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Rock Steady

Rock Steady

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Some exercises and training methods are more suitable for a Coney Island side show than for a serious strength training regimen. Others, like bench pressing with chains on the barbell, may seem bizarre but the results speak for themselves and science confirms their efficiency.

Personal Experience
I was in sixth grade and had just joined the YMCA with dreams of pumping iron to increase my vertical jump and build a physique like the WWF superstars I had grown up watching.

Before being allowed access to the weight room, I had to go through the YMCA weight room orientation. Never mind the fact the only training the guy giving the tour had done was at the International House of Pancakes.

A majority of our time was spent in the "Nautilus Room," a chrome palace filled with the latest "state of the art" machines. Ninety percent of our time was spent here, even though 99 percent of the best athletes and most muscled-up physiques were next door in the free weight area, which had not been updated since the 1960s.

The last pearl of wisdom my YMCA tour guide offered was, "Remember that your goals of increasing your vertical jump, getting stronger and more muscular can be accomplished most safely and efficiently with the machines I have shown you. We only have the free weights for the serious bodybuilders and athletes."

This was the most contradictory statement I had ever heard. I want to look muscular and be a great athlete, I thought to myself. In that "Nautilus Room," I saw out-of-shape, middle-aged men and hail damage was the norm on the thunder thighs of their female counterparts.

Enter the Free Weight Zone
Time to venture into the free weight room!  To my delight, the first person I saw was an ex-con looking dude with a barrel chest, traps that looked up to his ears and huge triceps doing dips for multiple repetitions with three 45-pound plates strapped around his waist.

This is what I wanted.

On the other side of the weight room I saw the starting tailback at the local junior college and an All-American to boot; he was squatting deep rep after rep and adding an additional 45-pound plate to the bar each set.

Anecdotal evidence certainly suggested free weights produce superior results.

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Science and Free Weights
Studies have shown that elite Olympic weight lifters are faster than elite sprinters for the first 5 to 10 meters of a sprint, in many cases also having greater vertical jump heights.  The greater an athlete's squats pound for pound, the higher he can jump and the faster he can sprint, science tells us. Compound free weight movements have been shown to be superior for size and strength gains.

Science confirms the efficiency of free weights! My YMCA experience confirmed there was a lot of fallacy in the fitness world. 

Unstable Surface Training
Performing exercises on stability balls and bosu balls has increased in popularity over the past fifteen years. High profile celebrity trainers have perpetuated this method from private Beverly Hills training studios to a worldwide craze.

Initially, these techniques were implemented by general fitness folks exclusively.  Now some regular athletes are on board, joined by some physique and strength athletes. Do these techniques have a place in your program if you hope to pack on serious muscle, gain strength or enhance overall athletic performance?

Logically, one would say yes because celebrity trainers at the pinnacle of financial success in the fitness industry must have access to the latest and greatest research. A contingent of strength coaches firmly believe, "Yes!"

But as I learned at a young age that if something is popular, it doesn't mean it's right!  The masses generally think newer is better.

What does Science Say?
1n 2010, James Kohler, of California State University Northridge (CSUN), led a study that showed training with heavy weights on stable surfaces overloaded and best recruited core muscles. Both prime movers and stabilizers were assessed. Thirty subjects with serious strength training experience performed both barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses on stable and unstable surfaces for three sets of three, with what equated to equal intensity.

The same procedure was used for the bench press. Core muscle activation was measured by using electromyography (measures the electrical activity of muscles). As the instability of the surface increased and less weight was used, the recruitment of core musculature decreased.

A 2012 Norwegian study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research measured the force output of leg and core muscles in isometric squats performed on a stable surface (floor), power board, bosu ball and balance cone.

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The study examined states from stable to extremely unstable.  An isometric contraction simply means the muscle does not move while force is being produced.  In this case the athletes squatted with maximal force against a bar they were unable to move, with their thighs slightly above 90 degrees.

The bar contained an electronic device that measure the amount of force the athletes could produce. The electrical activity of muscle was also measured. This insured there was no chance of bias or an incorrect formula being used.

The results showed force production decreased 7 percent on the power board, 19 percent on the bosu ball and 24 percent on the balance cone.  Recollect this is a contraction where the athlete is not moving. Add movement and transition phases like a "real" squat and I believe force production would decrease further with instability.  Quadriceps had the greatest electrical activity with stable squats.

Parting Thoughts
Athletes like Alpine skiers that are required to compete on unstable surfaces can derive benefits from unstable surface training.

The Bottom Line for Everyone Else: to gain muscle and get stronger, use heavy weights on a stable surface.

 "The key to building massive, powerful muscles is to doggedly increase the training weights you use."

--8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney, a guy who was most likely never seen in the "Nautilus room," perched on a balance ball.  

Do you use a stability ball or similar equipment in your workout? Do you think they provide a benefit? Enter your opinion in the comments field below.

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