Balance Exercises: Common Misonceptions

Balance Exercises on Unstable Surfaces

I see a number of people at the gym using unstable implements as balance exercises improperly without a reasonable justification. If you asked someone why they\’re using a specific balance implement (like a BOSU ball or stability ball, etc.), here are the most common reasons (and my rebuttals):


It engages the core more than training on stable ground

This is correct, but so what? Just because it engages the \”core\” does not mean that it strengthens the core. Here is an analogy: Did you know that the first muscle that engages when you do a regular biceps curl on stable ground isn\’t the biceps? It\’s actually the calves. But just because the calves are engaging doesn\’t mean they are strengthening. So don\’t expect to get strong calves from doing biceps curls. By the same token, don\’t expect to get a strong core by doing balance exercises on unstable implements.

Your body has 3 primary types of muscle fibers: slow twitch, fast twitch A, and fast twitch X. Although it\’s a slight simplification, the fast twitch fibers are responsible for speed, strength and power, and the slow twitch fibers are responsible for endurance.

Pick up any exercise physiology textbook and it will tell you that the threshold for engaging the fast twitch fibers is 40% (for fast twitch A) and 70% (for fast twitch X) of you maximal voluntary contraction. And when you\’re doing balance exercises on an unstable implement, you\’re not using anywhere near that much.

Balance Exercises on Unstable Surfaces Improve your Balance

Sure, it improves your balance, but does it improve balance in a way that carries over to every day life? Last time I checked, life happens on stable ground (unless you\’re a skateboarder, snowboarder, surfer, etc., in which case, there is certainly a reason to use unstable implements). If you want to improve your balance, wouldn\’t it make sense to train it in the way you actually live?

You might think that there\’s a carryover from doing balance exercises unstable surfaces to using stable surfaces. It\’s only logical, but unfortunately that\’s not the case. The body has 2 reflexes responsible for balance: righting reflexes and equilibrium reflexes. Righting reflexes are responsible for restoring your balance when you\’re moving over solid ground. Equilibrium reflexes are responsible for restoring your balance when you\’re moving over unstable surfaces (for example, standing on a moving bus, skateboarding, snowboarding, etc.). The neurological mechanisms that govern each one are vastly different, so there\’s very minimal carryover from one to the other.

Balance Exercises on Unstable Surfaces Burn More Calories

The argument goes that since doing balance exercises on unstable surfaces engages more muscles (and let\’s not forget that \”engages\” does not mean \”strengthens\”), it burns more calories. And there\’s some truth to that. But think about it: can you lift more weight, and do more reps on a stable or an unstable surface? Of course you can use more weight and perform more reps on a stable surface. By using more weight and more reps on a stable surface, you\’ll burn more calories than using lighter weights and less reps on an unstable surface.

Balance Exercises on Unstable Surfaces Engage the Stabilizer Muscles

By now you know that \”engages\” doesn\’t mean \”strengthens.\” But let\’s say for a second that it does engage the stabilizer muscles (which it does), so what? What benefit will it give you? In a healthy person, there is no additional benefit.

In a person with some sort of prior dysfunction around a joint where the stabilizer muscles are \”sleeping\” only then does it start to have benefits (like re-training the stabilizers to engage).

Now is all of this to say that balance exercises on an unstable surface are useless? No, far from it. There is a time and a place to use unstable surfaces, but it must be justified. One of the correct ways to use balance exercises on unstable surfaces is in rehabilitation scenarios where certain stabilizers have \”fallen asleep\” as a result of prior injury.

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1 thought on “Balance Exercises: Common Misonceptions”

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