The truth about unstable surface training.
One of the most important things in training is to questions. To ask, for example, what are my goals? Is this helping me achieve my goals? Is this the best method I have to get the job done?
Unstable surface training (UST) has become an integral and expected part of many strength and conditioning programs, particularly in golf. Indeed magazine covers and articles are abundant promising a better swing, longer drives and lower scores from a few simple exercises performed on a swiss ball.
Claims have been made for the effectiveness of UST for injury prehab, rehab, increasing power in the golf swing, increasing balance in the swing and improving swing mechanics. What follows is a brief synopsis of research into UST in performance settings, examining these claims and asking weather the use of UST in golf strength and conditioning programs is really appropriate.
Beginning in rehab circles, UST has been shown to be effective in aiding recovery, improving balance and enhancing performance in injured athletes. So when dealing with injured golfers there is little doubt as to the effectiveness of UST as long as the difficulty level of the exercises used is also appropriate.
However, there is no evidence that UST reduces the likelyhood of injury or improves performance in healthy, trained athletes. Indeed a study by Cressey et al in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that replacing 2-3% of overall training volume with UST didn’t improve performance. More importantly, UST minimised improvements in plyometric and agility tests. In other words, the subjects who weren’t doing UST made bigger gains in power and speed.
The other issue highlighted by the UST research is the specific nature of improvements made by trainees. Put bluntly, classic core work on unstable surfaces, such as swiss ball crunches, doesn’t really carry over to anything at all.
A study from Stanton et al (2004) found that measure of core stability improved in athletes after 6 weeks of stability ball training, but it did not favourably effect running economy, posture, or favourably modify EMG activity of abdominal or erector spinae musculature, in other words it didn’t carry over. A comparable result was found by Tse et al (2005). After 8 weeks of stability ball training in collegiate rowers, while core stability, as they tested it, improved, no performance increases were shown over several key measures of athletic performance, including vertical jump, broad jump, overhead med ball throw, and 2000 metre row.
There is considerable opinion amongst strength and conditioning professionals that balance is best trained in the parameters it is to be used. Golf is a game played with both feet, on a stable surface and should be trained this way. Additionally, significant anecdotal evidence is beginning to emerge that attempting to replicate sporting tasks on unstable surfaces actually impairs the learning of the actual skill, through competing motor demands. In a technical sport like golf, this is absolutely unacceptable.
In short, do your mobility/ activation work to improvement movement efficiency and stability, then apply that efficiency and stability throughout a full range of motion to a solid strength training program that develops reactive ability, rate of force development, maximal strength and speed strength. If your a healthy, injury free athlete why waste your time with UST?