A couple of years ago K9 Fitness Solutions, who are based in America, wrote an excellent blog which you can read here. The blog is based on lots of scientific evidence that says doing exercise on an unstable surface is not the best way to build muscle mass.
Several people in the UK read this and took away the message ‘exercise on an unstable surface is unsafe’. This is not what the blog or any of the evidence says. There is no canine based research on this topic, only human, but there is a lot of evidence that says the same thing.
I think including a direct quote from some of the research is helpful:
“Since the addition of unstable bases to resistance exercises can decrease force, power, velocity, and range of motion, they are not recommended as the primary training mode for athletic conditioning. However, the high muscle activation with the use of lower loads associated with instability resistance training suggests they can play an important role within a periodized training schedule, in rehabilitation programs, and for nonathletic individuals who prefer not to use ground-based free weights to achieve musculoskeletal health benefits”Behm et al, 2010
There doesn’t seem to be any research that disagrees with this. If we think about humans who do balance based exercise (like yoga and pilates) it is not surprising that balance exercise on an unstable surface doesn’t make you ‘hench’ or ‘stacked’. Balance work does help you switch on your stabilising muscles. Elite human athletes will do some training that is like pilates or yoga as it helps them move in a ‘balanced’ way.
Athletes competing at an elite level need power – you need to be able to apply a large force quickly if you want to beat everyone else. Power is related to muscle mass; more mass means more power can be applied. If you think about the human athletes that need lots of power like Chris Hoy and Serina Williams they are ‘hench’ and ‘stacked’. Weight training will make up a large portion of their training program. The exercises they do will be specific for their weakness as an individual and specific for their sport.
To build muscle you need to make the muscle work harder so it adapts to the increased load. There are several ways to do this, humans often use weights. Weight training is not very helpful when working on canine fitness! We can use different techniques to increase the load on muscle:
1. Taking advantage of gravity
2. Water resistance (hydrotherapy)
3. Plyometric work (explosive movement)
4. Eccentric work (lowering under control)
These techniques need to be used safely by someone with a good understanding of training programs. Plyometric and eccentric work can be dangerous if not done properly. Have a look on YouTube for some human plyometric and eccentric exercises, try doing some and see how your muscles feel for the next couple of days!! Having good technique, doing the appropriate number of repetitions and choosing the correct level of exercise challenge is so important for keeping your dog safe.
Specificity means that the muscles you work harder are the muscles that get stronger. If you do 50 press ups a day your legs will not get stronger! The weights exercises that Chris Hoy does for cycling and Serena Williams does for tennis will not be the same. All athletes are individuals so the best exercises for one swimmer may be different for another swimmer.
Dogs that do agility will need different exercises to those that do obedience. Each dog will start with different levels of strength so each individual that does agility will need tailored exercises appropriate for them.
To build muscle you need to engage lots of muscle fibres. When you do an action on an unstable surface you do it with less power so you don’t engage all your muscle fibres. Working on an unstable surface doesn’t build muscle as much as work on a stable surface.
Humans who go to the gym and lift weights without proper coaching get injured. They do too much too soon and they learn how to lift weights badly. Doing weights badly is dangerous. Weight training is not the problem, it’s how the weights are used.
Unstable surfaces are not dangerous. Asking a dog to do an action it is not strong enough to carry out is dangerous whether it’s on a wobbly surface or not. Elite athletes still do balance work, often in the form of pilates.
A ‘set program’ will always be dangerous for some dogs. The solution is to get advice from a properly trained professional which should be specific for your dog; taking in to account your dogs age, condition and activity.
Behm, D.G., Drinkwater, E.J., Willardson, J.M. and Cowley, P.M., 2010. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology position stand: The use of instability to train the core in athletic and nonathletic conditioning. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 35(1), pp.109-112.
Haff, G.G. and Triplett, N.T. eds., 2015. Essentials of strength training and conditioning 4th edition. Human kinetics.