Balance. The ability to recover from something that knocks you off center. The feeling that scampering over loose rocks doesn’t pose a threat because you know you have the ability to catch yourself.
Regardless of whether balance is something you ever think about, you have a sense of where your center of mass is located. It’s the spot where you feel most stable and least likely to be knocked off balance. When you move, your body searches for the place that feels the safest, giving you a sense of postural control.
The Role of Postural Control
It turns out this postural control is based not only on your overall strength and mobility but also whether you practice any sort of balance training. A systematic review by Low, et.al, ran meta-analyses on 22 trials that examined the effectiveness of balance training, resistance training, or a multi-component exercise intervention on older adults’ postural control.1 Balance training improved postural control; resistance training and multi-component exercise training did not.
“Wait,” you’re thinking, “balance training is so 2006.” True, but falls and fractures are so 2018 that it could be argued maybe balance training should make a comeback.
Curiously, the muscles of the abdominals associated with postural control are considered stabilizers.2 Many people interpret this to mean they keep the spine still while the limbs move around them.
However, if balance training improves postural control while resistance training doesn’t in 22 studies, perhaps a better way to view these muscles is they prevent you from falling. Training low-risk situations where you have to recover from a disturbance of balance, otherwise known as a perturbation, may be a more effective way to train postural stability.
Additionally, poor balance is associated with low back pain.3 The solution to low back pain is often endless planks, but what if dynamic balance were another way to strengthen the muscles that provide support to the spine? Some may even find the idea of dynamic balance fun, a word no one uses to describe endless planks.
Dynamic balance training is unique in that it uses the visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive system to accomplish the goal (recover from a fall or remain upright). Because of this, it’s not just trunk muscles that work to maintain stability; the muscles that provide stability to the hip, such as the gluteus medius, and the ankle show increases in activity, while the visual and vestibular system is challenged to provide accurate information to the brain.4 Balance training, then, could be considered a mind/body exercise.
Balance Training for the Mind
Conveniently, the total body nature of balance training may increase neuroplasticity in the regions of the brain associated with visual and vestibular self-motion perception. This, of course, makes sense given the fact your ability to perceive where your body is located in space is based on visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive input.
But what you might not realize is that the same areas that perceive visual and vestibular information are related to spatial orienting and memory. This is potentially good news for your brain if you are planning on living a long time. Maintaining neuroplasticity in these brain regions might help with cognition as you age.
Okay, so if you are at risk of falling and/or you have low back pain, you care about your memory, and you like the idea of incorporating something that’s good for your brain and body. But you barely have time to fit in your lifting program; adding one more thing sounds like an impossibility, and you don’t have any aspirations of joining the circus. How can you implement this information?
Balance training doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective, and can easily be worked in between sets, as a dynamic warm-up, or on recovery days.
Examples of dynamic balancing exercises include:
- Walking on a 2×4 a variety of ways. Options include walking forwards, backward, while throwing a ball, with high knees, getting as low as you can, slowly, and with the feet touching. Set a timer and use the 2×4 either as a warm-up or cool-down.
- Single leg squat work without weight. Weight makes it easier to balance; spending time on a variety of unweighted single leg squat drills will improve your ability to recover when you lose your balance and make your ankles more responsive.
- Single leg mobility drills while staying loose. The ability to stay perfectly still on one leg is admirable, but it doesn’t translate into being responsive. Responsiveness is what allows you to recover from falls, not rigidity.
- Practice falling. Falling becomes much less scary when you have strategies for dealing with the floor. Basic rolling moves, like rolling squat get-ups, can be a great place to start. Once you get comfortable and gain the mobility needed in the back to roll forward and backward softly, progress to backward rolls and forward rolls.
There are a few things to pay attention to as you begin exploring dynamic balance. The first is to make sure you don’t hold your breath. Often, when people are exposed to things that are new and/or stressful, the breath is the first thing to go. This doesn’t help with stability or staying calm, so check in with yourself and make sure you are breathing by emphasizing the exhale once in a while.
The next is to make sure you aren’t trying to hold yourself perfectly still. There is a sweet spot between not being so loose that you feel out of control and not being so rigid that when something finally knocks you over, the thud you make is spectacular. Rigidity does not equate to stability.
The final thing to notice is where is your weak link? Do you feel like the all of the parts respond equally to helping you maintain balance, or is there a lot of movement or tension in your knee, or your ankle, or your right pinkie finger? (I don’t know what it is about the right pinkie finger. Clients stick it out as though it alone will maintain their balance.) When you are able to strike a balance between stability and mobility, things work a little bit better, especially when you are trying not to fall.
Find Your Dynamic Balance
Working on dynamic balance will improve body awareness and coordination which, while it might not translate directly to your back squat numbers, will help you out if you decide to participate in a game of pick-up basketball or go for a hike up uneven terrain.
Additionally, while you aren’t 65 yet, hopefully, you will be 65 someday, so working on your balance now gives you a head start to reducing fall risk and maintaining your cognitive abilities as you age.
1. Low, D.C., Walsh, G.S., & Arkesteijn, M., (2017). Effectiveness of exercise interventions to improve postural control in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of centre of pressure measurements. Sports Medicine, 47, 101-112.
2. Cioni, M., Pisasale, M., Abela, S., Belfiore, T., & Micale, M., (2010). Physiological electromyographic activation patterns of trunk muscles during walking. The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 3, 136-142.
3. Berenshteyn, Y., Gibson, K., Hackett, G.C., Trem, A.B., & Wilhelm, M., (2018). Is standing balance altered in individuals with chronic low back pain? A systematic review. Disability Rehabilitation, 1-10.
4. Stokes, H.E., Thompson, J.D., & Franz, J.R., (2017). The neuromuscular origins of kinematic variability during perturbed walking. Scientific Report, 7(1), 808.
5. Rogge, A.K., Roder, B., Zech, A., Hotting, K., (2018). Exercise-induced neuroplasticity: balance training increases cortical thickness in visual and vestibular cortical regions. Neuroimage, 179, 471-479.