Does Unstable Surface Training Work?

If you walk into just about any training facility anywhere, you’re likely to see instability training equipment – even if you don’t recognize it by that very clinic name. Sometimes called “unstable surface training,” this approach uses things like Swiss balls, BOSU balls and suspension trainers to challenge your balance while training for strength. The idea is that this extra element will help you make faster progress, especially in core strength and balance, than tradition strength training would.

For athletes in most sports, this seems like a profitable concept. After all, improving your balance can both reduce risk of injury and increase your overall efficiency of movement. With claims like that, it makes sense that what was once a training modality limited to rehabilitation has quickly spread into the athletic world.

But, we have to asked the unfortunate question: Does it work?


Defining Your Expectations

Within the realm of health and fitness, this is often a very difficult question to answer. Really, it all depends on what you expect unstable training to do for you; How do you define “work?”

Looking at the classic uses – that of decreasing lower back pain and encouraging recovery from injuries –  it seems like unstable training does work. Numerous studies have shown that resistance training performed using these unstable surfaces can challenge the core and other muscles in such a way that these aspects of fitness significantly improve.

Studies have also backed up the use of unstable training as a way to prevent injury in athletes. Specifically when it comes to the all-too-common knee and shoulder injuries, regularly incorporating unstable surfaces into your strength training program can help to condition your muscles so that they operate in a balanced way – preventing problems down the road.

This “does it work?” question becomes a little messy, though, when we get into the world of strength and power.


Picking A Side

All of the above-mentioned benefits of unstable training could be invaluable to you in various stages of your training. However, the balance-testing element of it could also limit your development of both strength and power.

Because your muscles and joints are struggling just to keep you upright, unstable training prevents complete muscle activation. Put simply, your body just has too much going on to worry about fully contracting your muscles. Without forceful muscle contractions, you will not see the same increased in strength that you might from a more traditional program.

A recent study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, though, compared the benefits of a traditional circuit workout versus one performed on unstable surfaces. Keep in mind that circuit training is typically not focused on developing strength, but usually shows more general improvements in fitness.

At the end of the trial, there was no significant difference between the two programs in strength, power, speed or jumping ability. This means that, when it comes to circuit training, you can have your pick between stable or unstable training. Since unstable training requires specialized equipment and can be more difficult, though, it doesn’t seem to be worth it.




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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.