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Functional Strength - or - Functional Weakness?

by jeff denson

Functional strength is one of the current buzzwords in gyms today. It's a great concept and everyone should strive to make their strength gains functional. However, for some reason this great idea gets lost in "functional strength exercises." For some reason functional strength exercises usually involve doing exercises with very light weights on an unstable surface. Ask yourself, what's functional about that? - unless you happen to live at the end of a swinging rope bridge and must carry groceries across it, what's functional about walking across a wobbly surface while carrying light weights? Hmmm… And there's definitely nothing "strength" about it. Most people can already carry 15 pounds or more. It is a well-established fact that you don't develop strength by exercising with very light weights. So it begs the question, "where's the functional and where's the strength?"

And don't confuse difficult with beneficial. Rolling a quarter across your knuckles is difficult. When's the last time you saw someone in the gym practicing that? Simply calling it a functional strength exercise doesn't make it so. Abraham Lincoln once posed the question, "If Congress said that a goat's tail was a leg, how many legs would a goat have? Four. Calling a tail a leg does not make it so." Simply calling an exercise "functional strength" doesn't make it so.

"If Congress said that a goat's tail was a leg, how many legs would a goat have? Four. Calling a tail a leg does not make it so" - Abraham Lincoln

These exercises really should be called "functional weakness."

Functional weakness - A physical ability developed by standing on an unstable surface while curling 10 pound dumbbells.


Usually trainers justify these exercises by claiming they increase core strength and stability, which sounds reasonable. And why do trainers think these exercises are valuable for building core strength and stability? Because years ago a number of studies were conducted showing that untrained women exercising on unstable exercise activated more core muscle than those doing the same exercises on a stable surface. Sounds good… at first, but think about that for a minute…

--- Your minute is up ---

Activating a muscle isn't the same as strengthening it. It takes more than just "activating" a muscle to make stronger. Walking activates muscles, but does little to strengthen them. So yes, it is slightly harder to do an exercise while standing on a balance pad. But don't confuse difficulty with effectiveness. The real question is, "is it activating the core muscles enough to generate a physiological response that will improve core strength?" For example, one could easily make the same argument that standing is better than sitting for developing core strength, since standing activates more core muscles than sitting. And just like the studies on balance exercises, they'd be absolutely correct. It's true that standing is better than sitting for activating core muscles; No argument there. But are you with me on this? Simply activating more core muscles is not enough. Would you expect to achieve any level of fitness by doing "standing" exercises? Would you pay a trainer to do "functional strength" standing exercises with you? The same logic applies to balance exercises. Just because they "activate" more core muscles than something that is even easier to do doesn't necessarily mean they will have much benefit for you. Activating is not the same as strengthening.

So yes, studies prove it. Between the two, curling dinky weights on a wobble board is more effective than curling dinky weights on a stable surface. But the question isn't what's the LEAST EFFECTIVE exercise for core strength and stability. What you should be asking yourself is what is the MOST EFFECTIVE exercise for core strength and stability.

Simply "activating" more core muscle is not enough to ensure that you are going to develop more core strength. It's a well established fact that in order to increase strength you must work with a weight that is 80% or greater than your 1 rep max. This means that if you can curl 25 pounds for even a single rep, then curling 15 pounds on an unstable surface will NOT increase your strength, functional or otherwise.

What's also important to realize is that isolated balance skills do not necessarily translate into better sports performance. Balance is skill specific. Better balance on a wobble board does not necessarily translate to better balance on a football field. For example, running in correct form requires core strength and stability. A study was conducted to see if six weeks of Swiss ball balance training (i.e. functional strength training) would improve running times. And while the Swiss ball users improved their balance and stability as measured on a Swiss ball, their sports performance did not improve. Likewise, a study was conducted to see if balance ball training would improve basketball or rugby performance. Again, while the trainees did improve their balance as tested on a Swiss ball, it did not translate into better basketball or rugby performance. Read more.

So unless you're training to be the world's best wobble board curler, are you really doing much to benefit your overall sports performance, or functional strength as some might call it, by doing wobble board curls?

Core strength is important! You should do core strength exercises. But twirling dinky weights on a balance pad, while better than sitting on a sofa (and better than just standing there), will not develop significant core strength, functional or otherwise. Again, balance exercises are better than doing nothing, however, are they really the most effective way to develop functional strength?

So what defines functional strength and what is the best way to develop it? How about about the ability to pick a couple of hundred pounds up off the floor? That requires balance, core strength, strength in the back, shoulders, legs, hand grip, etc. and the ability to coordinate the use of all of these muscles simultaneously. What's more functional than the ability pick up, carry, and move heavy things? Knowing how to protect your spine while carrying a heavy load, that's real world functional!

If you want to significantly increase your core stability, core strength, and yes, functional strength, do heavy overhead presses. What requires more functional core strength and stability than lifting a heavy object over your head? Who do you think has more functional strength: A) Someone who can curl 15 pounds on a wobble board? B) Someone who can lift and stabilize 100 pounds over their head? If you chose "A) the wobble board," then give me 10 ThighMaster squeezes and do your 4-mintue ab video. If you chose "B) overhead presses," then you are well on your way to understanding how to develop real functional strength.

So while wobbling on a stability pad twirling a pair of dinky weights around may closely resemble exercise, what's it really doing for you? Probably not much. It will, however, make your personal trainer very happy. They get to take your money while doing simple exercises that require little training, skill, or even thought on their part. You're happy because you were able to get through your workout without even breaking a sweat - And my God, who wants to break a sweat while at the gym?
Read More about the WEAKLING Principle.

Note: Typically, a balance skill can be learned in a few weeks. Once you've done that, unless your training to be a gymnast or circus performer, what are you really accomplishing?

So what are you really trying to develop?
Functional strength or functional weakness?


Important Tip: To develop balance, simply get a balance pad and practice a few minutes a day while watching TV. Or better yet practice each day while having a conversation with your spouse - This also has the advantage of deterring you from spending too many hours a day practicing them.


Don't get me wrong, I'm all for doing balance exercises. They should be part of your overall fitness plan. This is especially true as we get older. Balance work has even been shown to reduce the risk of ankle injury during sports. But this has more to do with improving ankle reflex time and is certainly not core strength. I incorporate balance work as part of the cool down of every workout. It's important to maintain balance skills, however, most healthy adults have pretty good balance. It is unlikely that you are in any great need of improving your balance. When's the last time you thought to yourself, "I need better balance"? Hey, if you really want to develop your balance skills, learn to ride a unicycle or high wheel bike.

So do your balance drills and enjoy them. Here is a link to some balance drills you can do at home. Just don't confuse balance drills with something that will develop strength, functional, core, or otherwise - they won't. How about this? Again, think about it; does standing upright holding 100 pounds over your head require and develop good stability and balance? What about squatting with a heavy barbell across your shoulders? Of course they require and develop tremendous stability and balance. Try doing them without good stability and balance and see what happens.

Stability exercises do give you a good excuse for doing an easy workout. And the long and short of it is, people are always looking for an excuse to do easy exercises and pretend that it's a real workout. Anybody seen my ThighMaster lately?


doctorAs with any nutrition or exercise program, always review them with your doctor to ensure that they don't interact with or are contraindicated by any medications or medical issues you may have. If you haven't trained for a while, start out slow and go easy. If you are pregnant, have diabetes, blood sugar problems, or any heart issues, you shouldn't do this program as it is very strenuous.
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