There is an obsession with trainers to try to establish their reputation – and perhaps even their legacy – by creating new exercises. The problem is that this becomes increasingly difficult because countless books and articles continue to be published demonstrating variations of common barbell, dumbbell and cable exercises. But thanks to the devices used in functional training, we have seen the creation of an entirely new explosion of exercises that are not just inferior to the original ones but often considerably dangerous. One example is the Cuban Press performed on a Swiss ball.
As I have stated in previous seminars and writings, I did not create the Cuban Press but simply made up the name of the exercise in the interest of convincing a weightlifter to do them. His teammates and I told him that the Cubans (who were a world power in the sport at the time) did them on a regular basis, and that was one of the primary reasons they excelled in the snatch. And the truth is, the Cuban Press has many other names in the weightlifting circuit – the French called it arraché en force (strength-only snatch) and in the US it’s been known as the muscle snatch and power snatch to forehead and pressout.
Regardless of the name, the fact is the exercise works. It’s a great exercise to strengthen the rotator cuff to improve snatch proficiency or to balance out years of bench press work. As such, it is a valuable exercise to include in the exercise toolbox of a personal trainer or strength coach, especially those who understand the concept of structural balance.
Before getting into the specific reasons that performing the Cuban Press on a Swiss ball is a dumb exercise, let’s take a journey into the mystical world of functional training.
A Brief History of Nonsense
Functional training refers to using exercises that simulate specific activities that appear in sports or in routine activities; it can also refer to exercises that help correct or prevent structural imbalances that occur from playing a specific sport because most sports tend to specialize on certain muscle groups. Although the term functional training is relatively new, the concept is not.
For many decades Russian sport scientists and coaches have examined in detail the concept of functional training in many textbooks. Two of the most widely referenced Russian sources are Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, who has conducted extensive research in plyometrics, and Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, one of the most successful throwing coaches in track and field. Probably the term that most closely resembles functional training is the term special strength, which relates to the ability to perform specific complex motor tasks. This is in contrast to general strength, which relates to the ability to perform several motor tasks.
In developing long-term planning for an athlete’s career, early training would focus on general strength, and later training would focus on specific strength. Further, as an athlete moves to higher levels of sports classification, less general strength training should be performed, as it could interfere with the development of special strength.
A great example of this progression is the Bulgarian system of weightlifting, as their elite athletes often limit themselves to the performance of just five lifts: snatch, power snatch, clean and jerk, back squat and front squat. In contrast, coaches from other countries may have a dozen exercises just to improve the snatch, such as snatch pulls, snatches from the hang, and snatches from blocks set at various heights.
Making up names for already established training concepts is one thing, but many functional trainers would have us believe that the only way to achieve the highest levels of conditioning is with the use of unstable surfaces such as wobble boards and Swiss balls.
PICP Level 1 Coach Michael Wahl’s master’s thesis was entitled “The Effectiveness of Instability Resistance Training Devices for Training.” In his study Wahl selected 16 competitive athletes who had played at college level or above – in fact, this group included a world champion kickboxer.
Using electromyogram (EMG) testing to examine the electrical activity in muscles, Wahl discovered that the brain motor patterns exhibited in performing exercises on unstable surfaces were exactly the same as those seen on stable surfaces. He concluded that because the nature of these unstable exercises were such that less resistance could be used, they had to be considered inferior from a strength training perspectives. And to this I add, “Why train the body to be weak?”
Getting back to the Cuban Press, we can infer from Wahl’s research that performing this exercise on a Swiss ball does not add anything to it. Further, it actually makes it less effective, as some of the bottom range of the movement is cut out, thus preventing a full stretch of the muscles involved. And then there is the safety aspect to consider, as it would be difficult to get out of the way of a missed lift compared to the standing version of this exercise. Hence, this exercise falls along the lines of stiff-legged squats and Bodyblade reverse pop-and-lock dance drills.
The Cuban Press is a good exercise “as is,” performed with a barbell on a stable surface. Trying to make it more effective by making it look like a Cirque du Soleil stunt is just plain dumb.
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