February 13, 2012

Adding Instability to Your Workout: Clever Idea or Clueless Trend?

Photo swiped from BalanceWines

So this was supposed to be a post all about how playing around with unstable surfaces or loads can be a super-effective way to pump up your exercise routine.

However, turns out the situation is a little more complicated than I originally thought!

So here's what happened: a helpful reader left a comment on the creating a cheap home gym post that mentioned sandbag training, which looks to be an awesome low cost do-it-yourself home gym option.  In checking it out, I came across a explanation of why it's way better to hoist sneaky unpredictable shifting bags of sand than solid, boring, immobile free weights.  (Or, heaven forbid, to use even sissier gym equipment like stationary bikes or strength training machines). 

The key is, apparently: instability!

Here's what got me all enthusiastic about incorporating more stability challenges into my workout. To quote a sandbag training guy:

"Instability exercises are based on the well-proven idea that an asymmetrical, shifting weight produces far better exercise results, because it forces your body to compensate and work out dozens of accessory muscles that otherwise would not see use." By contrast, using regular "well-balanced, symmetrical exercise equipment can leave weak points in your musculature."

Sounds great!  Plus it totally explains all the trendy functional fitness people in my gym running around doing weird scary shit like hopping up and down on one foot on bosu balls while juggling 50 lb barbells with their eyes closed.

However, is it true? Do you get better exercise results if you challenge your stability while working out? 

Well, as it turns out... maybe!  The answer varies depending on what you're looking to do, how you approach it, and how you define "better exercise results."

First up:

Unstable Surface Training

While there are a lot of different ways to adding instability to your routine and challenge your balance, the one that's the most controversial of late is Unstable Surface Training, or UST.

Seems a lot of personal trainers are promoting UST as a creative means to achieve most of your functional fitness aspirations. Working out on an unstable surface like a vibrating platform, bosu ball, wobble board or stability ball is supposed to do a bunch of cool things. These include recruiting more muscles, making your workout tougher in the same amount of time, improving your balance, strengthening your core, and conferring the ability to wrestle yourself out of the jaws of bloodthirsty grizzly bears should any attack you while you're snowboarding down a steep Alaskan mountainside pursued by an avalanche.

Or something like that.

But despite all the personal trainers hauling out spherical objects or other wobbly surfaces and making people do weird things on them, recent research has challenged the notion that this technique will make you fitter and stronger. In fact, an oft-cited study says that UST actually "attenuates performance improvements in healthy, trained athletes."

Wait, what?

But as the author explained further in an excellent Experience Life article (which I shall be plagiarizing from even more extensively below):

"Our research showed that replacing as little as 2 to 3 percent of overall training with unstable-surface training in healthy, trained athletes impaired the development of sprinting speed and vertical jump height.... Grass and turf fields do not move, nor do tracks or basketball and tennis courts... We can’t train slowly on an unstable surface and expect to be fast and powerful on a stable surface.”

Another Unstable Surface Training article explains a tradeoff that occurs when stability varies. If you're doing a stable exercise, like using a leg press machine, you can really beef up your "prime mover" activation and can generate a lot more power in your major muscles than you can when you're doing an unstable exercise, like a one-legged squat on a bosu ball. On the other hand, the scary unstable kind of exercise uses a lot of stabilizer activation, so you're more likely to hit those little muscles that keep you from toppling over in an undignified manner.

Bottom line: if you want to sprint really fast down the track, or jump really high, or look more like this dude...

 photo: posedown

... then you may not want to spend a big chunk of your workout on a wobble board.

However, if you're trying to get better at an exercise that actually involves an unstable surface, then for goodness sake, go ahead and train on one!

Photo: Petsfoto

Injuries and Unstable Surface Training

If you're teetering around challenging your balance by working out on something wobbly, there's always the chance you could go sprawling ass over teakettle and seriously hurt yourself.  On the other hand, as physical therapists or purveyors of UST exercise equipment will happily point out, doing stability exercises can be a helpful way to challenge core muscles, prevent injuries and do some rehab after you've gone out and messed something up.

Your most useful accessory when approaching exercise on unstable surfaces? Common sense!

Balance and Stability Challenges On Solid Ground

Cribbing from the aforementioned Experience Life article, there are a number ways to get some of the benefits of instability training without wandering into controversial UST territory. As it happens, these are all things I've randomly started doing myself for one reason or another, so of course it makes me even more convinced that the Experience Life people are brilliant! Anyway, these can include:

Exercising with your eyes closed. (And yep, I do part of my cardio on the elliptical this way, without holding onto anything, and one day I will probably kill myself. But what the hell, in the meantime it's pretty darn fun.)

Strength training that involves balancing on one leg. If you're hardcore, sure, do pistol squats like Charlotte, but I find even lunges (especially backwards walking lunges) to be plenty challenging for my meager balancing ability.  If a good part of the move involves putting all your weight on one leg, then chances are, you're going to have to work a bit to keep from keeling over into an awkward heap in front of that personal trainer you've been eyeing who keeps tempting you with his cute bosu balls.

Moving your center of gravity up and out. You can do this by raising your arms or hoisting weights above your head. Kettlebell swinging, medicine balls, and using dumbbells for things like the evil Turkish get-up or the one-handed overhead squat are some handy ways to shift your center of gravity around to destabilize yourself.

And finally:

Using uneven loads.  Hmm, like the shovelglove? Or, well, DIY sandbags? It seems we've come full circle!

Do any of you guy incorporate stability training in your exercise program? Or is getting out of bed and making your way to the kitchen without tripping over the cat good enough?


  1. Oh gosh..."Or is getting out of bed and making your way to the kitchen without tripping over the cat good enough?" That is totally my life. I swear, one of these days I'm going to kill myself tripping over a cat while trying to walk down the stairs.

    Now and then I do workouts that add a balance challenge to a strength move - standing on one leg to do bicep curls, for example. I don't know how much of a difference it makes, but it keeps things interesting.

  2. Keeping my balance is a challenge at the best of times. All my exercises are instability exercises.

  3. When the BOSU came out I became interested in exercises that help with balance. My understanding is that if you have an injury to the lower extremities than these unstable exercises are good for helping you recover from the injury. If you are not injured, than there is a risk that doing them will injure you. Basically, although I think that doing some of this carefully is all right, but I think the type of exercises that strengthen the legs, such as lunges or squats are a better way to go.

    I have occasionally closed my eyes while running in the early dark AM, and pretended I was still sleeping, but do not recommend that behavior lol!

  4. I always just thought doing those exercises was about learning balance rather than really working any muscles. Color me Stupid.

    I am a klutz so these type of exercises aren't great for me, plyometrics freak me out too. I am always imagining breaking an ankle while doing these things. WHILE ACTUALLY DOING THEM...Not a great time to be picturing your bones snapping.

  5. Common sense! Yes! Brilliant!

    When I'm at the gym and see a trainer taking an overweight elderly person who had to take the elevator to the second floor told to stand on a bosu and do squats I feel like a little part of me dies.

    Love your posts. They always make me laugh and always make me feel normal in some sort of weird way ;)

  6. I do balancing stuff with yoga. I've never been the most graceful creature on the block, so I think that's pretty good. I have to say, it does help.

  7. Oh common sense. When will people use it more frequently?

    Being able to get out of bed, into the bathtub, all that stuff is really key for people, particularly as they get older and are more prone to falls that can end up in broken hipsville.

    However, whenever someone says "instability is good!" what it results in is people having grandma doing one legged bosu squats when she's never done anything like that before. How is that smart? Progression, people!

  8. I'm a big of TRX and there always is some element of balance and strength moves in my routines. One leg squats, one arm planks, etc. These are always the most difficult parts of my routine.

  9. You already know I'm a big fan of the shovelglove... Though I wouldn't recommend using one with your eyes closed if there's anything breakable nearby.

    Other than that, does "running" (slipping, sliding, shuffling along holding onto a fence for support, doing involuntary dance routines to stay upright) through ice and snow count? I've been doing a LOT of that recently. #8-)

  10. I am becoming more of a klutz as I get older. I think I will start with trying to stand still with my eyes closed :) Thanks for the link on the shovelglove though, I might be able to do that.

  11. Sounds to me like this is another thing you add a small amount of just for the sake of making sure you cover all the muscles. A bit of yoga, a bit of Pilates, some cardio, some weights, some balance stuff, and you should stay pretty fit.

  12. " an asymmetrical, shifting weight" they say? That would be picking up dogs! Even the ones who aren't trying to get away aren't exactly holding still. So yes, I do incorporate some of this into my work, if not my workOUTs. Most of my balance work happens in yoga. Almost thirty years of wobbly yoga, now.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  13. Riding a bicycle uses more muscles than riding a stationary cycle, thanks to instability.

  14. I do stability stuff to a point BUT I have a major major overpronation that is really tough & it is hard with that type of imbalance to do some stuff & not worth it to me to injure myself or my hips or anything else. I use inserts but still have issues so... I do the best I can but I am not going to injure myself doing crazy stuff! :-) Great post though!

  15. I know a lot of folks are refining their technique, setting new land speed records, developing buns & abs of steel. My standards are really low. If I get in a 30-minute strength training workout and run the dog 2 or 3 miles (with a minimum of walking), I consider myself a gold-medal Olympian for the day.

    I do try to incorporate some balance with the stability ball (which is a misnomer if ever there was one) and one-legged weight challenges. But it's not for any high-falutin' reasons--I'm getting older, and that ain't fer sissies. I do it so I can stay balanced & upright and not fall on my ass.

  16. I sometimes incorporate a BOSU or balance ball in my Pilates classes. Anything to make me less klutzy. To prevent, say, my slipping while walking down the stairs carrying a basket of dirty laundry, landing flat on my back covered is stinky clothes.
    Just an example.
    Off the top of my head.
    Nothing that actually happened.
    A week ago last Thursday.

  17. First off: the shovelglove. That.Is.Awesome.

    Next: I practice instability all the time. Oh wait, you were talking physical not mental? :) How about walking through the house in the dark and maintaining vertical position while navigating unseen cats and toys?

    My favorite is one legged squats and jumping rope. Also, anything on my big old ball wins as well. Especially push ups and sit ups.

  18. Hahahahahaha.... *gasp*...hahahaha.
    (Leah stole my comment.)
    Standing on two legs is sometimes a challenge for me.

  19. All types of exercise are good for us. Using instability to gain strength is another great way to help the body utilize it underworked assets. This is just one more thing to think about as we do our daily routines. Good article.

  20. giIt's funny, but it seems the more we try new things, the more we come back to the basics. Those old calisthenic exercises that we saw people doing in black and white movies are still one of the best ways to get functional (instability) training into a workout. Incorporating far more motor units than on the neurological "desert" of machines, functional (instability) training is a superior whole-body workout.
    Thanks for providing the great information that you did on this post!

  21. I always get nervous I'm going to fall off my treadmill when i'm finished my run.Hasn't happened yet but luckily it's in my home gym so no one will see! I have fallen over with a really heavy dumbbell.

  22. I have to say I think instability is a fad that will pass. If you want to work on balance then work on balance..if you want to work on strength then work on strength. Why try and mix the two and work both half assed? No way you can concentrate on strength when you are standing on a half ball lifting something and are you really focused on balance when you are trying to not drop a weight? I guess I just don't see the point. Good post though and some great comments here too

  23. Great blog, especially the part about telling us what actually happens when you train on an unbalanced surface! Thanks for sharing.

  24. Great article full of information truly accessible to a wide audience! As a baseball then rugby player, I actually utilized many different stability exercises mostly as injury prevention but also because small muscle development can be so difficult with more rudimentary exercises and weight machines. If more people broadened their work-out horizons, I would think they would prevent more injuries and encourage continued exercise.

  25. I figure skate. That's all instability work, since I'm always on one leg on an unstable surface. It really works the core muscles. Even so, I've still had to do off-ice instability training with a PT, too. Gotta skate with proper alignment or you're going to have problems, and doing off-ice exercises while checking alignment in a mirror is really helpful. Lately I've been working on my sit spin, which is a one-legged squat, and everything has to be just right to do that without hurting your knee.

  26. Hi! Really informative post.Through your post I know the detail knowledge about all these staff to workout.Thanks for sharing this with us... :-)


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