Is the BOSU effective for balance training?

I’m in LA right now for the IDEA world conference. Yesterday, I took the BOSU trainer certification, which means I spent the day learning about how to train balance, coordination and core integration through the use of this particular tool.

I know some fitness pros dislike the BOSU, because they see it frequently being misused by well meaning, but under educated trainers who give their clients crazy exercises. It has also been criticized as being a poor place to strength train, because you need a stable surface to safely and effectively push heavy weights.

However, particularly after spending 8 hours learning about it, I’ve decided I rather like this tool for its ability to challenge balance, core and general coordination and the BOSU education directors are the first to say that it is NOT meant for strength training, so I find that particular criticism to be moot.

I understand the other criticisms though. I too have walked through the gym and seen trainers asking their elderly or unsteady clients to do inappropriate exercises. I’ve seen misaligned spines, face plants and all-around glorified flailing on the BOSU all in the name of “functional training” and “core challenge.”

The problem here isn’t the BOSU or the BOSU education model, which is sound. Douglas Brooks and Candice Brooks have done a solid job creating the curriculum. It’s that the fitness industry is fairly unregulated and there are some trainers who might mean well, but are lacking in education. While the BOSU is available for use in most gyms, not everyone who uses it as a training tool has actually been trained on how to use it safely and effectively.

What are good BOSU exercises for improving balance?

There are proven benefits to training on unstable surfaces. The intrinsic muscles of your feet and ankles have to activate to keep you from falling, which is important for both the athlete and the 80 year old who wants to minimize their fall risks. It also challenges the vestibular system and encourages spinal stabilization.

Knowing this, it’s clear that there are functional applications to balance training on a BOSU. I’ve already alluded to this, but the real issue isn’t its efficacy, so much as it is the application. It comes down to common sense and the general rules surrounding progression and regression. The first step is to consider your own/your client’s capabilities.

If you client is unsteady on their feet and has difficulty standing on one foot on stable ground or standing on two feet with their eyes closed, then you probably don’t need to challenge their balance on a BOSU, at least not in the beginning.

Could you immediately put that unsteady person on a BOSU? Sure, but here’s why you might want to wait or at least be mindful of the progressions.

Taking an unstable person and putting them on an unstable surface won’t make a more functional, stable body. It will more likely create a situation where the person could become better at staying up the there, but with a lot of compensation, which makes them more susceptible to pain and injury.

When we challenge our neuromuscular system, adaptations occur. This is a good thing! It’s how we increase fitness and coordination. However, you need to consider the level of challenge.

An appropriate level of challenge would be picking a variation that requires concentration and physical work, but allows you to maintain generally good alignment. An inappropriate level of challenge would be choosing the hardest variation of the exercise, but struggling to the point that your alignment suffers and you end up creating undo stress to areas like the shoulders, neck or low back.

Do either of these for long enough and you will see physical improvements. However, there are obvious downsides to doing exercises at the expense of your joints.

To return to the example of the client who has difficulty standing on one leg, consider why this might be difficult for them. Usually it’s because, they lack the strength in their glute med and inner thigh to support themselves over a single leg.

A common compensation that would present with this would be to let the hip “jut” out to the side resulting in misalignment and stress in the foot, knee, hip and low back. If you put them on a BOSU, the compensation would be even more extreme.

However, you could give them a prop like a roller against a wall, so they had more points of contact to help them find the right position. In time, you could take the roller away and eventually you could have them try a variation on the BOSU with the same movement principle. *Note: Points of contact is also a BOSU concept.

The image on the left shows what it would look like if someone has difficulty balancing on one leg, because of glute weakness. The image on the right shows how you can use a roller and the wall to find a better position (and strengthen the hip).

 

Alternatively, if you had someone who was a rock star at balancing on stable surfaces, the BOSU would be an effective and fun place to increase the proprioceptive challenge.

The bottom line is that like most innovative systems, the BOSU can be a brilliant, fun, versatile tool or a biomechanical nightmare. Consider the purpose behind the exercise and you’ll maximize benefits while minimizing risks.