Muscle activation patterns while lifting stable and unstable loads on stable and unstable surfaces

J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Feb;24(2):313-21. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c8655a.


In an attempt to mimic everyday activities that are performed in 3-dimensional environments, exercise programs have been designed to integrate training of the trunk muscles with training of the extremities. Many believe that the most effective way to recruit the core stabilizing muscles is to execute traditional exercise movements on unstable surfaces. However, physical activity is rarely performed with a stable load on an unstable surface; usually, the surface is stable, and the external resistance is not. The purpose of this study was to evaluate muscle activity of the prime movers and core stabilizers while lifting stable and unstable loads on stable and unstable surfaces during the seated overhead shoulder press exercise. Thirty resistance-trained subjects performed the shoulder press exercise for 3 sets of 3 repetitions under 2 load (barbell and dumbbell) and 2 surface (exercise bench and Swiss ball) conditions at a 10 repetition maximum relative intensity. Surface electromyography (EMG) measured muscle activity for 8 muscles (anterior deltoid, middle deltoid, trapezius, triceps brachii, rectus abdominis, external obliques, and upper and lower erector spinae). The average root mean square of the EMG signal was calculated for each condition. The results showed that as the instability of the exercise condition increased, the external load decreased. Triceps activation increased with external resistance, where the barbell/bench condition had the greatest EMG activation and the dumbbell/Swiss ball condition had the least. The upper erector spinae had greater muscle activation when performing the barbell presses on the Swiss ball vs. the bench. The findings provide little support for training with a lighter load using unstable loads or unstable surfaces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Muscles / physiology
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Electromyography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology
  • Muscle Strength / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Pectoralis Muscles / physiology
  • Postural Balance / physiology*
  • Range of Motion, Articular / physiology
  • Thorax / physiology
  • Weight Lifting / physiology*