Many of my clients groan when we get to the balance training portion of their workout.
Balance training is more than simply a party trick. It’s one of the key elements of a well-rounded program, helping you to become stronger, healthier and more resistant to injury.
Benefits of balance training
- a stronger core. Standing with feet close together or one foot off the floor, reduces your base of support thereby requiring the activation of your deep core stabilizers. Try performing bicep curls, lateral raises and shoulder presses with feet close together or while balancing on one foot. You should feel an increased engagement of the muscles of your core, including your rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques and the smaller, quadratus lumborum (lower back)
- increased leg strength. Performing exercises from a split stance position requires one leg to lift a greater share of the load. Without adding any additional weight to an exercise, a simple front to back food stagger will increase the effort required by one leg. Over time, such unilateral efforts will be rewarded with increased strength. Examples of split stance exercises include stationary lunges, Bulgarian split squats and stability ball or TRX single leg knee drives.
- better overall body awareness. Poor balance is often caused by under-developed kinesthetic awareness; the knowledge of where various parts of your body are in space. Rapidly growing teenagers often suffer from this effect. You’ll notice that they’re more likely to walk into walls, miss bottom steps and hit their head on overhead objects than usual. This is because their brains have yet to catch up with changes in the location of their extremities. Balance training reduces ‘clumsiness’ by teaching the brain to rapidly locate the parts of the body farthest from it.
Easy ways to add balance training to your day
- practice standing on one foot. You can do this while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. While you’re talking on the telephone. While standing in line at the bank. Extend your arms out at your sides to enhance your stability. Once you get good at this trick, try lowering your arms to your sides. From there, close your eyes. Surprise! Much harder than it sounds!
- perform upper body strength exercises while standing on one foot. Bicep curls, shoulder presses, lateral raises and upright rows are all more challenging when you offset the load by removing one foot from the floor.
- try a 3-point plank. From either a knee plank or toe plank position, lift one leg off the floor and hold for as long as you can. Lower and repeat with the other leg. Once you get good at this, try lifting and extending one arm in front of you while you attempt to keep your hips and shoulders squared to the floor.
More challenging forms of balance training
- take your workout onto a Bosu balance trainer. To begin with, just standing on the dome side of the Bosu will be challenge enough. Once you’ve become comfortable with this tool, try squatting and pressing while balancing on top. Get tips and tricks for mastering the Bosu here. For an even greater challenge, flip the Bosu over and try balancing on the platform side.
- practice split stance exercises with the rear foot elevated. Progress your stationary lunges to Bulgarian split squats by placing the back foot (toes or shoelaces) on a low step or weight bench. Concentrate on using only the supporting leg to return to standing. Once you’ve gotten good at these, add some instability to the move by placing the back foot on a stability ball or in the handles of a TRX suspension trainer.
- give single leg squats and dead lifts a try. If you’re not quite ready to progress to complete single leg squats, start by sitting on a bench and practicing coming to standing using only one leg. Slowly lower your bum back down to the bench without touching the non-working foot to the floor. Learn to perform single leg dead lifts by standing next to a wall or chair. Place your fingers lightly against the wall or on the chair back as you hinge at the hip and use the hand opposite the working leg to lower a dumbbell towards the floor.
Tips for staying safe during balance training
- be aware of your surroundings. Make sure the floor around your workout space is clear and that there are no objects you might trip on or bump into should you lose your balance. Leave plenty of space between yourself and the person working next to you at the gym.
- pick a focal point and stare at it. Many people find that focusing their gaze on a non-moving object several yards in front of them helps with balance. Make sure that there aren’t people walking between you and your focal point; the movement may disrupt your concentration and balance.
- lighten the load. When using weights on an unstable surface or performing moves on one leg, start with a lighter weight than you’d normally use. Focus on form before adding increased resistance to prevent injury.
- move slowly and with purpose. As you move a weight up and over your head, your centre of gravity shifts. Do this quickly and on an unstable surface and you’re likely to topple over. Concentrate on using your muscles, rather than momentum, to slowly raise and lower the weight.
- work both sides of the body evenly. Most of us have a ‘dumb’ side; one side of our body that’s weaker or more balance-challenged than the other. Make sure to perform split stance and single leg exercises on both sides of the body. Try starting with your weaker side to help reduce the left-right balance imbalance!
- have an exit strategy. Make sure you’ve thought about how’ll you get off the Bosu or stability ball and out of the TRX suspension trainer before you get on. Aim for a ‘graceful’ dismount to minimize your risk of injury and preserve your dignity 😉
Above all, remember that the point of balance training is to enhance your overall fitness and ability to perform the activities of daily living. If you get really good at it, you might send Cirque du Soleil your resume…
How’s your balance?
Do you incorporate balance training in your workouts?