Good balance isn’t just for surfers and skiers. No matter what you like to do — run, hike, bike, swim, lift weights, play sports or just chase after your kids — you need good balance to prevent injury and build strength. Ask your average fitness professional how to train for balance, and he or she will probably recommend you hop aboard a wobble board, BOSU balance trainer or the like — all unstable-surface training (UST) devices.
But recent groundbreaking research suggests that the practical applications for UST are more limited than wobble-boarders would have us believe. “That stuff is great if you’re rehabbing a sprained ankle,” says Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS, founder of Cressey Performance training center in Boston. “But if you’re looking to improve your power and performance, you may want to skip the unstable-surface training.”
That’s what he concluded after conducting a study comparing the performance of athletes who trained on stable and unstable surfaces. Writing in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2007, Cressey noted, “While there appear to be considerable injury rehabilitation and prevention benefits to UST for people dealing with existing neuromuscular shortcomings, there’s little data available to support the assertion that UST can favorably impact a healthy, trained athlete’s performance.”
In fact, Cressey says, doing UST can actually de-power healthy athletes because it’s not functional. (In its truest sense, functional training prepares individuals for the demands of work, daily life and competitive athletics.)
“Grass and turf fields do not move,” Cressey says. “Nor do tracks or basketball and tennis courts.” So, unless you’re preparing to surf, skateboard or snowboard, wobble exercises may detract from your goal: performing well on solid ground. (There are exceptions to the rule: See “When Is Unstable-Surface Training a Good Idea?” below.)
Stability vs. Instability
For the study, Cressey put a group of athletes on a standard stable-surface training program and another group on an unstable-surface program. “Our research showed that replacing as little as 2 to 3 percent of overall training with unstable-surface training in healthy, trained athletes impaired the development of sprinting speed and vertical jump height,” he says.
Why the drop in power output? It could be because UST causes you to pronate more quickly and for longer periods of time than does stable ground, putting you constantly in “deceleration mode.” Over time, this could limit how well you can store and release elastic energy in lower-body muscles during running and jumping. Or, UST might simply train you to react tentatively, even when an explosive movement is required.
While the specific reasons UST interferes with power improvements warrant further investigation, Cressey suggests that it all comes down to specificity: “Our training needs to reflect the demands of our sports. We can’t train slowly on an unstable surface and expect to be fast and powerful on a stable surface.”
To wit, the group in the study that trained on stable surfaces showed significant gains in power tests such as the vertical jump and sprinting speed. It’s no leap of logic, then, to presume it’s beneficial to use that kind of surface during training if we want to jump higher and run faster.
Improving Your Balance on Solid Ground
So what can you do to improve your balance? Simply put, you need to challenge your stability while your lower body remains in contact with solid ground. This includes training techniques ranging from single-leg work and asymmetrical loading to applying destabilizing forces while attempting to remain stable.
Train on One Leg. You can incorporate unilateral (single-leg) training into what, for most of us, is a bilateral training world. In other words, keep one foot planted firmly on the ground. Besides strengthening the small stabilizing muscles around your spine, unilateral training helps you build strength equally in both legs (it doesn’t allow for unhealthy compensation patterns the way bilateral training does), strengthening any weak points in the chain. You’ll also reinforce knee-stabilizing muscles, thus preventing knee injury.
Alter Gravity. You can also improve your balance by moving your center of gravity upward or forward. The higher your center of gravity, the less stable you are, which forces those core and intrinsic spinal muscles to work harder to compensate. “An object with a lower center of gravity is more stable because more work is required to topple it,” says Peter M. McGinnis, PhD, author of Biomechanics of Sports and Exercise (Human Kinetics, 2005). To challenge yourself, raise your center of gravity by performing moves with one or both arms above your head or in front of you, he suggests. “You challenge yourself more by standing with both feet planted, bringing a barbell to chest level and then raising it overhead,” adds Cressey. “The higher you go, the tougher it is to stabilize.”
Close Your Eyes. Closing your eyes during certain exercises can improve your proprioception, which in turn can help prevent injury by increasing your agility and reaction times. By shutting off your sense of sight, you force your neuromuscular system to do all the reacting. Closing your eyes works best when you’re performing the most basic of exercises. Cressey suggests you start by closing one eye while you stand still with both feet on the ground, then progress to standing with both eyes closed, standing on one foot with one eye closed, and finally standing on one foot with both eyes closed.
If you’re coming back from an ankle sprain, don’t toss your wobble board out just yet (it’s also useful for upper-body exercises!). But if you want to improve your functional training for steady-ground endeavors, Cressey says, stable-surface training is the way to go. Plus, it’s easy and doesn’t require any special equipment to get started. Add the following three exercises to your fitness routine and you’ll start seeing balance gains in no time.
Exercise 1: Single-Leg Stance
What It Does: Single-leg moves are a great entry-level way to challenge your stability. You’re forced to recruit often-neglected muscles to keep yourself upright, and you’re also strengthening the major muscle groups in your lower body.
How To: Start simply by standing on one leg for several seconds. Hold on to the back of a chair with both hands for added stability and slowly lift your leg off the ground, bending at the knee. Once you can maintain your balance for at least 15 seconds, return to your starting position and repeat, lifting the other leg.
As your balance improves, hold on to the chair with only one hand, then no hands, then finally with your hands above your head. The tree pose in yoga is a good exercise — first against a wall, then standing free with hands at the “heart center,” and then with hands apart and overhead, which raises your center of gravity even more.
Exercise 2: Step-Ups
What It Does: If you only perform bilateral exercises (exercises that use both legs at the same time), at some point you’ll develop an imbalance in your legs, says Eric Cressey, MS, CSCS, founder of Cressey Performance training center in Boston. Doing simple unilateral work like step-ups ensures that each leg is equally developed in strength and size, which increases your power and helps prevent injury.
How To: Start with a 5-pound dumbbell in each hand and one foot up on an 18- to 24-inch-tall box (or use a weightlifting bench). Slightly lift the toes of both feet to prevent you from using just your quadriceps. Place the brunt of your weight on the “up” heel, then squeeze the glutes and step up so your opposite foot rests on the box, too. Lower yourself under control until you’re back to the start position and repeat with the other leg. Do 10 reps per leg, and bump up the weight if you don’t feel challenged.
Exercise 3: One-Hand Overhead Squat
What It Does: This move raises your center of gravity and gives you an uneven load — these are two means of challenging your stability. As a result, you’ll activate important spinal stabilizers and improve your balance. Use a dumbbell to make yourself more top-heavy and further raise your center of gravity.
How To: Hold the weight in your right hand and extend your right arm straight above your head. Keep a natural arch in your back and tighten your abs as you descend into a squat position, knees and hips bent deeply, thighs just past parallel to the floor. Your knees should be pointing in the same direction as your toes. Return to standing and repeat 10 times, then switch arms.
When Is Unstable-Surface Training a Good Idea?
Before you bounce your BOSU, consider this: There are times when unstable-surface training (UST) is not only helpful, but necessary.
“Lower-body UST has a ton of merit in those returning from ankle sprains,” says Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS, coauthor of Maximum Strength (De Capo, 2008). “UST has proven effective time and again when addressing the chronic functional ankle instability found with sprains.” This is because UST helps to retrain the peroneals — the muscles on the outsides of your lower legs — to react quickly and prevent future sprains.
UST is great for training your upper body, too. While in sport and life, the lower body is in contact with a stable surface most of the time; the torso and arms are constantly engaged in motion without being anchored to the floor. So it’s appropriate to work the upper body and torso by making them unstable, as long as your feet are solidly planted on the ground. “If it’s at or above the hips, you’re in good shape,” Cressey explains. So, go ahead and do pushups on a BOSU or dumbbell presses using a stability ball as your “bench.”