Here are two videos on Slosh Pipes. How to make them, and some basic ways to use them. Picking up things that are unstable and shift or move while you hold them may be a more effective way to train stabilizing muscles than standing or laying on a surface that is unstable. See below for details.
The subject of strengthening the trunk muscles and the body’s core has become prevalent over the last 20 years. When we look at the use of unstable surfaces (physioballs a.k.s. Swedish balls, balance disks/platforms, Bosu balls, etc) and the use of unstable objects to lift (slosh pipes, slosh balls, weights suspended from bars, etc.) the topics of upper and lower extremity strengthening, and that of stabilizing muscles at the shoulder joint and hip also have been studied. These investigations go way back to the late 1990’s. Additionally, the subject of using the breath and specific breathing techniques has been studied. To effectively use any tool (slosh pipes, etc.) or method (anatomical breathing, biomechanical breathing or Valsalva maneuver) one must look at the available research to make appropriate decisions.
Starting with some older studies, research by McCool FD et al (1997) concluded that the cross-section of the diaphragm was increased (made stronger) by general (weight lifting) and specific (breathing) exercises. This increase strength of the diaphragm should aid in increasing intra-abdominal pressure and assist in trunk stabilization. Mel Siff in Facts and Fallacies of Fitness (2002) further states that the holding of the breath and timing of breathing during exercise allowing the belly to distend automatically is of greater relevance than trying to pull it in (navel to the spine) during heavy lifting and pushing. He further suggests that reactive transversus abdominis activation is set off by changes in breathing pattern and tension changes in the diaphragm. Similar evidence has been put forth more recently by Stuart McGill who also prefers the “bracing” maneuver to the “drawing in” maneuver for trunk and spine stability.
A full body approach to training the trunk and spinal stabilizers is currently overtaking the specific abdominal crunch and transversus abdominus activation methods. This is in part because the only time the trunk muscles will work independently of the limbs is when the body is suspended in water or air. During activities, the body stabilizes as a whole which includes contributions from the periphery and the muscles, ligaments and soft tissues that stabilize the adjacent vertebrae. The speed at which the body must stabilize is very important and so a specific internally focused conscious activation of muscles may slow down the automatic processes by which we stabilize. Although we may prepare and be able to stabilize slowly before some activities, many times (during falling, being pushed, etc.) we must stabilize in a dynamic, fast, explosive, or ballistic manner. This recruitment of stabilizing muscles all over the body is under the control of preprogrammed processes (feed forward) and ongoing feedback from the proprioceptive and vestibular systems. The proprioceptive system plays a larger role when the support is stationary and the vestibular system when the supporting is moving.
Balance on an unstable surface requires that the feet remain in a fixed position. Typically when a perturbation (destabilizing force) moves our center of gravity (COG) off of our base of support (BOS) we step to widen the base of support to stay balanced. When we do activities on balance apparatus, we now keep the feet and the space between them, the base of support, fixed so we must use another strategy to maintain our upright position or balance. These other strategies are different than what we use in life, work, sports where we would move the feet and change the base of support. Research has shown hip and ankle strategies to maintain balance when the feet are fixed in position on a balance apparatus in trained dancers. Studies showed may differences in the hip and ankle strategies used by subjects including inclining the trunk to maintain balance.
This post however isn’t about balance training, it’s about lifting unstable objects. When we begin to explore the research on lifting stable vs. unstable objects we find studies that compare barbell (stable) to dumbbell (unstable) exercises. One such study looked at changes in muscle activation during a barbell (BB) (coupled) and dumbbell (DB) (uncoupled) chest press exercise performed on an unstable surface. The results suggested that demands on the core musculature to provide stability are increased with the use of DBs (uncoupled) as opposed to a BB (coupled).
A similar study states that “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.” In this study, the results indicated that as the instability of the exercise condition increased, the external load decreased so there was little support for training with a lighter load using unstable loads or unstable surfaces.
Two studies looked specifically at unstable load devices. The first examined a biceps curl exercise with a type of slosh pipe or unstable water filled tube. The findings indicated that though bicep activation remained unvaried, compensatory activation of postural muscles contribute to postural stability and thus, the device may be a useful tool for neuromuscular training leading to improved stability and control. The second examined the differences in ground reaction forces and muscle activation in the trunk and leg muscles during unstable load (weights suspended from the bar by an elastic band) load training and a stable condition (a normally loaded barbell). The unstable load resulted in a decrease in ground reaction force compared to the normally loaded barbell condition. The unstable load id however produced greater muscle activation in the rectus abdominis, external oblique, and soleus. The authors concluded that “The findings of this study suggest that squatting with an unstable load will increase activation of the stabilizing musculature; and while force decrements were statistically significant, the decrease was so small it may not be relevant to practitioners.”
A third study compared holding a slosh-pipe-like device called the Attitube to lifting while laying on a swiss ball. A standard bench press on a stable bench was performed as a control. The effects of the location of instability (under the shoulders vs. in the hands) on kinematic and electromyographical patterns during the bench press exercise were examined. The results found trunk muscle activation was greatest during the bench press with the slosh-pipe-like tube and smallest during the standard stable bench press. Range of elbow flexion was decreased with the slosh-pipe-like tube and the pipe itself showed increased medial-lateral movement. The authors concluded that “The results further support the notion that instability devices may be more beneficial for trunk muscles rather than prime movers.”
As the position paper of the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists suggests, using instability exercises (whether balance like exercises or lifting unstable objects) can be part of a program but should not take the place of other traditional exercises as the results of the different types of training tools and methods are different.
“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.”
Here are links to the studies mentioned above as well as some others comparing exercises on stable and unstable surfaces.