Fun and Fitness: The balancing act in exercise

Header image for Interrobang article CREDIT: BEFITBEFULL.COM
Working out with a bosu ball can help with balance training.

You may be wondering what those people in the gym are doing when they are exercising on a core stability ball or bosu ball. Or you may actually be one of those people performing these balancing acts. These types of activities are categorized as unstable surface training. These activities are used for several different reasons including injury rehabilitation and athletic performance.

Let's face it, many sports, such as hockey, football and gymnastics, require balance. It's all about improving one's resistance to disruptions of equilibrium, or in layman's terms: stability. Factors that come into play of one's stability at any given time are body mass, size of base of support, vertical and horizontal positioning of centre of gravity and friction between surfaces (e.g. skates and ice, cleats and grass, sneakers and hard floor, high heels and Jim Bobs). Therefore anyone devising a balance program should take such factors into account.

What many people are really curious about is whether or not unstable surface training improves athletic performance. Studies and expert opinions vary on balance training, and many of them have justifications.

As we know, strength and power are largely related to neuromuscular integration. Balance and stability are largely related to neuromuscular activity, so you would think it makes sense to train in such a fashion. One thing that is for certain is that unstable surface training reduces force production. It is a nobrainer that we just can't push as much weight when we're standing on a wobbly surface. We have limited neuromuscular resources, which mean we share them between balancing our bodies and pushing the resistance.

Take beach volleyball, for example. There is no way anyone is jumping high out of sand — at least not nearly as high as they can jump off normal ground. Unstable ground doesn't allow us to fully recruit the prime movers of muscle to our maximum potential. Is it possible to train this way to improve your beach volleyball vertical? It's quite possible. Will this unstable training improve your regular ground vertical? No way.

The bottom line is you will never improve maximum strength for athletic performance using unstable surfaces. As we've learned in previous articles, the only way to maximize strength gains is to induce a sufficient stimulus on our muscles to push them to their limit, all the while improving. You simply cannot recruit a muscle to use 100 per cent of its strength capacity on an unstable surface. NO adequate overload equals NO maximized strength gains.

Does that mean we should throw out all of our stability balls? Of course not, as they do have their place. Training certain movements on unstable surfaces has been shown to fully activate the muscles involved just as much as regular surfaces. As well, it allows for training various neuromuscular patterns. These are important reasons why unstable surface training is so successful in injury rehabilitation situations. You can activate muscles without overdoing it in an injured state and you can improve proprioception, which may help prevent future injury.

Unstable surfaces still allow for strength gains, especially in beginners. They just don't provide the mechanics for peak strength development. In the end, balance training is more effective for balance training. Maybe we should start implementing it with the elderly to help them avoid catastrophic falls.