Balance: A state of equilibrium or parity characterized by cancellation of all forces by equal opposing forces.
That’s just one of a dozen definitions in the dictionary for the word ‘balance’. We know that life is a ‘balancing’ act, that you have to ‘balance’ your checkbook, and that a ‘balance’ beam is used in gymnastic sports.
The word ‘balance’ is quite often used in fitness and seems to have several meanings as well. You want to ‘balance’ your general exercise program by performing all components of fitness – strength, cardio, and flexibility. You want to work toward ‘balance’ between opposing muscle groups, and ‘balance’ between strength and flexibility. By creating this state of equilibrium, you can greatly decrease the potential for injury – either sudden or overuse.
In general, most everyday movement activity involves forward walking, pushing and lifting, which tends to keep the muscles of the front of the body relatively stronger than the opposing muscles of the back. When the front muscles are stronger, they tend to tighten or shorten and the opposing muscles of the back tend to weaken and lengthen. Combined with the forces of gravity that tend to pull the posture further forward and down, this kind of ‘imbalance’ can lead to nagging low back syndrome and, if not corrected, more serious postural problems and injuries as we age.
Consulting with a doctor, physical therapist or a personal trainer can help you determine what approach you should to take to correct such postural ‘imbalances’. Typically, forward rounded shoulders indicate that you need to strengthen the muscles of the upper back and stretch the front muscles of the chest and shoulders. This is the most commonly understood aspect of training for ‘balance’ in fitness.
With traditional exercise, those who focus primarily on increasing muscle strength tend to be more ‘stable’, but perhaps less ‘mobile’. Those who focus more on flexibility or range of motion movement may tend to be more ‘mobile’ than ‘stable’. The ultimate goal in fitness is to achieve ‘balance’ between both ‘mobility’ and ‘stability’.
With this understanding, functional training focuses on achieving this balance, but further expands on it by using integrated exercise movements. These are patterns or exercises that incorporate multiple major muscle groups as well as secondary stabilizing muscles of the body, which are the smaller muscles that help to maintain the alignment and structural integrity of the body’s skeletal system.
A simple test for balance is to stand on one leg, keeping the supporting leg extended (knee soft, but not locked) as you continue to read this article. If you can simply hold your other knee up as you stand and continue to read you have pretty good balance. Most likely, you’re feeling the muscles around the knee, ankle and foot moving to help maintain your balance – these are the secondary stabilizing muscles. If you add movement on the leg that is lifted by extending at the knee, you will feel more work in these and other muscles as they are called into action to help further stabilize against the movement.
While this may not seem like a difficult exercise to perform, we now understand that this type of training for integrated balance is very important. The loss of balance as we age is one of the most common causes of traumatic injuries due to falls. If you performed the test and are still standing on one leg, you have very good balance. If you are not, don’t worry, because it’s not that easy to do.
There are many ways to train for balance and just as many tools to offer more challenging exercises. While most people are familiar with stability balls as being good for working the abdominal muscles, they can be used for a wide variety of other exercises that incorporate secondary stabilizers. There are also tools for more challenging standing balance training as well – from wobble boards and the Bosu trainer (which is half a stability ball on a base) to the Reebok Core Board which offers more advanced ‘reactive’ training. In our test, you were standing on a ‘stable’ surface. These tools are ‘unstable’ surfaces, which require more of the secondary stabilizing muscles to further ‘react’ to help maintain balance. It’s pretty much like the difference between standing on one leg on land and standing on one leg out on the boat with a mild chop on the water!
To begin balance training, you should start first on a stable surface with just balance holds. If you have lost your ability to balance, you can hold on to something like the back of a chair or a wall. After you are able to achieve these simple holds without support you can then try to add some slow movement of levers – arms and/or the other leg. As you do, focus on maintaining a lifted posture and stable core. The range of motion on these slow lifts may be limited by your mobility and should not compromise your posture in any way.
Advanced exercisers may opt to hold light weights and progress to even more challenging movements designed to further enhance stability and mobility, which are often used in functional strength training classes. Once you have achieved balance movements on a stable surface, you can then progress to an unstable surface by simply folding a towel or standing on a cushiony mat. With this new training variable, you may need to go back to start with just the balance holds and then gradually progress through the harder movements again.
Most of us take this kind of balance for granted, but like all other aspects of fitness, if you don’t use it, you lose it. If you are a regular boater and have ‘sea legs’, you have most likely maintained your balancing act. But if an occasional boat trip has you quickly seeking a seat or planting a death grip on the console before the boat even leaves the dock, you may need to pay a little more attention to achieving this type of ‘balance’ in your fitness program.