Most of my clients when they first begin training are shocked by how bad their balance is. They might have known they lacked strength and stamina, but balance never crossed their mind.
And it can be ridiculously frustrating! You could have a long list of challenging exercises, but throw in something that requires balance, and it will quickly become your nemesis.
Why is balance important? Having balance drastically reduces your risk of injury, both now and as you get older. Most major injuries in elderly individuals can be related to balance issues. Balance is tied to muscle mass, and we know that if we can maintain muscle mass as we age, we will be far less likely to develop injuries.
Balance is also a good reflection of your fitness level. It’s nearly impossible to be a thoroughly fit individual yet have poor balance. Someone that is strong and athletic can confidently do things in precarious positions because, once again, they have the muscle mass to handle it. This makes sense, right?
(And I hate to say it, but there are plenty of gym rats with serious muscle mass but they severely lack balance. Every single exercise they do involves both feet planted or a bench for support. Not good.)
If you don't use it, you'll lose it. Little kids have great balance because they work at it. They’re constantly running, jumping, and climbing on things that develop their functional stability--being stable and sturdy in different planes of movement.
But most adults have horrible balance. There comes a point when we just stop working on it. Our activities involve sitting, standing on two feet and merely walking. Even if we do exercise, we usually choose to do things with both feet planted or we just move in one plane of motion…like going for a run. Training our balance never occurs to us.
So, let’s work on it. Typically, when we think of balance it’s related to our feet. I’m not going to teach you how to balance on one arm (sorry, maybe another day!), but these principles outlined can certainly apply if you’re that adventurous.
For our purposes here, let’s pretend that we’re trying to improve our balance on one leg, specifically while doing a single leg dead lift (the most frustrating movement for most people). If you put these tricks and cues into practice, you will see your balance improve dramatically.
Core and hip strength first. I can’t just tell you to “stand on one foot for a minute every day” and expect your balance to improve. Having stability on one leg begins with having a strong foundation…a solid core. If your spine and hip bones are behaving like noodles, it will always be nearly impossible to balance.
As your core strength improves and your hip strength solidifies, you will find much more stability.
So, work on your core and hip strength with plank variations, side planks, bird dogs, bridges, single leg bridges, and other good bracing exercises.
And then as you do an exercise like our single leg dead lift, think “rigid”. Your torso should be fully engaged and activated to keep you rigid from the crown of your head to your heel out behind you.
Pick a focal point. Our visual input plays a major role in balance. Try standing on one foot with your eyes open, and then do it again with your eyes closed. The difference is remarkable. Use your eyes to your advantage.
While doing the single leg dead lift, pick a low focal point out in front of you…perhaps an outlet, a windowsill, or your own knee if you’re looking in the mirror. Keep your eyes glued to that spot as your body moves through the exercise. If you let your eyes move up and down, it can be extremely difficult. (This is also why it feels extra challenging if a child runs through your line of vision…grr!)
Turn on as many muscles as possible. Try to get as many muscles in your leg and foot engaged as possible. When more muscles are contracted, they act like tension cables, preventing your bones from swaying or wobbling.
To help with this, keep your standing knee bent and the full weight of your body pressed back into your hip. If you attempt a single leg dead lift with your joints locked out, your muscles will deactivate and stop working for you. So, picture gripping the floor with your entire leg and squeeze your glutes, quads, abs and shoulders.
Stabilize the foot, ankle, and knee. It helps to place the weight of your body in the right areas. Lift the arch of your foot up so your weight is along the pinky toe edge of your foot, which prevents the foot and ankle from collapsing and rolling around (like the picture on the left above. In fact, I kept falling over while trying to take that picture!). Next keep the knee pulled just a little out to the side, preventing it from rolling inward. Your thigh and hip muscles should be gripping to help you do this.
Start static, then make it dynamic. Try to just hold the position first for 5-10 second holds at a time. If you must, you can hold on to something very lightly, like a foam roller positioned upright. As you hold the position, work through the cues mentioned above…get your torso rigid and core tight, pick a focal point, engage as many muscles as you can with your leg and hip, and pay attention to the way your foot and knee are aligned.
As you get better with holding the position, try dynamically moving in and out of it, hinging into the "T" position with your hips and then returning back to vertical. Move in a straight line.
Shoes first, then barefoot. It will always be easier to balance if your feet are supported. So, if balance is extremely tricky for you, be sure to wear shoes until you are much better. Eventually, you will want to try balancing movements barefoot so your foot and ankle stabilizers can learn to work a little harder. But at first, they may have to work overtime, which could cause a nasty foot or calf cramp!
It will get better, I promise. As frustrating as poor balance is, it does adapt fairly quickly. The more you work at it, the more your muscles will learn to fire and the more your nerves will send signals to your joints, telling them what to do.
But I'll warn you...balance disappears quick. If you stop doing exercises that work on it for even just one week, you'll find yourself frustrated again! Make sure you're following a workout program that continues to challenge your balance in new ways.
As I’m coaching my clients through balancing exercises like the single leg dead lift, these are all the tricks I use to help them feel more balanced. As you feel more secure in your balance, have fun with it! Try deep ranges of motion and moving outside of the normal “forward and back” movement. But always keep your eyes on a focal point, your core and hips engaged, and your muscles firing like crazy. Before you know it, these frustrating exercises will be much easier.
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As a member, you'll receive a brand new 4-week progressive plan every month that will challenge your balance, strength, power, and cardiovascular stamina. Every workout can be done in your living room in 30 minutes or less. Beginner and intermediate/advanced workout plans are provided, along with so many extras! Click here to see all the extras and to get started today!