Balanced training or Training for balance



I’ve been working as a trainer for 25 years now. Back when I first started, I learned quickly that strength was, and is the most important quality we can cultivate. Strength training using evidence based exercise concepts is the safest, and most efficient method to impact global health and fitness in minimal time. As I have said before, strength is the foundation of function.

As a strength coach and personal trainer, the question of training for balance often comes up. Athletes often want to know if there is an exercise that they can do that will improve their balance in their chosen sport. For average fitness folks the balance question most often arises as it relates to aging and maintaining mobility.

Many coaches and trainers on the “Balance Training” Band-Wagon claim that functional exercises should be performed on an unstable surface, in order to promote  balance. This is a very common approach to training equilibrium, whereby the emphasis is placed on proprioceptive sensitivity and core stability. While it seems, superficially, to be an obvious method of choice, it is actually counterproductive to real functional stability. The irony in these methods is that the property that is introduced to try to enhance balance control — an unstable surface — is the very element that prevents the nervous system from correcting for postural deviations.

Stay with me here…

Equilibrium is maintained through the application of force into the ground. As the center of gravity shifts over the base of support, force is applied through the feet in order to re-center the center of gravity. The inherent problem with labile surfaces (wobble boards, dyna-discs etc) is that the objective of the exercise is to avoid displacing the surface. In other words, the goal is to keep the surface from moving. To do this, the subject must actually resist applying force to the surface, and therefore, is being trained not to exert force which is the exact opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. Clearly this practice would have a dubious effect on balance control.


Furthermore, this type of balance training involves static balance control, in which motion of the center of gravity is severely restricted. Hamilton and colleagues (2008), quite interestingly, report no correlation between static balance control and hopping capability, a very dynamic stability problem, and one of those “highly functional” movement skills.

What does seem to aid in balance control is increased muscular strength and power. Research demonstrates evidence of a direct correlation between muscular strength and power, and the ability to maintain balance (Orr, et al, 2006, Santos and Liu, 2008). Butler and associates (2008) have even determined that insufficient strength in the ankle musculature results in a reduction of proprioceptive acuity. Conversely, increased muscle force capacity contributes to enhanced proprioceptive capability. Arguably, equilibrium may be enhanced through a simple process of muscle strength development that promotes force application. This may, in fact, be accomplished on a leg press.

The truth is that balance is task specific. A common misconception is that fundamental abilities can be trained through various drills or other activities. The thinking is that, with some stronger ability, the athlete will see gains in performance for tasks with this underlying ability.

For example, coaches often use various balancing drills to increase general balancing ability. Such attempts to train fundamental abilities may sound fine, but usually they simply do not work. Time, and often money, would be better spent practicing the eventual goal skills.

There are two correct ways to think of these principles.

First, there is no general ability to balance, rather, balance is based on many diverse abilities, so there is no single balance ability, for example, that can be trained.

Second, even if there were such general abilities, these are, by definition, genetic and not subject to modification through practice. Therefore, attempts to modify ability with a nonspecific drill are ineffective. A learner may acquire additional skill at the drill (which is, after all, a skill itself), but this learning does not transfer to the main skill of interest.

Do not attempt to mimic or imitate a skill by using a completely separate *gadget, or with exercises in the weight room. It can’t be done. Strengthen the muscles in the weight room, develop a high level of conditioning, and practice the skills used to play your sport or game. It’s that simple!



*In Plain English: (Just in case I have not been 100% clear up to this point). You should never waste any time or energy doing any of the things demonstrated in the  images above if your goal is to improve performance in a totally separate sport or activity.

Excerpts from this article appear (with permission) from the article:

The Truth on Fitness:
Functional training
Paul M. Juris, Ed.D.
Executive Director, CybEx Institute

Other References

Bryant, C.X. (2008) What is functional strength training?
American Council on Exercise.

Butler, A.A., Lord, S.R., Rogers, M.W., and Fitzpatrick, R.C. (2008).
Muscle weakness impairs the proprioceptive control of human standing.
Brain Research. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.03.094

Greenfield, B. (2005). Functional exercise that makes sense.
Ezine Articles.

Hamilton, R.T., Shultz, S.J., Schmitz, R.J.

“Circus Training”

By Jim Bryan
It’s funny how things come and go, only to come and go again. The “functional Training gimmick” has been with us for awhile, even though it has been for the most part debunked over and over. (For a back ground look up the S.A.I.D. Principal.) What it says is this: The body is always trying to get better at exactly what you practice. To get better at your sport, practice your sport.
To get proper “carry over” what you do has to be “EXACT” to your sport, not similar, “EXACT.”  Sooooooo, what in the world does standing on a stability ball and having your “trainer” throw a medicine ball to you  have to do with being able to play base ball, soccer, foot ball, volley ball, etc? It doesn’t.
But some see this in a gym setting and are very impressed with the “ball standing skill.” They don’t realize that the skill is specific to “standing on a ball” only.  And the “trainers” that push this stuff are incompetent at best or just plain charlatans at worst. I’d like to say that trainers that work with high level athletes have the background to be able to figure this out. I’d like to but I can’t. You see, many of these so called trainers are just looking for gimmicks to “set them apart” and make them look cool or more knowledgeable. In reality they are pathetic and put everyone they train in danger. Just because a trainer is certified doesn’t mean they are capable.
I have been training in a big commercial gym now for about 2 years. A few of the trainers there are good, solid in their knowledge, and safe. Others are horrible. It’s like this in most gyms and even more so in the “Sports Training Facilities.” Strength Training is general. Sports Training is specific.
Standing on a stability ball while lifting weights, or catching medicine balls or any other trick, is not training for your sport. It is training for a job in the circus. And if you are a high level athlete, why expose yourself to this kind of silliness? You could end up with a career ending injury.  It does kinda look cool doesn’t it?  
…Roll eyes.
TAKU’s NOTE: Thanks to my friend and fellow strngth coach Jim Bryan for this weeks excellent article. Stay tuned for more articles based on Truth not Trends.

Instability Training: Good or Bad?

I was checking out some fitness columns today and I came across an interesting article published in the Washington Post on instability training, or training on unstable surfaces like a physioball (swissball) or a BOSU. Now, everyone is entitled to their own opinions on things, but mis-information is not an opinion…it’s just plain wrong.

The article went on to talk about how instability training is effective for training other areas of the body (which isn’t entirely untrue…but there’s more to it than that). Basically, the premise is that training on an unstable surface forces you to use more muscles in the body to stabilize the movement. Exercises like “Stability Ball Bench Press” and “Stability Ball Bench Press with Feet Elevated on an Inverted BOSU” were discussed. Seriously, how ridiculous does that sound?

Here are some pictures from the article so you can have a visual reference. Please, click on these photos and seriously try to comprehend how foolish it is to do something like this. By the way, the photo credit should go to NSCA but it was incorrectly referenced in the article as the NCSA, as shown on the picture.  Another one of my gripes with the overall article content.


By lying on a physioball, you truly are creating an unstable surface. You will have to balance by activating other muscles in the body. But the muscular activation will in no way compensate for the decreased weight you’ll have to use OR the risk involved with an exercise like this. Additionally, it’s almost impossible for you to do these exercises on your own. You must have a partner to give you the bar and take it from you when you’re done.

Here’s some basic physics for you. The farther from your body the weight is, the more unstable you’ll be. Conversely, the closer the weight, the more stable you become. But, the closer the weight is to the chest, the more difficult it becomes to press and the greater the chance of “sticking” or hitting a point in the range of motion where you can’t effectively move the weight up. If that happens, you’ll most certainly need the help of a spotter. Worst yet, you may need to “dump” the weight. In that situation, you can’t just push the bar off of you as you could on a stable bench. If you do, the ball shoots out to one side, you hit the floor and the weight gets a nice soft landing on your head or torso. The chance of that happening anyway is also a factor. Oh yeah, the ball could burst too. Yes, they’re built to endure a lot of compression, but you won’t have that issue with a bench at all.

Now lets look at the second picture. Inverting a BOSU and placing your feet on it will only make you MORE UNSTABLE and not in a good way. Adding the increased instability to the equation will in no way make the exercise more beneficial! This is, unfortunately, a huge misconception in the fitness industry. It’s an industry that thrives on evolution and industry leaders and gurus are constantly looking for the next best thing. Unfortunately, movements like the ones above are the result of that quest.

Bottom line: Don’t get sucked into thinking instability training will aid your overall training or progression. Physioballs have their place, but it’s not underneath you while you’re pressing a weight. As for standing on a BOSU and lifting weight, all that will make you better at is standing on a BOSU. It won’t carry over to your athletic prowess. Additionally, strength gains will be drastically limited since the very nature of instability training requires you to work with a lesser load.

Conclusion: Training on unstable surfaces has it’s place, but instability training is, for the most part, a waste of time when it’s performed as detailed above. Use your head and think about what you’re doing. If it seems ridiculous, it probably is.  If you truly want to get stronger, just stick with the fundamentals. If you’re an athlete, work the skill sets of your sport, while developing strength in the gym. The two together will be much more beneficial than trying to stand on a ball.

On a side note, one individual who posted a comment on the article from the Washington Post said it best: “…one legged dumbbell rows will not make you a better athlete….these implements and adaptations only give the notion that we are doing something “functional” and “lifelike,” when in reality it is simply taking a non-functional movement and making it awkward. One would be better off doing heavy rows and heavy bench presses than light rows on a BOSU ball or bench presses on a swiss ball.”

Food for thought.

Until next time, keep training hard!
Jason Klofstad