A Word on Balance


Article By Alex Dial of Share It Fitness

Balance is a word we hear a lot of these days.  Balanced diet, balanced checkbook, balanced budget, balanced lifestyle.

Let’s forgo the abstractions and focus on balance as it applies to our workouts.  You balance your own checkbooks. 

What is balance?  How does it help us attain our goals?  How can we improve balance, and why should we?

The physical ability to maintain balance is also called equilibrioception.  The implication of that word is that balance operates through perception.  In fact, balance is an intricate relationship between the vestibular system (a series of fluid-filled tubes and canals in the ear) the eyes, and the body’s sense of Proprioception.
 
The eyes are the most obvious system for attaining balance.  They fix on a point, or recognize a horizon line, and adjust your sense of balance accordingly.  However useful this is, the eyes do not work alone.  The vestibular system, consisting of an intricate series of tubes filled with fluid and fine hairs, utilizes gravity’s effect on it’s fluids to sense the body’s position and inertia relative to the Earth, and the proprioceptive system measures the body’s position relative to itself (say, where your arm is compared to your torso.)   The brain combines and compares the input from these three systems and tells your muscles to make adjustments wherever necessary to keep from falling over or to execute that leap or squat.  It all takes place in nanoseconds.  The balance system, relying on input from these sources, is the precursor to your muscles’ response, accordingly, that system is very, very fast.  Neat, huh?

As an athlete, your balance is key to everything you will ever do.  Lifting weights?  Without balance, you’ll topple like an amateur ice skater.  Or worse, you’ll shift your center someplace weird, and blow out your spine.  Running?  Bad balance is bad form, and bad form is slow and injurious.  Dancer?  Well, we’ve all seen that guy without balance getting a little TOO footloose.  . .  The message here is clear: balance is a core aspect of our physical fitness, and it deserves a lot more attention than it gets.  As we age, our vestibular system and prorioceptors deteriorate (usually through atrophy, which is to a degree, preventable) and our balance suffers, resulting in more falls, fear of speed, etc. 

So how do we develop our balance?  Balance can be improved, like any other skill, through practice.  At first, you may be surprised at how poor your balance might seem when you attempt to perform certain movements, but don’t worry.  Balance tends to improve overall only after practice over time.  Some movements will come naturally to you; others may seem pretty daunting at first.  Stay with it, and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish!

Balance exercises:

Double and Single Toe raises.
Stand with your feet together, and I mean together.  They should feel like one big foot.  With your arms at your sides, rise slowly and with control onto your toes.  WAY up, as high on those toes as you can get.  Hold it for a count of five, then lower down SLOWLY onto your heels.  Repeat.  It’s amazing how difficult this simple exercise can be!  Tips: 1: Stand tall, shoulders neutral, and don’t stick out your butt or arch your back.  2: keep your heels together at all times. 
Variants:  Once you’ve mastered these, try them on one foot only.  At first, hook the floating foot behind the calf of the standing leg.  Eventually, you should raise a knee to the stomach and do them that way.   Later on, go at it eyes closed, if you’re really feeling ninja!

The Stork.
Stand with your feet together, back straight and hips neutral.  Keeping your arms at your sides, raise one leg off the ground, lifting your knee towards your chest.  Tips:  1: Unlock the knee of the standing leg.  2:  Tuck the sacrum under (hollow body) and squeeze your butt a bit to keep your hips from cantering to one side.    
3:  Stand tall.

Beam/Line walking.
This one’s easy.  Find a curb or a line on the ground no more than three inches wide.  Begin by walking heel-to-toe.  Got it?  Good.  Now try stepping heel-to-toe, but raise the advancing leg to your stomach between each step, and hold it there.  Not so easy, eh?  There are endless variants on line walking.  Try it in lunges, with weights, without weights.  Execute turns on the line, if you’re a dancer.  Anything counts, just don’t lose that line!

The end result of improved balance is really about economy of motion.  Better balance is intrinsically tied to better working posture, and it will translate into a more efficient, and more graceful workout, not matter what you do.  Balance exercises are relatively less labor intensive and can be completed in between sets as Active Rest components of your workout. 
Stay tuned for more advanced balance exercise including inversions (handstands) coming soon!

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