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.
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.
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.