If you say “Because it’s fun”, then that’s good enough for me. If you say it’s because you are rehabilitating an injury, then that’s a superb answer (unless you injured your hand!). However, if you say you use it to get stronger or to increase core activation then I’m going to give you some food for thought. There are others reasons that I may not have covered but don’t stress, just keep on reading.
Training on an unstable surface originally came from the world of rehab (physios, osteopaths etc). The idea is that performing a movement that is inconsistent (on an unstable surface) leads to increased sensory input and muscular activation. If you increase muscular activation around an injury, then this can lead to a strengthened joint. The BOSU is particularly useful in this context when considering feet, ankles and knees.
The problem is, the exercise industry has taken this concept and expanded it (as it always does) for mass appeal. It looks exciting to be squatting on a BOSU ball, but if you are not rehabbing then what are you doing it for!
What Research Says
Studies show that vertical loads in alignment with the spine (e.g shoulder pressing or squatting ) do not increase core activation when performed on an unstable surface. Basically, if you are trying to stimulate the core, then performing a squat or a double military press on a BOSU is pointless – since it provides no additional muscular stimulation than performing them on a stable surface.
(Note – If you want to increase core activation when pressing then try a one-arm press – this works regardless of the surface you are on!)
ALSO, absolute force production (i.e. maximal strength) is greater on a stable surface. This means that if we are concerned with building maximal strength, creating maximal global tension or even just muscle building (that covers most people) then ditch the BOSU – you cannot create as much force as you can with your feet rooted firmly on the floor. More force = more mechanical tension = more muscle.
The final point to consider is that there is an increased likelihood that your technique and movement patterns will alter as you perform an exercise on a BOSU, this will obviously reduce any carryover to the exercise anyway.
Horizontal loading (such as bench pressing and hip thrusting) do increase core activation – hence why the plank is so effective. However, there isn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest that performing these on a BOSU offers any greater benefit. Remember what we said, that by performing exercises on an unstable surface then it will greatly reduce your ability to generate force. So even if the core activation did increase, the chances are that you are lifting a much greater weight with a stable surface and so hitting the core harder in a more meaningful way.
The one shining light is that horizontally loaded exercises on an unstable surface INCREASE core activation around the lumbar. Therefore if you are looking for increased lower back strength and integrity then crack on with the pushups, bridges and planks using the unstable surface. Notice how these exercises are performed face-up or face-down and yet they will still improve lumbar stabilisation.
A Final Note
When using BOSU consider, what is your goal and whether it is the best way of achieving it.
- If it is to build absolute strength or muscle, then you are wasting your valuable time.
- If it is to rehab or to increase core lumbar activation then you are on the right path.
- If you are looking for a balance challenge then I suggest mastering the exercise in its basic format first, then progressing on to single limb work, then you can look at hopping and jumping skills.
These progressions should keep you going for a very long time without having to pick up a BOSU. However, Balancing on a BOSU will make you very good at one specific skill… The art of balancing on a BOSU! 🙂
Author - Craig Peterson - Personal Trainer & Mentor
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