Skip to main content

Deadlifts and Squats versus the Stability Ball: What is the best way to train the core?

Go into any commercial gym these days and you will find a core training class centered around training done on an unstable surface such as a BOSU trainer, a wobble board, or a stability or Swiss ball. Originally intended for rehabilitation and physical therapy programs, stability core training has made its way mainstream gyms and sports conditioning programs over the last decade with many fitness experts touting its benefits. However, recent studies have shown that these stability exercises have little to no advantage over traditional weightlifting exercises.

In a study published by researchers at Appalachian State University, it was shown that the squat and the deadlift produced more activity in the trunk muscles (abdominals, obliques, and lower back) than three stability ball exercises specifically targeting the same muscles. It was concluded that the stability ball exercises (quadruped, pelvic thrust, and ball back extension) did not provide enough stimulus for either increased strength or hypertrophy therefore questioning their role in a sports conditioning program. Squats and deadlifts, however, were found to provide the necessary stimulus for hypertrophy of the back extensors.

Another study published by Eastern Illinois University demonstrated the lack of advantage of recruitment of the trunk muscles when performing the back squat, deadlift, overhead press, and curls both on and off a BOSU trainer. These lifts were performed at 50% and 75% of 1RM.

Researchers at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia demonstrated that the utilization of unstable surfaces engages assistor muscles to the detriment of the prime movers and actually decreases the athlete’s overall power. This means that the athlete’s body is working so hard to balance that the large muscle groups begin to not work as effectively. Therefore, using unstable surfaces to train in season would actually be detrimental to the power athlete.

Finally, a review written by Dr. JM Williamson from Eastern Illinois University tries to make sense of when it may be appropriate to use stability training in a sport specific setting. He concludes that for the athlete, balance training has its place in the off-season. The stability ball, with light resistance, can be used to maintain core endurance in the post-season period. In the off-season, balance boards or unstable surfaces such as the BOSU paired with plyometrics can be a good tool for developing proprioreception, the ability to sense where one’s body is in regard to one’s surroundings. However, in the pre-season training period, training on a stable surface is the best method for building substantial strength and power in the trunk and extremities.

In conclusion, stability ball training is simply not necessary to have a strong core if you have a barbell. As noted in the introduction, stability training was developed and used primarily by physical therapists in a rehabilitation setting. For someone who is very weak from illness or injury and/or deconditioned, balance training can serve to activate the deep trunk musculature and small assistor muscles that are necessary for simple things like maintaining upright posture and developing core endurance. However, for someone who is already fit and foundationally strong, squats and deadlifts are much better for building a strong midsection all around. For safety purposes, proper form is of the utmost importance with these lifts so if you are not sure of your technique, please be sure to work with a qualified coach or trainer.

Drinkwater EJ, Pritchett EJ, Behm DG. Effect of instability and resistance on unintentional squat-lifting kinetics. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2007 Dec;2(4):400-13

Nuzzo JL, McCaulley GO, Cormie P, Cavill MJ, McBride JM. Trunk muscle activity during stability ball and free weight exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jan;22(1):95-102.

Willardson JM, Fontana FE, Bressel E. Effect of surface stability on core muscle activity for dynamic resistance exercises. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):97-109.

Willardson JM. Core stability training: applications to sports conditioning programs.
J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Aug;21(3):979-85.

Popular posts from this blog

Next Level

So, there are those of us who work out regularly to look and feel better and improve our general health.  There are those of us who just like to lead active lives and enjoy nature and the occasional physical activity.  And then there are those of us who like to challenge themselves to push past our perceived physical limitations and see how far down the rabbit hole we can go.  While this last one is certainly an admirable pursuit, as are the other two, I must say it is the one I most commonly see go sideways.

If you are contemplating taking things to the next level with your training, you must first sit down and realistically assess what you are about to take on.  Next level training is not just about pushing yourself in the gym, but also managing your personal life, your recovery, and your expectations.  It also means knowing when to go low and slow and when to go hard.  The most common mistake a lot of people make is that they think next level means going harder all the time.  But,…

Let's Talk About Context . . .

Powerlifters shouldn't do cardio.Long distance runners should avoid heavy lifting.All explosive athletes should be doing plyometrics, snatches, and cleans.To get fit in all areas of fitness, you should train by doing everything.

Most of us know that the above statements are bombastic nonsense.  However, depending on where you are in the training cycle they can be partly true (which is why a lot of people believe them).  But, for the most part, as general statements about these activities as a whole, they are overwhelmingly false.

I encourage my powerlifters to do cardio.  It increases their work capacity during training sessions and helps recovery, not to mention general health.  How much and how often?  Well, its generally not a lot unless they have a concurrent endurance training goal (which we know will mean they will need a lot more time and managed expectations).  Go for a short jog, a walk, or a bike ride a few times a week, don't sit all day, and don't eat like you&…

Training for the Warrior Dash

Over the past couple of years, obstacle course races such as the Warrior Dash have become insanely popular.  Since I first posted about training for the Warrior Dash, I've gotten a lot of inquiries from clients and other trainers about how exactly one should train for the Warrior Dash or similar short distance obstacle course races.  I've heard people tout everything from Crossfit to P90X to not training at all as being the best way to train for one of these races, but I believe there is a middle ground that can serve far more people, especially beginners, without getting too extreme or requiring a lot of equipment.  Obviously, the best training protocol is tailored for the individual, but with a little information, its relatively easy to tweak a program for your own needs and fitness level.

The first time I saw a video of the Warrior Dash on Youtube, I thought to myself, "Those people are crazy."

I also thought, "I want to do that".  
I watched a few mo…