We’ve all seen the meme of that guy at the gym doing a back squat on a stability ball and, although he may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, it’s not uncommon to see people testing the limits of the BOSU ball. Because, why wouldn’t an exercise be more effective if it’s more difficult to perform? The thing is, though, training on unstable surfaces may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Before you spend another workout session trying to activate more muscles, let’s take a look at what science has to say about it.
Yes, You Should Do It
Core exercises are some of the most commonly implemented when it comes to unstable training – a stability ball can definitely make a plank feel much harder. Coincidentally, this seems to be the only place where unstable training may be worth the time and effort. The Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy found that muscle activity was enhanced during lumbar stabilization exercises performed on unstable surfaces compared to when performed on stable surfaces.
No, It’s a Waste of Time
While there have been a handful of studies that support the use of unstable surface training, there are many more that discredit it. For example, research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found no difference in muscle activation when participants performed a back squat on a stable versus an unstable surface. Furthermore, researchers found that muscle activation wasn’t dependent upon the stability level of the training surface but on the load being lifted. So, in a nutshell, if you’re looking for muscle activation, lift heavy on a stable surface (doing so on an unstable one is a good way to end up hurt).
Another study found that when subjects performed the chest press on an unstable surface, their maximum force output was 59.6% less than when they performed it under stable conditions – that’s a pretty big deal and not in a good way. Dynamic Medicine published a study that looked at the effects of replacing an exercise bench with a stability ball. Researchers looked at the activity at four different core muscles during five upper body exercises and found no significant difference between the two surfaces.
While it may be tempting to test your skills on an unstable surface, if you’re looking for results don’t waste your time. Aside from core-specific exercises, there’s no point in using unstable surfaces during your workout. Yes, they are great for rehabilitation settings where balance and proprioception are the chief concern but if you’re on a quest for glutes, quads and abs your time could be better spent.
Adding weight to your lifts, performing unilateral exercises (one limb at a time), and even working with a trainer to ensure proper body cues and muscle activation are achieved during movement, are much more effective means to get you to your goals.