Balance boards, Bosu, inflatable disks, foam rollers, and physioballs are all popular devices you see in the gym. Personal trainers, physical therapists and gym members  use these devices to work on balance and enhance muscular core activation. However, do these devices really help everyday balance and do they activate the muscles of the core more intensely?

In my opinion, any exercise you can do on an unstable surface to achieve a goal of better balance or more core activation you can perform on a stable surface like the ground and achieve a better result. Naturally, there are always exceptions. For example, if you’re a surfer and you want to work on balancing on a surfboard, you might be able to come up with a custom made device that simulates the balancing effect of a surfboard in the water. But doing a shoulder press on a balance board will not help you balance on a surfboard.  There is not that much carry over when it comes to balance. You can only improve balance doing the exact activity you will be doing. If you want to improve your balance at surfing you have to surf. If you want to improve your balance in general, you should work with one or two feet on the ground like in normal life. Working on unstable surfaces will only help you on the unstable surfaces you’re working out on. It might be fun to train on these devices but how often do you walk, run or play sports on unstable surfaces. Plus the risk of falling and getting hurt are much greater exercising on unstable surfaces. I wrote an article called “The Risks of Working Out in the Gym” which talks about the risk reward ratio of every exercise you decide to do in the gym.

When it comes to increasing the activation of your core muscles by exercising on an unstable surface there are a number of studies that conclude it’s not true. When standing or sitting on an unstable surface like a balance board or physioball, people assume that the instability will make them use their core or mid section muscles more intensely.  It really depends on what you’re doing on these unstable surfaces. There’s a study that shows performing overhead dumbbell presses seated on a physioball does not activate core muscles any more than performing the same exercise on a stable bench.  While there have been studies indicating that lying face down on a ball and doing spinal extension or abdominal curls does activate more core muscles than doing the same exercise on the ground, the conclusion is that core muscles are more activated during horizontal posture instead of vertical.  Moreover, there have been a lot of conflicting studies. Some studies have shown that exercises on an unstable surface can inhibit force production.  Squatting on an unstable surface can reduce peak force by 45%. My own experience is that training on unstable surfaces does not make too much sense. The risk of injury increases with little proven benefit.

Let me know about your experiences with training on unstable surfaces. Was it just fun or did you see some real benefit.

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Best – Mike Cola

Demystifying Exercise

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