So-called “Functional Exercise” has been the rage for quite a few years now. There are several variations of “functional exercise”, and they go by other names, including “core” training and “balance” training. We see them demonstrated in all the magazines, and we often see people doing them in gyms. Many trainers – who may have learned them at the latest “trainer convention” – teach these exercises to their clients. The problem is many of these exercises are largely unproductive. Some could actually result in an injury.
To be clear, not all “functional”, “core” or “balance” exercises are bad. Some are actually pretty good. It depends on three factors: your goal, the trade-off, and the risk/benefit ratio of each exercise.
1. The exercises you choose should produce results that are consistent with your fitness goals. Often they don’t. The result produced by a given exercise might be completely different than your goal. You should be very clear about what you want to achieve, and fully understand what result a given exercise will (or won’t) produce.
2. There is always a trade-off. Although the proponents of functional training would have you believe otherwise, you actually lose some benefit in one area, in exchange for a particular benefit in another area. This is fine – in theory – as long as what you trade away is minor, and what you gain in exchange is significant. However, often times it’s the other way around. You might be sacrificing much, for little in return.
3. The evaluation of risk/benefit of each exercise is important. Some exercises strain joints unnecessarily, and many exercises produce an insignificant benefit – despite requiring a lot of effort. I recommend that you choose only exercises that produce a significant benefit, and pose little or no risk of injury.
I’ll give you some examples of exercises that fail in the above three criteria in just a moment, but before we go into that, let’s establish what the theoretical goal of functional exercise is.
The Sales Pitch
The appeal of functional exercise, core training, and balance training, is the concept that “exercise should improve your ability, and not just your appearance”. That’s the pitch – and it sounds good. Few people would disagree with that premise. However, like any propaganda or commercial, in order to sell you something new, the sellers suggest that the existing system is “inferior”, and needs improvement. So, they tell you that this “new exercise” will improve your balance, which implies that the “traditional” system does not. That’s false. It also implies that traditional exercise is just “cosmetic”. That’s also false. Exercise is never “just cosmetic”. All exercises make you stronger, and – as such – they all improve your balance, because strength is a major component of balance.
Saying that an exercise “works your core” (which is often defined in vague terms), suggests that traditional exercises does not. Again – also false. Abdominal exercises, oblique exercises, lower back exercises, trunk-rotation (twisting) exercises, have been around for years – and they all work the “core” muscles (i.e. the muscles around the perimeter of the waist – those close to the surface, as well as the deeper ones). They just weren’t called “core” exercises.
The word “core” has such marketing appeal, that it would almost seem foolish to refuse doing an exercise called “core”. The term almost suggests it strengthens the center of your being. Who would say “no” to being strong to the core? People brag about doing “core exercise”, like it’s what people “in the know” do – like you’re not cool if you don’t do them. But it’s mostly just an over-rated buzz word, designed to sell a whole new generation of services and products. And apparently tens of thousands of consumers (including trainers) have fallen for it.
The proponents of core training usually describe the benefits with a certain ambiguity – often unable to define it in specific terms. They say that, “it works the center of your body” – as if to suggest that your body would crumple if you don’t do them, like a building on a fragile foundation. But this is nonsense, and the evidence is everywhere. Look around. If this were true, you would see people who only appear to be fit, but can’t walk or run, or play a friendly game of volleyball at the beach. Further, despite the proliferation of core training, we do not see more fit people today than we did 10 years ago. In fact, the opposite is true.
Ten years ago, when people did “ordinary” exercise, a smaller percentage of the population was deemed “overweight”. Today, despite the fact that more money than ever is being spent on fitness products and services – and core training is the rage – obesity is at an all-time high (67% by one recent statistic).
Moreover, people who are doing these core exercises often look the same (no less fat and no more muscular) – month after month – and their balance is no better than it would have been if they had done traditional exercise. In fact, their balance may not even be as good, as it might have been, if they had done traditional exercise.
Choosing the Right Exercise for Your Goal
People’s primary fitness goals are usually these: losing weight, gaining muscle, improving muscle definition, feeling better, improving their health (thereby reducing their risk of illness), and improving their performance in a particular sport.
For example, let’s say an overweight guy walks into a gym. He’s probably feeling a little embarrassed, because he knows he’s in bad shape. He may feel like everyone at the gym is in better shape, and he thinks they’re all looking at him. He may have even been avoiding coming to the gym, for fear of embarrassment. But he’s finally come to the gym now and he meets with a trainer. He tells the trainer that his goal is to lose weight. Next thing you know, the trainer has him standing on one leg, pushing a pair of dumbbells overhead. What’s wrong with this picture?
In the first place, this guy didn’t say anything about needing to improve his balance. He didn’t complain about “falling down frequently”. He said he wanted to lose weight, so why did the trainer assume he needed to help the guy’s balance? I will speculate on the reason, shortly.
Secondly, the overhead press is an exercise with little benefit and considerable risk (…as you will see in an upcoming article). It does not work the large muscle groups (back, chest or legs), which are the more metabolically active muscles (…the ones that burn more calories) – so it will not contribute much to the weight-loss goal. It also places a significant strain on the shoulder joint.
Third, this guy’s worst fear was that he would feel “stupid” and “out of sorts” at the gym. And now the trainer has him struggling to keep his balance on one leg. Being put in an off-balance situation isn’t necessary for losing weight. The best thing for a guy like this is for the trainer to make him feel physically stable (to gain confidence), while getting his heart, lungs and legs working. Squats, with no additional weight, while holding a handrail would be ideal. Rowing exercises. Side bends. Torso rotations with a cable. Exercises he can do comfortably and safely, that stimulate his metabolism, and still allow him feel in control. That’s what that client needs – not a circus act.
My speculation? The trainer is focused on something other than having this man do what would be “ideal” for him to reach his goal. The trainer is concerned about being perceived as “knowledgeable” and “cutting edge”, and believes that unusual or “tricky” exercises are more likely to be perceived as “good”. This would improve his (or her) apparent marketability. It’s the old “secret method” theory at play – the idea that there are “secret” exercises that work better. What works better is simply what requires more calories – not what challenges your ability to prevent yourself from falling during an exercise.
In fairness to the trainers, they are taught this type of training by the industry journals and associations (for the commercial gain of the journals and the associations). And some gyms provide an economic incentive to their trainers to learn and teach this stuff (ultimately for the commercial gain of the gym). The commercialization of “new” methods of exercising is what has been driving this trend. Well-meaning trainers are simply trying to make a living, and are persuaded to believe that “new” must be better. And any trainer trying to make a name for himself/herself realizes that his or her odds of attracting attention (either at a convention, in a magazine or on a TV show) are better if he/she uses “modern” methods, rather than the “same old”. However, it’s misguided – what sells is not necessarily what’s true – as you will see shortly.
But let’s get back to the end-user of core training. An interesting thing happens, I’ve noticed. People who employ these off-balance exercises (…standing on one leg, or on a wobbly board, etc.), begin shifting their focus from their original goal – fat loss or muscle gain – to one of balance. In other words, they begin thinking that “progress” is demonstrated by learning how not to fall while doing the exercise – even though the exercise may be less effective at burning fat and building muscle, than other exercises that don’t challenge their ability to keep from falling.
I can certainly understand the value of making exercise “fun”. And it IS fun to convert “exercise” into a game of skill. Often times we see people in pairs, taking turns at the “game” of doing an exercise while struggling to keep from falling, as they joke and tease each other. However, there is a trade-off. And before you invest hours, weeks and months, in this sort of training, you should be aware of what your getting, and what your losing.
Let’s say that you’re doing a flat bench dumbbell press. You’re on your back, pushing a pair of 40-pound dumbbells over your chest, with the goal of building your pectoral muscles. A trainer walks over to you and says, “…would you like me to show you a better way to do that?”. You say, “sure” – assuming he knows what he’s doing, and grateful that you’re getting some free advice (and attention). He puts you on a large ball, and asks you to press the same 40-pound dumbbells from that position. You follow his instruction, and discover that – although the ball is little less stable than the flat bench – you can still manage the exercise without much difficulty.
However, now he wants to “challenge” you a bit more. In truth, what he really wants is to have you believe that your balance “needs work”, and – after piquing your curiosity about this sort of training – to appreciate his “cleverness”, and then hire him for more “tricks” like this. Here’s how this scenario continues.
He tells you to lift one leg straight out in front of you, so that it’s not touching the ground. Now you only have one leg down, and your back is on the ball. You quickly discover that it’s much harder to maintain balance, but you can still do it (sort of), as long as you bring both 40-pound dumbbells down and up, symmetrically (equally distant from the center of your body).
But now he wants to make it more difficult for you. He tells you to leave the left dumbbell up, at arms length, while you bring the right dumbbell down… then, switch arms… leaving the right one up, and bringing the left one down. Big difference!! Impossible, in fact. You cannot bring the same 40-pound dumbbell down on only one side, and not have it pull you over to that side…. unless… you reduce the weight and/or bring the dumbbell down closer to the center of your body (not as far out to the side). Can you see the trade-off coming?
Reducing the weight reduces the stimulation to the pectoral muscles. And, bringing the weight down closer to the side of your body (not as far out to the side) reduces the length of that lever (your arm), which reduces the resistance even more, thus further reducing the stimulation to the pectoral muscles. If you were aware of this dramatic reduction of stimulation to the pectoral muscles, a good question to ask at this point would be, “… I’m losing benefit to my pecs… so what am I getting in exchange for that?”. Sadly – even if you are aware enough to ask that enlightened question – the trainer will probably not answer accurately. He will say that you are gaining “core” benefit. You might be assertive enough to ask, “… exactly what is that benefit?”. He’ll try to explain that your effort to prevent falling to one side, works the muscles that rotate your torso – which is your core. Unfortunately, he is overstating the facts.
The very same instability that challenges you to keep from falling, also prevents you from adequately working the muscles that rotate the torso. In other words, you cannot work your “transverse abdominus” (the torso rotation muscles) with sufficient resistance, because as soon as you add sufficient weight (or extend your arm out farther), you fall off the ball.
The truth is, you could work your transverse abdominus much more forcefully (and therefore more effectively) by standing – with a wide stance – next to a pulley, and rotating your torso the left, while the cable (with more resistance than you encountered on the ball) pulls you to the right. Then switch directions. So – while you were struggling to keep your balance on the ball – you relinquished significant benefits to your pectoral muscle, in exchange for a rather insignificant “core” benefit. You essentially wasted your time in both endeavors. You could have gotten better results (consistent with your original goal of gaining muscle and losing fat), by doing stable, flat bench dumbbell presses, and then torso rotation with a cable.
I apologize if this seems complicated. This analogy might be easier to follow: Imagine that I had you perform a set of squats on a wooden platform, with no additional weight. Then, I handed you a pair of 20-pound dumbbells, and asked you to do another set of squats, while holding the weights. Suddenly, the platform collapses. The reason? It was more weight than the platform could hold. The moral of that story? We were unable to work your leg muscles with sufficient resistance, due to the “instability”.
In order to adequately work a given muscle (with enough resistance), there needs to be sufficient stability, from which to push (or pull). Imagine trying to do those torso rotations with a cable, while standing on a surface that is oily and super-slippery. You would be unable to pull much weight, without your feet sliding.
Imagine trying to do a “standing one arm rowing movement” with a cable, while standing on a skateboard. You would be unable to adequately challenge the muscles of your back, because as soon as you pull a significant weight, the skateboard moves. In both of these cases, without a sturdy base, you would be unable to adequately challenge the muscles you want to work.
So the question you should ask when considering one of these exercises is, “what benefit am I giving up as a result of the instability of this exercise… and how much of that benefit am I giving up… as a trade-off for the other benefit I’m getting… and how much of that benefit am I getting?”
The two most important considerations for a person whose goal it is to “gain muscle and/or lose fat” are (1) adequate resistance and (2) adequate cardiovascular demand (heart and lung stimulation). But if you’re standing on one leg, you are limiting cardiovascular demand because one leg working requires less fuel than two legs working. And if you’re standing on an unstable surface, and the instability forces you to use a lighter weight than normal, you’ve lost the benefit of adequate resistance for maximum muscle simulation. That also translates to a reduction of calories spent.
Equally important is the evaluation of whether or not you are REALLY gaining an improvement in balance. In theory, it seems like standing on one leg, or a wobbly surface (like a “BOSU” half-ball), would automatically help improve you balance. But ask yourself this question: do kids have good balance because they stand on one leg frequently, or because they’re physically active, and therefore strong? I believe it’s the latter. So if – during one of these exercises – you significantly compromise your fat loss, strength gain and muscular stimulation, in exchange for a miniscule improvement in your balance, it’s an unwise trade-off.
The Risk and Benefit
If an exercise causes you to feel strain in any of your joints (like shoulders, wrists or lower back), then don’t do it. Don’t ignore feelings that an exercise doesn’t feel “natural”. Further, be careful with exercises that involve swinging a weight, or any type of jerky movements.
For example, many of the exercises performed with kettle-bells (one of the current “core” tools) require swinging and catching the weight. These types of exercise might be useful to someone who participates in a sport where similar activities are required. But for the sake of general fitness (losing fat, gaining muscle and improving health), it’s not as productive, nor as safe, as controlled, deliberate movements. Further, the off-balance nature of kettle-bells could easily result in the twisting of a wrist or shoulder. In my opinion, the evolution of the modern dumbbell – from the original metal ball and handle design – was a very good thing.
I am also not a big fan of exercises that involve “bodyweight”, as opposed to a weight that you’ve selected. Chin-ups, for example, require that you use your entire bodyweight, which is usually excessive (limiting your reps or compromising your form). A much better choice is Lat Machine Pulldowns, where you can choose the weight that is exactly correct for your strength level. It also allows you to lean back slightly, which protects the shoulder joint. In general, the evolution of machines has also been a very good thing, in the sense that they allow you to by-pass the short-comings of “bodyweight exercises”. Modern chest machines, for example, are much more effective (for the pectoral muscles) and safer (for the shoulder joint) than push-ups. Parallel bar dips are another low benefit / high risk exercise, in part because it’s a body-weight exercise, but also because the mechanics are all wrong. I will soon do an article on “Dangerous Exercises”, and will further elaborate on this.
Another commonly seen exercise among proponents of core training, is putting your forearms on a ball (or on the ground), and extending your body so that you form a bridge from your toes to your suspended elbows – and then hold it for a minute. The theory here is that multiple muscles simultaneously participate in holding that “pose”, including your quadriceps, hip flexors, abdominals and pectorals. This exercise is certainly more productive than sitting on the couch watching TV (…it is challenging, and does make you sweat), but it involves “isometric contraction” – which is also known as “static” muscle tension (i.e. holding tension, rather than extending and contracting the muscle). Numerous studies have demonstrated that isometric contraction is much less productive than “isotonic contraction”, which involves a full range of motion. In other words, although you may feel your abdominal muscles burning while doing that sort of “bridge”, it will not result in as much benefit to the abdominal muscles as would abdominal crunches. So why do an exercise that is difficult, but produces little benefit, when you can just as easily (maybe more easily) do an exercise that produces a better result?
I think it makes sense to ONLY do exercises that produce maximum results with minimal risk and minimal wasted effort, and to make sure you’re choosing exercises that produce results that are consistent with your goal. For general fitness, these include exercises for the major muscle groups, that are isotonic (full range of motion), performed with adequate weight, on a stable surface, and with no strain (twisting, jerking, swinging) to the joints involved. Some compound exercises are excellent, and they would also fall into the category of “functional”. These include things like performing a straight arm side raises, while simultaneously stepping up and down on a step. Also, curling a pair of dumbbells, and squatting, alternately, is a great compound exercise. Lunges are also very good. These work multiple muscles at one time, and simultaneously create a great cardiovascular stimulation.
I would argue that the result one gets from the more traditional exercises is far better – in terms of visible, measurable, results (fat loss and muscle gain, as well as cardiovascular benefits and health enhancement), than those achieved with most “functional / core / balance exercises” – without sacrificing any noticeable coordination, balance or athletic benefits.
If doing an exercise while only slightly off-balance does not compromise your ability to use an adequate weight, then the exercise itself is less compromised, however I still question the supposed advantage. I have not seen any significant improvement in the balance of people who do their exercises this way (over traditional exercise) – and I’ve been observing and analyzing it for quite some time. But if it makes exercise more fun for you, then fine.
If you are an athlete who competes at an elite level, and whose priority it is to play your game better, and the appearance of your body (i.e. body fat and muscle tone) is secondary to your performance, you would have a good rationale for doing SOME of these functional or core training exercises. The slight improvements in performance obtained from these exercises would be valuable at a highly competitive level, but would not be noticeable unless you participated in sports at that super advanced level.
In my upcoming book – “Stop the Overhead Presses: The No-Nonsense Guide to Exercise Selection” – I evaluate all the most common exercises, on a scale of 1 to 10, for both risk and benefit, along with an explanation, so that readers can understand the basis for choosing, and can create their own combination of exercises, in the most logical and productive manner.