The History of the Bosu Ball

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Part of the functional training fetish exhibited by members of the strength and conditioning community in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, the Bosu Ball was not too long ago, a ubiquitous piece of gym equipment. Nowadays found in the corner of the gym floor, if at all, the Bosu Ball, along with the Swiss Ball covered previously, represented a shift in training from strength and hypertrophy and balance and functional strength (whatever that means).

Having rediscovered the Bosu Ball recently, and by that I mean having tripped over one in the gym, I thought the timing seemed right to finally uncover its history.

What is it?

In effect the Bosu Ball is a Swiss Ball that’s been sliced in half with one round end remaining. From my own experiences with the device as an impressionable rugby playing teen, the Ball was typically used for single leg work like lunges and split squats alongside squatting, dumbbell bench pressing and I kid you not, deadlifting – we were young okay?!?

People saw, and indeed continue to see the Ball as a tool for full body workouts, demonstrating I suppose, the Ball’s enduring popularity.

Who Invented It?

Thankfully this is a far easier question to answer than say, who invented the Good Morning Exercise? Following a continued spate of lower back injuries in the late 1990s, David Weck, an American trainer, invented the Bosu Ball.

Interviewed by Workoutmommy.com in 2008, Weck revealed

I created the BOSU Ball as a tool to help me overcome chronic lower back pain. After a minor mishap on my motorcycle, I suffered a year with chronic (everyday) pain in my lower back. Traditional physical therapy did not work for me nor did several other treatment alternatives. I discovered that balance and core training with a stability ball began to provide relief. As I progressed the exercises, I found that standing a top the ball was very beneficial for coordinating my core strength and improving my condition. After several falls from atop the ball, I decided to cut the ball in half. I created a prototype and used it to fully rehabilitate my lower back. I also used it trained my personal training clients (ranging from 9 yrs old to 68 yrs old) with great success. The name BOSU was created from the acronym “Both Sides Up” to describe the functional utility of the device. Since then, BOSU has come to signify “Both Sides Utilized” which represents an approach to exercise that seeks to enhance performance and movement capabilities through better balance – both in the two brain hemispheres and in both sides of the body.

From his own website, Weck cites Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf, and F.M. Alexander alongside systems of Tai Chi and traditional Chinese medicine as part of his training philosophy.

How did it become so popular?

Well good timing seems to have played an important part. Though Swiss Balls and other forms of instability training had been around for several decades, they received much greater interest from trainers in the last decade of the twentieth-century. As detailed by ScienceofRunning.com, a resource whose research puts my own writing to shame, the 1990s and early 2000s saw a series of papers published on instability training  which seemed to endorse its methodology.

According to Science of Running, instability training, as popularised by the Swiss and Bosu Ball, became a core tenant of several physical training courses in the United States during this time. They trace this inclusion to the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s 2004 textbook, which claimed that everyone should begin their resistance training career with stabilization training (comprised mainly of UST) to improve neuromuscular efficiency. Sadly I haven’t been able to track down the 2004 edition but the 2008 version, available in preview form here, does include a substantial section on balance training and its benefits. The inclusion into the NASM’s textbook was a pivotal moment in the popularisation of the Bosu, and indeed the Swiss ball, as it meant that a new generation of personal trainers were not only introduced to balance training, they were encouraged to use it on almost every population.

This popularity extended beyond the public gym into the higher echelons of competitive sport. From the early 2000s, NFL strength and conditioning coaches were praising the Bosu Ball (See here, here and here). Likewise in the realm of professional soccer (here, here and here) and even UFC, although this last one was not without its controversy (here, here and here). Finally there’s a lot to be said for the charisma of David Weck, whose numerous training videos, often in conjunction with a personal training body such as NASM or ACE made Bosu Ball training seem both accessible and effective.

Is it effective?

Despite my reservations about it, yes for certain things the Bosu Ball can be effective. Reflecting on a decade of Busu Ball research, Dean Somerset highlighted that studies have shown the Bosu Ball to be effective in helping individual’s rehab for lower body injuries such as ankle or knee sprains and breakages. Similarly it may be effective in stimulating greater abdominal activity during exercises. As Somerset rightly points out however, there is a ceiling as to how far these benefits extend.

Although it briefly became the darling of sport’s coaches the world over, the Ball incurred the ire of several strength and conditioning coaches such as Charles Poliquin, Eric Cressey and a host of others. In effect the main criticisms have been that training on a Bosu Ball for the general populace only makes you better at training on a Bosu Ball i.e. the perceived carryover benefits are rarely as impressive as is hoped.

The fetish exhibited by some trainers to have client barbell squat on Bosu Balls or perform a series of weighted tasks is undoubtedly responsible for much of this dismissal. However, if one used the ball in the manner preached by Weck, largely as a tool for abdominal and rehabilitation work, I see no reason why the Bosu Ball couldn’t just represent another tool for specific needs. It is most certainly not the miracle cure people envisioned it is just one decade ago.

As always…happy lifting!

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