Bench press on stable surfaces to gain strength and improve upper body power. Training on a stable bench will allow you to lift heavier weights and increase force output for optimal performance adaptations. Add variety to your training by including the dumbbell and barbell bench press in your program and varying tempo rather than by lifting on unstable surfaces.
A new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reminds us that unstable surfaces do not provide the best training stimulus if you want to get the most out of your training. This study compared muscular activity and maximal strength using a 6RM load in a barbell chest press on a stable bench and two unstable surfaces (a Swiss ball and a balance pad place on a bench under the upper back).
Results showed that performing the chest press on the bench resulted in a much higher 6RM load than the two unstable surfaces. Electromyographic (EMG) activity was also much higher in the stable bench press than with the unstable surfaces for the pectoralis major and triceps: For the pec major and triceps, EMG activity was near maximal for the stable bench press. It was 90 percent of that value for the balance cushion and 81 percent using the Swiss ball. For the triceps, EMG activity was 79 percent of the stable bench press value for the balance cushion and 69 percent using the Swissball. Similar EMG activities were recorded for the anterior deltoid, biceps, and obliques.
The Swiss ball clearly did provide more instability because it required significantly more activity of the rectus abdominis than the other two exercises—for the stable bench, EMG activity of the rectus abdominis was 69 percent of that recorded with the Swiss Ball. Of course, the purpose of a bench press exercise is to work the upper body muscles and train the pectoralis as a prime mover rather than train one abdominal muscle for stability.
Take away a commitment to using stable surfaces for training. Unstable surfaces will always compromise maximal strength and power gains. There is no reason to train with a less effective training stimulus or to activate the prime movers to a smaller degree, especially since doing so does not challenge the central nervous system in the most appropriate manner. Athletes and the general population should perform the most effective exercise that provides the greatest preparation for performance.
Rather than wasting time on unstable training, consider varying your tempo to get stronger, overcome plateaus, and add excitement to your workouts. Modifying tempo or the amount of time you spend on the eccentric and concentric phases of a lift provides an abundance of physiological stimuli that is proven to make you stronger, faster, and better.
Saeterbakken, A., Fimland, M. Electromyographic Activity and 6 RM Strength in Bench Press on Stable and Unstable Surfaces. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.