For a Lifelike Workout, Add Motion, Instability

By Howard Schneider
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

You may have noticed it on the fringes of your gym: the trainer coaxing a client to stand on a squishy Bosu ball while simultaneously lifting dumbbells; or, back on terra firma, the muscly type who's not just lifting a sizable amount of weight but kind of jumping and shrugging to heave it from the floor to shoulder level or higher.

What gives?

Nautilus and similar machines may have democratized strength training in the past quarter-century, making it a more accessible and less threatening pursuit. But there has been a gradual recognition that the same ease of use can also limit the outcome. Complexity -- whether in the form of unstable surfaces that challenge balance during exercise, or dynamic movements that involve more of the body -- can produce a variety of benefits. It strengthens the core muscles of the abdomen and back, helping lessen the need for a separate abdominal routine, and burns more calories than conventional weightlifting.

That's what the people in the odd poses are up to, though they are going about it two different ways, both supported by science and adaptable to almost any fitness level.

"Crossfit" is a style of training built around complex movements done with a challenging amount of weight -- whether that's 200 pounds for conditioned types or a light bar as you are learning to do the exercises safely.

The movements are familiar from the Olympics: the "snatches" and "cleans" that begin with the weight on the ground, and involve the legs, hips and upper body in an explosive upward motion, as well as variations more suitable for beginners. (And no, this is by no means a men's-only regime. Local gyms have a lot of female enthusiasts, including the proverbial grandma who does the exercises with a broomstick.) At Crossfit Alexandria, trainers Rudy Nielsen and Casey O'Donnell compare the short list of exercises they concentrate on with their clients with the long (and, from their perspective, unnecessarily time-consuming) list of presses and curls that people do in an effort to isolate particular muscles. As opposed to lying on a bench or sitting in a chair and working on just one set of muscles at a time, an Olympic-style clean brings much more into play -- building strength but also flexibility, agility, balance and coordination.

Build in, as the Crossfitters do, rounds of pull-ups and push-ups, and you are building endurance as well.

"If it starts on a machine, there is no accuracy or agility. . . . You build strength in a relatively unrealistic setting," Nielsen said. "You do a thousand crunches and you are strong . . . if you're rolled up in a ball."

Although challenging, these sorts of movements can be tailored to beginners: a broomstick substituted for the standard 45-pound bar, a shallow squat used as the knees and legs strengthen. Push-ups can be done leaning into a wall or with bent knees until the chest and back adapt.

"When you are using multi-joint structural movements . . . you are going to get a greater metabolic demand, greater stimulus, greater physiologic adaptation," said Jay Hoffman, chair of the Department of Health & Exercise Science at the College of New Jersey and a former vice president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or NCSA. "Those are critical exercises people should do."

At the Silver Spring YMCA, trainer Gina McNeal uses a different approach toward the same end, coaching her clients to lift lighter weights while adding a variety of balance challenges. Dumbbell rows might be performed standing on one leg. A chest press might be done with the back on an inflatable Swiss ball, forcing the abdominal, back and other muscles to support and stabilize the rest of the body. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the chest press specifically and found that key muscles in the back and abdomen might work anywhere from two to seven times as hard when the upper body, lower body or both are rendered unstable.

There are trade-offs. NSCA studies have documented, for example, what seems intuitive: Exercising on unstable surfaces requires the use of lighter weights, which limits strength gains in the primary muscle targeted by the exercise.

But as awkward as it sounds, McNeal finds the approach practical for many of her clients.

"It's like common things you do in life," she said. "You hold a toddler and kick the door shut."

Some resources:

* has a library of video clips demonstrating its approach.

* Men's Health magazine has published a book, "Power Training," and articles covering the basics.

* The American Council on Exercise publishes a manual discussing the basics of working with a stability ball.

The exercise demos on* m include several balance exercises and a few involving hand-held weights on unstable surfaces.

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