Does Balance Training Improve Speed?

In the world of sports, speed is king.  Athletes, parents, coaches and trainers always ask me if different forms of balance training actually create noticeable improvements in running speed?  And rightfully so, with all the information out there, that’s a great question. 

Instead of giving you just my opinion, I’ll give you the scientific research and actual facts that I have on the matter, but first I want to briefly discuss the definition of balance-stabilization based training, and break this type of exercise down into two essential categories.

Balance training is the ability to position your center of mass over your base of support (hands or feet) during movement.  More specifically, it’s the ability to limit too much motion from occurring at a specific joint or series of joints. 

For example, the simple task of balancing over one’s foot requires that the ankle, knee, and hip prevent too much acceleration in three planes of motion simultaneously so that we stay centered. 

To do that, there are some very intricate feedback loops from several built-in sensory structures throughout the body that transmit information from the internal and external environment (i.e., training surface, body position, etc.) to the central nervous system. 

Next, specific centers of the brain process all the incoming neural input, that’s called proprioception.  Then, the appropriate motor response is triggered, based on the information at hand.  

What’s really incredible is that all these functions happen within milliseconds, and it’s something we don’t even consciously consider and just take for granted.  Without this, we would be tremendously limited physically, and practically rendered useless. 

This all sounds cool, but the bottom line is, does training to improve balance actually help us become faster and more athletic? 

First, let’s quickly dissect balance training into two types.

Type #1-Stable Surface Balance Training: Maintaining our center of mass over our base of support on top of an immovable surface (i.e., running and cutting on a football field).

 

Type #2-Unstable Surface Balance Training: Maintaining our center of mass over our base of support on top of a movable surface (i.e., balancing on a bosu ball).

 

Before we dive into the research each type has on speed levels, lets first take a look at a very significant portion of human anatomy which serves as the key regulator to being able to balance as we run, jump off one leg, cut, etc.  

That is the Lateral Oblique Sub-System.  

Please note that when we hear the term balance, it generally refers to the lower extremities rather than the upper, so in this article, we’ll be referring to the lower extremities, however, the same concepts and information will apply to our upper half as well.  

 

The Lateral Oblique Sub-System is integral to single leg function and speed!

Lets review some of the studies that analyzed the effect stable surface balance training has on human running speed. 

The first one was a European study Conducted by Arin which found that single leg strength capacity correlated strongly with change of direction skill and linear speed across 10 and 20 meters.

Logically, it’s not very hard to see that stable surface balance training would have vast carryover on athletic tasks such as sprinting.  Unilateral movements such as pistol squats, lunges, plyos, and sleds are great examples of exercises that help establish better single leg functioning. 

These drills demand that the body learn how to develop and then express higher levels of strength and power unilaterally, so that when the time comes to demonstrate this ability in sport, the neuromuscular system has already adapted and is prepared for what is in store.

But what about the addition of an unstable surface, and its potential role in the speed development process? 

This is what most of us tend to think of when we hear and consider balance training, and this is what I was excited to share and discuss. 

Over the years, I’ve helped dozens of various team sport athletes from all levels (youth to professional) shave 3 to 5 tenths off their fully electronic 40- or 60-yard dash. 

During this time period we never used one single exercise variation on an unstable surface.  Not one.  That’s the real world or what is known as clinical evidence, but I’m also a huge proponent of basing your training decisions on published research. 

Guess what?

The research results were no surprise. 

World famous coach Eric Cressey published a study on a series of NCAA Division 1 Soccer players where he examined the effects unstable surface training hand on a number of performance measures.

 Here are his findings from that study on linear speed:

40 yard sprint


40 yard sprint time before unstable training was 5.02 seconds.  After 4.93 seconds.
40 yard sprint time before stable training was 5.06 seconds.  After 4.87 seconds which is a 3.9% improvement over unstable training.

 

10 yard sprint

10 yard sprint time before unstable training was 1.73 seconds  After 1.67 seconds.
10 yard sprint time before stable training was 1.75 seconds.  After 1.63 seconds which is a 7.6% improvement over unstable training.

As you can see the results are clear in that stable surface balance training is far superior to unstable surface training for linear speed enhancement. 

Eric’s conclusion from the study is that the former does not violate “The Law of Specificity” which states in order to get good at a particular movement task you have to practice that exact task. 

What’s ironic here is that you see this training principle being abided in a number of areas (flexibility, conditioning, etc.) but when it comes to speed, for some reason people tend to think the implementation of bosu balls, stability, dyna disc’s, and the like are going to magically make you faster when that could not be further from the truth. 

Think about it for a moment. 

Sprinting involves a high velocity, lots of force production, various joint angles and ranges, all three types of muscle contractions, and a stable surface to exert from. 

The polar opposite of what is required when balancing on an unstable surface.  This alone should tell you what’s important in terms of training priorities. 

And in case there is still any doubt, there is at least one more study that was conducted by Zemkova. (3) 

He assessed over a dozen students with one protocol of squats performed on both a stable surface and unstable surface.  Not surprisingly maximal force production and power outputs were compromised on the unstable surface.  The actual decline in output was up to 10% versus the stable surface.

I want to leave you with an interesting observation that I’ve made over the years training athletes and non-athletes. 

Let me first ask you, who is more than likely going to be better at performing a balance related task? 

The obvious answer would be the athlete. 

Why? 

Because they tend to almost always possess higher levels of maximum strength and power due to athletic training and sport demands.  Thus, if they are able to handle gravity, momentum, and any other sort of resistance with relative ease, then naturally, they will be able to maintain control of their body however and whenever they see fit. 

The answer to better balance has never come from actual balance training, but rather comprehensive athletic training where balance training becomes a natural by-product and is practiced all of the time.    

 

Travis Hansen Bio

*International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) Certified Fitness Trainer

*National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Certified Personal Trainer

*National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) Certified Personal Trainer

*B.S. Fitness and Wellness

*Two years @ Reno Sports and Spine Institute-Physical Therapy Technician

*Eight years and thousands of hours of practical training experience

*Has personally worked with NBA, NFL, NBADL, Division 1 Collegiate Baseball, Basketball, Football, Junior College, High School, and various youth sport athletes

*Strength and Conditioning Coach/Consultant for the Reno Bighorns of the NBADL (2010)

*Natural Fat Loss and Muscle Building expert

*Starting Collegiate guard @ Dominican University in San Rafael, Ca. (2002-2003)

*Director of Reno Speed School

References

#1-Arin A, Jansson D, and Skarphagen K. Maximal Unilateral strength correlates with linear sprint and change of direction speed. Goteborgs Universitet. 2012.
#2-Cressey EM, West CA, Tiberio DP, Kraemer WJ, Maresh CM. The effects of ten weeks of lower?body unstable surface training on markers of athletic performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21: 561?567, 2007.
#3- Zemková, Erika; Jele?, Michal; Ková?iková, Zuzana; Ollé, Gábor; Vilman, Tomáš, and  Hamar, Dušan, "Power Outputs in the Concentric Phase of Resistance Exercises Performed in the Interval Mode on Stable and Unstable Surfaces." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26 (2012): 3230–3236.

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