As most reading this will know (and if you do not, you will when you are done reading this), I have consistently talked about my disdain for training on unstable surfaces such as Bosu and Swiss Balls. For the longest time I have seen certain trainers, athletes and coaches emphasize this type of training and constantly bashed my head against the wall in aggravation over the (to be frank) stupidity that comes with it. While I have made hundreds of posts on social media over the course of the last few years, I have never written an article supporting my claim (and the claims of many other intelligent coaches) that unstable surface training is unnecessary, misguided and detrimental to the development of athletes. If we take a step back and look at facts, science and sports themselves we will see that unstable surface training is no more than a gimmick aimed at creating an illusion of grandeur for various trainers and “gurus,” alike. To be succinct, I will address the misconceptions regarding “balance,” training, what actually occurs in sport on the field/court of play, problems that arise from unstable surface training, the principles of dynamic correspondence (in layman’s terms: transferability) and what this means for training to once and for all “put a fork,” in this nonsensical variation of sports performance.
Common Misconception (“Balance.”)
To start, we must look at the misconceptions revolving around the idea of balance and that application in this type of training, the over emphasis on isolating it and the general idea that often times we can put the cart before the horse when it comes to young athletes. Essentially, the biggest factors and attributes we must focus on when it comes to younger athletes actually steer us far away from this type of training. Younger athletes need to best develop and focus on (no particular order):
For one, we can best capture all of these things with simple sprint, plyometric and strength training as well as environments that promote reactionary ability to various stimuli (other athletes, a moving ball etc.). Secondly, as soon as we change the surface (which unfortunately seems to be the first move of some trainers) we disturb the development of all of the aforementioned qualities and begin to acclimate them to a surface they will never actually encounter. The need for stabilization in novice AND advanced athletes comes from the output of force on a NON-MOVING surface while your BODY moves and is potentially acted upon by other forces such as players or varying demands that impact decision making coupled with the force relationship with the ground. Additionally, there seems to be this misconception that elite athletes become elite in their sport because of this type of training. This is simply a warped interpretation of elite athletes and the fact that they have the genetics and thousands of hours of field play to make these circus act drills seem easy. To sum it up, THEY ARE ALREADY ELITE AND MAKE THE DRILL LOOK EASY. THE DRILL DID NOT MAKE THEM ELITE.
What Actually Occurs in Sport
To put it simply (as I already have), sport is defined by the notion that we put force into the ground and the ground then reacts accordingly. Essentially, as Newton’s Third Law of Motion tells us, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Meaning, we displace force to the surface and then our tendons, ligaments and nervous system work together to determine our ability to respond to what the ground transmits back to us in order to achieve effective ground contact. This is what impacts things like stiffness (how adroit are we at maintaining position of our limbs when they are interacting with ground forces) and elasticity (how efficiently we can produce and display forces in the context of speed movements such as jumps and sprints). The shiftiest athletes possess a ton of genetic ability to have elite central nervous systems and can effectively move due to their ability to efficiently transmit force both concentrically (output) and eccentrically (dealing with the response of the ground). Even the less genetically gifted can improve these qualities with repetition over time with activities such as sprints and jumps. HOWEVER, as soon as the surface changes and begins moving, we are disrupting the entire process I detailed above. Lastly, unilateral activities and focused unilateral landings are plenty to help us become better at stabilizing and activities that promote using the core to stabilize the spine while the extremities move can help us deal with outside perturbations from other players (think of the contact you may receive from other players on the field in football or the court in basketball). Note, nowhere in these scenarios do we have to stabilize because the ground is moving and changing shape or position.
Problems Arising from Unstable Surface Training
I am going to keep this simple and it will probably be the shortest portion of this article because it should be pretty simple given the information I have already provided. Not only does unstable surface training not promote any of the qualities I have alluded to, but it can actually be detrimental to our performance and potentially cause soft tissue injuries to the lower body. Why? Well if we spend a bulk of what we do with our lower body training on a moving surface, the way in which we produce and come across force will greatly vary from what occurs when we are finally on the field of play. Thus, we can potentially expose ourselves as we are unprepared and conditioned to handle the impacts that occur on the non-moving surface on the field of play.
The Principle of Dynamic Correspondence (Yuri Verkhoshanksy)
I am slowly going to begin to transition to what you should be looking to do and provide further evidence that altering the surface in which we train on actually broadens the gap between strength training and general physical preparation and the sport itself.
I have addressed this Principle of Dynamic Correspondence (Transferability) before when discussing the misconception regarding “sport specificity,” and it applies to this topic as well. One of the claims made about unstable surface training is that it is “sport specific,” and if we look at this principle from Yuri we can quickly dispel that. Transferability succinctly states that we can bridge the gap of general physical preparation training to sport via (I am going to list and bolden the actual principles and then provide some easier examples on the list to help make it easy to follow):
We can begin to quickly shoot down unstable surface training one-by-one and how it diminishes many things on that list. Remember, if it diminishes what is on the list it is so far off the spectrum when it comes to sport specificity that it might as well be in another galaxy or become another sport itself. For one, it disrupts the region of force production because it alters the fashion in which we display force and also the magnitude (overall exertion) and rate in which we can do it. Put simply, think of the times where we see an athlete struggle to deal with the lack of stability and how they cannot exert nearly as much, or as rapid force as they normally would. Secondly, the instability of the moving surface does not allow the athlete to move with the same dynamics of effort. When put together this can greatly alter the rate and time of force production, and as we know, the rate in which we display force is extremely important for things like sprinting when it comes to getting faster on conventional surfaces. Lastly, I can confidently say that if we play on a certain surface it would be pretty damn specific to practice and train on one that is similar.
What Does This Mean for Training?
I do not want to completely disparage something without providing any alternatives. It is fairly simple, but I generally adhere to the idea that we should keep training for novice athletes fairly general (think of the principles I listed earlier, and just incase you forgot I will list them again here):
Then, we can begin to introduce/match-up more of the transferability principles to match more of what we do to sport. Fill all your buckets early on before worrying about zeroing in on something. With that said, emphasize producing force on stable surfaces and the rate in which we can do that (sprinting and jumping) and do not forget or underestimate the stabilization and balance challenges that can simply arise from performing activities on one leg. Above all else, always remember to watch sports, study them and understand what is involved, and remind yourself that if the surface doesn’t move in the sport, it probably shouldn’t move when you train either!
Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.