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....and balance for all

Balance training has become increasingly popular over the last 10 years as the "functional training" craze has hit the market. Step into any commercial gym around the country and you may find trainers putting their clients on stability balls, bosu balls, wobble boards, half foam rollers, dyna-disks, air-x pads and other oddly shaped unstable objects.

I have to admit. I have never been a fan of this type of training. While I do understand the importance of balance and coordination in athletic skill, I never understood how being able to squat on a wobble board was going to actually translate over into a better time on the field or track.

The issue I have always had with this training philosophy is that the research has only been conducted on those coming back from injury. I understand the importance of doing some unstable surface training for those coming back from an ankle, knee or hip injury. Re-gaining proprioception is the main goal here, and performing these tasks can be beneficial in achieving it. However, it is when trainers take this information, conducted on people who are not 100% healthy and try to apply it to their athletes who ARE 100% healthy. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way. One cannot simply take research performed on sick people and apply it to healthy people.

A recent study conducted at University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory looked at the effects of unstable surface training versus stable surface training on healthy male collegiate soccer players ages 18-23.

Cressey EM, West CA, Tiberio DP, Kraemer WJ, Maresh CM, The Effects of Ten Weeks of Lower-Body Unstable Surface Training on Markers of Athletic Performance, J Strength Cond Res, 2007:21(2);561-567.

The study took nineteen NCAA Division I male soccer athletes (ages 18-23) with a high level of training experience and randomly assigned them to either an experimental group (unstable surface training) or control group (stable surface training). All subjects had resistance trained a minimum of 6 months with no involvement in either unstable surface training or ankle sprain.

Subjects were pre-tested in a bounce drop jump, a counter movement jump, forty and ten yard sprint tests and a t-test.

The subjects then completed 10 week of their normal spring strength and conditioning program. The only difference was that the experimental group (unstable surface training group) performed one exercise in each workout on an unstable surface. For example, both groups would perform a deadlift as their first exercise. The next exercise in their program would be a forward lunge. The control group (stable surface) would perform a normal forward lunge (lunge out forward and then back into place) while the experimental group (unstable surface group) would perform the forward lunge out to a dyna-disk (an inflatable rubber disk).

After the 10-week program, the athletes were then re-tested in the 5 performance tests used at the beginning of the study. The stable surface training group saw significant changes in the bounce drop jump, counter movement jump and the forty-yard and ten-yard sprints. As well, both groups saw significant improvements in the t-test, with the stable surface training group still coming out on top.

The researchers concluded that, “These results indicate that unstable surface training using inflatable rubber disks attenuates performance improvements in healthy, trained athletes. Such implements have proved valuable in rehabilitation, but caution should be exercised when applying unstable surface training to athletic performance and general exercise scenarios.”

So, what does this all mean to us?

I think that balance training does serve purpose as part of a training program (I typically have it in my programs during the portion where we are training core stabilization). I do agree with the research presented here in that using unstable surfaces may not be the best use of time when working with an athlete who is healthy.

Part of the problem is in the fact that athletic movements rely on the stretch shortening cycle and being able to return force quickly (display high amounts of power). When an athlete is performing a task on an unstable surface, the amortization phase of the stretch shortening cycle is delayed, as the athletes try to stabilize themselves, ultimately decreasing force output.

Another problem I have with unstable surface training and the healthy athlete is that sports don’t take place on unstable surfaces. The ground does not move below you. Athletes need to develop strength and force potential so that they can apply that force to an immoveable object (the ground, court or track). Again, training on an unstable surface prevents athletes from applying maximal amount of force against the ground during training.

In closing, I think that some balance training (single leg exercises, single leg balance exercises on the floor, single leg hop and stick the landing, etc) can be helpful when added to an overall program. If the athlete is coming back from an injury, unstable surface training may be beneficial to help that athlete re-develop proprioception and overall body awareness which may have been lost due to the injury itself.

Other than that, the most important thing is to use your time in the gym wisely and develop the underlying qualities that will make you a great athlete (strength and power). Then, go out on the field and practice your specific sports skill so that the qualities you have developed in the weight room transfer over to what you are trying to do.

Stay balanced,