Stable vs Unstable Surface Training – A Brief Word

Training is NOT Entertaining
Sometimes when I walk into a gym or private training facility, I look around and it looks like a rehearsal for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Trainers and their clients are standing on BOSU balls, juggling med balls, throwing Frisbees, counting backwards from 30, all while doing a lunge with a single-arm bicep curl.  Sounds ridiculous…because it is!  This kind of training gets “sold” or “marketed” by some trainers and Practitioners as “functional” training. While I acknowledge that unstable surface training does have its merits, particularly in orthopedic and neurological rehabilitation settings, and depending on the work or sporting environment in which one operates (skateboarding, surfing, etc.); to apply that model in traditional strength training with a population that is not ready for it (either due to physiological, biomechanical / kinesiological, or neurological reasons) is simply unintelligent and destructive.


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For the purposes of my discussion here, I would like to share the context of my use of the term “functional exercise.”   “Functional” to me means, “any exercise or activity in which the outcome matches the objective.” If the end result of your exercise/activity is exactly what you were hoping to get out of it, it can be deemed functional – to me.

What is the Goal?
Most people go to a gym or hire a “trainer” because they are looking for aesthetic changes. They simply want to look better naked – and I for one am all about this and appreciate anyone’s efforts to that end. They can have arms and legs that are falling off, disc pathologies in their necks and backs, migraine headaches 3 times per week, sleep disorders, and inevitably their number one goal is to lose weight (probably better stated that their number one goal is to improve body composition).

As I have mentioned in a previous post entitled Why Cardio Sucks, the best way to melt off unwanted body fat is to simply build and have more muscle. From this perspective, training on an unstable surface is likely detrimental to the primary objective of looking better “neked” and of resistance training which, in most settings, is to build strength, power, and/or increase lean body mass (LBM). Increasing strength and/or power typically requires that one produce a high level of intramuscular tension (IMT). IMT is proportional to the force being produced by the muscles and it is simply impossible to produce maximal force while being unstable. To quote Fred Hatfield, or perhaps someone who may have said this before Hatfield, “You cannot fire a cannon from a canoe!” 

So, if our goal is to look better in our birthday suit and we are trying to build more lean body mass, it is probably more “functional” to execute basic movements, such as squatting, lunging, dead lifting, etc., on the ground (a stable surface – yes, I know the Universe is still expanding and the planet is always moving but we can save that discussion for later) rather than trying to execute these movements on Swiss balls, wobble boards, BOSU balls, Dyna-discs, etc.  This way, we can achieve higher levels of IMT, have a better chance of overloading type IIb motor units (which have greater capacity for hypertrophy (growth)), and actually build some muscle, which will help us shed some of those unwanted pounds of body fat. If we choose to execute basic movements on unstable surfaces, we must recognize that the rate of force development and the stretch-shortening cycle are impaired, motor unit firing patterns and rate coding are altered, muscles are placed at a potentially dangerous biomechanical disadvantage, and you can easily create a favorable environment for injury. This does not exactly fit my definition of “functional.”


Executing sets of dumbbell bicep curls while lunging on a BOSU ball is not likely to help you look any better without any clothes on, or with clothes on for that matter.  One would be better served to simply execute lunges and bicep curls on the damn floor.



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Real World Application 

Let us attempt to better understand what I am speaking of through a real-world example:

We will use the bench press as our example exercise here. Say our client is a high school senior about to head off to college on a football scholarship to play the outside linebacker position. He is 6’2” tall and weighs 210 pounds. He is injury free and is in reasonably good health. He has a training age of 4 years and training experience has been a mix of free-weight training, Olympic lifting, and machine training. 

Q: Is the bench press a functional exercise for him? 
A: It depends.

If the objective of our client is to increase his body weight to 235 pounds in order to avoid being thrown around like a rag doll on the field, then the bench press can be one way by which we can increase his upper body and overall mass. So our answer here would be yes, the bench press is a “functional” exercise.  The outcome would match our objective.  Performing said bench press on a Swiss Ball does not make the exercise more “functional” just because it is an unstable surface.  The athlete will be far better off executing his barbell and dumbbell work on a bench.  


You are doing it wrong!  

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If this same athlete’s goal is to be able to improve his ability to push a load while standing, which is what he will have to do on a football field, then our answer is likely no, the bench press is not a “functional” exercise. The strength that he will develop while lying on his back on a nice comfortable bench that is fully supported, will not carry over very well into his sporting environment because the pattern that he has gained his strength in is too distant from the sport specific activity of pushing a load while standing. He would likely be better off training that push pattern from a standing position on a dual cable column. However, executing this bilateral cable push while standing on a wobble board is not likely to improve his performance on the field as it will decrease his force production capability in the exercise. 

In one scenario, the outcome of the bench press matches the objective and in the other it does not. This, from my perspective, is what determines how “functional” and exercise is – not how stable or unstable you are while performing it. Granted, if the trainee is a beginner with a training age of 0, and the extent of his athletic background is playing video games for 4 plus hours per day, then developing strength in the bench press very well may increase his ability to increase pushing strength in the standing position due to the fact that most of the initial strength gains in a beginner are due to improved nervous system activity and motor unit recruitment. 

To shift gears for a moment, if our client is a 38 year old stay-at-home soccer mom who wants to look better in a bikini and avoid injury while performing household duties and keeping up with the kids, unless she is performing her household duties and looking after the kids while on the Titanic, she stands a better chance of building some actual muscle and losing fat by executing her strength training exercises on the ground, on a bench, etc. – barring a pain syndrome due to muscle/structural imbalances, orthopedic, and/or neurological pathology of course.

It’s Not All Bad 
Having said all of the above, there are some cases where unstable surface training can be used at the same time as resistance training. For example, performing a split squat on a wobble board can improve the capacity to recruit the VMO. Some resistive unstable exercises can also contribute to improve the efficacy of the deep stabilizer system (inner unit) surrounding certain joints, etc. As well, certain athletes perform on unstable surfaces constantly and can be trained with resistance training in that environment, and as I mentioned earlier unstable surfaces are helpful in many orthopedic and neurological rehabilitation cases. Outside of these special cases however, it is of benefit to stick to the primary objective of resistance training: building strength and power and increasing lean body mass. If it (unstable surface training) is an adjunct to, and performed as a complementary component to a well designed training program and not as a substitute for some other integral training component, I feel unstable training can benefit athletic development. Should you continue to substitute back or front squats for squats standing on a wobble board or BOSU ball if you are trying to build muscle (and in turn burn fat) or develop relative or maximal strength? Absolutely not, for all of the reasons I mentioned earlier and more. 

What’s in the Tool Box? 
There is an old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” I cannot remember who said that originally, but I love that quote. It is not my intention to bash unstable surface training – though I may have failed miserably there – I use it sparingly, but it has to be implemented at the right time, under the correct circumstances, with the appropriate client(s). To use it as a stand-alone training system is nothing short of foolish. To use anything as a stand-alone training system is foolish for that matter. Everything is a tool, and you must know what tool to use, how to use it – or what combination of tools to use – to get the best results (outcome matching the objectives). This is just one reason that thorough assessment of a client as well as a proper Needs Analysis of his/her work or sport involvement is a necessary component to Critical Program Design.

At the end of the day, if your goal is to improve body composition and look better naked – go lift heavy things on a stable surface!  My feeling is that the personal training industry sometimes underestimates how “functional” squats, deadlifts, chin ups, etc., really are, and gets caught up in “Swiss ball this”, “body blade and BOSU ball that” entertainment.     

I hope this post made some sense and has your “gears turning” a little bit. As usual, take what is useful to you and discard the rest. I typed this quickly off the top of my head, so my apologies if the thought process is not as refined as in previous posts.

Thanks for Reading,
Brandon J. Alleman


Acid Reflux, GERD: Too Much or Too Little Stomach Acid?

How many people that have been diagnosed with acid reflux, heartburn, GERD; or those experiencing  a “lazy gut”, a “heavy gut”, abdominal bloating and cramping on a regular basis, do you think have ever been told that their symptoms are possibly the result of a LACK of stomach acid, and NOT AN EXCESS of stomach acid.  In my experience, none of them have ever been informed of, or entertained this possibility.  On the advice of a television commercial and what most others (the herd) are doing for the same type of problem, these people are often taking over-the-counter antacids or prescription proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) with the specific intent of reducing the levels of stomach acid.  The choice to purposefully reduce stomach acid, aside from being terribly misinformed, can and often does have devastating consequences to one’s overall health and to the digestive system as a whole. 


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Signs and Symptoms of Hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid):

There can be an endless list of digestive and other symptoms associated with decreased stomach acid, which include but are not limited to the following:

  • Bloating
  • Gas, especially after meals
  • “Heavy” gut even when eating small meals
  • Inability to handle/digest red meat
  • Heartburn, indigestion, reflux
  • Undigested food in stools
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Intense Hunger
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Foul smelling gas and bowel movements (especially in the morning)
  • Halitosis, bad breath
  • Acne
  • Headaches
  • Rosacea
  • Depression
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Skin issues
  • Chronic hepatitis
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Childhood asthma
  • Autoimmune issues

Let us examine what physiology has to say about all of this.


The Importance of HCl (hydrochloric acid)

It is difficult to overstate the importance of HCl in human physiology.  HCl is secreted by the parietal cells in the stomach. It sets the stage for optimal protein digestion and sets the proper pH of the stomach for the rest of the digestive system to work properly.  The digestive system is very much a pH determined system.  When food passes into the bottom of the stomach, the parietal cells are triggered to secrete HCl.  In order for pepsin/pepsinogen, key enzymes for protein digestion, to be released, the stomach needs to have an acidic pH.   If the pH of the stomach is too high (due to a lack of HCl) protein will not be adequately broken down into the necessary, smaller peptide chains.  This leads to poor protein digestion, malabsorption, and possibly, if this goes uncorrected, putrification of the protein.  As well, the pH of chyme (stomach acid, other gastric juices, and food) that enters the first portion of the small intestine, called the duodenum, will signal the release of cholecystokinin (CCK) and secretin.  These two substances relay information to the pancreas and biliary portion of the liver about the level of undigested food (particularly fats and protein) in the chyme.  If stomach acid levels are low, CCK will not be optimally triggered.  As a result, further digestion of undigested protein, fats, and carbohydrate will not occur.  The result will be large amounts of undigested food passing into the intestines.  This will contribute to disturbing the balance of intestinal flora and create an environment that favors autointoxication (toxifying from the inside-out).  In addition to all of that, as if that was not enough, if chyme is not acidic enough it will also not “clear” the stomach in a timely manner. The longer it sits in the stomach; it can begin making its way back up the system and produce “heartburn” and “reflux” type symptoms.  Isn’t that interesting?    

Another key role of HCl is mineral absorption.  Optimal HCl levels are a necessary component for the absorption of all minerals.  Many minerals require adequate HCl to separate the mineral from the food in order to be most effectively and efficiently absorbed.  There is significant evidence to suggest that hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) can lead to multiple mineral deficiencies. In particular, research on long-term PPI users demonstrates the presence of severe magnesium deficiency.  (The specific role of PPI’s is to wipe out large amounts of stomach acid).  Magnesium is one of the most protective and important minerals in the body, particularly when it comes to protection from the biological activity of excess estrogen.  A deficiency is clearly not good for overall health. 

In addition to its major digestive importance, HCl also has a role in immunity.  The level of stomach acidity can also serve to protect us from foreign invaders that may enter through our food supply in the form of viruses, bacteria, parasites, yeast, fungus, molds, etc. 


Potential Causes of Hypochlorhydria

In order for the stomach to produce adequate levels of stomach acid (HCL), there must be sufficient chloride, sodium, thiamine, and zinc.  Zinc deficiencies are very common because most diets are often deficient in the nutrient.  Many people are mistakenly on a “low sodium” diet for one reason or another and lose high amounts of chloride and sodium through the sweat.  As well, adequate protein intake is necessary to stimulate HCl production in the stomach.  As such, low protein diets can result in diminished HCl levels.  Of course, the regular administration of bicarbonates, acid blocking drugs and antacids are huge roadblocks for optimal HCl production. There is also research to suggest that the stomach bacteria H. Pylori appears to have an inhibitory effect upon the production of stomach acid.  Whether or not this relationship is causal has been a topic of debate amongst the scientific and functional medicine communities.  Many believe that we simply produce less HCl as we age.  I would ask, is it aging that decreases HCl production, or is it what we put into and do to our bodies as we age that leads to the decline in HCl production?  Food for though I guess. 


Identifying HCl Deficiency

The most effective and definitive way to assess HCl status is through the Heidelberg pH capsule test. This particular test is a bit invasive, which is why so few have it done.  Basically, after swallowing a radio transmitter capsule that is about the size of the average B-complex vitamin, it measures the resting pH of the stomach.  The physician will then introduce a baking soda challenge (which is very alkaline).  By observing how quickly and efficiently the stomach returns to an acidic state following the baking soda challenge, the physician can determine whether or not the individual in question is producing adequate amounts of HCl.  Like I said, it is a little invasive.

There are practitioners of various types who recommend an HCl Challenge Test to assess HCl status.  This is a misguided effort in my experience.  That particular assessment does not actually assess HCl status.  Rather, it would be a reflection of the integrity of the mucosal barrier of the stomach, which is great to know, but offers little information about HCl production status.      

If one is experiencing reflux type symptoms during and after meals, consider trying the following:  take a teaspoon of lemon juice (preferably organic and freshly squeezed but, hey, do the best with what you have) about 5 minutes before, in the middle of, and immediately following your meal.  If your reflux symptoms improve to any degree, there is a good likelihood that your symptoms are the result of hypochlorhydria (low stomach HCl) and not due to too much stomach acid!

Hypochlorhydria can also be assessed indirectly through a correlation of symptoms and through a simple blood chemistry and/or Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA).  Lab values of interest would be sodium, chloride, carbon dioxide, BUN, anion gap, ALP, gastrin, MCH, MCV, globulin, total protein, phosphorus, and others.    


“Fixing” Hypochlorhydria

There are many individuals that use supplemental HCl to help restore optimal levels.  While this is a potentially effective short-term solution and may bring about some positive results, a far better strategy in my opinion is to support the overall physiology of the individual in question.  Remember, digestion is one of the first things the body will begin to sacrifice health wise in order to ensure short-term survival.  So, if one is “stuck” in a chronic stress response at the cellular level – coming out of that with a sound nutritional strategy to support cellular oxidative metabolism will allow the body to up-regulate digestive capacity on its own.  I have seen individuals receive no relief at all from HCl supplements and others do quite well on them for a while.  Long-term, however, supplementation has its limitations and drawbacks.   

There are things that can be included in the diet that may help to improve HCl production.  Salt is one of those things.  Salt is a potent HCl stimulator.  Drinking a glass of luke-warm or room temperature water with some white, sea salt or Morton’s Pickling salt in it about 15-20 minutes prior to a meal can prove to be beneficial for HCl production and digestion as a whole.  How much salt depends on the individual in question, how much s/he typically salts their food, what the salt intake has been like over the past few months to a year, overall water metabolism, etc.  I have seen some individuals do well on ¼-1/2 teaspoon of salt prior to meals in this fashion.  Every BODY is different. 

One could have his/her zinc status assessed with laboratory assessment, HTMA, or with a zinc challenge test.  If zinc levels are sub-par, restore zinc levels as soon as possible and that will significantly improve HCl production.

It should be obvious that low HCl, hypochlorhydria, has negative health effects that far exceed the digestive system.  Supporting overall physiology with digestible foods, eaten in the proper ratios and at the right frequency is a great strategy for helping the body upregulate HCl production and overall digestion.

Thanks for reading!

 Recommended Reading and Study:

  1. Digestive Wellness by Elizabeth Lipski, PhD., C.C.N
  2. Restoring Your Digestive Health by Jordan Rubin, N.M.D.
  3. Textbook of Functional Medicine (2010) written by many very smart people
  4. Blood Chemistry and CBC Analysis by Dicken Weatherby, N.D. and Scott Ferguson, N.D.
  5. Clinical Ecology by Lawrence Dickey, M.D.


Author’s Note:  This post/article, and any other for that matter, is not intended to replace proper medical advice.  If you suspect an issue, speak with the appropriate licensed medical professional. 


Disclaimer:  I am a C.H.E.K. Practitioner and Holistic Health Practitioner, not a medical doctor.  Services are rendered to engaged members and clients only.   I do not diagnose, prescribe for, treat or claim to prevent, mitigate or cure any human diseases. I do not provide diagnosis, care, or treatment of individuals.  I do not prescribe prescription drugs nor do I recommend you to discontinue them. I provide my opinion on how to use food and movement to foster health and wellness to support optimal physiology and to nourish and support normal function and structure of the human body-mind.  I allow what I feel ‘Creative Energy’ to flow through me.  If you suspect any disease, please consult your physician.

Statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. They are not intended to diagnose, prescribe for, treat or claim to prevent, mitigate, or cure any human illness or disease. They are intended for holistic health education only. The FTC requires that you be informed that the results in case notes and testimonials given are not typical, however, they do show what some individuals have been able to achieve.

Individuals vary, which is why it is important to always consider the whole person when recommending any course of action.  If you suspect a medical condition, you should consult a physician.  No attempt should be made to use any information provided as a form of treatment for any specific condition without the approval and guidance of a physician. Anyone with any health complaint should seek the care and consultation of an appropriate licensed healthcare physician and/or practitioner.