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Some people think I hate unstable surface training.
Last week, I wrote a post called “Effective core training??” I included my article from a Canadian Running magazine issue released earlier in the year called “Stand Your Ground.”
I also told people to get off the balance board when strength training.
People started asking me “What’s your beef with unstable surface training? Don’t you want to work your core too?”
Well, you see, unstable surface training is a popular method used to rehabilitate ankle sprains in physio clinics… with great success. This method of training is also used to rehabilitate other injuries associated with the legs and hips.
The application of unstable surface training to healthy athletes and people of the general population is still unclear and constantly researched today.
Unstable surface training or UST for short consists of standing on an unstable surface while performing an exercise. The focus of the exercise can be on the upper or lower body depending what exercise you are performing. For example, you could stand on a BOSU, dome side down while performing a squat with two dumbbells in your hands. The surface will be unstable because the dome is on the ground. You could also stand on the BOSU dome side up while performing a bicep curl to overhead press. This surface is also unstable because you’re standing on a balloon. Both are good exercises to develop balance, proprioception (awareness of your body, limbs and weights you’re holding in space), coordination and stability. They are also great to add into a circuit for a person just wanting to get fit and stay in shape.
When trying to improve performance, UST is not optimal. Academic research has shown a drop in force output, reduced rate of force development and lower strength gains compared to performing the same exercise on stable ground. An example would be performing a back squat on a BOSU dome up or down vs. performing it on stable ground. Therefore, for optimal improvements in strength to improve athletic performance, it’s best to stand on stable ground when performing a leg exercise. Therefore, if a runner wanted to run strong, I wouldn’t have him/her do unstable surface training as his/her main strength exercise for his/her legs. To improve core strength and stability, I would first focus on core stabilization exercises and progress the challenge to anti-rotation type exercises.
For more information on UST and it’s inappropriate application to athletes, check out my post on effective core training on StrongerRunner.com. For a great core workout, you can download my free DVD titled “10 MIN to a Stronger CORE” also on www.StrongerRunner.com. And if you liked that DVD, check out my anti-rotation core workout for runners here.
In addition to the stable ground leg training for a runner, unstable surface training can be performed later in the workout with a different focus – to improve balance and proprioception for the ankles. This goal will improve ankle stiffness for trail running and reduce the risk for ankle sprains. You see, UST is good, it just has to applied correctly!
Beginners to weight lifting, however, will be able to increase strength while standing on unstable surfaces. Any stimulus, stable or unstable will yield improvements in a beginner. A study was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning this past July (2010) called “Training Adaptations Associated with an 8-week Instability Resistance Training Program with Recreationally Active Individuals” by Sparkes and Behm who found that instability training with lower loads increased strength in previously untrained young individuals compared to training with more loads with stable machines. Therefore for this population, UST will still yield benefits and provide exercise variety.
So, depending on your goals use UST appropriately to ensure optimal improvements in health and fitness.
5. UST can be added as a supplemental exercise to a lower body strengthening program to develop balance, coordination, proprioception and core activation.
Thanks for reading,
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP
Strength and Conditioning Coach, New Westminster, BC, Canada