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Bad Advice: Standing On Bosu Balls And Other Unstable Surface Training Does What?

Walk into pretty much any commercial health club in the country and invariably you’ll see a personal trainer having their client do squats or some other exercise while standing on a BOSU ball, rubber balance disc, or some other unstable surface training tool.

I’ll admit that years ago when the whole “functional training” craze started, I was doing the same thing. However, unlike some of my peers in the fitness industry I eventually started to question the validity of the supposed benefits with improved balance, core stability, strength, and the such.

On the surface the idea of unstable surface training tools helping to improve these areas initially made sense to me. Plus several personal training certification bodies, exercise physiologists, and other so called experts were endorsing the practice at the time.

There was just one problem…here in the real world putting these exercises into practice with my typical personal training clients, I wasn’t seeing the correlation to improvements with activities they would do in sport or every day life.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. More after the jump…

The “a-ha” moment for me didn’t come with a breakthrough research study or anything like that. It came from simple observation and thinking back to the basics. It came from freeing my mind of any preconceived assumptions I had and being open to honestly evaluating theory versus what I found in practice.

This is what I had to go with:

Instability training on BOSU balls, balance discs, wobble boards, and the like in theory was supposed to help with balance, core activation, improved muscle recruitment, etc.

After repeated practice on these devices my non-rehab personal training clients, they seemed to improve in their ability to perform movements on unstable surfaces, but…

Doing the same movements OFF the unstable surface training tools and now on stable ground, they would often demonstrate signs of instability and improper movement patterns.

So what gives?

Here’s the reality…by repeatedly performing movements on an unstable surface, they simply got better at performing movements on an unstable surface.

Well no duh!

How did I not see that coming? Practicing a squat on a BOSU ball it seems gets you good at, well squatting on a BOSU ball!

Real improvements or an adaptative response?

I want you to think about the fact that the human body has a tremendous ability to be adaptive. The ability of the brain and central nervous system to literally re-wire circuits to compensate for injury and weaknesses. The examples of this are endless, many which scientist still can’t fully explain.

The stroke victim who has a portion of their brain responsible for speech deadened, but somehow miraculously another portion of their brain takes over and they begin speaking again.

Individuals with spinal column injuries who were told they’d never walk again, do walk again. These stories are inspiring no doubt, but they also remind us of the amazing ability of the human body to adapt.

Practice squatting or doing some other exercise on a BOSU ball and your body adapts to doing that movement on an unstable surface. That makes perfect sense to me and I can see the correlation if you would be doing an activity or sport involving an unstable surface (skateboarding, etc).

But what if you weren’t?

What if you were looking to be a better soccer player, football player, etc, or perhaps just someone who desired improved movement and function with their every day life activities?

I’m here to tell you that unless you’re doing some sort of rehab (more on that in a minute), exercising while standing on top of one of these gadgets isn’t such a hot idea.

(This is a bad, very bad idea!)

Not only will these exercises not necessarily correlate to your real world activities, but they could very well be unsafe not to mention counter-productive. Let me explain.

By training on top of an unstable surface your central nervous system adjusts accordingly and everything from your posture, body positioning, and form, can and does change.

Think about the last time you stood on something unstable or stepped onto a slippery floor. Invariably what did you do? You braced yourself, tightened up, and subconsciously looked to change your center of gravity.

Why? Well naturally you did this because you were trying not to fall down.

The central nervous system senses the instability and fires away impulses in a way to keep you balanced. The body is trying to protect itself. In doing so it shuts down the ability to produce maximum force (strength, power, and speed decreases).

Bottom line is a repeated movement like a squat on an unstable surface can lead you to reinforce the WRONG movement patterns. In other words, you could be making your form with the squat OFF the unstable surface worse.

To add insult to possible injury (literally) you could be diminishing strength, power, and ground reaction forces that will come into play with sport or in every day activities.

Workouts shouldn’t resemble a circus show just because. If your personal trainer has you doing some crazy single leg squat to overhead press with dumbbells while on top of a BOSU ball, ask them the million dollar question….WHY?

If they tell you because you’ll have better core strength, stability, or any of that other non-sense refer them to this page. And if they insist, hire yourself another trainer.

(And once again the million dollar question…WHY?)

Is there any benefit to instability training on BOSU balls, balance discs, wobble boards, etc?

You may be surprised by my answer here, but it’s yes. There is a time and place for these tools, they’ve just been misapplied in the fitness industry. Long before personal trainers started using instability devices for their circus show exercises, physical therapists and exercise physiologists were putting them to good use.

There’s a case to be made with using these gadgets for rehabilitation purposes. They’re very valuable with developing proprioception following an injury, surgery, etc. If you’re trying to develop ankle stabilization for example, there’s benefit of adding exercises on an unstable surface at some point.

So for rehab purposes, yes. Trying to develop more core strength, stability, balance, strength, power, speed, lateral quickness, or anything of the such with a conditioned athlete or even a beginner exerciser, not so much.

Here’s a novel idea, try exercising on a training surface that’s been successfully implemented since the dawn of fitness training…it’s called the floor!

That’s right, put your feet on the floor (or perhaps just one if you want more instability) and do the same movements that have been working since either one of us were born. Say for example some…

Deadlifts
Squats
Overhead Presses
Push-Up’s
Rows

For added benefit throw in some  reaches, lunges, chops, rotations, planks, bird-dog’s, kettlebell swings and the like.

Get back to the basics, don’t try to be cute and fancy. Train the human body the way it was designed to move, not by putting it on an unstable surface. Trust me on this one. If you do enough single leg reaches your balance on both feet will improve. But hey don’t just take my word for it, see for yourself.

In conclusion, let me just say that there’s no need to run out and trash all these gadgets if you’re not using them for rehabilitation purposes. I use everything from BOSU balls, balance discs, sliders, Airex pads, stability balls, and the like with my clients on a regular basis.

Like I said earlier, they have their place. It’s more about not using them for the wrong purposes.

Question everything you do, be it as a trainer or the client, and assess the real benefit you’re getting out of it. If you can’t come up with a good answer, dump it.

I don’t want to completely trash these devices as that wasn’t my point. Research confirms that beginner exercisers can see benefits from using these tools when done appropriately. Doing a dumbbell chest press on a stability ball is one thing, doing a barbell row while standing on top of a BOSU ball is something entirely different.

It appears the more advanced you are with fitness training or sport, the less benefit these tools will provide with improving performance, that is of course unless your sport involves unstable surfaces.

I just wanted to get across to my fellow fitness trainers and anyone exercising with them or on their own, to carefully assess why their using these tools. Just because you saw some exercise in a video or some magazine, doesn’t make it a good idea.

Listen to your body, it’s smarter than many of the so called experts.

And finally, in case you were wondering if I had any research to back up my position on this subject, here you go.

References:

Cressey, E, etal. The effects of ten weeks of lower-body unstable surface training on markers of athletic performance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2007 May: Volume 21, Issue 2

Wahl, MJ, Behm, DG. Not all instability training devices enhance muscle activation in highly resistance trained individuals. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2008 July: Volume 22, Issue 4.

Williardson JM, etal. Effect of surface stability on core muscle activity for dynamic resistance exercises. International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance. 2009 March: 4(1):97-109

Drinkwater EJ, Pritchett EJ, Behm DG. Effect of instability and resistance on unintentional squat-lifting kinetics. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2007 Dec;2(4):400-13.
   
Saeterbakken AH, Fimland MS. Muscle force output and electromyographic activity in squats with various unstable surfaces. Journal of Strength &  Conditioning Research. 2012 Mar 24.

Hamlyn N, Behm DG, Young WB. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. Journal of  Strength & Conditioning Research. 2007 Nov;21(4):1108-12.

This is an open forum blog so feel free to leave your comments. Open discussion and debate is welcome. Share your experiences or make a case either way.

Train safe ya’ll. At the end of the day don’t feel compelled to do some exercise that you’re not comfortable with. There’s typically more than one way to achieve the same end objective. Do what works for you.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fitness expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping people achieve a body transformation with burst training exercise and whole food nutrition. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal fitness programs and start experiencing the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Fitness Training.