Today I would like to point my attention towards a heatedly discussed question: are instable surfaces functional?
Many coaches and athletes have asked this question. Some regularly use balance pads, gym balls or ball cushions as part of their functional training. Others define functional training precisely through such equipment. And then there are those that claim that exercises on instable surfaces are non-functional because they say that these kinds of situations wouldn’t occur in real life and, thus, the exercises would offer no transfer. It is most likely that all of this is simply due to varying definitions of the term ‘functional’.
What ‘functional’ means has already been the topic of some of the posts in the FuncMove Community. See the article by Tom Schwendener here.
One thing is clear: movements can also be trained on balance pads etc. Movement quality is more important than quantity here as well. You can achieve great effects on the muscular activation and the inter- and intra-muscular coordination. This means that the central nervous system, the data lines between the brain and the organs, learns to work faster and more efficient. Additionally, the communication between individual muscle fibers and between whole muscles is improved. Especially the muscles surrounding the joints and the stabilizing musculature of the core will increase their performance tremendously.
In the end, all of this provides a better posture, gives us a higher quality of movement, and can proactively prevent unequal load distribution or falls. If an athlete or a regular gym-goer sees their deficits in this area then it is certainly a good idea to focus their training on these aspects and work on them with the help of instable surfaces.
Thus, we can call this kind of training functional training.
‘Yes, but….!’, the hardliners scream jumping from their seats. Functional training serves the function, which is getting better in a specific sport or completing daily tasks more efficiently. The exercises must be transferable at all times and always be close to the actual sport specific situations, or daily tasks respectively. Thus, as far as the hardliners are concerned, training should stay grounded. And that is on a steady ground, not an instable one. There is no sport that is contested on a foam floor. Our flats, houses, sidewalks or offices are also not laid out with cushions. Functional training should train movements. Movements like throwing, pulling, pressing, lifting, carrying, etc. Movements that can be found in our sport/task that we train for.
It seems that the community can’t come to an agreement here. I will also avoid giving a definitive answer here. The topic is way too diverse for that. But I can try to give an account of my personal opinion with the help of an example:
In a recent post I have talked a little about the biceps curl. This exercise is the manifestation of non-functionality for some. I, however, think that a biceps curl can be functional when it is done standing and with free weights.
‘There are many situations in daily life where we have to carry a crate or a big object in front of our body. With straight arms often times this is not possible. It isn’t that desirable anyways because in that position you tend to lean your upper body back und provoke an excessive lordosis in your spine. It is certainly better for your posture to hold the heavy object with bent arms to hold it in front of your belly. And there we have it: the biceps curl!’
In addition, you also stimulate the core and shoulder girdle regions because they have to do a lot of stabilization work.
What I am trying to say is that isolated exercises or exercises on instable surfaces can also be functional (see Pilkahn: Strength according to Collins. Bullet point 14.). Especially when they serve the purpose of improving certain body parts, sub-movements, or structures of the whole. To stay with the biceps curl as an example: if you have trouble performing a pull up it could be a good idea to train your biceps because the pull up movement can benefit from that isolated training.
As Gray Cook has put it:
‘Many training and conditioning concepts focus on maximizing the strengths, however, it is more reasonable to work on your weaknesses and problem areas. Sooner or later the ignored weaknesses will become evident in the daily life, during training or competitions. Thus, neglecting your weaknesses is not a good idea in the long run.’ (Cook 2011, p.16)
The aforementioned pieces of equipment can be seen as parts of the puzzle that is functional training. In the end, every form of movement, exercise, or training is functional if it helps us maintain or improve the physical fitness and increase our well-being. So my tip is as follows: train but train free!