5 ALTERNATIVES TO INEFFECTIVE UNSTABLE SURFACE TRAINING
Google golf fitness and images like those to the right are a commonplace find, in fact for many standing on a bosu ball, wobble board, etc whilst completing movements that mimic the golf swing in the name of balance has become the expected notion of golf fitness.
Unfortunately, this love affair with unstable surface training is preventing many from achieving their goals and improving their performance on the golf course.
Whilst there can be a time and a place for unstable surface training if programmed correctly (i.e. in a rehab or prehab setting), unstable surface training has been shown to have little carryover to improved athletic performance and core stability, as well as minimising improvements in power and speed. Perhaps, most importantly attempting to replicate sporting movements on unstable surfaces impairs learning of the actual skill through competing motor demands – In a technical sport like golf, this is absolutely unacceptable.
Balance is best trained in the parameters it is used (this is the principle of specificity in action).
"Golf is a game played with both feet on stable ground so why would train for it by failing about on unstable surfaces?"
For most athletes instability/ poor balance is the result of neuro-muscular inefficiency, faulty movement mechanics, poor muscle recruitment patterns and a weak core.
Based on this rationale there are some effective alternatives that can be added to your overall training program and compliment what you are currently doing on solid ground.
1. Extended eccentrics and eccentric-isometrics
These are two of my absolute favourite loading techniques and I could go on about their benefit for some time (in fact, I will soon be doing so in an upcoming article).
Extended eccentrics involve completing the lowering portion over a 4 to 6 second period before completing the concentric (lifting) portion of the lift at normal pace whilst eccentric-isometrics also involve an extended lowering phase but also a pause for 1 to 4 seconds in the bottom/ stretched position.
To get technical briefly, muscle spindles provide the greatest levels of proprioceptive information when they are stretched, without relaxing, as occurs during an isometric or extended eccentric contraction. This results in enhanced kinaesthetic awareness, movement mechanics, neural firing patterns, motor control and stability.
It should also be noted that properly performed extended eccentrics and eccentric-isometrics involve incredible core activation and stabilisation.
2. Train ankle stability
Proper activation for most athletic movement (all those that take place standing) starts with the foot musculature. Unfortunately, most athletes have significant deficiencies in foot ankle mechanics.
Too paraphrase Dr Joel Seedman, when your feet and ankles are dysfunctional any movement that requires even a slight degree of foot and ankle support becomes impossible to perform properly. It may look ok to the eye, but neuromuscularly and in terms of muscular recruitment it’s wrong. In fact Joel has said that addressing dysfunction at the feet will do more for technique and movement mechanics than almost all soft tissue and mobility work and I’m inclined to agree with him.
Any exercise done on a single-leg is excellent for improving foot strength and function but single-leg RDL’s and single-leg Pallof presses are my favourites. I like the single-leg Pallof press in particular as the lateral pull of the band will force you to resist falling into ankle pronation – the typical foot and ankle positional dysfunction we see.
Note: go barefoot for increased somatosensory feedback
3. Hanging band technique (HBT)
One method of adding instability to an exercise that works is the hanging band technique.
Simply hang plates or kettlebells from bands and attach them to the outside collars of the barbell. This produces numerous oscillations and perturbations (irregular deviations in movement) to the barbell, thus creating a very unstable environment for the lifter.
The major advantage of HBT is that because load can still be placed on the barbell and all foundational movements (i.e. squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge and carry) can be utilised HBT can tax larger muscle groups, unlike most other stability protocols.
The stabilization benefits actually outweigh other stability training protocols because the lifter must manage three-dimensional instability from the weights bouncing up and down, back and forth, and side to side.
HBT induces significantly heightened levels of motor unit recruitment in both primary and secondary muscle groups.
The amount of motor control required also elicits improvements in both intramuscular coordination (within a muscle) and intermuscular coordination (between different muscle groups).
The instability and oscillatory effects of the barbell do wonders for waking up proprioceptive mechanisms, as sensory receptors such as muscle spindles must work overtime to continually adjust to these erratic movements.
As I mentioned, HBT can be done with any of the foundational movement patterns but I love them with split-squats/lunges, single-leg hinges and carries (overhead and suitcase) most of all.
Video credit: Samual Pogue
4. Perturbation training
Perturbation training involves using partner taps unpredictable oscillations to create oscillating kinetic energy that force the athlete to activate stabiliser muscles to a greater extend. If a partner is not present a suspension trainer, resistance band, or gym ball can be used, although this is not ideal as the oscillations become more predictable.
The demand on the core and depending on the exercise chosen the stabilisers of the foot ankle, hips and shoulders is through the roof. Perturbation training has been scientifically shown to produce greater muscle co-activation as well as neuromuscular benefits such improved firing patterns. In other words you get increased neural drive to all the extremities and stabilisers as your body works overtime to lock the movement in.
Stabilising a joint is incredibly important for performance and overall joint integrity. However many traditional movements produce instability in a fairly predictable fashion. By adding in sporadic perturbations this exposes the muscles to unpredictable oscillations forcing them to continually adjust to this irregular stimulus.
This is referred to as reactive stabilisation and is essentially the ability to quickly turn a muscle or and off exactly when needed in order to maintain balance in the presence of dynamic motion... much like the golf swing.
Pallof presses in which perturbations are applied to the band and split-squats in which partner perturbations are applied are a great way to add stability to the foot and core. Bird-dogs with partner perturbations are a great way to challenge rotary and lateral stability. Whilst, overhead squats with perturbations applied to the hand are a great way to add stability to the scapular and rotator cuff, as are 90-90 position perturbations and this quadruped shoulder flexion exercise.
5. Eyes closed movements
Completing a movement with the eyes closed really kicks the muscle spindles into overdrive in order to provide sensory feedback to the brain and therefore challenges motor control and stability.
This really is a simple as it sounds, pick any movement really (although my two favourites are overhead squats and single-leg hinges). No need to load it up heavy, just use bodyweight or very light resistance.
Sounds easy but give it a go and get back to me with how easy it is!
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