The Smarter Alternative To Ineffective Unstable Surface Training

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Unstable Training… You Mean Like The Bosu Ball?!

When I walk into many gyms, I often feel that I am witnessing a totally butchered, and much less elegant version of Cirque Du Soleil. I have seen countless people hopelessly flailing about on Bosu balls, wobble boards, and many other trivial devices, not to mention all while attempting to squat, deadlift, or do many other exercises that would be amazingly beneficial if these exercises were being performed on a stable surface, with proper form, and in many cases, with more resistance.

Unfortunately, the love affair that countless people have with unstable surface training is preventing them from achieving their goals, and what’s worse is that many fitness professionals are just as culpable.

Let me make one thing very clear, as this is where so many people go wrong. If you are using unstable training methods, your body positioning, mechanics, and muscles used should look close to, if not identical, to the same exercise being performed on a stable surface, or with a stable object. You are not doing your overall health, aesthetics, or performance any favors by butchering perfectly good exercises just because you want to “mix it up” and use an unstable surface or object.

While I tend to steer clear of most unstable surface training as I find it to be very counterproductive and often times downright dangerous, there are some very effective and innovative unstable techniques that can be added into your overall training program, and can complement what you are currently doing on solid ground.

Here are a few of my favourite unstable exercises that address each of the six foundational movement patterns, which include squatting, hinging, lunging, pulling (vertical and horizontal), pressing (vertical and horizontal), and carrying with in depth coaching notes and ways to regress each movement.

There’s no excuse to leave your results, or orthopedic health up to chance wasting your time with the debauchery that is unstable surface training. There’s a better way to challenge yourself while still yielding objective benefits, check it out.

Squatting: 1.5 Negative Rep Goblet Squats With Lateral Band Resistance

This brutally challenging squatting exercise obviously torches your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. It also trains the body to resist extension. Add in the lateral band resistance, and it suddenly becomes a very effective anti-lateral flexion exercise. Using the lateral band attachment is also a great means to correct your squatting form if you have a tendency of shifting your weight to one leg.

Coaching Notes:

  1. Grab onto a kettlebell or barbell and hold it in a goblet position.
  2. Fasten a low tension resistance band around a secure bar, and slip it so it is around your waist. There should be a low/medium amount of tension on the band, and this tension should remain for the entire exercise.
  3. Before each rep, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes.
  4. Now in a controlled manner, take 3 seconds to squat down, stand 1/2 of the way up, squat back down, and stand back up. This is one rep.
  5. Make sure your torso remains upright and that your spine remains in neutral alignment. Due to the band pulling your body laterally, be mindful that you keep your torso upright, torso and hips stacked, your spine neutrally aligned, and your weight evenly distributed on both legs.
  6. Regression: You can make this exercise easier by using a band with less tension.

Not sure exactly what type of squat pattern fits best for your goals and body type? Check out THIS article and figure it out to make this unstable technique that much more effective.

Hip Hinge: Single Leg RDL’s With Kettlebells On Bar

This deadlifting variation has a slight element of instability, which forces all of the muscles in your body to work synergistically to keep the your in the correct position. And of course, this exercise will help you strengthen and develop your posterior chain.

Coaching Notes:

  1. Fasten 2 equally weighted kettlebells to a barbell using two high tension bands.
  2. Stand so your feet are about hip width apart, and stand on one foot.
  3. Grab the barbell so your hands are just outside of your legs. Keep your arms rigid and drive them into your sides. Your palms should be facing you.
  4. Before each rep, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, and actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips.
  5. While maintaining a neutral spine, hinge/push your hips back as far as you can and lower the barbell down your body so it is lightly brushing against your legs the entire time.
  6. Once you feel a slight stretch in your hamstring, likely when the barbell is just below your knees or mid shin height, return to the starting position by pressing your body away from the floor with your leg, squeezing your hamstrings and glutes, and driving your hips forward.
  7. Lock out at the top out by squeezing your glutes and driving your hips into the bar, extend your knee by squeezing your quads and hamstrings.
  8. Regression: You can make this exercise easier by decreasing the length of the band, and increasing the tension, so the kettlebells will be more stable.

Remember, there are many ways to train the deadlift pattern effectively in both single leg and double leg movements. HERE are a few options for training the deadlift with both feet on the ground.

Lunging: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat With Back Foot On Band

When many people perform split squats, including the rear elevated variety, they often cheat and allow their back leg to do a large part of the work. This makes the exercise much less effective. With this set-up, suspending the back foot on a resistance band almost completely removes it from the equation, and forces the muscles of the front leg to work much harder.

Coaching Notes:

  1. Grab onto a kettlebell or barbell and hold it in a goblet position.
  2. Anchor a resistance band across a squat rack. It should be roughly the height of a bench. The more resistance the band has, the easier the exercise will be.
  3. Get into a rear foot elevated split squat position, and rest your laces on the band.
  4. Have a slight forward lean in your torso, but keep your spine in neutral alignment.
  5. Before each rep, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, and actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips. Now perform a split squat.
  6. If you want to make this exercise more quad dominant, position your torso so it is more upright, and if you want to make this exercise more hip dominant, adopt more of a forward lean.
  7. Reset before each rep.
  8. Regression: You can make this exercise easier by using a higher tension band.

Not quite ready for the unstable Bulgarian split squat? Learn to improve your reverse lunge HERE.

Vertical Pulling: Towel Pull-Ups

The towel pull up is a significantly more challenging pull-up variation. Because the towels are unstable, in order to prevent your body from swinging, your scapula and shoulder stabilizers will be forced to work even harder, as will the muscles of your anterior core and glutes as both will be needed to provide your body with the ever-important lumbo-pelvic stability. Or if you’re really looking for something novel, check out THIS variation!

Coaching Notes:

  1. Hang two sturdy towels from a pull-up bar. They should be shoulder width apart or slightly wider.
  2. You can either adopt regular pull up grip where your palms are facing forward, or you can use a neutral grip.
  3. Before each rep, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes.
  4. Make sure you draw your shoulder blades together and down (retract and depress), and lead with your back, instead of pulling with your arms. Make sure your chin reaches the bar, but don’t look up.
  5. Maintain neutral spinal alignment for the duration of the exercise. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to flare.
  6. Stop right before your elbows are fully extended (but not hyperextended), and keep your shoulders packed.
  7. Reset before each rep.
  8. You can either bend your knees, or keep your legs straight (my preference).
  9. Regression: You can make this exercise easier by using band assistance or by performing the negative component only.

If you are working your way up to your first real pull up and need some extra tools to improve your strength and technique, THIS article is one hell of a resource. Check it out.

Horizontal Pulling: Renegade Rows With Lateral Band Resistance

The Renegade Row, as originated by Jay Ferruggia, is a tremendous exercise that will help you strengthen and develop your upper body pulling muscles. This exercise will also improve the strength of your anterior core by training your body to resist extension, rotation, and lateral flexion. Lastly, this exercise will also strengthen your scapula and shoulder stabilizers. With the lateral band resistance, your lateral pillars, otherwise known as the obliques, will be forced to work extra hard to keep your pelvis and spine in proper alignment.

Coaching Notes:

  1. Fasten a low tension resistance band around a secure bar, and slip it so it is around your waist. There should be a low/medium amount of tension on the band, and this tension should remain for the entire exercise.
  2. Grab a pair of dumbbells and get into a push-up position. Your shoulders should be directly above your hands, and your body should be in a straight(ish) line from your head to heels.
  3. Before each rep, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes.
  4. Perform a row by initiating the movement with the muscles in your mid/back. Lower the weight in a controlled manner, and repeat using the other arm.
  5. You can either perform a set number of reps with your body facing in one direction, and can perform the same number of reps with your body facing in the opposite direction (and band pulling your body the other way), or you can alternate the way you face each set.
  6. Maintain proper alignment for the duration of the exercise. Aside from your rowing arm, your body should remain completely still. If your body is rocking from side to side, and if you are transferring your weight from one foot to another, it is a sign that your lumbo-pelvic stability is poor and that you aren’t performing the exercise correctly.
  7. Reset before each rep. 

Another great technique for training the row if you need a little more stability is the Landmine Row. Check out THIS article that features a few different variations to train.

Vertical Pushing: Barbell Overhead Press With Chain Resistance

This overhead pressing variation strengthens and develops the upper body pressing muscles, most notably, the delts. It also doubles as a fantastic core stability exercise as the body must work exceptionally hard to resist extension, and lateral flexion.

Coaching Notes:

  1. Fasten chains to either end of a barbell. You can either set up the barbell in a squat rack, or start from the floor.
  2. Before you go, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes. Now press the barbell overhead so your elbows are fully extended (but not hyperextended). Lower to the starting position with control.
  3. Your spine should be in neutral alignment, and your head, torso, and hips should be stacked. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to flare.
  4. Reset before each rep.
  5. Regression: You can make this exercise easier by using a lighter barbell, and chains that weigh less.

If you’re having trouble getting into the overhead position, make sure you master how to properly pack the shoulder girdle. THIS article will bring you through how to do it.

Horizontal Pushing: Chaos Push-Up

The Chaos Push-Up, an incredibly challenging and innovative exercise that I got from Tony Gentilcore, targets the pushing muscles in the upper body, strengthens the scapula and shoulder stabilizers, and pushes the anterior core muscles to the max. You have the option of performing regular push-ups, or you can hit slightly different muscle groups by performing triceps or diamond push-ups.

Coaching Notes:

  1. Fasten a resistance band across a squat rack. The lower the band is, and the less tension the band has, the more challenging the exercise will be.
  2. Put your hands so they are approximately shoulder width apart, and on the resistance band. Your shoulders should be directly above your hands.
  3. Set your body up so it is in a straight(ish) line from your head to heels, and so your spine is in neutral Keep your chin tucked.
  4. Before each rep, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes.
  5. In the bottom position, your elbows should form roughly a 20-40 degree angle with the body. You can stop when your elbows are at a 90 degree angle, or you can go lower if you are able.
  6. As for your shoulder blades, during the lowering portion, your shoulder blades should retract and depress, and during the ascending portion, they should protract.
  7. In order to maintain lumbo-pelvic stability and spinal alignment, keep your core braced, ribs tucked, and glutes engaged the entire time, as this will prevent your hips from collapsing or twisting, spine from hyperextending, and ribcage from flaring.
  8. Don’t use any momentum from the band when you are coming back up.
  9. Reset before each rep.
  10. Regression: You can make this exercise easier by using a band with more tension, and also fastening the band so it’s higher up so your body is in more of incline.

Working on building up your push ups? Check out THIS article tutorial to dominate this movement.

Carrying: Overhead Loaded Carries With Double Banded Kettlebell

Overhead carries are a great way to develop full body strength and stability, improve overall conditioning, improve sports performance, and lose body fat. The list of benefits is huge. This variation, which includes a massive element of instability, will dramatically increase the amount the shoulder and scapula stabilizers, and the muscles of the anterior core and glutes, are required to work to stabilize the entire body. Like all loaded carry variations, the core muscles must work to resist the extension of the spine. This variation is also extremely anti-lateral flexion in nature.

Coaching Notes:

  1. Fasten a kettlebell to either end of a barbell using two resistance bands. The thicker and shorter the bands are, the more stable the barbell and kettlebells will be.
  2. Before you go, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, actively tuck your ribcage towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes. Now press the barbell overhead and pack your shoulders. Retract and depress your scapulae and keep them in this position.
  3. Your spine should be in neutral alignment, and your head, torso, and hips should be stacked. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to flare.
  4. While maintaining this full body position, walk 25-50 feet, turn around, and return to the starting position. The turnaround will be the most challenging component of the exercise.

For more unique loaded carry variations, check out THIS article!


About The Author

Meghan Callaway is a prominent personal trainer in Western Canada with over 12 years of training experience coaching in the trenches.  Growing up as a multi-sport athlete competing in soccer, ice hockey and baseball, Meghan took her athletic prowess to the University of British Columbia and completed her degree in Human Kinetics.

Meghan currently works with an impressively wide array of clients, ranging from the elite athlete to post-physical therapy rehabilitation and strength training and many average fitness client looking to feel and function better everywhere between.  She teaches and coaches every one of her clients with the goal of helping them perform, feel and look their very best by laying down a properly aligned foundation for every client.

Learn more about Meghan on her:  Website     Facebook      Instagram    Twitter     YouTube

2 Comments

  1. CHRIS BAIATA February 18, 2017 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    Once again a great article! I can’t tell you how many times I cringe when I walk into my gym and a trainer has someone on a Bosu ball squatting or doing pushups….who usually don’t even have the core movement down. Its crazy how many people I see trying to replicate what they see on the internet and the trainers they see making their clients do this. Love this write-up and how it really provides good examples of proper movements with an instability element that will help people not injure them.

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3 Day Strength Overhaul

Improve your mobility by 30 degrees, injury proof your workouts, and avoid self-sabotage.
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3 Day Strength Overhaul

Improve your mobility by 30 degrees, injury proof your workouts, and avoid self-sabotage.
START NOW
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