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Warming Up for Exercise on an Unstable Surface

by Fred Hoffman, MEd on Oct 21, 2010

The belief that you’ll engage your core when standing, running, balancing and/or exercising on an unstable surface has encouraged the use of equipment that challenges stability, particularly in the standing position. Even though it is possible to stabilize without properly engaging the core, a growing number of people are now training on unstable surfaces. The need has never been greater for activity-specific warm-ups that target the lower leg and foot, especially if you move participants from stable to unstable positions. A proper warm-up will enhance proprioceptive awareness, prepare the muscles and joints, and reduce the risk of injury.

Note: The recommendations presented here specifically target and prepare the lower leg and foot for work on unstable surfaces. However, any warm-up should be “total-body,” or global, in nature.


In addition to addressing stability, the warm-up should promote mobility, as participants will be moving constantly between loaded and unloaded positions. Keep in mind the many muscles of the lower leg and foot, which influence the biomechanical actions that occur naturally when standing, walking, running, hopping or jumping.

It is also important to consider the unique qualities of stability equipment. Some items, such as wobble or balance boards, have flat surfaces that tilt when you stand on them. Others—for example, the BOSU® Balance Trainer (dome side up), the Beamfit® Beam, balance pads and disks, and the half foam roller—have nonflat or soft surfaces on a stable base.

An Unstable Approach

Use the following suggestions when preparing participants for unstable surface training:

  • Perform at least 5–8 minutes of dynamic movement to increase body temperature and heart rate and to introduce movement patterns.
  • Include movements that explore the height, width, length and space surrounding the equipment. For example, walk on and off the equipment from behind and both sides, or start on top and touch one foot to the floor in all directions before returning to the starting position.
  • Include lower-body, closed-chain (weight-bearing) movements (squats, lunges, heel raises, standing on one foot) in a variety of stances and foot positions (wide or narrow, one foot back, one foot back and externally rotated, etc.).
  • Include lower-body, open-chain movements, such as balancing on one leg and performing dorsiflexion and plantar flexion on the non-weight-bearing foot.
  • Include movement patterns that promote both mobility and stability (e.g., single-leg squats).
  • Incorporate multijoint and multiplanar movements in varying degrees and ranges of motion. For example, in a lunge position, bend and straighten the legs while rotating the upper torso.
  • Use movement patterns that facilitate knee flexion and extension (squats, lunges and associated variations). Don’t forget the foot and ankle: eversion, inversion, plantar flexion, dorsiflexion, pronation and supination. For example, start standing, roll in and out on the edges of the feet, rise up on the toes and then the heels, and rock forward and back on the toes and heels.
  • Start on a stable surface and progress to an unstable one. Squat with both feet on the floor; with one foot on the equipment and the other on the floor; and finally with both feet on the equipment.
  • Include dynamic stretches if applicable.

For more warm-up strategies, see the full article, “Preparing for Instability,” in the online IDEA Library or in the September issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

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About the Author

Fred Hoffman, MEd

Fred Hoffman, MEd IDEA Author/Presenter

Fred Hoffman, MEd, holds a master’s degree in health education and is the director of international services for the Club Synergy Group. A consultant and master trainer for companies such as Reebok&...