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  • Writer's pictureDr JP Guidry DPT CSCS TPI

The Truth about Unstable Surface Training

The Truth about Instability Training

Today’s email is inspired by two things:1.Years of the frustration of seeing unsafe and unnecessary exercises being performed on unstable surfaces and 2. This recent article I read by Bob Alejo: For the sake of this email I will use the term “instability training” as it relates to performing any exercises on an unstable surface such as  with Swiss or BOSU balls (a hemispheric inflated ball that is flat on one side and convex on the other see pic below), foam pads, foam rollers, wobble boards, suspended chains, ropes, and bands.

The Difference Between Rehab and Sports Performance Training

In the past 12 years as a Physical Therapist and Strength coach, I have worked with everyone from high-level athletes to very debilitated post-stroke and other neurologically affected patients. I have probably put less than 10% of my patients in that time on unstable surfaces and those were very low-level neurological patients or post severe ankle injury in the acute phases. When it comes to Sports Performance training we can agree that no one competes on a playing surface (field, court, pitch) where the ground moves. With this being said when we talk about the idea of specificity (muscular and neural) and its importance to training then why do we put athletes on unstable surfaces and expect a significant carryover to a playing surface?

Stability training can be looked at on a continuum of some different stability environments that others have mentioned and let’s look at the overhead press as an example from more to less stable environments:

  1. Seated machine overhead press

  2. Standing machine overhead press

  3. Seated barbell overhead press

  4. Standing barbell overhead press

  5. Seated DB overhead press

  6. Standing DB overhead press

  7. Seated 1 arm DB overhead press

  8. Standing 1 arm DB overhead press

  9. Standing 2 DBs, one-legged overhead press

  10. Standing 1 DB, one-legged overhead press

We always talk about progression, and you could argue that each of these overhead presses has distinct and different effects on the body and its own level of instability, though none use an unstable surface. In these cases, the instability relies on the body’s own lack of stability by changing the center of balance with support symmetry, sitting or standing, bipedal or unipedal, coupled or uncoupled. To take it a step further, you could take No. 10 and have the DB be on the support leg side or non-support side to again give a different stimulus to the body. (1)

There is plenty of data out there showing the lack of improvement in any real measurable factors when it comes to unstable surface training and performance as unstable surface training does not allow for enough load to be used to see improvements in strength in power which is actually much more important in the carryover from the gym to the playing field. The lack of carryover plus the increased risk that unstable surface training brings into the picture makes this type of training at best a waste of time and at worst higher risk for potential injury to an athlete or person performing it.

So how do we properly train stability?

The best way, in my opinion, is using a single arm or single leg versions of exercises with wither bilateral or unilateral loading via dumbells, cables or kettlebells. This can consist of lunges, split squats, step-ups, single-leg RDL’s, single-arm carries or marching,  Single-arm dumbbell pressing and rows, single-arm standing cable pressing or rows to name a few.  See the videos below for some examples

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John Paul Guidry DPT CSCS TPI Guidry Golf and Sport

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