In gyms and clubs all over the No.VA/DC Metro area its commonplace to see people, usually under the tutelage of a trainer, performing a variety of movements on balance balls, wobble boards, foam rollers, stability disks, etc. If you ask them about this, the answer will be, sometimes condescendingly, “Oh, I’m doing functional training!”
Manipulating a weight, even bodyweight, while on an unstable surface is inherently unsafe, but common sense seems to have been ushered out the back door as instructors and trainers rush to put their clients through the latest “functional” routine Zuzana has posted on YouTube. Some of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that much of the so-called functional equipment is relatively inexpensive and highly portable, so its favored by many trainers in this area who call on busy, time-strapped clients in their homes and offices, rather than those that work in a gym. The manufacturers of this equipment, high quality though some of it is, are somewhat to blame for promoting these pieces as “functional training equipment”.
Of course, some exercise is better than none at all, and so these people can experience some results initially. Unfortunately, one of the most common results is injury.
Popular thought is that the appearance of any unstable surface/device in an exercise creates a functional routine. There is a type of training legitimately called functional training. This isn’t it.
True functional training is the type performed by people undergoing physical therapy, occupational therapy, and sports training. Its purpose is to have a positive effect on a real life activity, a task, job, or sport that they will be involved in: lifting boxes, climbing stairs, carrying a load, turning a wrench, throwing a ball, etc. The use of these instability devices does have a place in real functional training, but it is actually quite limited. In the case of an individual who needs to enhance their ability to balance (as opposed to their sense of balance, which resides mostly in the inner ear), core strength, and joint stability – particularly of the ankle, these devices and methods can have a positive effect on normal daily activities. I can find no clinical studies that prove exercise on unstable surfaces improves sports performance. Sports trainers and coaches the world over know that to get better at kicking a ball at a goal, you have to practice by kicking a ball at a goal.
I have used most of these devices at one time or another, and will readily admit that many movements on them are quite challenging, even to a conditioned trainer, but just because an exercise is hard doesn’t mean its functional.
In the Washington DC area, what has come to be called functional training almost entirely eschews the use of weights, except occasionally for very small dumbbells, usually less than 5 lbs. and never more than 10. This is irony heaped upon irony, as strength gains from lifting weights while mounted on an unstable surface are significantly lessened. You get strong by lifting heavy weights, not light ones, and the fact that an unstable base makes lifting a weight more difficult means that an even lighter one will be used than if one were simply standing on the floor.
This situation exists partly because of the fear that many women have of adding muscle mass to their bodies, itself stemming from the fear of gaining weight, even if its a healthy, muscular weight gain. These are the folks who “just want to do toning”. Make no mistake, toning is muscle building. It is impossible to shape and sculpt a muscle, make it firmer, and improve its ‘tone’ without building it. It is extremely difficult, impossible perhaps, to progressively overload a muscle, as is necessary to build strength, on an unstable surface. Most importantly, it is extremely dangerous.
Stability and core training are important elements in any fitness regimen, but they are not an end-all in themselves. They should not be done to the exclusion of regular weight training and cardio workouts. Functional training is a legitimate workout modality, but only as what the term actually means. What could be more functional than the ability to lift a box weighing 50 or even 100 lbs. and place it on a shelf above your head? You won’t get that from doing lateral raises with a resistance band while standing on a wobble board.