers and military operators use them on the range to drive up their heart rate, then focus their breathing as they go through shooting drills.
“For anyone who’s found themselves in the situation, you know this; If you can’t breathe, you can’t fight.” -Mark Briggs
For more on how to do tactical training with unstable load, check out this article.
Obstacle Course Competitors
This one, perhaps, is the most obvious. In a competitive race like Spartan or Tough Mudder, you will be tasked with just about every movement you can think of. You will be running, jumping, lifting yourself over and through obstacles, lifting objects, throwing objects, and the list goes on.
For a competition like this, why wouldn’t you want to train for those specific movements?
Unlike hockey, where you need to dive in a little deeper to the practical applications of training, these competitions are clear as day. Sandbag or unstable load training will prepare your body for the unknown. From small obstacles like a stepover to flipping a massive tire, you will be stronger and more prepared from unstable load training. Not only will you be stronger in these areas but you will have trained the stabilizer muscles that keep you safe and performing at your best when things start to get kooky.
Those Recovering from Injuries
One often overlooked benefit of unstable load training is for individuals that are rehabbing an injury, and can't train with heavier weights. By its nature, unstable load training is often done with a lighter weight than you would normally use with stable loads—simply because it's so much more difficult to balance an odd object, as you must rely more heavily on those smaller stabilizing muscles. Therefore, the overall “load” on muscles and joints can be greatly reduced, which reduces the tax on an injured site while still strengthening the body and helping accelerate rehabilitation and recovery.
Something that has been learned over the years is the importance of maintaining muscle mass and core strength with age. Here's a look at how ULOO can benefit different age groups, and how the benefits shift with older populations.
16-year-old athlete: The young athlete will benefit from increased strength and stability while becoming more prepared for the adverse conditions of their sport.
40-year-old mother: Imagine this scenario: a mother parks the car at the grocery store with her young child in a car seat in the back. She opens the back door, leans down, and unclips the baby’s seatbelt. Then, she leans further in, grabs a hold of her baby, and lifts them out of the car before closing the door. Do these movements sound familiar?
They are the exact movements we discussed as one of the most underrated aspects of sandbag training. In these situations, it is easy for one muscle not to activate properly, and for the resistance (the baby) to move while being lifted. You get the point. If the woman used some light sandbag training in her workouts, she could strengthen not only those major muscles but the lesser-known stabilizer muscles that will be used in this scenario. Therefore, she would be prepared for the unstable load, allowing her to safely and effectively lift her child without injury or accident.
65-year-old man: While 65 is far from old (you’re welcome), the body does begin to break down far easier with age. The old cliché of a broken hip on an older woman or man is due to the weaknesses that start to creep in, especially in the stabilizer and postural muscles. Most 65-year-olds are not still doing Olympic lifts in the gym, however, maintaining strength is vital for allowing you to go about your daily tasks while remaining safe and avoiding injury.
Adding some sandbag exercises, especially those that require lifting loads off a surface, will ensure that your core muscles and overall strength stay as functional as possible. Just as we discussed with the mother above, basic movements such as playing with children or grandchildren, house or yard work, and even getting dressed all require you to be able to activate core muscles and deal with unstable loads.
Sandbags: The Best Equipment for Unstable Load Training
The list can go on and on in terms of your options for unstable load training. The most effective tool, however, is undoubtedly the humble sandbag.
Sandbags are an excellent tool for all types of training, especially when focusing on unstable loads. They can be found in just about any weight, and come equipped with different handles, straps, and styles that will test your overall strength and stabilization.
However, there are a few tips I want to share with you first when it comes to getting the most out of sandbag training:
- Don't pack them all the way full. This just turns them into a weighted bar!
- Start with a low weight. Again, you're going to be activating a lot of smaller, weaker muscles so you won't be able to lift as much.
- Slow down your movements. The goal here is not to lift as fast as you can, but to move efficiently and functionally.
- Focus on your breath (ideally nasal breathing). This naturally causes you to concentrate more on your body and the exercise you're performing.
Overall, the best thing about sandbags is that the options are endless in terms of what exercises and movements you can do with them. Want a long aerobic workout? Take it on a hike. Want a heavy lower-body strength day? Hold it over your shoulder and bust out a circuit of squats, split squats, and lunges. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of them, though, is simply picking them up. Lifting an item off the ground and setting it back down is a great way to train good posture and strengthen the small, often ignored stabilizer muscles, as well as prevent and avoid injury.
Here's a quick look at how you can do some common exercises with sandbags.
Squats with sandbags allow you to safely and effectively load the movement without many cues or assistance and force your body to fire up the proper postural muscles throughout the movement. The sandbag should be placed across the shoulders behind your head while in a standing position. Lower your body to a squatting posture, keeping the chest high and extending hips backward. Weight should be kept on your heels and your knees should not move forward of your toes at any point. Then, drive your hips forward and explode upward, returning to the original position.
Start this exercise with the sandbag on the floor and feet shoulder-width, hips back, knees over toes with a straight back and upright chest. With a firm grip on the barbell handles, extend your hips forward, and stand up while keeping your arms straight. When fully upright, your sandbag should hang just below your waist against your quads. Then, in a controlled manner, lower the sandbag to the floor to complete one rep.
Sandbag High Pull
Start with the sandbag on the ground with your body in the deadlift position. Grab the barbell handles and thrust your hips forward while standing up. Meanwhile, leading with the elbows and keeping the sandbag close to your body, pull the sandbag to chest level. Slowly lower the bag back to starting position for one complete rep.
Sandbag Overhead Press
Start with the sandbag resting on your arms at chest level, and then extend the sandbag above your head. Your back should be kept rigidly straight and abdominal muscles need to be kept tight during the performance of this exercise. The shoulder muscles should be fully extended to lift the sandbag above your head and the elbows also should be straightened in the process, finishing the rep with elbows next to your ears. Then the sandbag is lowered back to the chest level and the exercise is repeated.
Two Sample Unstable Load Training Workouts
So now that you know the basics behind this “ULOO magic,” you might be wondering what an actual workout looks like. Here are two sample workouts that I covered with Ben during our podcast, one for strength and one for cardio.
Brute Force ULOO Workout 1 (Strength)
20-minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) of:
- Pushup drags with KB or Sandbag – 10
- Sandbag RDL’s – 10
- Sandbag or med ball shoulder or overhead slams – 20
- Sandbag shoulder to shoulder (with full extension overhead in between) – 10
- Back racked sandbag jump squats – 10
- Sandbag bear crawl drag – 50 yards
Brute Force ULOO Workout 2 (Cardio)
- Option 1: “The Barbarian” workout by Brian Johnson, The Liver King – Weighted vest + hand and ankle weights + sled drag + kettlebell in each hand for 1 mile out and 1 mile back.
- Option 2: Walk uphill 20 min on a treadmill while holding 1/3 bodyweight sandbag or med ball or another unstable object. No rules. Just go 20 minutes without dropping it.
Try those out and let me know just how sore you are the next day. :)
You can find a lot more workouts like this on the Brute Force website in the training section. And as a special deal for Ben Greenfield's audience, we're giving you a free Brute Force training plan of your choice ($49 value) with the purchase of a weighted vest or sandbag if you click here and use the code GREENFIELD at checkout.
Unstable load training, AKA ULOO, is still considered fairly “new.”
While it has indeed been around for years, the more traditional forms of training have been in rotation for far, far longer.
Keep in mind, the idea of unstable load training is not to completely remove basic load training from your life. The goal is to properly supplement it along with your other movements for the most optimal results. Basic strength is vital to your daily life from sports to home tasks, and should definitely not be ignored. Unstable load training is an excellent addition to your training that can take you to the next level in terms of performance, functionality, and safety.
So let's recap the major points above step by step:
- Unstable load/object training (ULOO) is a form of “functional” training, in which the resistance used is shifting throughout the exercise. Functional training is the combination of traditional and unconventional training methods using a variety of different equipment and movements.
- Some of the best uses include squats and clean and press, combined with shifting loads such as a sandbag.
- Science backs the benefits of unstable load training, emphasizing the strengthening of stabilizer muscles that are harder to train, but equally as important.
- Unstable load training is great for everyone, specifically targeting those groups who engage in contact sports, tactical training, and competitive events.
- The benefits vary per age group, meaning that a 16-year-old athlete may benefit from it in a much different way than a 65-year-old average Joe–but the benefits remain nonetheless.
So what can you do to start unstable load training today?
First, get the right tool. Again, arguably the best equipment is a sandbag, and you can find a huge variety at the Brute Force Store. They range from 5lbs to 125lbs and come in all shapes and sizes including the classic, barebones, strapless, and more.
Next, head to the training section of the BruteForce website for an excellent selection of workout programs and exercises that fit your goals and training setup.
Finally, stay up to date with the latest articles on the Brute Force Blog for more info on workouts, studies, and deep dives into both the tools and the movements themselves. These resources will help you on the path to understanding and utilizing unstable load training in your future workouts!
PS: You can get a free Brute Force training plan of your choice ($49 value) with the purchase of a weighted vest or sandbag if you click here and use the code GREENFIELD at checkout.
So have you actually engaged in unstable load training during your workout and didn't realize it until this fascinating read? Are you ready to take your training to the next level with unstable load training in the future? What tools and techniques will you incorporate? I'd love to hear your thoughts and answer any questions in the comments below.