Think fitness and what comes to mind?
If you’re like most people, it’ll be weight training, running and sweating it out in a spin class. Balance training won’t even come into the equation. In fact, the average gym goer would probably scratch his head to even define balance training.
Yet, developing superior balance through targeted exercise is a key element of overall fitness that will make you stronger, more functional and less prone to injury. Read on to discover why you need to get some balance in your fitness program.
What is Balance Training?
Balance is one of the most important skills we need in our lives. Yet, it’s the one skill that most people don’t train. Balance becomes more and more important as we age. Improving our balance, though, can help all of us to perform better, whether we’re playing sport, carrying the groceries or running on the treadmill.
Balance training involves performing exercises specifically designed to improve your balance and coordination. It is often linked with stability training. With balance training, you work your body in a position or a series of positions that occur during movement. You hold a specific position by co-contracting the muscles on the other side of the joint involved.
According to NASM Elite trainer Susan Retzlaff, balance training “is the type of training that uses instability to force you to use muscles that stabilize the body during movement.”
Many people don’t realize that balance is something that can be improved through exercise, just as agility and flexibility can be trained. Retzlaff explains how modern balance training equipment can help improve balance, “Equipment like stability balls, the Bosu trainer, wobble boards, etc. all create that instability which causes more muscles to activate than if you were just standing on a stable surface.”
When you do an exercise on one of these instability devices, you will find the movement a whole lot tougher. Retzlaff explains that is “because the unstable nature of your base requires you to use a whole host of muscles that would never be engaged.“
Let’s say, for instance, that you are going to do alternating dumbbell curls on a Bosu Ball (that’s the one that resembles half a Swiss ball). The very act of balancing on the ball will immediately activate your core muscles. It will also bring into play your quads and calves as you contract them in order to keep your balance. In effect, then, you have just tripled the effectiveness of the alternating dumbbell curl by moving from the floor to the balance ball.
According to Retzlaff, you can perform any exercise that you would normally do on a flat surface on an instability ball to recruit the core muscles and your legs.
Why Be Balanced?
Whether we are old or young, we all face situations where our balance is compromised. Improving our balance will help us to ward off balance related injuries and more confidently handle slippery surfaces and narrow walkways.
The key to overall fitness and vitality lies in choosing a variety of exercise options. If you train just one way, you will be limiting yourself. By cross training so as to challenge all of your body’s systems and movement patterns, you’ll have a far healthier, more functional body. That means that you’ll become stronger, more stable and more in control as you perform the demands of your day.
In a young, healthy body, the senses of the body such as hearing, sight and touch help us to remain balanced. As we age, however, we may suffer a loss in the sensitivity of one or more of those senses. Other effects of aging, such as degenerative diseases and accumulated joint injuries, may also cause us to lose our balance.
According to the Vestibular Disorders Association website, one of the leading health concerns for people over the age of 60 is falling, which is often related to balance issues. That’s why a balance program is a great idea for retired folks.
What are the Benefits of Balance Training?
Balance training is a fun, challenging form of exercise that will, often literally, keep you on your toes as you go through your fitness routine. Here are the major benefits of this form of exercise:
- Balance training develops the mind-muscle connection – You won’t be able to think about what’s for dinner when you’re in the middle of a balance session. You’ll be too busy concentrating on contracting your muscles and keeping yourself upright. This will allow your mind and muscle to become more synchronized.
- Balance training builds instant reaction – When your balance is compromised in real life, you don’t have time to think – you’ve simply got to react. Balance training will develop that reaction response, giving you the ability to catch yourself from a disastrous fall without even thinking about it.
- Balance training will strengthen your core muscles – Your core is where you body’s power radiates from. When you train for balance, you will be working the stabilizer muscles of your trunk. This will take a lot of the strain away from your limbs and lower back.
- Balance training will improve your posture – Strength is required for good posture, and balance training will develop it. You’ll strengthen the deep stabilizer muscles of the torso, creating a solid foundation for the spinal bones. You’ll also be able to keep your shoulders high and your hips properly aligned as a result of balance and stability training. A better posture will project more self-confidence and ward off lower back injuries.
- Balance training will improve your neuromuscular system – According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training balance training can effectively impact neuromuscular control movements. That means that your nervous system will be operating at an optimal level. The signals that your nervous system sends to your muscles will move more quickly, increasing your reaction time. In fact, all of your movements will become more efficient as a result of balance training.
- Balance training will make you far less prone to injury. A 1996 study focusing on the prevention of ACL injuries in soccer showed that balance training can significantly reduce the incidence of ACL soccer injuries.
So, How’s Your Balance?
All of those balance training benefits may have got you wondering just where your balance is at right now. Well, you don’t have to wonder any longer. Here’s a quick test to allow you to gauge your current coordination status:
- Stand up in preparation to walk forward in a straight line.
- Place one foot in front of the other, touching the heel of the front foot to the toe of the back foot.
- Stay in that position but close your eyes.
- See how long you can hold this position before you start to wobble.
Most people won’t be able to maintain this position for more than a few seconds. If you can do so for more than 45 seconds, then you are in the minority.
The Biomechanics of Balance
The benefits of balance training are pretty compelling, right? They will benefit anybody, regardless of their current level of fitness level. So how do you go about it?
The ability to balance is a complex biomechanical process that we master as toddlers. According to Dr. A Nashner in his authoritative text Practical Biomechanics and Physiology of Balance, balance involves three key elements:
- Your sensory systems determine where your body is located in space.
- Your brain processes this information and makes the necessary changes.
- Your muscles and joints receive these messages and respond accordingly to keep you steady.
Our sensory systems are constantly working to figure out where we are in space. The eyes, inner ears, feet, ankles, and joints are working together to process information in the brain. The eyes determine whether the surrounding environment is moving or still. Your ears contain balance organs which can tell if you are upright, bending over, moving or standing still. Even the bottoms of your feet contain pressure sensors which detect how level the surface is that you are standing on.
All of these automatic bodily responses come together in an instant to provide your body with what we call balance. Imagine that you have kicked your leg up, but it has gone too high for you to maintain proper balance. Your body will instantly start to make the needed adjustments. The brain will take in the sensory input and compare it to an internal blueprint of stored sensations. It then sends signals via the spinal cord to dozens of muscles, giving them instructions to contract and relax as the need may be.
The programmed blueprint of the correct body positioning is an amazing, little understand aspect of balance. It is commonly known as muscle memory, but the scientific name for it is proprioception. This means ‘own reception’. In 1978, famed physiologist Sir Charles Bell referred to proprioception as the ‘sixth sense’ of the positions and actions of the limbs.
Proprioception allows us to make amazing improvement in our ability to stabilize our bodies. Like anything else, this ability is developed through practice and experience. And that practice and experience come through balance training.
Balance exercises not only train your muscles but also your brain and your nerves in order to create neurologically smart muscles. As you go through your balance training routine, your central nervous system is busy making and storing internal blueprints of your movement patterns, which can be later called upon when needed. This allows you to train your body and your brain to recall balance and strength in relation to your body position and the special position of each body part while the movement is occurring. You will be, in effect, honing your body sense.
When it comes to balance, your muscles can be divided into two groups:
- Stabilizing or postural muscles
- Movement muscles
Stabilizing muscles, such as those in the abdominals and back tend to be deep muscles. Movement muscles, such as those of the chest or thighs are superficial. It is often the case that your movement muscles are overly tight as a result of overuse.
While balance exercise will work all of your movement muscles to a certain degree, they will focus on your stabilizing muscles. Your deep abdominal and back muscles stabilize your spine in every movement that you make. When these muscles sag and are weak, your everyday movements will be far more difficult. They simply will not be able to support your body. This can very easily morph into long term chronic pain, especially in the lower back.
Steven Ehasz, former exercise physiologist and wellness director for the University of Maryland Medical System, states that “your core is the essence of everything you do, from your day-to-day activities, to your athletic pursuits”. A core focused balance program will allow you to stabilize your spine. This will enable you to enjoy the safety of movement to be able to build strength in your core muscles, which will make you far more functionally efficient. "It doesn't matter how strong your arms and legs are", says Ehasz, ”if the muscles they're attached to aren't equally as strong".
How Do You Balance Train?
Balance training involves performing static and dynamic movements while standing on an imbalanced platform. Once you have spent some time acclimatizing your body to standing and balancing on the platform, you will be able to start performing other exercises, that you have previously been doing while standing on the floor, on the platform.
This type of training will balance your body in a variety of positions. Here are five tips to help you to stay steady while performing your balance training:
- Find your focus through your eyes first. Do this by fixing your gaze upon an anchor point in front of you.
- Move slowly and consciously, making sure to turn your head slowly so as not to throw off your inner ear equilibrium.
- Develop a strong mind-muscle connection from the very start. Think about every move, so you don’t wobble.
- Ensure that you are in optimal spinal alignment. You should maintain a neutral spine and keep your hip and shoulder points still and even.
- Engage your core muscles. Use the torso as an anchor point for the body. Your balance is linked to how strong your core muscles are.
Here’s a short introductory video on the basics of using one of the fundamental pieces of balance equipment, the Bosu ball:
A Balanced Perspective
A completes fitness training program includes all of the elements that combine to create a healthily functioning body. That means that you need to be doing some form of strength work, cardiovascular endurance exercise and balance training. As we’ve seen, your balance training will make you a better athlete to perform the other two components of total fitness more efficiently. It will also hone your body senses, making you a more functionally efficient, stable and coordinated person.
So, the next time you’re in the gym and walk past that strange looking half Swiss ball, don’t pass it by – do your body a favor and step up to the balance training test!