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Learn more about Rehab, Sports Medicine & Performance

Functional Stability

The last twenty years have brought about many changes in the fitness industry as our understanding of functional anatomy and evidence based training grows.  Some of these changes have been taken too far, misunderstood, or poorly applied such as stability training. When I was introduced to weights in 1998, exercise programs were built around machines which offer very little carry over to stability, core strength, and function.  Machine based training fails to maximally improve balance/stability, prevent injury, or maximize performance.  Enter functional fitness.  This concept has been popularized by strength coaches and physical therapists such as Eric Cressey, Dan John, Mike Boyle, Grey Cook, and Fenton Fitness owner, Mike O’Hara who saw a gap in training methods and optimal coaching.  Functional training includes better core stability/lumbopelvic control and more unilateral (single limb) exercises that closely mimic human movement. Unfortunately, as with many concepts in the fitness industry, this trend has been taken too far.

Many have latched onto “functional” fitness and incorporated unstable surfaces to challenge the small stabilizing musculature. This gives the illusion of strength and function, but as world renowned strength coach Mark RIppetoe says, these are simply “balance tricks”.  Real life doesn’t involve unstable surfaces like wobble boards, bosu balls, physioballs, etc.  This type of training highly restricts the amount of work the primary movers of the body can do, and doesn’t allow for strength adaptation to occur which should be a primary focus of any solid fitness program.

This Functional Stability series will address the best ways to improve real world function and strength while reducing injury.

Jeff Tirrell, CSCS, CSFC, Pn1

Lower Body

Split Squat

To set up for the split squat, put one foot in front of the other with the heel of the back foot off the ground. 85% of the weight should be on the front foot. An airex pad can be placed under the body for the knee to come down on when lowering to the floor. When in the bottom position of the exercise, the front knee should be in line with the toe creating a slight shin angle. Make sure to push through the front heel on the way up instead of the toe. This exercise can be made easier by holding onto a railing, or can be made harder by adding weight such as a kettlebell in a goblet hold. The split squat displays greater hamstring, external oblique, and gluteus medius muscle activity than the back squat, but less quadriceps muscle activity.

RFE Split Squat: RFE stands for “rear foot elevated”. With this variation of the split squat, set up with the back foot elevated on a bench or a padded stand created for this exercise. An airex pad can be used under the knee if necessary. Squat down, touching the knee to the floor or airex pad.  When in this bottom position, the shin angle should be angled forward just as before, not straight up and down. Common errors include sitting too far back on the rear foot, touching the glute to the heel, or the back foot can tend to roll off the padded stand on the way up and move more onto the shin. Avoid this by putting more weight into the front leg and dropping the knee straight down instead of back. This exercise can be made more difficult by adding dumbbells in each hand, a kettlebell in the goblet, racked, or double racked position, or a barbell in the front or back position. Make sure to descend slowly, creating an eccentric load instead of dropping down fast.

FOB Hip Lift: FOB stands for “feet on ball”. Lay on the floor or table on your back and place the arms out to the side. Push down into the floor with the arms to stabilize the body. Keep the feet together and brace your abdominal muscles. Use the glutes and hamstrings to lift yourself up off the floor, making sure to keep everything tight at the top of the movement. Hold 3-10 seconds at the top and lower slowly and controlled. You can remove the arms from the floor and rest them on your stomach or behind your head to create more of a challenge.

One Leg FOB Hip Lift: Same setup as before except one leg will be used. The other leg will be pointed up to the ceiling as the other presses into the ball to lift the body. This creates more of a stability challenge.

FOB Leg Curl: This variation starts out just like the FOB hip lift, except at the top of the movement when the body is raised, the knees are bent and the ball is pulled in towards the body creating more work for the hamstrings. Keep the hips extended by activating the glutes and moving the hips upward, avoiding the tendency to bend at the hips. It should look like your hips move up and then return to a straight body position.

One Leg FOB Leg Curl: The hardest variation for the FOB series is the one leg curl. Use one leg instead of two, extending the other leg up to the ceiling. Make sure to still avoid bending at the hips in this variation as well.

One Leg Deadlift: When starting out with this exercise, it is best to just use bodyweight. Stand with 95% of your weight on one leg. Extend the arms and free leg out to a “T” position, bending the standing leg slightly. The extended leg should be reaching backwards as far as it can go.  Think about sitting into that hip just as you would during deadlifts. As this exercise becomes easier and balance is not an issue, it can be progressed by holding a kettlebell. The kettlebell should be held in the same side as the leg extending back. Reach the kettlebell straight down by the big toe; the weight should not go in front of the toe but rather by the instep of the foot. If you have progressed pass the kettlebell, two kettlebells can be used or a barbell with weight. The primary muscles being used in this exercise are the posterior leg muscles including the glutes and hamstrings.

One Leg Squat: Stand in front of a 12-18” box (start higher, and work your way to a lower box).  You will want to have 5-10# of weight to use as a counter balance (dumbbell, plate, or med ball).  Standing on only one leg, slowly lower yourself to the box.  As you descend, reach forward with the weight to help with balance.  Control the descent until your butt taps the box and then stand back up.  Work for 3-12 reps before switching legs.  Over time, try to get to a lower box so that your hip is slightly below your knee at the bottom position.

Watch video of these exercises: https://youtu.be/SqFqf81UnIk