Ever noticed those people in the gym that are doing some wild combination of instability and strength work—like standing on a BOSU ball or one of those blow-up cushions while performing overhead dumbbell presses as they fight to lift the weight and simultaneously stay balanced? It looks super impressive and challenging, but it’s probably not the best tactic for most people.
“I see this stuff and I think, Wow, that’s an incredible waste of time,” Ryan Campbell, a kinesiologist and training specialist at Anytime Fitness of Southern Wisconsin, tells SELF.
While combining strength training and stability work might seem like a foolproof way to get an efficient workout, the truth is that it actually might end up being less beneficial than if you were to do both strength and balance work on their own.
So before you climb atop a wobble board with some free weights, here’s what you need to know about instability training and the best ways to work it into your routine.
Why instability training is so in right now
First thing’s first: Let’s talk about why instability training is a thing at all. Simply put, it’s because whenever you add a degree of instability to an exercise, you increase how hard your aptly named stabilizer muscles have to work to keep you in position. Your stabilizer muscles refer to those that aren’t the main ones working in a given exercise, but that still contribute to the exercise by keeping the working joints in proper alignment. They pretty much always include core muscles.
Think of it that way, and it’s obvious why people would want to graduate lunges on the gym floor to lunges on a wobble board to theoretically increase the exercise’s benefits and functionality. If you can strengthen your legs and your core (even more than with just a regular lunge) in one move, why wouldn’t you?
How to add instability training the right way
Instability work is a great thing to incorporate into your training routine. It primarily helps you develop better balance, coordination, and joint stability by both targeting the stabilizer muscles (in your core and the joints involved in the movement) and essentially training your body and brain to better work in sync. This is important for both helping you move throughout everyday life and improving your ability to lift heavier and do more advanced workouts.
And this is where instability devices can shine—if you use them in the right way. But anytime you are stepping onto a very unstable surface like a wobble board or BOSU ball, it’s best to stick to bodyweight exercises and focus on developing your balance and those stabilizer muscles—not also trying to build strength.
Rehab work and warm-ups are two things instability devices are particularly useful for, Ted Andrews, C.S.C.S., head of program design at Achieve Fitness, tells SELF. That’s because instability devices also help train the body’s proprioception—or ability to tell where it is in space and how it is moving. “For someone looking to gain control and awareness of the foot, simply standing on an instability device can give them information about how their foot interacts with the floor,” he says.
In this way, performing bodyweight exercises such as squats or lunges with an instability device can help prime your mind-muscle connection and warm up your smaller stabilizer muscles to perform in the workout ahead, he says. Using just your bodyweight is ideal because heavily loading instability exercises can make it harder to maintain form and increase your risk of injury.
Ashley Fluger, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist with the Hospital for Special Surgery in NYC, explains that it’s this ability to improve proprioception that also makes unstable surfaces useful tools for rehabilitation of lower-body injuries. If you’ve ever gone to physical therapy after a leg or foot injury, you may have been asked to simply balance on a foam pad, or stand on said pad while tapping one foot out to the side at a time, or doing other various movements. One International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy review shows instability training is a good tactic to use for lower-back as well as shoulder and leg injuries, and some smaller studies even suggest specific benefits like returning quicker to a sport after an ACL tear.
When instability works against you
The problem with instability is that you can’t properly load—and thus really strengthen or grow—your major muscles if you’re also struggling to stay upright, Fluger says. She explains that even though instability devices increase stabilizer muscle recruitment, that happens alongside a huge reduction in strength and muscle gains of the target muscles—for example, in lunges, the glutes and quads.
In fact, according to research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, instability usually decreases the amount of force a muscle can produce. That means that when you’re on an instability device, you’ll end up lifting far less weight than you could if you were on solid ground, hindering your strength and muscle growth.
“When performing any exercise, you have to ask yourself, ‘What is the goal of this exercise?’ and when adding instability, ‘Did I just take away from the exercise’s intended goal?’” Campbell says.
As Andrews says, if your intended goal is max strength or muscle gain, you have to train for that goal. Focusing on lifting weights that challenge your strength, and increasing the weight you lift progressively, is imperative for both. Adding a large amount of instability to the mix is only going to slow you down.
How to combine strength and balance without sacrificing results
Some level of instability in strength training can definitely be beneficial and work your muscles in slightly different ways. But you shouldn’t be lifting weights while balancing atop a dramatically wobbly device. Rather, you should be performing functional strength moves—like squats, deadlifts, lunges, rows, presses, and carries—and tweaking them ever so slightly to incrementally add more instability (more on exactly how to do so in a minute).
Such ground-based free-weight exercises introduce instability in real-to-life ways, requiring you to coordinate and control your body in all three dimensions, or planes of movement, according to a research review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Researchers note that these exercises still allow for relatively high force productions and strength benefits—while training the core more effectively than instability devices do.
When focusing on these compound lifts, making small changes to your set-up, foot stance, and the equipment you use can impact your stability, muscle activation, and ability to move weight, Fluger says. This makes it possible to slightly increase instability as you’re ready, and in functional ways, versus the more drastic change that comes from a device.
For example, try a standing dumbbell shoulder press and then a seated dumbbell shoulder press. We’re willing to bet that you feel stronger when seated on a nice stable bench; you don’t have to stabilize your hips and legs, you can keep your back pressed into the back of the bench throughout the move, and the weights are situated so much closer to your base of support than they are when you’re standing. Now, do some shoulder presses on a strength machine. You probably are able to move far more weight than during seated shoulder presses. That’s because the machine did all of the stabilization work for you. More stability means you can really hammer your deltoids.
Lastly, switch back to that standing shoulder press, but this time alternate sides instead of pressing both arms up in unison. It probably feels much harder. That’s because by working one side at a time, you’re changing your base of support, introducing more instability, and increasing how hard your body has to work to keep from tipping over, Fluger says.
When playing with these subtle differences in stability, Campbell explains that, again, the key is first determining the goal of your exercise program’s current phase.
For example, when you’re first learning a movement pattern, like a row, you might perform it seated at a cable machine. After mastering that, you could progress to a bent-over dumbbell row, having to brace your core and lower body to stay in a stationary bent-over position. Next, you might perform them offloaded, doing all of your reps with one dumbbell and then switching to the other side to increase oblique recruitment. Or, to really zone in on and try to develop your back muscles, you could perform them on an incline bench that stabilizes your core for you and therefore allows you to lift more weight with each rep.
In the end, taking advantage of such variations—and fitting them to where you are in your training program and your exact goals—is what’s going to get you where you want to be.
Again, it doesn’t mean you can’t throw in a few exercises that solely challenge your balance, too. Targeted balance and stability work is really beneficial and can have a place in your routine. But, like we discussed, it’s best to keep that work separate from any heavy lifting, sticking to bodyweight moves only when using instability devices and keeping the main goal in mind: building balance and stability, not strength.
In fact, the greatest balance benefits happen when you perform targeted instability exercises alongside exercises intended to increase muscle strength, Andrews says. By incorporating both forms of training into the same routine, but focusing on them separately, you’ll benefit more than if you just do one or the other or try to do everything at once.