Unstable surface training gone wild. But why? Maybe because it looks cool or engages your “core” more. I guess it comes down to your goals and what you are trying to achieve but there isn’t much out there that proves that lower body unstable surface training (UST) will improve athletic qualities, body composition, or prevent injury in the general exercise populations and more specifically, the athletic population. We first need to make sure athletes and people can perform exercises in their normal fashion first before we can even start to think about UST. Yet you will see people doing these circus acts at gyms and be promoted at universities in their exercise science programs. Yes, I was one of those people who would incorporate one or two exercises per week to balancing on a stability ball doing God knows what. Evil, I know, but through meeting the right people and reading what I believe are the right things in regarding this topic, I have seen the light. Ok, maybe I am talking like a crazy pastor, but isn’t the world supposed to end today? According to this guys, yes.
If you want to really know whether or not utilizing unstable surface training in your setting is appropriate, I recommend getting Eric Cressey’s e-book “The Truth About Unstable Surface Training.” He points out that using unstable surface methods may not be appropriate for athletic populations. Rehabbing a sprained ankle is one thing but lunging, squatting, and doing all this wobbly stuff with your normal healthy client is no good. The reason why? Well, for one, from a “functional” standpoint there are very few sports and life for that matter where the ground is unstable. As well as it lends itself to your ankle being in a overpronated position. Obviously there is more to this but those are some easy points to say “Hey, lets focus on moving better instead of wobbling doing curls.”
When you talk about UST really what you are talking about is looking to increase stabilizer activation for that recommended exercise. It has even been noted that performing your typical deadlifts, squats, etc. can elicit the same (possibly greater activation) core activation. However, when you perform UST, you decrease prime mover recruitment (the main muscle you are trying to work). I think one way to look at stability is on a continuum.
One the left side you have stability (i.e. squatting on w/ feet on ground) which means you will get more prime mover muscles activated, simply you can squat more on the ground than on a ball. On the right side you have less stability (i.e. squatting on a bosu ball) which require more stabilizer activation. Some may say “well don’t you want your core activated since it prevents injuries and so on” and the answer is, yes but there are better ways. That is why we have core stability exercises and unilateral exercises which is in the middle of the continuum. It is also why we should promote more unilateral work into our programs. Unilateral exercises are king just because you get that stability without sacrificing serious strength gains. It also should be noted that upper body UST would be more practical to use because injuries that happen to the upper body are caused in an “open loop” fashion (unpredictable) which would warrant that type of training. UST for the upper body can also be a way to deload the joints. Here is just a lovely video of the many things that can go wrong. Enjoy the weekend!