Does an unstable surface really make an exercise better?
Will it really engage your core more? Or is it just another way for us to over-complicate the basics.
Today I’ll be looking at some interesting research regarding this.
You see, it appears the days of training hard are over.
Because functional, bro.
These days, it’s all about telling people to “engage your core” and using trendy equipment that looks like second-hand kit from a sci-fi movie.
Heck, we’re not even trying to get stronger anymore.
No. We’re training for everyday life.
Whatever the hell that means.
And heavy exercises like the barbell squat, deadlift and bench press serve no purpose to everyday life, therefore they are unnecessary movements done with too-heavy-a-weight, which only serve to hurt you in later life.
At least, according to the dude at your gym who wears five-fingered trainers and bright white socks.
Functional Fitness Gone Mad
This part of the fitness world drives me nuts.
Sure, engaging your core is great.
Because strengthening the muscles which make up your trunk can only do good things when it comes to boosting your overall strength and fitness.
But in the last 5-10 years, the words “functional” and “core” have been completely taken out of context.
I have had it up to here – holding my hand up just beyond the top of my head – with people removing fundamental exercises like the barbell squat or deadlift from a training program and deeming it non-functional or dangerous, only to replace it with a bounty of trendy movements on a variety of equipment ranging from TRX bands to Bosu balls to – in extreme circumstances – both.
Fuck this bullshit.
Engage Your Core
So today I have some interesting research for you.
The next time your local functional fitness guru interrupts your session to warn you that barbell squats are dangerous and you need to follow his plan to “engage your core”, present this to him.
You see, every time you pick up a pair of heavy dumbbells you are engaging your core.
And whether a movement is deemed functional or not depends upon why you are training – for instance, barbell curls are functional to a bodybuilder, as his or her aim is to build bigger biceps.
Heck, a 2011 study from the University of Salford, Manchester, showed that one of the very best exercises for “engaging your core” is actually a barbell front squat, and they’re about as old-school as it gets. (1)
But in our determination to over-complicate things, the latest trend is to ditch heavy compound movements and replace them with unstable surfaces.
Which brings me to today’s burning question – does training on an unstable surface really engage your core to a greater degree?
Researchers from Norway say no.
In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, a team of Norwegian researchers looked into the muscle activity of groups of trainees performing barbell squats using:
- a solid floor surface
- a bosu ball
- a power board
- a balance cone
They measured the strength of the participants, as well as the muscle activity of the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, external obliques and rectus abdominus – basically, all the key players in the legs and midsection.
Interestingly, strength was at it’s highest when subjects had their feet planted firmly on the floor.
Muscle activity was also at it’s highest.
In fact, strength dropped by 10% when subjects used a power board, strength dropped by 20% on a bosu ball, and strength dropped by 25% with a balance cone.
Further still, it’s worth noting that if the subjects were able to progress upwards in weight towards a one rep max, the differences would have been reflected with even greater gaps in performance.
So stop over-complicating things.
When it comes to squats, you have only three things to do:
- load the bar
- plant your feet
- go deep
It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that!
Feel free to quote this article the next time someone tries to tell you to engage your core, or share it on social media.
1. Comfort, P., et al. “An Electromyographical Comparison Of Trunk Muscle Activity During Isometric Trunk And Dynamic Strengthening Exercises”. J Strength Cond Res 25(1): 149-154, 2011.
2. Saeterbakken, A. H., et al. “Muscle Force Output And Electromyographic Activity In Squats With Various Unstable Surfaces”. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jan;27(1):130-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182541d43.