Do you find yourself increasingly unsteady on your feet? Or perhaps you fall sometimes? Do you have to hold on to come down the stairs? Or perhaps you feel you don’t have balanced power in your sport? You would probably benefit from some balance training. These Static Balance Progressions would be a good start.
Static Balance Progressions is the first of a 3-part series on balance. The balance series itself is part of our ‘Elements of Fitness’ collection. We’ve already posted on the warm up and the cool down and flexibility.
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 static balance.
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 stances for static balance progressions
In static balance drills we mostly train in 3 stances. With each stance you can perform a series of upper body movements that challenge your balance in those positions. There’s more on those movements further on, but here are the three stances:
This may not seem like much of a challenge at first but, as you’ll see, there are ways in which you can make even a standing stance challenging.
Inline split stance
If a standing stance is no challenge for you then the next progression is an inline split stance. ‘Inline’ means your two feet are in line with each other, one in front of the other. Think it’s trivial? Try it. You’ll notice immediately how much more your feet and lower leg muscles twitch and adjust.
One legged stance
The most challenging stance is on one leg. This is a significant challenge for a lot of people, particularly those with movement restrictions in their feet. We had a client with fused feet who couldn’t stand on one leg for more than a couple of seconds. His feet simply could not perform the automatic lateral adjustments that would have kept him balanced.
Once you add in upper body movements to this stance then it becomes a challenge for most people.
There are two things to note with the one legged stance
- You should train your balance on both legs
- You need to start by making sure your pelvis remains level. If your hip drops or hikes then there is some work to do to stabilise the pelvis before starting the movement drills. In the photos you’ll see examples of a drop, a hike and a level pelvis.
Three challenges to a balanced position
To challenge your balance in any one of the 3 stances, you can move your upper body in different ways. These movements either change your centre of gravity, forcing you to adjust, or they create tensions that could unbalance you if you didn’t make adjustments. We’ll demo these challenges in a 1-legged stance.
Arm movements are going to shift your centre of gravity and force you to adjust. This is a good starting point to test your balance. If it’s challenging then work on this before moving on.
Torso movements will also change your centre of gravity but they will also create tensions running through the body and change the orientation of your inner ear. By including torso movements we are more closely mimicking every day activities. Torso movements occur in almost every sport.
Your torso can move in 3 ways. It can flex and extend, it can laterally flex and extend and it can rotate, or twist. Twisting, in particular, enables you to generate a lot of power – think golf, tennis, boxing, football, for example. Challenging your balance whilst twisting your torso is a functionally beneficial drill – it’s unlikely you’ll be a scratch golfer if you fall over every time you swing a club!
Your hip is a ball and socket joint, capable of complex movements. When you walk, your hip is flexing and extending. It is abducting and adducting when you step sideways. When you turn around it is internally and externally rotating. In fact your hip does all three of these movements, albeit more subtly, during normal gait. During complex movements in sport, your hip is moving randomly in all directions.
Training hip movements on one leg is really beneficial. For a start, it often reveals tension that can then be addressed. For example, a lot of people have tight external rotators of the hip and will naturally, and unintentionally, rotate about the standing leg when they stand on one leg. It takes effort for them to use and develop unfamiliar muscles to control that rotation. Which brings us to another useful reason to train on one leg – by strengthening muscles it helps correct muscle imbalances and postural issues. Aside from this, it’s great for strengthening the muscles that help you balance. Your feet, lower leg, and glutes all get a good workout from one-legged training.
Are you thinking it’s not very functional because there aren’t many occasions in life where you will be on one leg? You’d be surprised. Footballers pivot on one leg. When you step over something you are on one leg. When you come down the stairs you are on one leg a lot.
Perhaps you don’t find the inline split stance too challenging. Try doing it with your eyes closed. Suddenly the muscles of the feet and lower leg will twitch a lot more. Clearly your eyes are doing a lot to keep you balanced. By closing them you are increasing the demand on the other elements of balance. Your feet and calves will get a better workout.
Standing on a more challenging surface can make even the standing stance hard work. On some of the more difficult surfaces, the one-legged stance becomes exceptionally difficult for all but the most gifted athletes.
There are numerous surfaces you can try, but in general they’ll follow this sort of progression:
- Narrow surface, for example a board of about foot width.
- Pillow/cushion – the thicker and firmer, the more challenging.
- Half foam roller – either side up, but flat side up is a significant challenge.
- Airex pad or wobble cushion – 3 dimensional instability that will require a lot of small adjustments in the feet and lower leg.
- BOSU – again, either side up (BOth Sides Up) – what you do here depends whet you’re looking to train. With flat side down you’ll get a lot more small perturbations of the foot and ankle. With flat side down you’ll experience whole body adjustments. If you can build up to one leg, flat side up, then your balance is excellent!
In the video I am performing torso rotations on a BOSU in a standing stance. As you can see, it’s challenging me! A split stance or single leg stance, even without the torso manoeuvres, is even more challenging.
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. Working on balance in a static standing position is the best start to any balance training. There are plenty of progressions that will take you right from the beginning up to advanced balance drills.
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 level that is challenging for you and take a few minutes to include these drills in your training.