Performance Training or Circus Acts

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THE RESURGENCE OF FUNC-tional 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.

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