I realize this post may appear a bit more ”soft-core” than usual, but it’s an article I originally wrote for a local ‘mainstream’ health/lifestyle magazine in Sept 2006. Enjoy!
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“There’s a fine line between stupid and clever” - David St. Hubbins (played by Michael McKean) from the movie, This is Spinal Tap
With the functional fitness craze going stronger than ever, I occasionally find it important to point out what should be fairly obvious:
When the risk of a “functional” exercise outweighs the benefits, you might want to consider using a different exercise to achieve the desired effect.
While the joke in the fitness biz is that if you ask 10 coaches or trainers to give you the best exercise program, you’ll get at least 15 different answers, all fitness pros will agree that for a client/athlete to get the most out of their training program, it would be much better to remain injury free.
I have to admit, I was shocked (and even disappointed) when I was in a popular local gym not too long ago and saw one of my peers standing on a stability ball! - yeah, that’s the big, inflatable sphere that has a tendency to roll all over the place when you’re trying to sit on it. It may be called a stability ball, but if you’ve ever used one, you’ll know it’s anything but stable.
Yes, I understand the logic behind training with an unstable surface, and whole-heartedly recommend everyone challenge their body’s ability to “stabilize” within reason - but c’mon already! Standing a couple feet above the floor, in between heavy iron weights (even HOLDING weights) while balancing on a ball is taking the concept of “functional” or “core” fitness to an incredibly risky level.
“Regular” people (read: the 99%+ of the population not in the fitness industry) are likely to see a fitness coach doing a risky movement and figure that’s what they, too, should be doing. Heck, if I saw my doctor smoking I’d be less likely to believe nicotine is really bad for me. I just hope nobody gets hurt as a result of this irresponsible display.
Since I do agree that it is important to challenge your stability as part of a well-designed training program, I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide safer alternatives to the “circus act” of standing on a ball.
Fitness program design is all about the use of appropriate progressions. In general, start off as stable as you need to be, yet as unstable as you can safely perform an exercise. For some, this might mean standing on the floor with both feet and a shoulder-width stance. More advanced trainees could move their stance closer together, maybe even to the point of a single-leg stance. (a narrow base of support is tougher than it sounds!)
Still not challenging enough? There is a tool called the Bosu (the half-ball with a flat base you can find in most gyms these days) would be a much safer option. While I would always question the appropriate-ness of it (or any other training implement, for that matter) it does provide the same kind of instability as a fully round ball - BUT with much lower risk of injury by falling.
Airex pads (made with special closed-cell foam - it feels like standing on jell-o!) and dyna-discs (inflatable “pancakes”) can also provide more than enough of a “functional” challenge.
Want an even simpler progression to challenge your ability to stabilize in a “functional” environment? Try standing on one leg and closing your eyes while doing an exercise. If you think you might fall, quickly open your eyes and put both feet down. By effectively removing one of your five senses from an exercise forces you to rely more on what you feel (this is also called “Proprioception” - and provides the same effect as standing on the ball but without the unnecessary risk.
Just remember, challenging doesn’t have to mean high-risk. Train hard, but more importantly, train smart.