Unstable Surface Training – does it work?
Having spoken to athletes and various sport coaches about S&C training methods, UST appears to still be used with some athletes. This subject has been written about on several occasions by highly prominent S&C coaches https://www.t-nation.com/training/bosu-ball-the-good-bad-and-ugly but I reckon this is worth revisiting to establish whether UST work’s for athletes?!
UST is commonly used in a rehabilitation setting and has been shown to improve ankle stability issues in injuries individuals. There are however several dubious studies that have promoted the use of UST methods in athletic populations in order to reduce injury risk. UST proponents have claimed that it is a valuable method to train stability and mobility simultaneously.
However, if we look at more reliable studies, we see that force production is considerably higher with stable surface training when compared with unstable surface conditions. Limited force production = limited strength gains.
Strength is clearly a fundamental attribute in athletic populations for various reasons from injury risk reduction to force production, so we have to make this a priority at suitable points.
A key study by prominent S&C coach Eric Cressey, looked at how unstable surface training and stable surface training affected key performance indicators such as sprint speed, jump/reactive jump ability and agility, in trained athletes (elite collegiate soccer players).
At the end of the study, the stable surface training (ST) group significantly improved their predicted power output with the reactive jump and counter movement jumps but the UST group did not…
…both groups improved 40 yard and 10 yard sprint times but the ST group improved significantly more in the 40 yard sprint, with a similar trend for the 10 yard sprint.
Finally, most athletic movements occur in a standing position on a stable surface with instability occurring further up the body e.g. Upper body. With this in mind UST may be useful for targeting the core and upper body, WHILST the feet are on a stable surface, but NOT whilst standing on an unstable surface!
• UST may not be suitable for improving key performance indicators in athletes/ trained populations
• sport specific movement patterns may be affected by the compensatory actions required in UST
• evidence suggests that high velocity movements which rely on efficient and rapid ‘stretch-shortening cycle’ actions may be negatively affected whilst utilising UST (actions such as jumping, sprinting etc)
• “YOU ARE WHAT YOU TRAIN!” – slow/tentative movements (just watch someone squatting on a Swiss ball) = slow athlete!
• UST does not allow sufficient loading for strength gains
• instability can be created on a stable surface by offsetting an athletes centre of mass with various methods such change of direction drills at speed, single-arm/-leg exercises and lifting uneven objects, for example = much more transferable to athletic actions
FINAL POINT – traditional stable surface training HAS shown to improve athletic qualities in trained, healthy subjects including qualities such as muscular strength, power, aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance, rate of force development, hypertrophy, reactive strength and agility – what more do you want??!!
- Cressey, E.M.; West, C.A.; Tiberio, D.P.; Kraemer, W.J.; Maresh, C.M.. (2007). The effects of ten weeks of lower-body unstable surface training on markers of athletic performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 21 (2), p561-7.