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Olympia Fitness + Performance

Striking a Balance in The Unstable Surface Controversy: How and Why You Should Use UST

Introduction

The topic of unstable surface training has been one of great controversy within the strength and conditioning community for over a decade, and most people either find themselves on one side of the debate or the other. Either people love it and use it for everything, or they hate it and avoid using it for anything. That being said, I feel that we should all be somewhere in the middle on this issue.

Go search the internet for unstable surface training and you will find notable names in the strength and conditioning community both for it and against it. Go to your local gym and talk to a few of the trainers there and you will once again most likely find people on both sides of the argument. Go to the library or your local book store and you will find books by famous coaches like Michael Boyle with pictures of athletes doing unstable surface exercises on the cover, and two rows beneath it you will find books by other famous coaches like Mark Rippitoe promoting basic barbell training as functional. They’re both nationally renowned coaches and teachers who have influenced every well-read trainer in some regard, yet they’re both promoting opposite sides of this argument… so who’s right? Is either side actually wrong?

“Bigger Faster Stronger”

There are the traditionalists who believe that the role of strength and conditioning is to make their athletes bigger, faster and stronger by making them lift, pull, push and drag as much weight as possible. This school of thought generally believes that unstable surface training is a waste of time and doesn’t benefit an athlete because being unstable inhibits the bodies ability to produce strength and power, thus strength and power can’t be properly trained. By all accounts a legitimate argument, but also a closed minded one at that.

“Functional Training”

The phrase “functional training” has morphed since it was first introduced to the fitness industry, and is now perceived by many as meaning “any exercise using a ball or band”. It’s not just the general public that goes by this perception either, there are plenty of trainers out there who will describe the exercises they’re doing as functional because of the equipment that they’re using rather than the action that they’re performing.

When discussing functional training we shouldn’t forget how specific equipment and the term “functional” became synonymous. It’s the ability to use natural, unrestricted movement patterns with this equipment that makes it useful for functional training. While many of the exercises that you can do with these implements are very beneficial and useful, it doesn’t mean that using these pieces of equipment automatically makes an exercise functional. Proponents of functional training are often guilty of completely abandoning traditional lifts like the heavy deadlift, squat, and bench press to the same degree that the “bigger faster stronger” crowd frown upon the stability and bosu balls.

What do we Actually Know About Unstable Surface Training?

The truth is, that we don’t really KNOW as much as we would like to as it relates to performance. Unstable surface training began in the rehabilitation setting and has been proven to be effective in helping individuals who have suffered lower body injuries to recover by helping them to improve their balance and proprioception. On top of that, from a prehabilitative standpoint, it has been hypothesized that unstable surface training is a reliable way to prevent lower body injuries, specifically ACL tears and ankle injuries.

From a performance standpoint though, there have not been as many studies, and the studies that have been done have provided conflicting results. For example, here has been a study that showed no difference in 1RM bench press performed on a stable surface versus a swiss ball, as well as no difference in EMG activity during those tests (Goodman et al). There has also been a similar study that found that peak force, power, and velocity outputs were significantly lower when the bench press was performed on the stability ball (Koshida et al). Similar study, contradicting results. Looking at the issue with a different focus, we also find that there is greater EMG activation in the muscles of the trunk and shoulders with unstable surface bench press compared to stable surface bench press (Norwood et al). That could be helpful from a performance standpoint since we are aware that no movement in athletics (or daily life for that matter) is performed in isolation.

But most sports are performed on our feet, not lying supine. And most sports rely on the control and explosiveness that is provided to us by our lower body to perform. In regards to these measures, there are two studies that I have found that really stand out to me. The first (The Effects of Ten Weeks of Lower-Body Unstable Surface Training on Markers of Athletic Performance – Cressey et. al) has received quite a bit of publicity, especially from those who don’t care for unstable surface training. The second (The Effects of Plyometric Versus Dynamic Stabilization and Balance Training on Power, Balance and Landing Force in Female Athletes – Myer et. al) paints a very different picture for us.

As with any study, we can come up with questions about and arguments for or against the validity of either of these studies, however the major difference that I noticed was how the unstable surface training was added in to the programs. In Cressey’s study the unstable surface was utilized during a weighted resistance training exercise toward the end of the workout. He found an increase in athletic performance markers in both groups, but there were greater improvements seen in the stable surface group.

In Myer’s study, there were also increases in performance for both groups, however he saw a greater increase in markers of athletic performance in the unstable surface training group. The difference though, was that instead of doing resistance training on an unstable surface, the unstable surface was used as part of the warm up series before the athlete’s performed their lifting. For the record, the latter is how I feel that unstable surface training should be utilized.

So just to recap, in both studies the athletes improved their markers of athletic performance regardless of whether or not they were doing unstable surface training. When the unstable surface training was incorporated into the weight lifting routine, the increase in performance was slightly less. When the unstable surface training was added to the warmup, the increase in performance was slightly greater. So this is the part where you start wondering what the downfall to using unstable surfaces training is. Well here you go…

Arguments Against Unstable Surface Training

There are two common arguments against unstable surface training as it relates to athletic performance. One of the most common arguments against unstable surface training, for athletes in particular, is that they don’t perform on an unstable surface. But is that truly always the case? A basketball court is certainly a stable surface, but is it still considered stable when you come down from a rebound and land on someone else’s foot? A well-groomed ski slope is stable when you have a good edge, but what about when you hit a patch of ice and lose that edge? How about that grass football or soccer field when it’s raining and you try to cut only to slide on mud or wet field turf? These are all circumstances where the surface that your body expects to be on, and the surface that it ends up on and has to react to, are completely different.

The other argument against unstable surface training is that by practicing balance on an unstable surface, you are robbing your body of training effects by reducing reciprocal inhibition. However, as Greg Nuckols does a great job of explaining in his article Squats are not Hip or Knee Dominant. Some Biomechanical Black Magic, your quads and hamstrings are co-contracting any time you squat or sprint. Yes, depending on the position of the joints in any given movement one muscle will have to work harder than the other, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking that any of the muscles are being “shut off” while you train. The muscles of the core that have to work together to stabilize the spine are another great example of how our body uses co-contraction to it’s advantage. So while reciprocal inhibition may play a role in making gainz while you do your preacher curls, it likely doesn’t have much of an effect on your ability to train for athletic movements.

He must be so weak because of that dynamic unstable surface training he’s been doing all these years, definitely prevents gainz.

Weighing the Real Life Effects of Unstable Surface Training and Why We Should Include it…

So we know that unstable surface training will most likely reduce the risk of non-contact lower extremity injuries. We also have information that says that it may or may not reduce the benefits of strength training as it relates to maximal power output. So do we do unstable surface training with our clients or not? What’s the most important aspect for them?

When asking this I think we also need to take into consideration that we don’t understand the long-term effects of unstable surface training. The studies that we discussed earlier were only done over the course of 10 weeks or less. So how do we know what the end result will be when we train a high school athlete for four years? Improvements in strength and explosiveness tend to come at a slower rate as we become better trained, so if unstable surface training actually does slow the initial improvements, do they eventually catch up? The truth is we don’t know, but I’m going to take my chances and do everything I can to prevent them from getting hurt and I’ll tell you why.

While it can be argued that you are robbing someone of the maximal strength benefits by using unstable surface training, if that actually is true, you’re not taking that much away from them. As strength and conditioning coaches we need to keep in mind who it is that we’re training and how our training affects them. When we talk about training your every day individual, keeping them out of a walking boot or knee brace because they stepped off a curb the wrong way will probably mean more to them than the fact that they only deadlifted 250 instead of 260. Not falling down the stairs when they slip because they’re able to regain their balance is likely a better benefit than adding an extra inch to their vertical so they get one more block on the year in their men’s league basketball games.

When we talk about high level athletes they need to be as strong as possible right? How about Sam Bennett? He couldn’t do a single pull up yet still went 4th overall in the NHL draft. I’ve trained hockey players who could do 15-20 pull-ups but never sniffed a chance at making the NHL. If the football player that you’re training can only deadlift 475 instead of an even 500, does that mean he’s not going to be as good on the field? Of course not. We often forget that the weight room is not why these men and women play at such a high level. Yes it absolutely helps them, but they are as good as they are because of their skill set, not because of what we do with them.

Let’s count the players who have excelled at the NFL combine only to become mediocre players in the NFL. Or the guys who only cracked the top ten in a single event at the combine yet turned out to be superstars. Everyone puts emphasis on their 40 yard dash time, so take a look at the best times by wide receivers and running backs in the NFL the last 10 years. Eight of the top ten players are guys that never made an impression in the league and no one ever considered taking in your annual fantasy football draft.

Looking at it from another perspective, I bet you that in the cases of Wes Welker and Derrick Rose, both they and their teammates would have preferred that they were more resistant to non-contact injuries. Even if it meant their squat went down by 20 pounds and their 40 was .1 seconds slower, they would have done far more for their teams and their own careers if they stayed healthy than they did after suffering non-contact ACL tears. Furthermore, if unstable surface training robs athletes of their strength, speed and power, but is common practice in rehab settings, how did Adrian Peterson have his best year only nine months after tearing his ACL?

In this field we tend to look at these absolute numbers and base everything on our record boards and place markers of success on what someone’s “max” or “best” is, but that takes away from what these young adults are really good at. Yes they may be superstars in the weight room, but where they really shine is on their respective field. And it’s not just because they lift and work their butts off with us in the gym, but also because they’re talented, and they work even more at their craft than they do with us. The best thing that we can do for them is to improve their performance beyond what it would be without doing the right things in the gym, but also keep them ON that field where they excel.

You really shouldn’t bother spotting him, just let natural selection take it’s course.

The truth is that no matter who we’re working with, we should be doing what’s best for them. If someone is a competitive power lifter, or is training specifically for a combine that’s going to determine how much money they make, then maybe we want to back off of the unstable surface training because it MAY slightly hinder their performance. However it’s probably going to help more than hurt with the majority of our clients, especially if implemented properly. Just because squatting on a stability ball is useless, inhibits your ability to train for strength, and makes you look like an idiot, doesn’t mean that we can’t benefit from doing some warm ups on an unstable surface to improve balance and proprioception.

Most of the high school and college athletes that we train will never play beyond that point and will appreciate the fact that they never suffered a serious injury years down the road. Bob from accounting would probably rather he doesn’t roll an ankle at his weekly racquetball match than be a quarter step faster than his opponent. Janis will be thankful for the fact that she didn’t fall and hurt her hip when she stepped on her kid’s toy at the bottom of the stairs and caught her balance. And if you have high level athletes, they’ll probably really enjoy going through their careers with as few ankle, knee and hip injuries as possible so they don’t have to take time off from practicing the finer aspects of their game, the ones that make them as good as they are.

Steve Zarriello is the owner of Olympia Fitness and Performance, located in Cranston, RI. He has been training clients of all different ages, abilities and backgrounds to help them reach their specific goals for 10 years. His primary focus is on working with golfers to help improve their ability to play the game and keep them pain free.

Sources:

Cressey, E., West, C., Tiberio, D., Kraemer, W., & Maresh, C. (2007). The Effects of Ten Weeks of Lower-Body Unstable Surface Training on Markers of Athletic Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(2), 561-567.

Goodman, C., Pearce, A., Nicholes, C., Gatt, B., & Fairweather, I. (2008). No Difference in 1RM Strength and Muscle Activation During the Barbell Chest Press on a Stable and Unstable Surface. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(1), 88-94.

Koshida, S., Urabe, Y., Miyashita, K., Iwai, K., & Kagimori, A. (2008). Muscular Outputs During Dynamic Bench Press Under Stable Versus Unstable Conditions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(5), 1584-1588.

Myer, G., Ford, K., Brent, J., & Hewett, T. (2006). The Effects of Plyometric Versus Dynamic Stabilization and Balance Training on Power, Balance and Landing Force in Female Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(2), 345-353.

Norwood, Jeff T., Anderson, Gregory S., Gaetz, Michael B., Twist, Peter W. (2007). Electromyographic Activity of the Trunk Stabilizers During Stable and Unstable Bench Press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(2), 343-347.

Nuckols, G. (2014, October 15) Squats are not Hip or Knee Dominant. Some Biomechanical Black Magic. Retrieved from http://www.strengtheory.com/squats-are-not-hip-dom…

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