Find Your Balance

The need for balance is fundamental to almost all outdoor pursuits. While making turns down the mountain, a skier stays balanced over his skis. A rock climber maintains balance over her holds on the rock face. Mountain bikers rely on the ability to stay above their tires as they work their way up rocky, technical trails. And elk hunters often stalk their prey with slow, elongated steps over deadfall or across a rocky hillside, where each step is dubious at best. All of these athletes are subconsciously trying to accomplish the same thing: keeping their Center Of Mass (COM) over their Base Of Support (BOS).

Our sense of balance relies on the combined input from three sources: visual cues from our eyes, equilibrium in our ears, and a joint-positioning sense from position sensors located near our joints. We use this input dynamically to keep our COM over our BOS. By taking away visual cues or introducing an unstable surface, we are forced to rely on whatever remaining input we have. The challenge to keep our center of mass over our base of support increases. This is the main idea of balance training—increasing the challenge of staying in balance by reducing the number of normal sensory inputs. We can also reduce the size of our BOS by standing on one leg or shifting our COM by passing a medicine ball around the body.

In practicing balance, the focus should be on controlled motions and preventing too much sway. For this reason it is more beneficial to only do a few repetitions of each drill, making each one count. Especially during the learning phase, a small number of well-executed repetitions is ideal. Five reps is a good target number for each set, and multiple sets can be performed .

Stick and Look Drill
This dynamic activity has a multitude of variations based on direction of movement, equipment used, and the number of people involved. A “stick” is the landing component of a dynamic movement from a step, hop or jump; the “look” involves focusing on a moving visual cue. A simple form of the drill could be something like this: Begin in an active, forward-facing athletic stance holding a medicine ball in both hands. Take a large sideways step to a single leg support, landing in balance. Now focus your vision downward on the ball—turn your upper body 90 degrees toward your outside leg and back in a controlled manner, then step back to your other foot. Keep your focus on the ball, not the ground. With the help of a partner you can step this drill up a notch: Hop sideways to a single-leg support, with a short pass arriving from your partner as you land. You can perform the same 90-degree turn and return to your catching position by tossing the ball right back.

Unstable Surface Drill
Unstable surfaces train your body to be precise with its movement corrections. The amount of sway over our base of support increases on an unstable surface. An unstable surface can be any object that feels less firm than the floor—a sofa cushion, balance cushion, or wobble board are good examples. Any exercise performed on a surface that increases sway of your center of mass over your base of support will challenge the joint position sensors, called proprioception. A simple example is performing a bench press on a stability ball: now you are on a “bench” that will roll away if you’re not paying attention to your core stability and balance. Standing single-leg exercises are other outstanding examples, such as the single-leg squat on a cushion. This forces the body to rhythmically contract supporting musculature across many joints to stay balanced.

Balance Tools
Many accessible tools can be utilized to challenge your balance. We have a couple of other favorites in addition to the ones mentioned above: the slack line made popular by bored climbers waiting out the weather at a base camp; the balance board, wobble board or “Pivit” developed by bored surfers when the surf was flat; and the Swiss ball developed by some Swiss guy who was bored of yodeling. All of these inventions are virtually limitless in their potential to challenge your balance, and they break up the routine of your normal workout. In addition, they add a component of functionality to a classical strength-training routine.

Into the Outside
Imagine a glade filled by deep white powder snow, inclined away and downward from where you stand on a balance device called skis or a snowboard. Your balance, proprioception, and visual sensory input systems have been honed by weeks of dryland training. Your core stability muscles integrate the force transfer between your upper body and the device strapped to your feet, as you again experience the joy of winter in the mountains. With this image in mind, go fearlessly into the realm of single-leg instability and balance training, kinesthetic movement drills, and core stability exercises. You will experience new levels of performance, reduced risk of injury, and maybe the balance of a Zen master. Best wishes for a happy and safe winter from ATSC!

Steve Conant, MS, HFI, CSCS is a partner in Advanced Training & Sport Conditioning, Inc., 581-5545, [email protected]