Today, there seems to be a real push for something called “functional” movement. Essentially, leaving behind the concrete strength movements that we have used in the past and replacing them with abstract and sometimes awkward movements that have little practical application. Why have we done this? Granted, doing a one-legged squat with a kettlebell in your hand while balancing on a stability ball looks more impressive than a front squat, but if you really weight the benefits of each of them, you’ll soon come to realize the flashy single leg squat on an unstable surface is far less effective, in more ways than one, than the front squat.
Here’s one thing anyone objecting this should remember: strength is strength. When you make your legs stronger, via front squat, back squat, leg press, whatever, that strength carries into all areas of your life. If your goal, for whatever reason it may be, is to be stronger, that wouldn’t it make the most sense to select exercises that deliver the maximum benefit, or “most bang for your buck”. This methodology and mindset will simplify your training, as well as bring you the quickest progress.
Often times adding these aspect in the pursuit of making the movements more “functional” actually decreases their effectiveness. For example, a single leg squat is great for building leg strength unilaterally, and adding a kettlebell can be a method to increase load. However, if your goal is leg strength, then a barbell front squat, which is a far more stable position to be in, is far more effective because you are able to load more weight, is a more effective position. This makes the front squat a more useful exercise in my opinion than the single leg squat.
Furthermore, standing on an unstable surface, like a stability ball, is even less effective for 2 major reasons. First, the unstable surface makes it so that you cant load as much weight as on a stable surface. Second, this type of exercise is actually not functional, since in life we spend our time walking on the earth, which is more or less quite stable. Also, even if an unstable surface has some added benefit of recruiting your stabilizer muscles, as is commonly peddled, do not kid yourself by assuming that a barbell squat does not do the same. Unstable surface or not, when it comes to free weights, stabilizers must fire to keep good posture and drive the movement in the correct pathway.
The squat comparison is only one example. There are many exercises people have opted to go without and replace with so-called functional training. Movements such as the deadlift, back squat, front squat, bench press, overhead press, bent over barbell row, pull up, and dips are all great examples of fairly classic, highly effective compound movements. These movements must be the foundation of your training protocol. They will absolutely take you where you want to go in terms of strength, or even mass gain, assuming you take the time to learn the movements correctly, and practice them in good form. There’s a good reason these movements are considered fairly classic: they work. They are some of the most effective ways to load the body in order to provide proper resistance to stimulate growth and strength gain. Once a basal level of strength is gained, you may even begin to dabble in more complex movements that are actually functional, but difficult for a beginner to do, such as Olympic weightlifting, or gymnastic movements.
Anything of a lower benefit, that is more flashy or unorthodox in the nature of a position, should be avoided at first. That’s not to say you need to exclude such movements forever and completely, but at first your goal should be to become very confidant and competent with these big, strong, staple movements. Then, and only then, you may branch out, but use more flashy exercises as a garnish to your training program, if you like. Just as your diet should be comprised of basic, solid, nutritious foods, and more luxury items are used more sparingly, so should your training be comprised of solid, effective, strength exercises, and the fun more creative stuff added in as kind of a treat for your body.
What say you?