Sometimes the latest gimmick is to sell personal training; gimmicks aren’t always the most effective way to build lean muscle, and training while struggling to maintain balance falls into this category.
You’ve seen it: A personal trainer has a client standing on one foot while pressing weight overhead. People at gyms notice this and believe that the personal trainers are on to some new, groundbreaking workout technology.
It isn’t long before men and women, who’ve never had a personal trainer, are duplicating these strange maneuvers, even inventing ones of their own.
For example, a trainee stands on a mushy dome surface (forcing him or her to wobble), while pulling handles towards their chest for rows.
This fad has gone as far as people attempting to kneel on a stability ball while performing rowing motions at a cable machine or pressing dumbbells overhead.
Unstable surface training (depending on its character) has a strong place in the world of rehab exercises following injury, and as a fun way to warm up or cool down from a strength training session.
As far as building lean mass, it is inferior to traditional weight lifting methods. This is because the unstable or precarious nature of the balance board, air cushion, stability ball or one-leg base forces the trainee to reduce the workload.
What could be a 60 pound overhead press on a stable floor becomes a 40 pound overhead press on an air cushion.
What could be an 80 pound single-arm cable row on a stable floor becomes a 60 or even 50 pound single-arm cable row while kneeling on a ball.
It’s easy to see how the potential for building muscle is stiffed.
What About The Core?
Proponents of this kind of training insist that it develops core (lower back and abdominal) strength better than do classic core-targeting exercises.
Research does not support this claim. Core strength and conditioning are beautifully developed by training on stable surfaces.
It’s not the surface that determines the efficacy of core training, but the base exercise.
Chin-ups, and pushups (on a stable surface) will hit the core real nicely, and far more effectively, than will standing on one leg doing biceps curls or standing on an air cushion while doing barbell rows.
Lifting As Heavy As Possible Promotes Muscle Growth
If one wants to build chest muscle for strength, what is the purpose of placing one’s feet on a stability ball during pushups, when this method shifts muscle work to maintaining balance?
If one wants to build back muscle, he or she needs to pull as heavy as possible for an appropriate rep range, such as 8-12.
Pulling-actions while quavering on one leg or kneeling on a ball will force the trainee to use lighter resistance than his back and arm muscles are capable of moving. This means not as much new muscle growth or strength will occur.
The same goes for kneeling on a Swiss ball while pushing tension tubing or pulley handles away from the chest.
If one wants a stronger or bigger chest, one must push the heaviest load possible, which is not feasible while shaking to keep balance throughout the set.
Again, these funky moves are good for warming up, for instance, standing on the flat side of a dome and squatting while holding light dumbbells.
A warm-up involves lighter weights anyways; nobody does warm-ups with the intention of building muscle.
Warming up on the dome will not only prepare the lower body for upcoming barbell squats or deadlifts, but will give the core more of a workout than doing light-dumbbell squats on a stable surface.
However, as far as the meat and bones of a strength training session of compound routines, the exercises should be done on as stable a surface as possible.
A stability ball is okay for doing chest dumbbell presses upon, but it’s crazy to attempt this with only one foot on the floor.
Further, though the ball in this situation may feel more comfortable to the trainee than a bench, at some point the trainee should incorporate bench work for chest routines, whether it’s a flat bench or incline bench, to allow movement of the heaviest weight.
Traditional Routines That Hit The Core
As far as strengthening the core and improving neuromuscular efficiency, the following routines will get the job done when a stable surface is used:
- Walking lunge
- Leg press
- Bench press
- Pushup row with dumbbells (big time!)
- Pull-up and chin-up
- Barbell row and T-bar row
- Clean & press
People who don’t do pull-ups have no idea how much the core is engaged on the controlled release of a pull-up!
A study that was carried out at Appalachian State in North Carolina showed that traditional compound exercises actually engage the core much more than does unstable surface training.
Why tamper with what’s been proven over and over by research? Nothing beats compound routines on stable surfaces for building lean muscle.
If you’re serious about building strength and lean muscle, you should consider reading No-Nonsense Muscle Building Program by Vince DelMonte.
In it are beginner and intermediate/advanced 29-week programs that change every week, plus simple-to-follow nutrition plans for building muscle and losing body fat. Even people struggling to gain mass will find this book very helpful.
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