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Unstable Surface Training: When and Why?

Unstable Surface Training: When and Why?

We’ve all seen the equipment, and the idea makes sense to anyone who’s tried to use a BOSU® ball for core muscle exercises, but did you know that there are other ways to incorporate unstable surface training into your clients’ training sessions?

Sure enough, one of the best strength and resistance training exercise regimens can actually be built around core stability, core strength, and balance. If you haven’t ever really done balance training before, you start to discover all of the smaller support muscles that don’t necessarily get trained in a regular squat. How many people have you encountered who can squat their body weight and a half, yet still suffer from terrible balance? The point is, just because someone has a lot of muscular strength doesn’t mean their balance is spectacular.

In terms of functional training, unstable surface training is a great tool to have at your disposal. It not only helps with dynamic balance and athletic performance, but it also helps with postural control. It is important to note that it is not the end all be all of training, and it shouldn’t even be a large focus of your clients’ programming. But, it can be used sparingly and with great care to accentuate the rest of your plan and really improve mobility. Before we dive into that, let’s answer the basics.

Just What Does Unstable Surface Training Consist Of?

Unstable surface training really is exactly what it sounds like — training various exercises on surfaces that don’t stay still on their own.

We’ve all had our share of stable and unstable clients in the past. We know which ones can stand for minutes on end on one leg and those who always need additional support to do a quad stretch. As personal trainers, we need to make sure we are coaching our clients to be their best and really push their physical fitness to the highest level possible. It’s why they pay us for our time.

Most trainers think this is purely a matter of strength and conditioning, or some variation on that theme. In reality, it goes further. Anyone can watch a YouTube video and learn something about training. Your certification makes you an expert in targeted goals. And along the way, you can help your clients gain a sense of overall success in fitness.

Part of this approach can be unstable surface training. This mainly consists of any training that is performed on a surface that has some movement — usually on something like a stability ball, various rollers, BOSU® balls, and a host of other equipment.

What using this equipment does is forces the user to train their stabilizing muscles. Furthermore, unstable surface training has the side benefit of incorporating proprioceptive training. Proprioceptive training is what allows ballet dancers to perform without colliding on stage, or you to go up and down the stairs in the dark. It’s the training of your senses that allows you to perceive where other objects are.

What Should I Look Out for in Terms of Safety?

This is the reason unstable surface training is only to be used sparingly — it can cause injuries if not performed properly. Remember that your chief concern as a personal trainer is to push your clients to a higher plane of fitness without causing harm or other injury.

The key issues you want to watch out for are primarily lower body issues. This means the legs and hips, ankle sprains, ACL injuries, and even hamstring pulls. For this reason, you should be wary of using too much weight until your client can demonstrate superior balance and stability without any weight.

Furthermore, older adults might run into some issues as well. Many experience issues with balance and stability already. As such, with older people, you’re going to want to be extra careful. Likely, they will do just fine training on stable ground. Unless they’re in peak physical condition, it’s best not to risk it.

Consider some similar issues to joint safety concerns with a plyometric training program. Watch out for all of the load bearing joints, and make sure form is immaculate.

If you do have your clients using free weights along with unstable surface training, be sure the training load is low enough to where they won’t hurt themselves. Do not make the mistake of allowing them to lift as heavy as they normally would when stability is somewhat compromised.

Unstable surface training is often used in physical therapy, but this is under extremely close supervision to ensure the patient is doing each exercise properly. So, keep this in mind when you are putting together your training plan.

What is the Best Use in My Programming?

When it comes to programming for your clients, it’s more of a matter of modification than anything else. For instance, instead of using a regular bench press, why not occasionally have your client perform a bench press with dumbbells laying on top of a stability ball. This causes significant muscle activation in their core. Another example of a bench press modification is to perform the bench press with normal equipment, i.e., a barbell and a bench, but instead of letting your client’s feet rest on the ground, have them bring their knees up to their stomach, forcing their core to maintain their balance throughout the lift.

Remember that these exercises should not be performed at their normal weights. But don’t worry about that, the increased stability and core strength will do wonders for your clients. And trust me, they will struggle.

Sometimes, trainers get a little too creative with unstable surface training. This is where some techniques either become useless or risk doing damage to the client. Being that the most susceptible muscles to injury are the ones in the lower body, you might want to avoid doing lunges on a wobble board. This is just asking for trouble unless the client is extremely limber. Even so, the risk of injury increases significantly.

Realistically speaking, the best stability training exercises are going to be bodyweight ones. Think about leg lifts or crunches on a BOSU® ball. It’s much more difficult and your stabilizer muscles will be engaged like never before.

So, to be clear, make sure any instance of unstable surface training is serving to support your overall training plan. Never put it into your client’s programming just for the sake of having it in there (check out YouTube, you’ll be shocked at how many people do crazy balance gimmicks just to get more views while doing little for their clients’ success).

Yes, There is Controversy Here

You will find experts from various backgrounds arguing vehemently on whether unstable surface training is really necessary. A practice that came from physical therapy, it is very useful in rehabilitating injuries back to normal. But in terms of getting stronger, there’s little evidence that the gains go beyond stability and mobility improvements.

That is to say that there is a lot of good that you can get from minor incorporations of unstable surface training. But, as we discussed above, there are also great risks.

It’s important that you not go overboard in the programming you give your clients.

Healthy Progression

The question is more about how competent your client is in regards to stability. Can they perform the exercises on solid ground? How well can they perform them? If they’re struggling on solid ground, then it is likely they’re going to injure themselves on an unstable surface.

So, if they’re not ready, then what should you do? Well, this is a great opportunity to practice balance and stability.

Think of the basic yoga poses, like tree pose for instance. If your client can’t hold tree pose, then this is likely where you should start. And it doesn’t take long. Start out with 15-30 seconds in the pose at first. You can train it at the beginning of your session or at the end, but remember that towards the end, they will likely be pretty wiped. So, gauge that accordingly.

Once your client can hold this pose for up to a minute, this is a pretty good indicator that their stability has developed to the point where they might effectively make use of unstable surface training.

Again, these are only suggestions, each client is different. There’s also the question of how well they can perform the basic movement on stable ground. For instance, if someone is already having difficulty doing crunches, putting them on the stability ball isn’t doing them a favor. There needs to be a basis of strength before you can train this way.

Mainly, just be sure you’re not throwing your clients into the deep end of the pool here. You need to be very Be attentive and attuned to your client’s mobility before you make any sort of judgment on adding such exercises to their training program.

When in Doubt, Cut it Out

Again, you must first and foremost look out for the health and safety of your clients. Not only is this simply the right thing to do, but it also looks out for your interest in that an injured client cannot usually train (and if they get injured following your program, they’re likely to find someone else anyway).

So, to be safe, if you’re not sure, just drop it. Ultimately, it isn’t worth the risk of injury. When your clients are ready for it, you’ll be able to tell. You will see how well they respond to variations of new exercises. Then, you can start adding unstable surfaces here and there.

For more on how balance can also impact speed, check out this article!

Ready to learn more about progressions and regressions? Want to learn how to build a safe and effective exercise program? Check out the ISSA’s personal training course online. You can learn about the science behind health and fitness for your own benefit or to help others get fit and build a healthy lifestyle.

Unstable Surface Training: When and Why?

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