Tag Archive for: basketball

Poor Training Methodologies: Unstable Surfaces

One of the most misguided ways that speed/power athletes can train is by using unstable surfaces. In a gym setting, unstable surfaces usually come in the form of BOSU balls, exercise balls, and balance boards. Uneducated athletes and trainers will often perform weight training exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifting and even pressing variations while standing or kneeling on these unstable surfaces. In a lot of cases, the athlete will even perform the exercises unilaterally (i.e. standing on one leg) in order to further decrease stability during the exercise. The thought process behind doing this is that the unstable surface creates a more “functional exercise” by throwing the athlete off-balance and forces the athlete to increase the activation of “core” and stabilizer muscles. However, as we will outline below, this is one of the worst ways to train when it comes to strength and power development.

The importance of external load and intensity

In order for an athlete to become stronger, faster, or more powerful, an athlete must progress in intensity.  In strength & conditioning, “intensity” is defined as a percentage of maximum load or velocity. Therefore, for a workout to be classified as “high-intensity”, the work you do needs to be upwards of 95-100% of the 1RM in a particular lift, or 95-100% of the maximum velocity you can sprint. Anything outside of these percentages is, by definition, not high-intensity. Intensity does NOT equate to ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) during a particular exercise (how difficult the exercise feels), or outward signs of fatigue. 

Therefore, for an athlete to become stronger in the weight room, he or she must successfully lift an external load (i.e. weight) that is heavier than what they have ever lifted before, or in the case of power development, they must perform the exercise with a faster rate of force development (RFD)  – that is, more powerfully – than ever before. Likewise, if an athlete is training for speed, they must sprint at a velocity that is faster than they have ever run before. This ensures that the human organism is appropriately stressed, and has a reason to positively adapt and supercompensate. Conversely, if the exercise does not meet a minimum threshold of intensity, the human organism does not have a reason to adapt and the athlete will not improve.

How unstable surfaces hinder force production

Unstable surfaces greatly decrease the level of intensity that an athlete can train at by decreasing the external load that an athlete can lift, and this has overwhelming support when doing a quick search through strength and conditioning literature.  Behm et al (2002) found that force production decreased as much as 70% when using an unstable surface compared to a stable surface, and Kohler et al (2010) found little supporting evidence for the use of unstable surfaces or loads due to the decreases in force production. Chulvi-Medrano et al (2010) found that the use of instability devices does not increase performance during the deadlift.  McBride et al (2010) found that unstable surfaces decreased the amount of load used in squatting exercises, and recommended against their use due to the potential to limit physiological adaptation. Not limited to the lower body, Saeterbakken & Fimland (2013) found an inferior effect of unstable surfaces on muscle activation and strength during bench pressing. This list of refuting evidence against unstable surface training goes on and on.

Opportunity cost and Risk

Another important consideration when choosing which exercises to use with an athlete is the opportunity cost; how beneficial is the exercise, how much time will it take to coach or perform, and is there another exercise that could be used instead that might lead to faster performance enhancements in the same amount of time? Even if there was some merit to doing single leg squats on a BOSU ball with 25lb dumbbells in hand, wouldn’t we get a greater physiological adaptation by doing a barbell squat on solid ground with even a pedestrian 135lbs on the bar?

Also in the opportunity cost analysis is the determination of the inherent risk of an exercise. One of the main objectives of a strength coach is to take measures in training that will mitigate the risk and likelihood of injury during training or competition.  In that light, training with unstable surfaces can greatly increase the risk of acute injury due to the inherent instability of the exercises. Anecdotally, I have heard horror stories of a trainer who had a young athlete stand on a soccer ball because it was “functional balance training,” only to have the athlete fall off and break his ankle. Needless to say, sometimes unstable surface training is just not worth the risk it presents.


In conclusion, using unstable surfaces when training is one of the poorest training methods when attempting to develop strength and power in an athletes.  Unstable surfaces greatly decrease the intensity of training by limiting the external load that can be used. This ultimately prevents the athlete from getting stronger and faster because the ability to progressively overload the exercise and stress the human organism (which is crucial for positive adaptation) is greatly diminished.

The acronym BOSU stands for “both sides up,” meaning that the exercise tool can be used with the athlete standing on either the dome side, or the flat side up.  However, with unstable surface training clearly being inferior to stable surface training, “BOSU” might as well stand for “both sides useless.”

Why does Canadian sport struggle?

In sports, conditioning is paramount.  All else being equal, the strong, quick, powerful, agile, and efficient athlete will always dominate the weak, slow, and uncoordinated athlete.  Given this common knowledge, why then in typical Canadian athletics is formal strength and conditioning an afterthought?  In the typical Canadian athletic program, largely due to early specialization and the misnomer of “sport specific” training, it seems like teams focus almost solely on skill and team development, and spend very little time, if any, in the weight room to develop the conditioning that will produce better, well-rounded athletes.  Moreover, if a team does possess a weight training component, chances are that it is administered simply by leaving inexperienced athletes to work out on their own with little or no supervision from coaches/trainers who may have limited knowledge of effective strength and conditioning principles.

1297515980545_ORIGINALThere are obviously exceptions to this, as powerhouse schools such as Terry Fox and Vancouver College that are consistently in the top ten in both ‘AAA’ basketball and football have formal strength and conditioning programs.  Moreover, after working with Simon Fraser University’s strength and conditioning team, I can tell you that their program is at the pinnacle of the industry.  However, why is the culture of Canadian athletics so poor aside from these elite programs?  Is it funding?  Lack of interest?  A feeling of helplessness that these elite programs will never be defeated?  Or is it merely because we can’t cultivate a passion for sports?

Sports Culture on Steroids

I’ll never forget the experience I had when I traveled to California for a Christmas basketball tournament in my “junior” year of high school, where I was awe inspired just by the difference in the magnitude of the facilities.  The hosting school had multiple, dedicated full-sized fields for soccer and football, Olympic sized swimming pools, bleachers that seated thousands (not hundreds), locker rooms so big you could get lost in them and pristine weight rooms with every piece of equipment imaginable.  The list goes on and on.  I was jealous.  My years of playing high school basketball were arguably the most fun in my life, yet south of the border kids were having the same experience on steroids.  Why can’t our Canadian athletes experience this as well?

Creating a Culture

Physical therapist Kelly Starrett touches upon a notion of cultivating a culture of Supple Leopards.  That is, creating interest and excitement around the concept of movement and mobility by relating it to increased athletic output so that athletes will take care of their own bodies, which will ultimately make them exponentially better athletes, and in turn, happy winners.  The fitness industry has successfully cultivated a culture of health-conscious, active people, particularly here on the West Coast with Lululemon and the yoga movement.

In that same light, I think it’s our responsibility as strength coaches, trainers, athletes, and fans of sport to cultivate the same culture and excitement around sport itself and in particular, excelling at sports.  After all, isn’t that what a lot of us are training for in the first place?  Recall the excitement of Canadians dominating the 2010 Olympics, or the Vancouver Canucks run to the Stanley Cup.  Wouldn’t it be cool if the casual fan were THAT passionate about sports around here, too?

Some Clarification

My intent isn’t to spark a political debate regarding sports versus healthcare or education, or American funding versus Canadian funding. My intent was to highlight the fact that with the current allocation of resources to sports (or lack thereof) in our community, certain elite schools are consistently on the top of the rankings. Why do they keep producing the best athletes? I believe it’s because they create a culture where excelling and upholding their tradition and reputation of being provincial powerhouses is important to the coaches and the athletes, and the sense of pride filters down and influences them to do everything they can to maintain that reputation, i.e. strength and conditioning, which most other schools are lacking.

This is in contrast to schools with failing sports programs, where there is barely enough interest to field a team, and the emphasis isn’t as much about excelling at sports, but rather merely participating. To create passion for sports, you need to create a winning environment (see the Canucks recently versus the rebuilding years and the corresponding buzz in the city about the team). To create a winning environment, you need to produce good athletes. How do you create good athletes? Place importance on strength and conditioning, which overall I think is lacking. It’s part of our job as strength and conditioning coaches to sew the seeds and get kids excited about strength and conditioning so they can excel, which will start the process of developing PASSION for sport, rather than a passing interest in it.