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BOSU balls—they’re as ubiquitous as squat racks and mirror selfies in gyms today. But, depending on your sensibilities, they’re either the logical evolution of balance and core training, or they’re simply another gimmick, primed to go the way of the Shake Weight and the Ab Lounge. Below, we put the BOSU ball on trial as we figure out whether you can really balance your way to a better you, or if they’re just a topsy-turvy waste of time.
Though hopping up on a balance board or BOSU ball and ripping out some exercises may look silly, being on an unstable surface while performing movements can engage muscles and ligaments in new ways, leading to better overall whole-body fitness. The constantly shifting and challenging environment can also work out your mind, making your brain more alert and flexible.
Though balance training may offer a bit of novel stimulus to your muscles and load up your nervous system, ultimately the risk of wobbling around while trying to perform complex exercises with not-insignificant weight is not worth it. Injuries are more likely—especially if you’re doing lower-body work on an unstable surface—and you can train for balance just fine without resorting to flailing about on these balls.
Balance board training can strengthen the ankles of athletes with previous ankle sprains, says a 2004 study on soccer players published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, but for those with prior knee problems, it exacerbated the injury.
In 2017, a 10-week study from the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut on 19 soccer players showed that unstable-surface training gave no significant advantages in jumping, agility, or running tests. The stable group actually had improved jump power and sprint times.
Unstable exercises were found to force the muscles to provide more stability to the joints during chest presses, according to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Memory and spatial cognition, or how you perceive and interact with the world, improved when subjects were put through a balance-training program, according to a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports.
Balance training—for the lower body—does have some benefits, but they are mostly limited to rehabbing ankle injuries. Any other uses can open the door for knee injuries and, regardless, won’t help you perform any better on the field or in the gym. As you age, though, it may be useful for keeping the mind sharp.
Don’t do lower-body balance training unless a physical therapist prescribes it to you for helping to heal an ankle injury. Instead, do single-leg movements, such as forward or lateral lunges, or split-stance exercises with kettlebells or cable machines that offer instability without joint stress. Upper-body moves such as pushups or dumbbell presses on a BOSU ball, however, may provide stimulus with less joint pressure.