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Squatting on unstable surfaces does not increase muscle activation

January 4, 2011

Unstable surfaces such as foam pads and air-filled disks have historically been used to increase muscle activation of the legs while performing a squat. Some believe that standing on an unstable surface requires more activation of muscle to maintain stability. Research featured on the Academy Blog has shown, however, that standing on unstable surfaces actually decreases the force output and EMG activation levels of the extremities. Unfortunately, some studies show conflicting results due to different methodologies, leading to confusion in daily practice.

Dr. Jeffery McBride and his colleagues at Appalachian State University in North Carolina performed a study on the EMG levels of the thigh and lower back muscles while subjects squatted on a stable and unstable surface using an inflatable disc under each foot. The subjects performed these squats at various loads to look at the effects of different levels of resistance as well as instability.

The stable squat condition resulted in similar or higher EMG activation of the vastus lateralis, hamstrings, and lumbar erector spinae compared to the unstable condition at all resistance levels. The researchers concluded that unstable squatting results in significantly less muscle activation and should not be used if the goal of the exercise is to increase strength. While Thera-Band stability discs may be appropriate for balance training, they are not recommended for use with a loaded squat when the goal is to increase strength.

REFERENCE: McBride JM, Larkin TR, Dayne AM, Haines TL, Kirby TJ. Effect of absolute and relative loading on muscle activity during stable and unstable squatting.Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2010 Jun;5(2):177-83.

Visit the Thera-Band Academy Stability Training Portal here

One Comment

  1. Posted January 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Great article. Instability training isn’t for strength training. It is more for proprioception and balance.
    For athletes it is great form of exercise. I instruct athletes to alternate. Some days with instability training, some with strength training.
    This type of training actually saved me from needing surgery after an accident while playing soccer. The proprioceptive training kept me from putting all my weight down when my knee buckled, therefor preventing all the ligaments from tearing.

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