Why Your Balance Training Isn't Making You a Better Athlete (And What to Do Instead)

Don't expect unstable surface balance training to make you a more explosive athlete.

For many athletes, balance training means BOSU balls, stability balls and a variety of awkward-looking tasks performed on wobbly implements.

However, the transferability of this type of training to sport is questionable. Since most sports (basketball, football, track and field, etc.) are played on a stable surface, does it make sense to train balance on an unstable surface? Should you perform balance movements that don't replicate what you do in sport?

Let's take a look at two studies that can shed light on these important questions regarding athletes and balance training.

Study 1: Balance Training is Task-Specific

A recent study published in the journal Human Movement Science investigated how two different types of healthy young female athletes performed in three different balance tests.

The three tests were:

  • One-Leg Jump Landings
  • Perturbations on an unstable platform
  • Simulated Forward Falls

Subjects attempted to recover their balance as quickly as possible while researchers used force plates and motion capture to compute how long it took each participant to stabilize and their margin of stability.

They found that there we no significant associations between the dynamic balance tests. They concluded that balance is task-specific, meaning that superior balance on one task doesn't correlate to balance on a different task. You must practice balance in the specific task you wish to improve it in if you want that balance to translate. "Our study therefore contradicts the traditional view of considering balance as a general ability, and reinforces that dynamic balance measures are not interchangeable," the authors concluded.

Study 2: Stable Surface Training is King For Athletic Performance

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated the effects of unstable surface training on athletic performance. The purpose of the study was to see how 10 weeks of lower-body unstable surface training had on performance in elite athletes.

Nineteen D-1 men's soccer players participated in the study. The experimental group (US) supplemented their normal conditioning program with "lower-body exercises on inflatable rubber discs," while the control group (SS) performed the same exercises on stable surfaces.

Here were the results at the end of the study:

  • Countermovement Jump Height: +2.4% in SS versus 0% in US
  • Bounce Drop Jump Height: +3.2% in SS versus +0.8% in US
  • T-test (Agility) Times: -4.4% in SS versus -2.9% in US
  • 40 yd. Sprint Times: -3.9% in SS versus -1.8% in US
  • 10 yd. Sprint Times: -7.6% in SS versus -4% in US

While the researchers concluded unstable surface training using inflatable rubber discs "attenuates performance improvements in healthy, trained athletes," the results were significantly more impressive for the stable surface training group. Compared to stable surface training, unstable surface training brought about fewer jump, sprint and agility improvements, which is not what any athlete desires.

The Takeaways

Balance is task-specific. If you need to be balanced while jumping, cutting, sprinting, on one-leg and two-legs, then you should practice those specific tasks.

If you play sport on a stable surface, you should perform balance training on a stable surface. Unilateral exercises are great examples of movements that can be performed on a stable surface but still require significant amounts of balance.

Don't expect unstable surface training to make you more explosive, as the second study we looked at showed that stable surface training is significantly better for that goal. However, if you are coming back from an ankle sprain or lower extremity injury, unstable surface training may be useful. In a rehabilitation setting, unstable surface training can be used where muscles are not yet capable of loading through a full range of motion. However, healthy athletes should stick to specificity when it comes to training surfaces.

How do you play your sport? On what surfaces do you compete, and with what movements do you beat the competition? The answers to those questions are what should guide your balance training—not what you think looks cool or difficult. If your goals include getting faster, jumping higher and cutting quicker, unstable surface training should not make up a significant amount of your regular routine.

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