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What you need to know about stability training

fitness is a careful balance

I am willing to bet that at some point you’ve stepped onto a BOSU ball or dyna disc and squatted. Or maybe you stood on one leg for a while and balanced. In the big box gym I frequent in the Boulder, I’ve seen countless people training on BOSU balls, stability discs (dyna discs), balance boards and similar tools.

But just how effective is this type of training? What do you need to know about stability training for it to be beneficial for your own training?

Well, we’ll get to all of that in a second, but first off, stability training is a bit of a misnomer. A better way to describe this type of training is by calling it Unstable Surface Training (UST). That some portion of your body weight is reacting against an unstable surface. You could either be standing on something unstable (squats) or maybe you’re pressing against it – say, in a push up. Regardless, the surface that you’re reacting against is unstable, that’s key.

Background

In the grand scheme of things, UST is relatively new. It’s only been around for maybe 10 – 15 years. Of course, you could argue that even the Spartans may have found themselves balancing on a log from time to time, but it’s only in the past 10 years or so that this type of training has almost become a standard addition to new workout programs. From my viewpoint, I think many trainers feel that they need to incorporate it into every new client’s recipe. It’s almost that because the exercises are exotic looking, the client will feel that he or she is getting their money’s worth.

But unstable training, as we know it today, really came about for its use in rehabilitation, particularly rehabing ankle sprains. Like so many injuries, once you hurt yourself, you can potentially be more prone to future injuries. And by training on an unstable surface, you’re challenging your body to stay upright by firing your muscles at the right time. This is a proprioceptive challenge that can do great things in reprogramming your motor control.

What if you’re not nursing an injury? Is there still a place for UST?

Is it right for you?

If you’re a healthy individual and focused on enhancing athletic performance as opposed to rehabilitating a nagging injury, then you’d probably be most interested in a study written in part by Eric Cressy(3). He and his colleagues sought to discover what impact (if any) UST had on athletic performance. In the study, they evaluated healthy participants of a men’s soccer team and divided the men into 2 groups. One incorporated UST into their current weightlifting program (~2% of their workout volume) and the other, trained with absolutely no UST. You can read more about the study’s details here at T Nation, but the punchline is this – the group that trained exclusively on stable surfaces showed improvements in athletic performance whereas the UST group did not.

A possible explanation for the difference in performance is that the lower body operates in largely a “closed chain” way. For instance, a squat is a closed chain movement whereas a leg press is “open chain.” In the former, your body is moving away from an immovable object (the ground) whereas the leg press has you pressing a weight away from your stationary upper body. Which do you think is more realistic in real life?

And so it stands to reason that UST doesn’t really give your lower body what it wants. It wants stability – something that’s not going anywhere. When you run or jump or play volleyball – whatever your sport of choice – the ground isn’t going anywhere. And so in my opinion, that’s how we should be training.

So, if UST doesn’t show promise in enhancing athletic capability, what about injury mitigation? Will training on a balance board or dyna disc protect you from injury?

Unfortunately, the research on whether UST will reduce injury rates among athletes is a little murky(1,2). Two clinical studies took a close look at UST and whether it would protect members of a sports team from injury. As much as we would all like to say that UST will make your ankles and knees bullet proof, that’s not what these studies determined. They found little to no impact on injury rate when team members trained with UST.

As I eluded to earlier, the big concern I have with UST is not so much that it may not be effective, but that it seems to be forced onto so many people that are new to resistance training. Instead of training new clients and weight lifting novices on the basics like fundamental movement patterns and the classic bodyweight exercises, we are quick to put them into a balancing act. And quite often, the look on the faces of these trainees is one of frustration. That’s not a good way to start a new exercise program.

Wrap up

Are you recovering from a lower extremity injury? Sure, go ahead and train with UST – it’s been proven to aid in recovery. There’s clinical evidence to suggest that it can indeed help in rehabilitation scenarios and help to get those muscles firing more quickly. However, there is little evidence to show that your athletic performance will improve.

My takeaway from my research for this post is that UST almost acts as a distraction from the basics. For instance, the lifts that do correlate well to improving athletic performance are the big lifts – the squats, the deadlifting, the O-lifts, etc. Yet I rarely see gym goers performing these movements.

What do you think? Has UST helped you? Can you point me to any research on the subject that I may have overlooked? Join the discussion below and let’s figure this out!

By Ryan Wagner

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References:

1. Verhagen, E. et al. The effect of a proprioceptive balance board training program for the prevention of ankle sprains: a prospective controlled trial.Am J Sports Med. 32(6):1385-93. 2004.

2. Soderman, K. et al. Balance board training: prevention of traumatic injuries of the lower extremities in female soccer players? A prospective randomized intervention study. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 8(6):356-63. 2000.

3. August 2007 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The Effects of Ten Weeks of Lower-Body Unstable Surface Training on Markers of Athletic Performance. Eric M. Cressy, Chris A. West, David P. Tiberio, William J. Kraemer, and Carl M. Maresh. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut

Image credit: Exercises to do on a BOSU ball

What you need to know about stability training by

3 thoughts on “What you need to know about stability training

  1. Agreed, UST has a place in re-hab scenarios, but not much else. We’ve helped people recover from surgeries, hip replacements and more and we don’t own a BOSU ball 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ryan. Things like BOSU balls are so ubiquitous in big box gyms, but it seems like the serious training gyms (like yours) have come to realize that many UST products are really a niche training tool.

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