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Does Unstable Surface Training Build a Better Athlete?

At GP, we get plenty of questions from our young athletes about training simply because they are exposed to more training information and conflicting ideas than ever before. Recently, we had one of our athletes ask us, “A lot of my teammates are training at _______ and the trainers there have them stand on BOSU balls and do different movements, telling them it’s what they need as athletes. I’ve watched them and it seems ridiculous to me. They can’t even do simple movements correctly. Why are they doing that?”

We love educating our clients and athletes, especially when it comes to any number of gimmicks that exist in the sports performance industry.

Whether you wish to refer to it as balance training or unstable surface training, plenty of images can come to mind of people standing on wobble boards, BOSU balls, and even stability balls. These items are often marketed as “functional training”, being capable of not only improving your balance, but also increasing core muscle activation and strength. Athletes are often told that balance training is essential to improving as an athlete and reducing their risk of injury.

This school of thought grew out of the physical therapy and rehabilitation setting. In the rehabilitation setting, there is some efficacy regarding the use of balance training in chronic low back pain and reducing the risk of recurrent injury, particularly when it comes to ankle sprains. Unfortunately, there seems to be a sect of the personal training and sports performance industry that has concluded that information gathered on injured patients is somehow applicable to the non-injured individual and high-performance athlete.

The reality is all exercise is functional, if applied correctly to address the needs of the individual. This takes into account their goals, primary sport form, strengthens/weakness, and imbalances that need attention. If your exercise has no direct transfer into any of these areas, the exercise is not “functional”. Functional exercise should never be determined by how it looks, but rather what it produces.

When it comes to balance/unstable surface training, the above paragraph is incredibly relevant.

Why?

Take a moment and ask yourself this question, “When am I ever on an unstable surface during my daily life? When do I compete on an unstable surface?”

If you answered honestly, chances are very little, if ever. So why are we training people on an unstable surface when they are almost never on unstable surfaces?

The fact of the matter is, the floor works just fine.  Unstable surface training probably does more for decreasing athleticism, strength, balance, and movement quality than it helps.

Here is a quote from an article written by the man known as Kiefer:
“You instantly tense up, you almost literally can’t perform certain movements because the nervous system senses the instability of the environment and fires in resistant ways to keep you balanced. In this process, it also shuts down the ability to produce maximum force….Think about it, if you start to slip in one direction and your reflexes caused your muscles to fire with maximum force against that motion—a motion that may be inevitable at that point, like falling—then you risk tearing muscle or connective tissue. The body is trying to protect you by making you weaker.”
Simply put, as the body’s need for stability increases, force production decreases. You cannot build strength, speed, or explosive power in an unstable environment. What all the marketing behind products such as BOSU balls and the trainers that endorse them fail to tell you is that the stabilization action of musculature actually increases when you are on a stable surface, not on an unstable surface.

Want proof? Here are some findings from a growing body of evidence:
  1. Several researchers have demonstrated that there is significant increases in stabilizer activity during movements that require increased force (either greater resistance or higher speed) compared to activity seen in unstable environments [1-4].
  2. Performing squats on unstable surfaces will increase core activation, but not necessarily core strength [5] and definitely decreases muscle force production [6].
  3. Doing pushups on a physioball does less to activate stabilizing muscles than placing your feet on an elevated, stable bench[7].
  4. Unstable surface training contributes nothing that cannot be achieved when performing stable surface exercises [8,9].
  5. Stable surfaces are superior for some scenarios involving scapular rehabilitation [10].
The reality is unstable surface training is not an effective means of training athletes or healthy individuals. Unstable surface training has its merits in a rehabilitation setting, but the application outside that realm is questionable at best. There are far more productive means of training for athletes than performing exercises on a BOSU ball.

References:
  1. Freeman S, Karpowicz A, Gray J, McGill S. Quantifying muscle patterns and spine load during various forms of the push-up. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Mar;38(3):570-7.
  2. Hamlyn N, Behm DG, Young WB. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1108-12.
  3. Nuzzo JL, McCaulley GO, Cormie P, Cavill MJ, McBride JM. Trunk muscle activity during stability ball and free weight exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jan;22(1):95-102.
  4. Willardson JM, Fontana FE, Bressel E. Effect of surface stability on core muscle activity for dynamic resistance exercises. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):97-109.
  5. Anderson K, Behm DG. Trunk muscle activity increases with unstable squat movements. Can J Appl Physiol. 2005 Feb;30(1):33-45.
  6. Saeterbakken AH, Fimland MS. Muscle force output and electromyographic activity in squats with various unstable surfaces. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Mar 24. Epub ahead of print.
  7. Lehman GJ, Gilas D, Patel U. An unstable support surface does not increase scapulothoracic stabilizing muscle activity during push up and push up plus exercises. Man Ther. 2008 Dec;13(6):500-6.
  8. Lehman GJ, MacMillan B, MacIntyre I, Chivers M, Fluter M. Shoulder muscle EMG activity during push up variations on and off a Swiss ball. Dyn Med. 2006 Jun 9;5:7.
  9. de Oliveira AS, de Morais Carvalho M, de Brum DP. Activation of the shoulder and arm muscles during axial load exercises on a stable base of support and on a medicine ball. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2008 Jun;18(3):472-9.
  10. Martins J, Tucci HT, Andrade R, Araújo RC, Bevilaqua-Grossi D, Oliveira AS. Electromyographic amplitude ratio of serratus anterior and upper trapezius muscles during modified push-ups and bench press exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Mar;22(2):477-84. 
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