Functional training is a big buzz word today, leading people to hold it as the gold standard of Fitness, but does training on unstable surfaces actually have any merit?
The term 'functional training' came about from physio therapists who prescribed 'functional' exercises in order to for their clients muscles, joints and tendons to return back to their NORMAL working state. These exercises where used to simply make the muscle/join/tendon FUNCTION again, not get bigger and stronger. Somehow, someone made the jump and thought that it would be a good idea to have everything as 'functional' as possible.
“Functional training” is definitely a hot topic – it’s also one of my biggest pet peeves! Who the hell came up with the notion that standing on a Swiss ball with your eyes closed and a finger in your nose was more “functional” than such great exercises as barbell squats, deadlifts, sled dragging, chin-ups, etc. I guess, like a lot of other good ideas, functional training became a trendy, overused and improperly implemented training tool.
These implements do have their time and place; I just don’t feel they should become the focus of an athlete’s training. The reason I say this is because in all of sports, it is the athlete that moves while the playing surface remains still. (The playing surface doesn’t move as the athlete tries to remain still!) True “functional” training should consist of applying resistance to an athlete while his/her feet are in contact with the ground. The athlete must then adapt to these forces. Also, if you’re always performing exercises on “unstable” devices, you will be limited in the amount of weight you can use. This will prevent you from overloading the prime movers of the exercise, which will limit how strong you can get.
As far as taking “functional” training to the next level, I have found that the strongman-type events have a high degree of transfer to the real world. Sled dragging, tire flipping and farmers walks are all great tools for training the athlete. All of these exercises require the athlete to counter a resistance by driving into the ground with their feet.
Generally, I like using Swiss balls, balance boards, etc. during the initial off-season training of an athlete to overcome any muscular imbalances or injuries. I am also a fan of doing abdominal work on the Swiss ball as it provides a great pre-stretch on the abs – something you can’t get by doing crunches laying on the floor.