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To Stabilize, or Not To Stabilize?

Posted Nov 14 2008 8:23am

A reader from the UK recently commented on an admittedly tongue-in-cheek post I made on the usefulness (or not) of stability balls:

I have to disagree with your point about strength gains on the ball. Whilst the instability initially means you are limited in the force you can create, the recruitment of more muscles and the ‘cooperative effect’ these muscles achieve, means that you can become more stable and make greater strength gains than by isolating the chest, arms and shoulders in a bench press. Regular training means that your body will adapt and improve thanks to the instability rather than be continuously hindered by it.

(For reference, the original post is located here.)

Let me clarify some points for the benefit of those who might have misunderstood my post:

1. A primary goal of strength training is the acquisition of strength.

I grant that 99.5% of you initially take up strength training as a way to improve the way your body looks.  However, as famously said, “form follows function.”  A better-looking body possesses visible musculature, made possible by a combination of leanness and muscles of a suitable size (to each his own).  And the development of muscle size is closely related to muscle strength.

In other words, in the same individual, a larger muscle is a stronger muscle.

2. You will never be able to lift as much on an unstable surface as you can on a stable surface.

If muscle strength, then, is a primary goal of strength training, then anything that interferes with that goal is at best a distraction.  Unlike what my UK reader suggests, you will not “will adapt and improve thanks to the instability”, but rather, “be continuously hindered by it” relative to lifting on a more stable surface.

Let’s say I lost my mind and train you while standing on a BOSU board, and your current max squat is 215 lbs but due to the instability of the wobble board, you can only manage 55 lbs.  Through tenacity and practice, you work up to being able to squat with 135 lbs while on the BOSU.

Your leg muscles are arguably stronger.  You could even make the case that you’d be capable of a greater max squat, arguably due to the increased strength of your leg muscles.

But here’s the rub - you will always be able to lift more in a squat on stable ground than in a BOSU squat.  In the same individual, more stable = more weight lifted - always.  And more weight lifted = more strength gains.

3. Therefore, performing Circus Magic exercises interferes with the primary training goal of acquiring strength.

Why waste time mastering a skill you don’t need which indirectly produces the gains you want?  You’re right; it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

If you’re into Circus Magic exercises for a different purpose, such as teaching trunk muscle activation, then more power to you.  But don’t confuse your goals - do ball acrobatics for skill acquisition, lift heavy for strength.

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