Unstable Surface Training: Effective Strategy or Waste of Time?

Posted: October 15, 2013 in Training
Tags: , , , , ,


Unstable surface training has seen an uptick in popularity over the last 5 years or so, and has been touted as an effective way to develop athleticism. But is unstable surface training really a smart way to train? Maybe not.

What is Unstable Surface Training?

Unstable Surface Training (UST) consists of traditional strength exercises performed on a surface that is not hard or flat. Instead, UST utilizes implements like BOSU Balls, Airex pads, and Swiss balls. The reason why some trainers include UST in their clients’ programs is that it’s supposed to add a core stabilization component to traditional lifts like the bench press and squat. Basically, the body has to work harder to stabilize itself if the ground doesn’t provide stability.

"Unstable Training - It Makes Sense on Paper"

“Unstable Training – It Makes Sense on Paper”

However, recent studies have found that this basic assumption about unstable training may be incorrect. A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows free-weight, multi-joint exercises actually train the core muscles more effectively than Unstable Surface Training.

So if unstable training actually isn’t effective for developing core strength, should we still do it? Like most things, it depends on the lifter and the situation.

What Unstable Surface Training Should Be Used For

Unstable training is best suited for isolating small muscle groups such as the rotator cuff muscles, which serve to stabilize distal aspects of the body.  Exercises such as band stabilizations are a good example of unstable training for the rotator cuff and scapular muscles.

Unstable training is also effective for restoring strength in joints following an injury or surgery. Athletes who have recently undergone ankle surgery will often practice balancing on an Airex pad to restore strength to the muscles in the ankle, thus improving stability in the affected joint, and ability to adapt to awkward steps.

Pulling your socks up over your pants is optional, but encouraged

Pulling your socks up over your pants is optional, but discouraged

What Unstable Surface Training Should Not Be Used For

UST training should never be used when performing big, multi-joint exercises like squats or bench press, for the simple reason that there just isn’t any benefit to it. Multi-joint exercises are supposed to be used to build strength and power, which requires heavy weights and high-velocity movement, respectively. By making somebody perform these exercises on an unstable surface, we limit both of these variables.

Example: if I take a lifter who can bench press 315 lbs and then have them lay on an exercise ball instead of a bench, is he still going to be able to bench 315 lbs? Not likely; the loss of stability would greatly reduce the amount of weight he could lift, so we’d have to lower the weight until he could successfully perform the exercise. So let’s say we lower the weight to 255 lbs, and he completes his sets at that weight. Since he’s only training at 80% of what he can actually handle, we won’t see the same strength gains we would have if he’d been on a flat bench. So by putting an unstable exercise ball under a bench presser, we’ve negated the goal of the bench press exercise, which is to build upper body strength. And since unstable training isn’t really effective at building core strength, we’re not even getting that benefit.

The same reasoning holds true for all kinds of exercises that are being touted as “functional core training”, from BOSU Ball Squats to Balance Board Deadlifts (I’ve actually seen these happen). They may look cool on social media, but they’re woefully inadequate when it comes to developing the athletic qualities those exercised were designed for.

The Bottom Line

Rather than putting everybody on an unstable surface for exercises that are supposed to be for developing strength, all under the guise of “functionality”, keep your feet on the ground and stop trying to make every exercise a “core” exercise. Strength is strength. Develop that, and you’ll be a better athlete.

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