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Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Is there a need for unstable training?

Is there ever a need for unstable training?  Well first off we have to define what unstable training is.  First off it can be divided into two 'camps':

1/ There is instability under the feet (or lower body if you are using kneeling for example)
2/ There is lifting an unstable object (think sandbag or weights on a barbell attached by bands etc)

I generally divide them into 2, but you can sub-divide as much as you want.

The first question you should ask is how often will I need this training & is it specific enough to transfer to the real world?
In terms of rehab all forms of unstable training have a use, but we are not really talking about that.  I'm talking about a healthy person & real world applicability, so let's look at the real world & see what we find.

Well for one thing we do often lift & carry things that are unstable.  It can be that bag of cement, that wheelbarrow, those heavy bags of shopping, loading that bag into the plane or train overhead, or onto a wardrobe, even carrying a sofa or mattress (the other person is ALWAYS an idiot - don't worry you are not being rude, they thought you were an idiot as well :-).  So, already we have two real world applications for unstable loads.  Carrying unstable loads & static overhead lifting of an unsteady load.  It would be odd to move with an unstable object overhead, possible on the shoulder, but rarely overhead.

But what about under the feet?  We could carry a load on sand or through mud, but I can't think of too many applications where you would statically lift a load on an unstable surface unless you worked on a ship possibly?

If you look at everyday life you will see that actually the vast majority of your unstable lifting is actually lifting an unstable load from a stable base, not lifting on an unstable surface, so it would make sense to actually practice lifting unstable loads more than it would to practice lifting on an unstable surface as it would apply to the real world (unless you work on a ship).

I'm sure leaping onto a bosu with a barbell on your back might be something you've seen on youtube, but honestly as you face-plant you will really regret that choice.  Lifting a sandbag may not be as cool as some of the newer wobble boards, rocker boards, bosu & other toys. Play with them if you like, but the (fake) meat & potatoes of your training should be done on a stable surface with a stable load to get the most strength gains.  One important note is I would never do power moves either with an unstable load or on an unstable surface, power is not only severely compromised by instability, but you increase the risk of injury a lot, it simply isn't worth it in my view.

So, if you should mainly do stable work & most of your unstable work should be mainly using an unstable load, not standing on an unstable surface is there a place for training while unstable under-foot?  I can think of a couple of obvious reasons.  One of the reasons I thought of writing this post was that I was recently diagnosed with a serious big toe issue (goes back to dropping a heavy weight on my toe years ago), anyway, there was some nerve damage & range of motion issues.  This has led over the years to me lifting asymmetrically, so bi-lateral lifting (lifting with both legs - think a normal squat or deadlift) & a lot of pressure is on one leg & little on the other.  Over the years this has begun to show itself with lower back pain as the two sides develop at different rates & I have all sorts of crazy compensations that will take a long time to fix.  One way to help will be to spend a little time lifting on some form of inverted bosu deadlift or similar as for the bosu to stay flat you HAVE to push equally with both legs.  I wouldn't suggest lifting heavy or even using a barbell without something to catch the bar if you fail.  I could only find this youtube clip (below).  I wouldn't suggest going heavy as you are trying to retrain the body to lift symmetrically on a stable surface, THAT is when the really heavy weight should be used.  On a bosu you should think of the time as 'technique training' not 'strength building'.
Here's a clip, but as I said if using a barbell think of doing it inside a power rack with the pins set to catch the bar, or use dumbbells & be  prepared to drop them (away from the body) if you lose control.

If you work at sea you might also need some time to practice this as well, or if you work on an unstable surface...BUT you can only train statically & in most unstable environments you are actually moving, so the transfer wouldn't be that great I don't think.  If you think about it moving is mainly a one leg activity, you walk, which means most of the time is on one leg in motion, this is very different to how you react when static.  Obviously anyone with ankle issues may benefit as it could be with a few other conditions.  Also if you enjoy doing unstable stuff then I'd say include it (unless it's really dangerous, then be sensible).

Here are a few versions you might find useful:

 OK I was doing rehab - yes the weight is tiny

(Above pic) Shoulder press with weight on a band (the band bounces a little & so causes instability), you can use a barbell, extended length shrug bar (sometimes called trap bar or parallel grip deadlift bar etc) or anything else you can figure out.

Bench press with weight on a band

Flye with weight on a band (not very 'real world', but you might like the change of pace for fun)

Pull-ups with a weight on a band might be useful to some

Farmers walk with weights on a band

I've not fathomed out how to do a DB or BB row with a band quite yet, but it might be possible?

Sandbag press overhead

Sandbag clean  (no handles taxes the grip a lot more)

Sandbag farmers walk (if you use a sandbag with no handles this is a real grip test as well!)

Slosh pipes (you can make your own with PVC piping, some water & few other bits & bobs to seal the ends)

For instability under the feet you can try out

Stability ball


Rocker board

Wobble board

My last point is if you are unsure about it then check the research.  I would suggest this resource as it's pretty good (& something I need to re-read now I've thought about it :-).

So, what are you experiences with unstable training?  This is purely an opinion piece so I am totally open to corrections & pointing out areas I've missed, so feel free to speak up.

And if anyone has a spare bosu they no longer need my imbalances would thank you for it as I've still not got round to getting one yet!

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