In this Fall's ACSM Certified News, we featured an article by Brad Schoenfeld (M.S., CSCS) about functional fitness. What's functional fitness? Basically, it's the ability to do everyday tasks-walking to the bank, taking out the trash, even walking up a flight of stairs-without becoming fatigued. It's having the energy and strength to get through your average day.
A recent fitness buzzword, we've noticed lots of people promoting "unstable surface training" as a method of increasing functional fitness. Unstable surface training involves:
"...implements employed to induce instability include wobble boards, foam
rollers, stability balls, balance discs, and BOSU devices, among others."
Because unstable surfaces promote greater neuromuscular challenges, they're thought to produce "maximal improvements in human function." Research has shown some benefits from this kind of training. For example, rehabilitation has been shown to benefit from using unstable surface training, in injuries such as a lateral ankle sprain. And core exercises involving the abdominals or lumbar also seem to increase the workout value as opposed to stable surface training.
But, is there any extra value to everyday living? Schoenfeld notes:
"Considering that the vast majority of everyday activities are carried out in a stable environment, it therefore follows that functional transfer will be optimized by training on stable surfaces."
In other words, most of our daily lives aren't conducted on shaky, unstable surfaces-after all, there are only so many rope bridges, stones crossing a creek, and unstable terrain around during your work or play. Because of this, it would make sense that stable surface training would provide the most benefit for daily use.
Schoenfeld continues to note that many people lose the ability to complete daily tasks due to a loss of muscle strength. He finds that unstable surface training is not an optimal way to increase muscle strength. Even for those of us who are athletically fit, unstable surface training might not be the best way to increase strength and fitness:
"After 10 weeks, the stable surface group displayed greater performance improvements in all measures studied compared to the unstable surface group, leading the authors to conclude that use of unstable surfaces may not be optimal for athletic performance improvements in healthy, trained individuals."
What's the lesson from the "functional fitness" workout craze and the seemingly established knowledge that unstable surface training would benefit individuals? It's important to consider the concept specificity, or "where exercise routines are matched to an individual's needs, abilities, and goals." Just referencing an exercise as "functional" or "non-functional" is misleading without a common context. After all-we're individuals for a reason; you and your neighbor's lifestyle might be as disparate as a blogger... and a logger. Do you have other routines that increase "functional fitness"? Leave your thoughts below.