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?

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