Death of the Bosu: The Truth about Stability Training and Strength Gaining
Have you ever seen the guy or girl at the gym slaving away on a bosu tirelessly squatting, lunging and burpeeing until red in the face with no foreseeable end?
How Did the Bosu Gain it’s Success?
The bosu ball started out initially as a tool of certain physiotherapy practices specifically for patients that had stability issues. Especially those related to the lower body (ACL, PCL, Hip Flexor or ankle) as rehabilitation work done on unstable surfaces, such as the bosu ball or foam disk, have been shown to increase the central nervous system response and speed up recovery when rebounding from an injury.
Otherwise known as ‘proprioception training’, which is thought to be any sort of training done on an unstable surface with the goal of mobility restoration.
Coming full circle, after the success of unstable surface training (UST) in the PT world, bosus began popping up in gyms and many personal trainers quickly latched onto the concept. Soon enough, many well-intentioned trainers had their clients doing all sorts of exercises on the bosu ball thinking that practically any exercise would be more effective using a bosu.
Truth is that gym goers looking to gain size, strength, balance, or enhance their athletic performance are wasting their time.
Balancing on a bosu is NOT the key to mobility restoration.
To properly train proprioception, or mobility restoration, think of it as a real life, 3-D awareness map of our own body in space and time. This system is composed of our brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerve endings (including joint movement). Just like most of everything else, proprioception lives in the brain. The brain integrates or collects all of the signals from nerve endings and/or joint movements and from there, signals an output through our spinal cord affecting your performance of mobility, speed, strength, etc.
So would wobbling on a bosu stimulate a response from, say, your ankle joints? Yes, but the brain will not integrate signaling well due to feeling unsafe and threatened on a wobbly, unstable surface. Since most sports and activities happen on solid ground it wouldn’t make sense to practice for something completely different! Properly performed joint mobility exercises on solid ground can have a tremendous impact on the proprioceptive function due to the high density of nerve endings that surround our joints. Of course there are some exceptions based on the activity.
What about the bosu for strength?
Have you ever seen a record-setting weight lifter, an elite powerlifter, or a bar none athlete using a Bosu ball while doing lower-body strength exercises? Any exercises at all for that matter?
Probably not—and there are several reasons for that.
Performing heavily loaded squats, lunges, hip thrusts, or deadlifts with your feet on the ground is risky enough. Stepping onto an unstable surface while performing big movements like those only increases your risk of injury, sending higher threat or stress signals, forcing the brain to seize up muscles for safety that should otherwise be actively recruiting.
Your glutes, namely, suffer at the cost of the wobble compromising the body’s ability to decelerate and protect you during power movements in the weight room or on the field. When you’re on an unstable surface, your glutes are working hard to keep you in place. Because of that, your glutes are distracted from performing the task at hand: lifting and lowering the desired weight.
Remove the Bosu ball, though, and suddenly your glutes can put all of their effort behind moving weight. The glutes prefer a stable environment in order to achieve their maximum activation potential.
Concurrently, every rep you perform on an unstable surface will vary, making it difficult to achieve proficiency in an exercise and stalling your results over time.
Keeping your feet on solid ground allows you to perfect your form. You’ll be able to recruit more muscle and do the movement the way it’s meant to be performed, maximizing your muscle and strength gains, making your brain feel a little safer. Most sports are on solid ground so why practice differently?
The rub – Ask yourself. What do you want to achieve from this exercise? Most athletes want to become faster and stronger, chances are the bosu training are limiting those exact results.
The former makes sense considering having a solid foundation allows for more ground reaction forces to be applied and thus more force generated up into a weight you’re trying to move. If more energy is spent trying to maintain balance, less is being applied into the weight and the more your brain has to recalibrate. A more stable foundation – a bench or the ground – allows for a greater force and velocity of loading compared to an unstable foundation.
The Bosu has to improve balance, right?!
Here’s the short version, yes, but only a little bit because as discussed earlier, your proprioception will improve, marginally. Because of the brain’s perception of the unsafe and threatening situation of wobbling, balance and stability may not improve.
Well to balance there HAS to be instability at some point right?! Should you Really Be Training Stability to Begin With?
In your sport, or in life, are you ever going to be unstable? Absolutely! Things happen, you can get pushed, knocked over, you may have to pivot on one leg.
The key is to first have incorporated good proprioceptive training and high quality movement mapping on ground, then train the system responsible for balance, your vestibular system.
Our inner ear, or vestibular system is an incredibly small, yet precisely functioning system constantly communicating to our brains:
Which way is up from where you are in space
Which way you are going
How to balance and keep you in balance in all situations
How to reflexively control your postural muscles
The truth is, you should be training this system over ‘stability’ in order to feel rock solid on the field. This system balances our body in space by pushing fluid throughout its canals and otolith organs in different directions, similar to a leveler when we try to hang a painting evenly on a wall. The brain always tries to keep the fluid centered or moving correctly depending how you are moving in space. The vestibular system relies heavily on information from your eyes, taking in a million signals/side in a fraction of a second; any inefficiency within the visual system could mean injury within the next step. Good balance comes from having an excellent vestibular system and good integration of visual and movement skills.
Within this system, you have a vestibulo-ocular reflex, or VOR. In life and in sport, you may have to keep your eyes fixed on a target while your head is moving. If your eyes can no longer stay at the target due to a weak visual or vestibular system (not pushing the fluid correctly), your eyes will no longer stay fixed, that’s the reflex.
Here’s one of our favorite vestibular drills to improve your balance and stability
VOR Right Horizontal Canal
-stare at a target and rotate your head to the right as far you can
-the target should remain clear
-envision gliding your chin directly across an imaginary horizontal line
-return back to center each time
-aim for 10 reps
-You can progress by going into a sport-specific stance, stand on one leg or add some resistance with a band
The use of a bosu definitely has a time and a place, but next time you’re in the gym and hoping to reap the rewards of stability or strength training remember – keep it simple, keep it safe. Train naturally to your environment and try to incorporate more VOR training into your program. For more tips on how to increase strength and stability visit 3 in 1 Elite