Unstable Surface Training: Should You BOSU? The Answer May Surprise You

I was recently asked why I don’t use the Bosu anymore in my IPF sessions, to which I answered “because I said so.” Surprisingly enough, that didn’t end the conversation because that wasn’t good enough for the high brow lot that INTEGRATE each week. 


One of the bigger reasons we don’t use unstable training with any frequency is because the ground doesn’t move underneath us (although if you’ve lived in California long enough, you’d say otherwise!) so from a functional perspective, you don’t need to train like it does. Especially since you don’t recruit the same amount of muscle while standing on an unstable surface.


“Common sense would indicate that advanced athletes need stability in order to achieve
maximal muscle activation because the resistance used for unstable exercises is drastically reduced, the prime movers, synergists, and stabilizers get a subpar workout and experience diminished muscle activation,” says Bret Contreras in his book “Advanced Techniques in Glutei Maximi Strengthening.”  


I agree with Contreras that to max out strength potential and hit the “prime movers, synergists, and stabilizers” you need be standing on something solid.  Life takes place on flat ground that doesn’t move and I’m a firm believer of if you do it when you’re awake, you should do it when you exercise and let life imitate art so to speak.


As the above mentioned conversation went on, the inquisitor (who surprisingly enough wasn’t PIA!! or Alan Bell) also wanted to know if unstable surfaces require more core strength. On the surface it seems like they do while in actuality they really don’t.


A 2009 Utah St University study found that “increasing the levels of resistance has a more widespread effect on increasing core muscle activity than increasing the level of instability (Effect of Surface Stability on Core Muscle Activity During Dynamic Resistance Exercises, J. Thompson, Utah State University) .”  


In fact, you can develop cause faulty motor recruitment patterns using an unstable surface if you aren’t moving correctly on the firm ground. I learned this first hand in August 2005 rehabbing a knee.


My first tour of duty in PT found me doing single leg balancing work once the therapist found out what I did for a living. While this was therapeutic for my ego after being off my feet for three weeks post op, it wasn’t for my knee or hips.


Only after having transferring clinics did I find out that while I was able to do the exercises I was actually creating faulty motor patterns and getting further away from recovering. You can imagine how happy this made me after wasting two weeks thinking I was getting better. The exercise that fixed the issue? Bridges on a stable surface.


In Contreras’s book, he found through an EMG  study of over 100 exercises that an unloaded bridge recruited more glute maximus muscle than a 1-rep max back squat, deadlift, lunge or step up. He found these to be “axial” exercises that were better at activating spinal erectors and quads rather than optimally recruit the glutes (which kick in at their maximum at the end range of the motion).



Let’s take the case of a bent knee bridge. If your feet are on a stability ball, you will take a well intentioned glute exercise and turn it into hamstring work because they have to activate to keep the ball from rolling away from you in turn glute recruitment.


While this is great for maxing out hamstring recruitment, it isn’t for the glutes. We do a ton of the triple threat stability ball work at the studio to build “hamstrings of steel” as Juan Carlos Santana MEd, CSCS calls them, but it is always to hammer the hams, not to recruit the glutes.


If you want to hammer your glutes to the point where blinking hurts the next day, put your feet on a box that doesn’t move. This will allow you to target them a lot more and build strength faster. I’m doing this now to rehab my back, and I tell you what. This unweighted exercise with an extremely simple movement has destroyed my glutes and made life not so fun. Give it a shot and you’ll see why.

Well, aren’t BOSU, etc great for building better balance?

“Trying to increase balance by using a ball (an unstable surface) will only help develop the skill of  balancing on the ball. Overall balance does not increase nor does it carry over into other activities (Are Bosu Ball Exercises Wasting Your Time And Preventing You From Your Goals?).”


Aren’t you working harder to stay still on a wobbly surface?  Doesn’t that have more functional carry over? 


I used to think that an unstable surface made for stronger movements on things that don’t move. Well, I will be the first person to tell you about a year and a half ago, I learned that I was wrong.  


In a 2007 study with a division I men’s soccer team, Eric Cressey showed why. His findings revealed:

That replacing 2 to 3 percent of overall training volume with UST (unstable surface training) didn’t improve performance. But I also discovered something even more important: UST minimized improvements in jumping, sprinting, and agility tests. Put another way, the subjects who weren’t doing UST made bigger gains in power, speed, and agility,” (Mythbusters Volume 1, Nate Green, T-Nation.com).


Cressey has since written a book (The Truth About Unstable Surface Training) where he expounds on the topic in greater detail. It should find  its way to my bookshelf soon.


I will be the first person to tell you I’ve got a scorching case of EADD (Exercise Attention Deficit Disorder), and I love variety when I train. It is the spice of life, and the weight room is no different.


If you can’t live without your BOSU, you can probably toss to keep things spicy and not have it derail your workouts. I do this to reward my IPF clients for busting their butts with iron and body weight, and they are still moving in the right direction. But, if you want to utilize the most muscle possible for optimal strength gains, your best bet is train on something that doesn’t move.


If your name is Laird Hamilton, and you are a professional surfer, you are the exception to this rule. Random tangent. You need to rent “Riding Giants.” It is an incredible film on the history of long board surfing. At any rate, a professional surfer’s office is in an unstable environment, so they get a hall pass in the pipeline on this topic. Click here to see Laird in action, pretty impressive.


Once again thank you very much for reading, and getting down this far. It is always greatly appreciated.


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Never attempt any new exercises mentioned in the Fitness411 blog without a thorough evaluation from a physician, personal trainer, strength coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist or sports chiropractor.