The right way to use instability

In crafting workouts that serve their goals, athletes often consider a desired outcome. But Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, says that recently, fit bodies are all-too-often turning to instability (think: BOSU balls and wobble boards) for a flawed reason: ‘just because.’

“There is a trend of adding an unstable surface for the sake of added ‘core engagement,’ complexity for the sake of complexity, or just to make it more difficult or interesting,” he says. The outcome: “This often doesn’t succeed at any of those, save for just making things more complex.”

Instability gone wrong

Used incorrectly, instability can also be detrimental to performance, leading to negative outcomes ranging from simply wasting your time to seriously injuring yourself, adds Alex Zimmerman, director of Equinox’s Tier X program.

“Using it before you have become at least competent in the basic movement first on the ground in a stable environment can further impede the learning of new movement skills,” says Zimmerman. Your body, he notes, will simply be too busy fighting to stay upright to improve.

When it can enhance your performance

But instability isn’t off-limits. Says Berenc: “Used for the right reasons, with the right person, and at the right time, an unstable surface can be a valuable tool.”

For one, when incorporated into a warm-up, instability can help ‘prime’ the body without fatiguing it, says Zimmerman. It can also introduce a variability, allowing you to challenge brain and body. “It is a skill in and of itself,” Zimmerman says. “It can allow you to develop a greater overall movement toolbox.”

Injured athletes might also consider instability as a productive part of a post-injury comeback plan, says Zimmerman. Say you’re rehabbing a knee and want to know how much you’re favoring one leg. “Doing a squat on a wobble board can give direct and immediate feedback.”

Redefining what instability means

“There is a difference between using an unstable surface and introducing reduced stability to a program,” Berenc says. “One is an external tool and the other is using setup, position, and environment to challenge the body.”

In fact, he adds: “The majority of ‘instability’ can and should be done without introducing an unstable surface.” Beyond a BOSU or Swiss ball, he says, that means asymmetrical loads, rotational forces to resist, challenging your base of support (going from two feet to one, for example), and creating an environment where reaction is needed. Always, instability is best used subtly, where you’re in control. Take running in sand: It’s just subtle enough to work.

Infuse the right amount of uncertainty to your workout with these six exercises from Berenc and Zimmerman.

Exercises demonstrated by Joseph Sigismondo, MS, Tier X Manager at Equinox Columbus Circle.

Rest 45-60 seconds between sets and as little as possible between exercises.

Swiss Ball Leg Curl

Lie on back with legs straight, elevated on a Swiss ball. Lift hips from ground to form a reverse plank using Swiss ball. Keeping hips extended, curl heels back by bending knees. Return to starting position and repeat for 8 to 10 reps. Complete 2 to 3 sets.

Flipped BOSU Plank with Marching

Flip a BOSU ball so flat, hard surface is up. Place hands on flat surface and assume the top of a pushup position. Maintain that position as a plank. Start to ‘march’ legs by drawing one knee toward chest, returning it to start position and repeating on other side. Move in a controlled manner for 30 seconds, maintaining plank and fighting any urge to rotate. Complete 2 to 3 sets.

Split Squat with Band Anti-Rotation Press

Anchor a band to a solid attachment point. Position body 2 to 3 feet away holding band with both hands close to chest. Set feet in split stance (one foot forward and one foot back as if to do a static lunge). Sink down into split squat. Return to standing, keeping feet in narrow split stance, and press band out in front of body. Draw it back in before descending into the next split squat. Resist pull of the band and maintain position. Do 8 to 10 reps, then repeat on the other side. Complete 2 to 3 sets.

Kettlebell One-Arm Single-Leg Deadlift

Place a moderate weight kettlebell on floor to outside of left heel with foot directly behind kettlebell. (Body weight is on right foot.) Maintain a straight line from top of head to left heel. Make a fist with right hand and hold it slightly out to the side. Push left foot straight back off floor and hinge forward over right leg to grasp handle of the kettlebell with left hand. At finish, spine and leg should be parallel to the floor. Drive right heel into the floor to stand with a long spine. Repeat to bring kettlebell back down to the floor, then stand again with kettlebell. Do 6 to 8 reps, then repeat on the other side. Complete 3 to 4 sets.

Push-up with Hands on Swiss Ball

Place hands on Swiss ball with your body in a push-up position. While maintaining a straight line from head to heel, lower body to the bottom of a push-up, hold for a count of one, and return to starting position. Keep a full range of motion on the push-up while controlling the position and movement of ball. Do 8 to 10 reps and 3 to 4 sets.

Single-Arm Kettlebell Suitcase Carry

Grab a heavy kettlebell with your left hand and hold it like a suitcase, staying tall and keeping a straight spine. Make a fist with your right hand and hold it slightly out to the side. Holding that posture, walk forward for 20 to 30 feet. Try to keep to a straight line (using the lines on the gym floor can help). Switch hands and repeat. That's one set. Complete 3 to 4 sets total.