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Stable Strength

by Ross Muinzer


Reinventing the Strength Training Wheel

Strength training is slowly gaining popularity in the sport of motocross, but it has not yet received the amount of respect that it deserves. At the root of this lack of respect, are a number of false beliefs that have led to strength training being avoided at all cost. A few examples of these beliefs are that lifting heavy weights will instantly turn an athlete into a bodybuilder, cause arm pump, or interfere with endurance training. All of these beliefs could not be further from the truth. Properly periodized strength training is one of the most important factors in reaching elite levels of performance in any sport, including motocross.

Many trainers are starting to incorporate strength training into their programs, but they appear to be trying to reinvent the strength training wheel in the process. It is common to see the use of unstable surface training equipment in the gym. These unstable surfaces include BOSU balls, Indo boards, and Swiss balls. Movements such as a body weight squat, kettle bell swing, and dumbbell overhead press are commonly performed while standing or sitting on one of these devices. One theory behind using the unstable surface is that combining balance and strength training is motocross specific. Motocross, being a two wheeled sport, obviously requires balance, but is strength training the right place to incorporate balance training? Let’s dig deeper into this theory.

Amateur standout Brock Papi is always on a stable surface when doing strength training movements.

Photo: Ross Muinzer

The Balancing Act

The balance aspect of the unstable surface is thought to require higher activation of the core musculature than performing the same exercise on a stable surface. However, research suggests otherwise. Uribe et al. (2010) used electromyography (EMG) to measure muscle activation of the rectus abdominus while dumbbell bench press and shoulder press were performed on a bench as well as a Swiss ball. The results suggest that there was no significant difference in the amount of core activation when the exercises were performed on the unstable surface when compared to the stable surface. Willardson et al. (2009) also used EMG to measure core activation but substituted a BOSU ball in place of the Swiss ball. Different exercises were also used, which included the barbell deadlift, back squat, overhead press, and curl. The results suggest that there was no increase in core activation when standing on the BOSU. The highest level of core activation was actually found during the barbell overhead press while standing on the ground, most likely because of the ability to lift heavier weights while standing on the ground.

The use of unstable surfaces for the purpose of balance training may be beneficial to motocross athletes, but if strength is the goal of a training session, unstable surfaces should not be used if significant gains are desired.

Although using unstable surfaces may appear innovative to the untrained eye, the idea overlooks the basic principles of exercise physiology that make strength training so valuable. Strength is defined as the ability to produce force. A high level of force obviously cannot be applied to an unstable surface. Decreases in force production, as high as 60%, have been reported when performing exercises on an unstable surface compared to a stable surface such as a bench or the floor (Anderson & Behm, 2004). This significant loss in force production prevents the exercise from providing a stimulus that is adequate enough to cause strength adaptations to occur (Kohler, Flanagan, & Whiting, 2010). Thus, specific adaptations necessary for strength to increase cannot be accurately targeted with the use of an unstable surface.

How to Get Stronger

The vast majority of strength gains result from adaptations to the central nervous system, not muscle hypertrophy as is commonly mistaken. Although increasing the cross sectional area of muscle fibers can improve the muscle’s ability to produce force, very significant increases in strength can be achieved without adding a single pound of muscle. The central nervous system is responsible for creating a motor signal in the brain and then passing that signal down the spinal cord and out to the muscles, specifically to motor units. A motor unit consists of a motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers that it innervates. Central nervous system adaptations that result from strength training include increases in motor unit recruitment, firing rate, and synchronization. In other words, the nervous system becomes more efficient at recruiting more muscle fibers, activating these muscle fibers more rapidly and continuously, and activating fibers in coordination with one another. The final result of these adaptations is the ability to produce more force.

In this case of reinventing the strength training wheel, the wheel is the barbell. Strength and conditioning coaches in mainstream sports, such as football, basketball, and baseball, have used heavy barbell training for decades as the primary method of increasing strength. The concept behind the use of the barbell is simple; lift heavy objects and strength will increase. The barbell can and should be used in a vast array of movements such as the back squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, clean, snatch, and bent over row. Weight can be continuously added in small increments to these movement patterns for years. As a result, very significant gains in strength can be achieved with proper programming. For example, an untrained athlete’s deadlift can increase from 200 to 400 pounds in a matter of months. That is a significant increase in strength that simply cannot be matched by performing strength training movements on an unstable surface.

A Time and Place for Everything

Sure, strength gains can be made with the use of an unstable surface. An athlete standing on a Swiss ball may be able to increase the amount of weight lifted in the overhead dumbbell press from 10 to 40 pounds. However, it should be quite obvious that being able to overhead press 150 pounds while standing on the ground will benefit an athlete far more than being able to press a 40 pound dumbbell while standing on a Swiss ball. Remember, instability training is just that and when used properly it does have its application. The use of unstable surfaces for the purpose of balance training may be beneficial to motocross athletes, but if strength is the goal of a training session, unstable surfaces should not be used if significant gains are desired.


  1. Anderson, K.G. & Behm, D.G., (2004). Maintenance of EMG Activity and Loss of Force Output with Instability. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18, 637-640.
  2. Kohler, J.M., Flanagan, S.P., & Whiting, W.C., (2010). Muscle Activation Patterns While Lifting Stable and Unstable Loads on Stable and Unstable Surfaces. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (2), 313-320.
  3. Uribe, B.P., Coburn, J.W., Brown, L.E., Judelson, D.A., Khamoui, A.V., & Nguyen, D., (2010). Muscle Activation When Performing the Chest Press and Shoulder Press on a Stable Bench vs. a Swiss Ball. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (4), 1028- 1033.
  4. Willardson, J.M., Fontana, F.E., & Bressel, E., (2009). Effect of Surface Stability on Core Muscle Activity for Dynamic Resistance Exercises. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 4, 97-109.

About the Author: Ross Muinzer is a strength and conditioning coach with a Bachelor’s degree in movement and sports science from Purdue University and a Master’s degree in strength and conditioning from Texas Tech University. Ross interned with the strength and conditioning staff and taught undergraduate weight training classes while studying at Texas Tech. He has worked exclusively with top amateur riders such as Luke Renzland and Daniel Baker during the last season of their amateur careers. Ross resides in Clermont, FL and has recently begun coaching Brock Papi. For more information regarding his training philosophy and training tips, please visit his Instagram account. @muinzer_mx_training

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    Aaron Mason November 22, 2016 at 5:23 am

    hey guys, I am 15 years old and racing A Grade motorcross in the Junior ranks across Australia and I am wondering if you guys could make me a fitness program that will better me before this season. I have 4 months before the State titles start and I am overcoming an femur injury at the moment so I am currently doing physio everyday to make that stronger. I am able to put full weight through my leg. thanks heaps guys talk soon

  2. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer November 26, 2016 at 2:22 am

    Aaron - Please take a look at our online plans.

    If you want something more personal please email me at Thanks!

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