Unstable Surface Training: Functional training revolution, or simply the current training fad?
(Photo courtesy of TRXFitness.co.uk)
Unstable surface training (UST) is currently all the rage in the fitness world. Go to any fitness seminar or boot camp and you’ll immediately notice tools like Blast straps or TRX systems being employed.
The question becomes, how efficacious is this sort of training?
Is it helping people achieve their goals?
Is it something YOU should be utilizing?
Or is it just the next big fad within the fitness industry?
Before we get into the nuts and bolts, let’s briefly examine what we currently know about unstable surface training.
Upper Body versus Lower Body UST
The first topic we need to examine is the difference between upper body and lower body UST.
In his ebook, “Unstable Surface Training: From Research to Real World Applications” Eric Cressey gave numerous examples as to why UST may not be suitable for performance training in the lower extremity.
Rather than rehashing all the literature here, I figured I’d give you one brief quote from Cressey’s  abstract (and yes, I did read the whole paper, thank you very much!):
“These results indicate that UST using inflatable rubber discs attenuates performance improvements in healthy, trained athletes. Such implements have proved valuable in rehabilitation, but caution should be exercised when applying UST to athletic performance and general exercise scenarios.”
Rehabbing a sprained ankle is one thing – but squatting or lunging on an UST like a Dyna disc or Airex pad may not be in our best interest if the end-goal is improving strength and/or power production.
Core training and upper extremity training, however, are great options for UST exercises performed with a TRX, blast straps, or even just medicine balls.
But again, it all comes down to preparedness. Let’s examine the concept of stability as it relates to UST.
The Stability Continuum
Stability is the name of the game when it comes to UST. Here’s a little graphic to help you better understand how the stabilization continuum works:
More Prime Mover Activation
Less Stabilizer Activation
Less Prime Mover Activation
More Stabilizer Activation
Instead of working on theory, let’s use some practical examples to help outline how this comes together in training.
On the left hand side of the continuum, think about activities that maximize stability. A great example here would be the leg press, or any machine-based exercise. In the case of the leg press you are very stable as your entire torso is supported, and stabilization requirements from the hips and thighs are minimal as well since you’re locked into a specific movement pattern.
Photo courtesy of MuscleTech.com
With that increase in stability, you increase prime mover activation. This is why you can move ridiculous weights on the leg press, at least compared to what you can squat.
If we move to the right, we could envision a bilateral squat. You obviously need more stability to perform a squat than you would a leg press. As such, you decrease prime mover activation to an extent, while increasing stabilizer activation.
The Incomparable Dave Draper
If we wanted to move even further to the right, we could imagine a single-leg squat, where we have reduced the base of support (BOS) to almost nothing. Single-leg squats are the king of single-leg exercises, as your body is forced to not only stabilize itself, but also to produce force throughout a large range of motion as well.
Mike Boyle Single-Leg Squatting
Of course, we could continue going and going, if we so chose – single-leg squats on a Dyna disc, Airex pad, etc. But hopefully this brings a very important point to light:
More stability means more prime mover activation and less stabilizer activation.
Less stability means more stabilizer activation and less prime mover activation.
The question then becomes, what helps you achieve your goals?
For a bodybuilder whose only goal is to build huge legs, the leg press may be a viable option. Now I’m not saying it’s something I recommend to my trainees and clients (I don’t work with a ton of bodybuilders, personally) but I can understand their implementation with regards to their specific goals.
In contrast, an athlete who needs a lot of dynamic stability in their upper body or core could definitely benefit from some specific UST. The key is to determine if this is a safe and effective option for the client at hand.
Elite gymnasts like Nastia Liukin require high-levels of stability from their core and shoulders to move effectively
Let’s look at some specific cases where UST may be contraindicated, and then how to begin implementing UST into your own training.
When is Unstable Surface Training NOT appropriate?
Unfortunately, not everyone is immediately prepared to train for UST from the get go.
Just because you WANT to do something doesn’t mean you’re physically prepared to do it.
One of the most basic exercises you can perform in an unstable training environment is the push-up. However, we know that a ton of our clients and athletes do push-ups like this:
Their core is weak and/or unstable, and their low back sags excessively throughout the course of the lift.
The issue with many clients performing UST is that their core stability is often one of, if not the weakest, link in their body! And then they decide to perform UST which places an even greater emphasis on stability, which further magnifies this weak link.
If you took this guy and had him perform push-ups in an unstable environment, I can tell you for a fact his stabilization patterns are going to be even worse.
Instead, we need to make sure people can stabilize effectively in a stable environment first and foremost, before moving them into UST.
I know, I know – I’m a pariah for suggesting that you can’t do all the cool stuff right off the rip. But again, I’m not just focused on being the cool kid in school; I want to give you information that’s going to make you move and feel better for a lifetime.
For upper extremity training, until someone can perform a flawless push-up on the floor, or a flawless inverted row, they shouldn’t be doing it on an unstable surface. And flawless in this case means three things:
- Core/stomach tight.
- Glutes/butt tight.
- Chest up and out.
I’m definitely not perfect, but here’s an idea of how a solid push-up should look.
In essence, we’re trying to get them into a neutral pelvic alignment and keep their hips up/extended throughout. Like I’ve said numerous times before, it’s not as simple as upper body or lower body training – this is total body training!
Core training is no different – some of my favorite core training exercises are performed using a TRX or blast strap set-up, but we need to make sure we’re prepared.
Mike Boyle has talked extensively about his anterior core progression. We start with exercises like rollouts on a ball or Ab Dolly, and then move to an ab wheel, and then we can try out advanced unstable variations such as blast strap flutters, Miyagis, or fallouts, all of which you can find on the Robertson Training Systems You Tube page.
So maybe you’re not 100% prepared for UST today – how can we get you to that point safely and effectively?
I’m glad you asked… 🙂
Progressing into the world of Unstable Surface Training
The starting point for UST is solid movement on a stable surface.
Remember: If you can’t do it in a stable environment, you have no business moving to an unstable environment!
The next step is to start incorporating lower-intensity UST into your workout. Again, start with basic exercises that you’re familiar with – push-ups, inverted rows, or maybe even some core progressions.
The key is to not let your old/inefficient stabilization patterns get in the way. Luckily, adjustments are quick and easy with both the TRX suspension trainer and blast-straps. Simply move the handles up to a point where you can stabilize effectively, and you’re good to go!
Watch the two videos below and you’ll see how moving the handles up/down can make a big difference in how hard you’re forced to work!
As you can see, the lower the TRX or blast straps go, the more of your own bodyweight you’ll have to push-up and stabilize. Please don’t let your ego get in the way. You have to do it right to derive maximal benefits!
Taking UST to the Next Level – A Practical Approach
Whenever I discuss UST, I’m immediately reminded of former IFAST client JC who we prepped for FBI school. This guy was built like a brick house – huge hips and thighs, a wide back and shoulders, etc.
Basically, this guy was jacked.
The problem was his core was horribly unstable. It was like we were looking at two distinct bodies – the upper and lower body was jacked, but the core that didn’t seem to tie the two together.
With JC, we started with basic stability exercises like front planks, side planks and birddogs. For a big, strong guy like this, this definitely isn’t sexy or fun, but it’s what we needed to do to develop a solid foundation.
The next step was to get him some dynamic stability, or stability while moving. His hip flexors were really stiff, so it was hard to get him into pelvic neutral/hip extension. Again, this is where we really worked to master the basics – split-squats, push-ups, inverted rows, etc., all performed in a stable environment where he could re-create a more effective stabilization pattern.
After a few months, his progress was noticeable – he was moving and feeling much better. We then moved into some UST to really tie things together. JC started off with basics such as push-ups and inverted rows, and eventually moved to advanced versions of each with only one leg on the ground.
This progression took several months, but it was amazing watching his movement quality improve over that time. All of a sudden, it was like his entire body was moving as a seamless, functional unit – not just a collection of body parts.
At the end of the day, proper lumbo-pelvic stabilization is key. If you aren’t stable through your core, pelvis and low back in a stable environment, you’re never going to get there by doing advanced exercises that are beyond your capabilities.
It isn’t fun early on, but the results are worth it over the long haul if you’re willing to put in the time and energy.
UST is a fantastic training medium, as it’s not only fun but gives you a ton of fantastic benefits as well. The key is to make sure that you’re prepared to do the movements in a safe and effective manner, while not jumping into things too quickly.
Use the progressions and coaching tips I outline above, and you’ll be killing some UST in your training in no time!
All the best
PS – If you’re interested in purchasing a TRX system or set of blast straps, simply follow one of the links below:
1. Cressey, E.M., et al., The effects of ten weeks of lower-body unstable surface training on markers of athletic performance. J Strength Cond Res, 2007. 21(2): p. 561-7.