Stability and Balance Training
Performance Training or Circus Acts
The resurgence of functional training has forced many strength and conditioning professionals to reexamine many of the traditional concepts. At times, arguments and discussions regarding functional training have grown heated. What is interesting is that some of the time, strength and conditioning professionals may be arguing about a topic they agree on—they just don’t know it. One of the topics surrounded by heated discussion is the use of unstable training environments for performance enhancement. Some of the confusion may revolve around the assumption that functional training exclusively uses stability and balance training in unstable environments to enhance strength and performance. Furthermore, some fitness professionals may have inadvertently projected the wrong image of what functional training is by performing exercises that more closely resemble circus acts and calling them functional strength exercises (e.g., squatting a 135-pound barbell while standing on a stability ball). In my experience, these extreme applications are not the norm of functional training but rather the exception. The use of unstable training environments for the purpose of displaying and developing stability, balance, and athleticism is not new or mysterious. It actually has a long history and some well-documented science. Unstable training environments have been utilized for many centuries by a variety of populations. Martial artists have trained in a variety of unstable training environments to enhance stability, balance, strength, and power. Training barefooted in sand and walking on a variety of wooden poles were some of the simple ways martial artists created unstable training environments. The theater and circus also have a rich tradition in the use of unstable training environments. Standing and walking (often while juggling) on giant balls, ropes, a partner’s shoulders, or animals (e.g., horses) were used to demonstrate incredible stability, balance, and athleticism. Needless to say, this practice in part created athletic bodies with unbelievable power and strength—characteristics all coaches try to develop in their athletes. The scientific data also show the efficacy of unstable training environments. For example, a recent study showed increased core muscle recruitment during an abdominal curl when performed in an unstable environment compared with a stable surface. Research has also demonstrated the efficacy of using unstable training environments when rehabbing the ankle complex. Training under vibratory stimulus, which can be seen as a form of an unstable training environment, has also been shown to enhance performance parameters, such as a vertical jump. Functional training utilizes unstable training environments to enhance performance through enhanced stability and balance. However, there is much debate regarding the efficacy of this training approach. One of the reasons for this debate may be that many exercises performed in unstable training environments have been labeled functional just because they are hard to perform and look different (e.g., barbell squats on a stability ball). This exaggerated methodology and misrepresentation of functional training may be what has fueled the arguments against the use of unstable training environments. Perhaps some clarity may be useful in bringing strength and conditioning professionals to a common ground of discussion. Stability and balance training in unstable training environments is no more effective than any other performance enhancement method; specificity still governs the training adaptation. The use and effectiveness of this training approach has been proven on the field, in the gym, and in the lab. However, this does not mean it is magic. For example, training in unstable environments would certainly not be my first choice to develop hypertrophy or explosive-ness; there is nothing like high-volume training, Olympic lifts, and plyos for that. Having said that, I would certainly incorporate a measured dose of stability training (i.e., using an unstable training environment) within any hypertrophy or power program to help direct and control the size and power my program will surely provide. We must all remember that training modalities are just like tools in a toolbox. Training with the philosophy that all you need is a hammer in that toolbox is a myopic and unidimensional view of training. A more professional approach to performance enhancement would be more creative and diverse. Personally, I choose to pack my toolbox with many diverse and interesting tools, unstable training environments being one of them, using each tool appropriately and to the best interest of my athletes.
by JC Santana