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Is Unstable Surface Training Effective?

knee pain

One of the funny things about being in the fitness industry for a long time (for me, over 25 years) is you see trends begin, fall off, then come back around again promoted by new people and often a new angle. When functional training started building momentum in the late 1990’s, one of the biggest trends was using unstable surfaces in training. Yup, I did it as well because both at the time it seemed to make sense and I was a very inexperienced coach.

After a few years of trying to use unstable surface training in my clients and my own training, along with seeing new research was being performed, my enthusiasm for unstable surface training faded. As this 2013 review states so well, this was one of the big concerns that we started so see with unstable surface training, “Greater instability can result in a decrease in muscle activation. For example, a 70.5% drop in leg extension force in an extremely unstable environment was implemented versus a 20.2% decrease with a plantar flexion exercise on a moderately unstable surface. Quadriceps activation decreased with extreme instability by 40.3%, while plantar flexors activation decreased 3% on a moderately unstable surface.”

This was really the idea that seemingly sealed the deal for me at the time about unstable surface training…

“Instability can also be achieved without unstable devices such as balls, wobble boards and foam rollers. Typically, resistance exercises are more often bilateral using either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. However the majority of activities of daily living, occupational tasks and sport actions are unilateral (e.g. tennis, squash, baseball),88 and thus unilateral exercises may be more beneficial because they adhere to the principle of training specificity.89 Behm et al90 reported greater erector spinae activation during the unilateral shoulder press and greater transversus abdominus and internal oblique activity with the unilateral chest press. Rather than using an unstable device, unilateral resisted actions may provide a disruptive torque to the body, thus providing another type of unstable condition.”


Put simply, going more single arm and single leg movements accomplished the same purpose of unstable surface training without some of the limitations. Case closed right? Well, not so fast!

As time went on and I realized how building strong feet and helping chronic ankle instability could improve people’s strength and resilience, I decided to go back and see if unstable surface training might have a point. A 2015 study found that unstable surface training can help chronic ankle instability that not only impacts the foot/ankle, but the knee, glutes, and low back too. However, it IS important to note that they also cited that progressing the challenges of unstable surface training was important.

So, using unstable surface training can help foot and ankle issues and provide a practical way to train the whole body and not just isolate these areas at once. Physical therapist, Jessica Bento, shows how we can use unstable surface training in ways that make sense to helping the foot and ankle that will help us use our lower body and hip muscles more effectively. Don’t always be so quick to judge a method because it may not work for what you originally thought, but might prove to have other uses that are effective.

Don’t miss our upcoming Foot & Knee Mechanics Masterclass is having the early bird only for a limited time longer, check it out HERE. Also don’t miss 30% off our online certifications and our DVRT Rx courses (like our Healthy Knees course) with code “spring” HERE