Unstable surface training and core activation
Better Version of You
The phenomenon of unstable surface and core training has grown exponentially over the years.
Videos of individuals demonstrating feats of “balance and coordination” drills on Bosu balls alongside pointless plank variations have dominated the idea of core development. Unfortunately, not only are some of these variations outright dangerous, the majority are rather ineffective at producing performance gains.
What’s the rationale?
The rationale behind unstable surface training has never been clear likely due to the lack of scientific literature supporting it. Some individuals propose that it induces superior core activation against basic exercises used for decades.
Additionally, many individuals have been led to believe that in order to increase core strength, core specific exercises are necessary. This couldn’t be further from the truth, according to a 2008 study in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” which examined plank variations and crunches against heavily loaded compound movements such as the squat and deadlift for activation of the core.
The study found the deadlift and squat to have two- to six-times greater core activation, respectively, than the plank and crunch variations. This and several other studies alike have demonstrated time and time again that the core is paramount in successful heavily loaded strength training movements, unparalleled by body weight “core specific” exercises.
Another study was conducted in 2010 by the “International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.” It examined activation of loaded squats on both stable and unstable surfaces. Not surprisingly, average activation of the stable environment was much greater than the unstable.
Unstable surfaces compromise force generating capacities, explaining why one cannot jump as high off of sand as they can on a firm surface. Additionally, unstable surfaces may increase the risk for injury, thus if increased athletic performance is desired one is better off to abstain from these variations.
One point that must noted regarding unstable surface training is its place in rehabilitation settings.
It has been well documented that individuals suffering from injury or recovering from surgery can benefit from unstable surface or balance training because it allows for a small stimulus and muscle co-contraction without having to necessarily load anything.
Physical therapists and athletic trainers alike have successfully used balance pads and similar unstable surface implements for years to rehab injured individuals. It must be understood that this training has its time and place but is not optimal when seeking maximum performance gains simply due to the fact that it can never be loaded to the degree of a stable surface.
In certain cases, excessive unstable surface training can even be detrimental to performance, as it requires a degree of muscle co-contraction, which is nonconducive the elastic stretch/flex paradigm of the stretch shortening cycle.
Above all, intelligent and informed exercise selection is the key to producing long lasting gain. Trends come and go, but the most effective methods for training shine through time after time.
Jimmy Pritchard is the director of strength & conditioning at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit pritchardperformance.com.