Perturbation Progressions for Motor Learning

Adding perturbations to an exercise basically means to manually disturb the stability of a given exercise.  The goal is to make the environment more unpredictable and increase the stability challenge of the exercise, movement pattern or muscle groups used.  I’ve been introduced to this concept a couple years ago at the Optimal Shoulder Performance seminar.  This is a concept that Mike Reinold was (and still is to this day) using for rotator cuff exercises with his baseball pitchers.

A typical exercise would put the athlete in a given position and the coach or trainer would give manual perturbations to the arm to challenge the stability of the humeral head in the shoulder joint, and improve the stabilization ability of the rotator cuff muscles for injury prevention purposes.

I immediately embraced the concept as I thought it was a genius idea, and I’ve been using rhythmic stabilization exercises for the rotator cuff ever since.

The concept can also be applied with other types of exercises…

Any exercise with the purpose of improving stability could be a candidate for a progression using perturbations.

When you’re trying to improve stability, your body and your brain need to be challenged.  This is why so many people use the stability ball; it increases the challenge of stability and makes you work harder.  The thing with stability balls is that they’re not always used smartly, and not always by smart people.  But I digress.

Hint: NOT the smart kind.

A lot of core exercises designed to improve stability can be progressed to manual perturbation.  As I’ve mentioned above, the perturbation will help improve control and stability.  When training stability, the important thing to remember is that motor control (which is the brain-to-muscle connection that works to improve stability) can not be improved unless it fails to succeed doing certain tasks.  Your brain needs to be challenged beyond its own stability limitations.  If you always work within your strengths, or your current level of stability, you’re not going to improve.  This is a great point that Mike Reinold highlighted in Functional Stability for the Core.

How do you actually apply this?

It could be something as simple as adding manual perturbations to a front plank.  A mastery of the front plank is in order before attempting any type of manual perturbation to your clients or athletes.  The same concept can also be applied to other core exercises like dead bugs, belly press, glute bridges, bird dogs, etc.

Again the important thing is to follow the progression; make sure your client or athlete is efficient at the basic exercises and doesn’t compensate in any way.  The logical progression for any exercise would be:

1. Stable
2. Stable with perturbation
3. Unstable
4. Unstable with perturbation

Using this progression with a front plank, the progression might look something like this:

1. Front plank
2. Front plank with perturbation
3. Stability ball front plank
4. Stability ball front plank with perturbation

The idea with the manual perturbations is to make it challenging and push it just beyond the point where the athlete or client maintains perfect form, but it shouldn’t be unbearable- if that makes any sense.

If you want more ideas on how to incorporate perturbations/rhythmic stabilization you should definitely check out Eric Cressey and Mike Reinold’s Functional Stability for the Core.

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