Thursday, September 22, 2011

Functional Strength

Hi guys, my sincere apologies for the lack of postings over the last month or so. Been busy with an e-book which will be launched real soon.. Can't wait for its launch. We have also been invited by ASTRO to open a booth for their Safety and health week at the end of this month... so been busy finalizing things for that too. Also I am also working on some other projects including a possible TV show- so yeah, schedule has been crazy. Things should slow down a little by next month, so i hope i will be able to post again as usual from next month.

Anyway, this week, i decided to cover a controversial topic called functional strength. Over the last few years, i see many people using this term so much that i feel that this term has lost its real meaning. What gets me the most is people coming up with gimmicks and claiming that it helps to develop functional strength... but in reality, it doesn't really. Well i guess it develops the "new definition"of functional strength which actually doesn't mean much.

So lets get into it. What exactly is functional strength? By definition, functional strength refers to the ability for an individual to perform functional / purposeful movement. Originally, this referred to strengthening our muscles and body to improve day to days tasks that we do, such as lifting a box of the ground or carrying suitcases up a flight of stairs. So exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press etc are great functional strength exercises, because there will be a real life application to it. But today, people have jumbled up everything and claim that it develops functional strength when in actual fact it doesn't. One such case is training on an unstable surface like balancing on an exercise ball.


I have seen so many equipments and training routines out there that claim that training on uneven or imbalanced platforms help to increase functional strength. does it really? Lets look at this in more detail. Lets refer back to the law of SAID - Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. If you keep doing something, you will keep getting better at it. If you start to do squats while balancing on an exercise ball, then bravo, eventually you will get good at doing just that. But is that really functional? Well only if you perform in a circus where you are constantly balancing on something. The instability itself does not add any advantage. But what about sports? Shouldn't you be doing this type of training if you are a sportsmen so you are more conditioned? Well lets see what the experts say.

A recent article in the NSCA Journal of Strength and Conditioning seemed to de-emphasize the importance and effectiveness of this type of training. Till today, there has been no clinical evidence to prove that training on unstable surfaces improve sports performance. In fact it can be counter productive. Lets take a person who needs to throw a ball really fast.... like a baseball player. So he practices this several times a day on the field. Law of SAID.... he starts getting better as his neuromuscular system starts memorizing this movement. Then his coach comes and says, lets stand on a ball and start throwing it. Time that could be spent on actually improving his throw is spent on balancing not. Secondly, he now confuses the original neuromuscular pattern of just throwing the ball as fast as can. As you can see, it becomes less productive.

But wait. Unstable surfaces allow us to gain more strength. Hmmmm.... lets look at that in detail before we decide. To become stronger, you need to provide your muscles with enough resistance that will allow it to recruit enough muscle fibers. The more practice you have at recruiting more muscle fibers, the stronger you become. On an unstable surface, you automatically reduce the amount of weights you use to allow your self to balance and perform the exercise. By reducing the weights you use, you recruit less muscle fibers and therefore you are training yourself to recruit less muscle fibers... which also means training yourself to be weaker. No doubt your sense of balance would have improved, but not your strength... so its a NO for strength as well.

In short, all exercises are technically functional for some sort of movement. For an individual who doesn't exercise and only eats and walks, then by doing these tasks daily, isn't he developing functional strength in that area anyway? Law of SAID - if you keep doing it, you keep getting better at it. Since this individual only eats and walks, then doing that everyday is training to be better at it. So to claim that your exercise machine or routine develops functional strength, actually doesn't mean much at all. Before buying into any of these, just ask yourself this simple question, do i need to get good at doing this? If the answer is no, then that exercise machine or routine is not functional to you. It may be functional to someone else, but not you.

So there you have it. Functional strength and how it has been misused in the fitness industry today. Hope this sheds some light on the topic. As usual, look forward to hearing your comments.

PS: My e-book will launching soon, so stay tuned to this blog for more details