Balanced strength is the pinnacle of balance training. It’s also an important component of all functional training programmes. Being strong when your balance is challenged is critical for most sports. You will also be more resilient to falls in everyday life and more capable in everyday situations.
Static balance drills are great for training the vestibular system and strengthening the muscles of the hip and leg that cope with random instabilities. Dynamic balance drills are great for mimicking real life situations. Balanced strength is essential for sporting ability and everyday capability.
Balanced strength drills will benefit everyone who can do them. But you may need to start with the simpler exercises and build up to some of the more challenging drills.
Why is balance important?
You may not be aware of it, but your balance is challenged all the time during everyday activities. Every time you take a step you are momentarily on one leg. When you go up or down a set of stairs, your balance is challenged. If you failed to balance yourself you’d fall down the stairs or crash into the banisters. The more complex the movement, the more your balance is challenged. Getting in and out of a car; reaching for something; carrying bags; carrying a bag in one hand; climbing a step ladder; leaning over to trim the hedge while standing on a step ladder. These are all activities that challenge the systems that are responsible for your balance.
Age related balance deterioration
As you get older it becomes harder to maintain your muscles. If you do nothing to counteract age related weakening then your balance and your strength will deteriorate. That means you are not only more likely to lose your balance but you may also not have the strength to catch yourself and prevent a fall. It gets worse though. As you get older your bone density reduces, so breaks are more likely if you do fall. 50% of women over the age of 65 who break a hip never walk again.
Balance in sport
If an age related loss of balance is not a concern for you right now, then how about sport? Balance is heavily challenged in sport. Having good balance gives you a stronger foundation against which to generate force and it provides the basis for agility. Having better balance will improve performance.
The balance systems and training
What are the systems responsible for balance? Generally it’s your eyes and inner ear (vestibular system) that give you feedback about your orientation in the world. It’s your muscles and nervous system that control your position and ability to remain balanced.
The good news is that you can train for better balance. When you do, you are mostly training the muscles and nervous system to be able to respond to balance challenges. There are balance training drills to suit all capabilities.
The balance series
There’s too much to cover in balance training for a single article. We’ve split it into three. In the rest of this post we’re talking about dynamic balance, but here’s a summary of the series.
These drills are the starting point in developing your balance. They train the muscles that help you balance whilst you remain in one place. They are useful for everyone but they might be particularly relevant to anyone who requires good balance in a static position. For example, gardeners up a ladder, golfers and surfers all have balance challenges whilst their feet remain in one place.
Most of the time, when we are not seated, we are moving around. We walk, we run, we get in and out of cars, we step over things, we go up and down stairs. Who hasn’t heard an account of someone falling down the stairs? It presents significant balance challenges, particularly as you get older. Whilst it’s good to train for balance in static positions, it’s even better to train for balanced movement.
This is what you should aim for. For maximum capability, or minimum fall risk, you really need to be strong when your balance is challenged. If you’re strong you’ll prevent a fall. If you’re strong you’ll have powerful, agile movement in your sport.
Three types of drills for balanced strength
The drills for balanced strength broadly fit into three categories, with plenty of variations to add interest and complexity.
Two legs grounded
Get into a position that requires strength to hold it. Hold it for as long as you can before either your strength or your balance give way. You can add a further challenge by moving the arms as you hold the position.
One leg grounded, one supporting
If you remove one leg from being grounded and allow it only a supporting role, then suddenly balance is a lot harder when you perform a movement. All the drills shown here are variations on the Bulgarian Split Squat. The amount of support offered by the non-working leg will alter the difficulty of these drills.
Single leg strength
Take one leg off the ground and leave it floating and suddenly your grounded leg has to do all the work and all the balance. This is where you want to get to for maximum balanced strength. This is what trains you for your sport more than anything else. Most sports involve generating maximum power off one leg when your balance is challenged. Master these drills and your sporting performance will be enhanced.
Two legs grounded
Get into a position requiring strength and hold it there. Perform arm movements to challenge balance further. Squats and lunges are the tools here.
Squat and hold
Squat down until your thighs are horizontal, keep your chest up. Hold. You could perform an extended hold as a preparation for skiing instead of the traditional wall squat hold. Challenge your strength by holding dumbbells. Challenge your balance with the next drill or by holding the squat on a BOSU, flat side up
Squat and hold with arm manoeuvres
Squat down until your thighs are horizontal, keep your chest up. Hold. Holding a weight in outstretched arms, move your arms around to change your centre of gravity. It presents more of a challenge than you think and is an even better way to simulate the stability requirements of skiing. Try this on a BOSU for a good challenge to your balance.
Lunge and hold
Take a big step forwards, lunge down until your knee almost touches the floor. Hover the knee and hold. This requires a lot more single leg strength than the squat. It also challenges your balance more because the back foot, instead of being entirely grounded, is on toes only. Challenge your strength by holding dumbbells. Challenge your balance with the next drill.
Lunge with arm manoeuvres
Take a big step forwards, lunge down until your knee almost touches the floor and then hold. Perform arm manoeuvres to challenge your balance more. In the video I am doing walking lunges with arm manoeuvres. Although I am not holding a position, with each step I have to reestablish my balance whilst my centre of gravity is shifting from side to side. This requires a little more concentration.
One leg grounded, one supporting
Keep one leg fixed on the ground, balance the other leg on an elevated surface or attachment. We show two examples in the video. These drills are all variations of the Bulgarian split squat
Bulgarian split squat
Establish a firm footing on one leg and put the other foot on a bench behind you. Perform single leg squats with the working leg. Go low and get a momentary touch with the non-working knee. Challenge your strength by holding dumbbells or putting a loaded bar on your back. Challenge your balance either with arm manoeuvres or by taking away some support from the back leg, as with the next drill.
TRX Bulgarian split squat
Establish a firm footing on one leg and put the other foot into the stirrup of a TRX suspension attachment. Perform single leg squats with the working leg. Go low and get a momentary touch with the non-working knee. Here you’ll find that your back leg no longer stabilises you against rotational forces in the hip, so other muscles in the hip complex get involved in a more intense balancing effort. Perform arm manoeuvres to make the balance challenge harder still.
Single leg strength
Keep one leg fixed on the ground and float the other. Perform a variety of single leg squats and hip extensions.
Single leg straight leg deadlift
Keep the working leg ‘soft’, i.e., almost straight. Keep the back straight and pivot at the hip. Go as low as you can without any back rounding and seek a stretch in the hamstring. As well as developing your balance, this will give you good functional strength in the hamstrings and glutes. Use dumbbells to add to the strength challenge.
Single leg TRX pistol squat
This is a precursor to the full unsupported pistol squat. In the TRX version you hold on to the TRX handles whilst performing the squat. To make it more challenging, hold on with one hand only. You’ll find it easier using the opposite arm as this will offset rotational forces. Using the same-side arm you will need to work harder to establish rotational stability.
Single leg skater’s stance squat
This is a single leg squat with the floating leg behind the body. It looks a bit like position that a speed skater might adopt. There will be a limit to the depth that can be achieved, but it is nevertheless still a challenging drill, both in terms of strength and balance.
Single leg pistol squat
This is a single leg squat with the floating leg in front the body. Full depth can be achieved with this squat. Holding a weight out in front will add to the strength requirement but make balance a little easier. If you can do this on the floor and keep the floating foot off the ground then you’re a better man than me! That requires good flexibility and excellent hip flexor strength.
If you really want to achieve the pinnacle of functional balanced strength then single leg pistol squats on a wobbly surface should be your aspiration. You’ll see in the video I have a go at it, but the execution is poor. That’s because it’s hard! With the single leg pistol on a bench, I was able to do this without any training or practice, simply because I do a lot of exercises that require balanced strength. But on a BOSU… well that’s another level. To make that look half decent I’d need to practice. Perhaps I’ll make that a promise! I’ll practice that and come back with a blog update showing a slick pistol squat off a BOSU.
Balance training will improve your capability in all aspects of life and in sport. The better your balance, the more complex movements you will be able to perform with competence. In real life you move about and need to balance yourself when moving. And most of the time you’ll fare better, or perform better if you are also strong when your balance is challenged. Working on balance drills that require strength as well as balance is the final application of balance training for maximum applicability to everyday situations and sports.
Everyone will benefit from balance training. Even if you are at an elite level in your sport, the right balance training will enhance your performance. Find the drills that are challenging for you and of particular relevance to your life or sport. If balanced strength is critical to your sport then make these drills a mainstay of your training.