Building Better Balance:
Get off the ball and move your head!!
“Next to love, balance is the most important thing.” – John Wooden
One of the primary goals of modern day “functional training” is to build better balance that you can use in the real world. People with better balance move more gracefully and with greater strength and power than those that don’t. And they have less injuries. We are with this 100%. One of Athlon’s guiding principles is that “form follows function.” Train a person to function optimally in the real world and the “good-looks” will come.
Unfortunately, this is one of those places in life where “common sense” often fails…
It is commonly accepted that learning how to balance on something unstable will make us more stable on solid ground. Unfortunately, this is generally not true. I see the same misguided logic in the training that boxers and mixed martial artists often put themselves through. You can often see them doing sprints on the beach thinking that the “harder to run on” sand will make them stronger when they get into the ring. (just because it’s harder, doesn’t mean it’s better) When ever is the ring or octagon full of sand??
Modern physiology and neuroscience both tell us that we improve at EXACTLY what we train for. If you run on the sand, you’ll get better at running on the sand, not fighting in a ring… sit at a desk all day without breaks and you WILL become an excellent sitter… and training on an unstable surface makes you better at standing on unstable surfaces — not a valuable skill for most athletes! (and remember, everyone is an athlete to us at Athlon. If you have to move your body in the real world then you’re an athlete)
Additionally, when you look at how modern, “functional” balance training is typically done there are some major glaring flaws… Think back to the last time you saw someone standing on a “balance device.” They probably looked a lot like this:
If you look closely you will see two vital mistakes:
- They take on a startle/scared posture the majority of the time — their shoulders are up, head forward, shoulders rounded, spine rounded, flexed at the hip and knee. (how is that a good thing? Most people come to Athlon to stop living in this rounded, uncomfortable, scared posture, why would I do something that reinforces it??)
- To “help” their balance — they fix their eyes on the horizon or ground and never move their head.
Why are these two things a problem???
Well, for one, we’ve already said — you get what you train for. Standing and training in a startled, scared position emphasizes and reinforces something you’re already very good at… something God made you good at from birth… being startled and scared. It’s important to our survival. But we’re not intended to live in that posture 24/7…
And two, if you understand how “balance” is created in the body you know that there are three primary systems involved in keeping you upright:
- Your Visual System (number one sensory system in the body that governs all other systems)
- Your Vestibular System (often referred to as your “inner ear” that is key for balance and staying upright)
- Your Proprioceptive System (the sensory nerves in your joints that tell your brain where your body’s at, where it’s moving to and how fast it’s going there)
Each of these three systems provides input to the brain regarding our body’s positioning and motion. When you stand on a balance device the three systems provide conflicting information, e.g., your vision and vestibular systems are telling your brain, “everything’s normal and upright” because you’ve frozen your head and vision in one position; but your proprioceptive system is sending signals saying something has gone massively wrong, “the ground just turned into Jell-o!!” When this happens, a sensory “mismatch” in our brain is created and your body’s/brain’s response is FEAR… THREAT… and hence a scared/startled posture. If you train this very often lasting pain and poor performance will be the result.
This means it’s important that all three systems — and the interactions between them — are trained.
So, while training on an unstable surface may stimulate your proprioceptive system a great deal — never moving your eyes or your head leaves you with deficits in your training for two out of the three systems that keep you upright!
How Athlon Train’s Balance
The great news is that there are some very easy exercises to incorporate into your training that will help you take advantage of all three systems.
Here’s a basic training progression we’ve adapted from the folks at Z-Health:
- Find a firm, solid surface to train on and ensure there is nothing to trip/fall/injure yourself on.
- Take off your shoes.
- Standing with both feet on the ground and your eyes open, quickly turn your head to the right and maintain your balance for 15 seconds. Repeat this quick turn and balance turning your head left, looking up, looking down, and tilting your head left and right. This should be incredibly easy.
- Next, repeat all the same steps in #3 with both feet on the ground and your eyes closed. This should still be very easy.
- Now, we will make it harder. Stand on one leg with your eyes open and repeat all the movements found in #3. While this may still be easy, by the time you are done training on each leg, you will likely be feeling some significant foot and leg fatigue.
- Finally, it’s time for the hard version! You will repeat all the movements found in #3 while standing on one leg with your eyes closed. This is much harder than it sounds like it should be. More than 90% of athletes that we test are unable to stay upright for the full 15 seconds in each position when first tested.
- As you discover your strengths and weaknesses in this series, plug these basic balance training drills into your day. Within 4-6 weeks you should notice tremendous improvements in your stable ground balance. If not, give us a call at 805-546-6070, or request your complimentary fitness consultation at www.SLOPersonalTraining.com/consult, so we can direct you in the appropriate direction for more help.
Balance—everyone needs it. Everyone wants it.
Make sure you’re getting it and not losing it…
Until next time,
P.S. what are you wating for? Click on the link above and come in for a FREE consultation to learn how to improve your balance, and hence gracefulness, strength and power.