Sit-ups, planks, crunches… monotonous core routines have plagued both the fitness and rehab industry for years. Thankfully, strength training has been brought to light as only a part of the core development equation. Stability training has been studied and proven to be an effective method for strengthening the core, most recently noted in the work of Dr. David Behm. He and his colleagues provided a complete review and recommendation on the use of instability to train the core.
The benefits of stability training for the core
In their article, Dr. Behm and colleagues cited multiple benefits of stability training in relation to core development:
- According to research, exercises performed on unstable surfaces produce higher levels of muscle activation in both the core and extremity muscles compared to stable surfaces.
- During rehabilitation, unstable surfaces can be effective at improving muscle reaction time
- Resistance training on unstable surfaces may provide localized muscle endurance training, beneficial for the high proportion of Type I aerobic, slow-twitch muscle fibers found in core muscles and co-contractions that protect joints.
- Unstable surfaces can provide musculoskeletal health benefits such as decreased injury risk and increased spinal stabilization as opposed to using free weights.
How to best utilize core stability training
After reviewing the current research and literature, the authors made solid recommendations for training, both in athletic and non-athletic settings. Most notably, Dr. Behm et al. stressed the importance of decreasing resistance loads on exercises performed on unstable surfaces, as well as performing well-rounded exercise programs.
According to Dr. Behm and his colleagues, force and power outputs are decreased while exercising on unstable surfaces, sometimes up to 70% Therefore, it is suggested that athletes should emphasize “higher-intensity ground-based lifts” (such as Olympic lifts, squats and deadlifts) while including resistance exercises with unstable devices, as well as unilateral exercises that provide “transverse stress to the core musculature.” Furthermore, “unstable exercises should not be used when hypertrophy, absolute strength, or power is the primary training goal.”
Finally, when planning core training programs, the authors recommend setting your training regimen appropriate to your goals:
- Core endurance = higher repetitions (15+)
- Core strength and power = lower repetitions (>6)
Updated research provides further insight
In a 2015 analysis of strength training and unstable surfaces, Dr. Behm and colleagues concluded that, while resistance training is safe and effective for all age groups, it has not been shown to be better than stable resistance training for improving strength.
According to Dr. Behm, “This is probably because using free weights is inherently unstable and thus the additional instability of a device like a BOSU ball or Swiss ball does not provide significant additional benefits. However, as we said in previous reviews, the lower weights lifted with high muscle activation can provide benefits for all populations. People who are intimidated by heavy weights can get comparable benefits with lower weights under unstable conditions and people with arthritis or injuries could also benefit by placing lower stress on the joints but still initiating high muscle activation.”
Behm DG, et al. 2010. The use of instability to train the core musculature. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. Feb;35(1):91-108.
Behm DG, et al 2015. Effects of strength training using unstable surfaces on strength, power and balance performance across the lifespan: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine 45:1645–1669, 2015 DOI 10.1007/s40279-015-0384-x