Stable versus Unstable: which is the best for strengthening?
Many dog sports enthusiasts train their canine athletes in fitness with the goal of reducing the risk of injury and increasing longevity in their sport, as well as hoping to improve their dog’s performance.
Studies support that strength training is the single most important component of fitness training to keep your dog injury free and thus able to compete for a long time. But there remains a great deal of confusion regarding strength training in dogs and just how to do it.
Strength training is a type of training that increases strength by gradually increasing the resistance the muscles must overcome.
In people, strength training often involves the use of external weights (think dumbbells, barbells, weight machines) and occasionally just body weight resistance (think push-ups, pull ups, and sit-ups.) In dogs, this is most often done using body weight resistance, but can also be done using external weights like weight vests or leg weights.
Strength training is also called resistance training.
But what about strength exercises performed on balance equipment?
Strength training performed on unstable surfaces brings in the requirement for greater balance. This type of strength training is called Instability Resistance Training.
Instability Resistance Training has become common in canine fitness due to the popularity of inflatable canine exercise equipment. However, strength training in people is usually done on stable surfaces, allowing one to focus on the primary muscles involved in the movement. So why the difference in the canine fitness world? Is this really the best approach? We don’t think so and there are studies in human fitness that support our approach.
What is Instability Resistance Training?
Let’s better define Instability Resistance Training so everyone knows what type of exercises we are talking about. Our first thoughts are exercises that use inflatable exercise equipment of which there is an abundance in canine fitness. Inflatables include balance discs of varying sizes and shapes, donut balls, peanut balls, egg balls, wedges, BOSUs, and more. Other unstable equipment includes the use of balance pads, rollers, rockerboards, wobbleboards, and stable platforms placed on unstable inflatables. Some exercises done in water or while standing on something floating on water, and even exercises done in sand can provide some instability. The use of resistance bands also adds an element of instability into an exercise.
We recognize that instability is a spectrum and so instability resistance training exercises are also on a spectrum, involving a variety of equipment. We can also create instability without the use of any equipment at all, simply by changing the stance, or base, support. For dogs, the three-legged stand and cross-legged stand are prime examples of this.
Okay, so we understand that instability is on a spectrum. And we think we can identify when an exercise includes instability now by looking for the use of unstable equipment or exercises that change the base of support. But what is the significance of using instability in strength training? How does this ultimately affect your dog’s performance in your chosen sport?
What happens in the muscles during instability resistance training?
There is a ton of research in the human fitness world showing which muscles are active during certain exercises and under specific conditions (stable versus unstable) but the gist of it is that the EMG (electromyograms- a measure of the muscles activity/firing) is increased with unstable versus stable.
Simply put, studies indicate there is more muscle activity if you are trying to balance at the same time as resisting force.
The body calls on all muscles to help stabilize and maintain balance when things are not stable. This takes priority. Terms like “prime movers,” “stabilizers,” “agonists,” and “antagonists” now come into play when talking about muscles, as classified by their job. Studies indicate that all these muscles may activate as a protective mechanism against injury during moderately unstable conditions. When the agonist and antagonist contract together, this “stiffening strategy” is also a safety mechanism. And EMGs show that there is decreased prime mover activation when instability is too demanding.
Somehow, the idea has evolved that if we get more muscles activated, then we will get greater force production and therefore more power. (Find out how muscles really get stronger and bigger here.) And that our athletes would be improving their ability to balance all at the same time. But again, more muscle activation does not equal greater force production when opposing muscles are all activated! In other words, when the athlete is trying not to fall, there is not much benefit for strengthening.
It's important to realize that canine fitness is still a new field of study. Much of what we think we know about canine fitness has been transferred and applied to dogs from the human field.
Although there are differences in dogs and people, there are amazing similarities as well. Understanding this, it is interesting to note that the use of unstable exercise equipment for dogs has become the staple for rehab and fitness coaches alike although the majority of the research in people indicates that instability resistance training may not be appropriate for all segments of the population, particularly for high end athletes in performance sports.
The majority of the research in people indicates that instability resistance training has tremendous benefits - but only for certain populations. These include the young, seniors, and, of course, those in rehabilitation, athletes or non athletes alike, where instability training first began. We, at K9 Fitness Solutions, feel that there is tremendous benefit to any athlete early on in their athletic training, regardless of age.
However, a general review of the volume of studies in instability resistance training indicate that there may be significantly less benefit in the collegiate athlete, professional athlete and the elite athlete for people.
So what does this mean for our canine athletes?
While there are different levels of athletes, if we look exclusively at canine athletes that are already sport trained, physically active and fit we can begin to compare to the human equivalent of college level athletes.
In higher level athletes we find that the research does not support the use of instability resistance training as effective for maximizing power.
In one of the most important studies, Cressey (2007) looked at power output, sprint, agility, jumps, and pre-test and post-test of lower body training in stable and unstable environments in collegiate soccer athletes. Although both groups improved in some instances, the stable surfaces group outperformed the unstable group in all categories. This led the authors to conclude that the results of their study affirmed that unstable training does not allow for enough loading of muscles to create strength.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it - unstable surface training does not allow for enough loading of muscles to create strength in higher level athletes.
For those trying to gain a performance advantage through strength and power, the studies consistently show that there are limited benefits when training in an unstable environment, and that it may be even less effective with the high-end athlete.
Instability training, or what we refer to as balance and stabilization training, is a critical component of our K9 Fitness Pyramid at the foundation level. A strong core is a requirement for all. Resistance training is strength training and requires that the muscle be loaded appropriately.
Combining the two into Instability Resistance Training can be helpful in certain individuals but we recognize the benefit of strength training on stable surfaces for the higher level, trained athlete. In fact, our K9 Sports Strengthening Program is a 30 day program that does just that- strengthens the trained athlete for improvement in sports using stable surfaces- something that’s clearly supported by a multitude of studies in human fitness.