If you look at a human being, we shouldn’t be able to balance on our feet, let alone run and jump and dance and lift. Look at other bipeds and they have fail safes built in to prevent them from falling. Kangaroos have those enormous feet. Chickens have a super low center of gravity keeping them weighted down and stable. Apes, our closest relatives, can manage awkward bipedalism for a few strides but always default to all fours. Humans somehow walk around completely upright and manage to avoid falling over despite stacking our entire bodies on top of relatively small feet.
We’re always on the brink of falling over, of teetering to one side or the other. When we walk, we are doing controlled falling. When we jump, we must land. And we do fall, we do become misaligned. Our sense of balance is precarious and can fail. After all…
- The leading cause for injury hospitalizations in the elderly is falling.
- The leading cause for injuries in athletes is “landing funny.”
- The leading cause for injuries in recreational strength trainees is “losing your balance and doing a lift all weird.”
Incredibly, humans have to learn to balance on their feet. Babies take about a year to learn how to walk. It’s a struggle.
In other words, balance is incredibly important at every stage of life. It’s precious but perilous. It’s not a sure thing. We can lose it, and that’s when things start to fall apart for us.
So, what are some simple balance drills you can practice to develop and maintain your sense of balance?
My friend and longtime colleague Brad Kearns is back with a fantastic video introducing some basic balance drills you can do if you’re young, old, experienced, or a beginner. Here it is:
Standing on one leg
This is very simple, but not necessarily easy.
- Lift one foot off the ground and stand on the other.
- Do it slowly and deliberately; really think about what you’re doing.
- Be present in your body and feel the ground with your feet.
- “Grab” the ground with your feet.
- Be barefoot or in minimalist shoes like Vibram Fivefingers. The closer you are to a barefoot state, the better your results. Being barefoot allows you to activate all the supporting musculature necessary for a proper single leg balance. It also allows better proprioceptive awareness of your place in space and time, and gives the nerves in your foot (and thus your brain) full access to the information needed to establish strong balance pathways between brain and body.
- After 30 seconds or so, or when you start wobbling and struggling, switch feet.
Standing on the ball of your foot
This is a variation on the last one. Once again, you’re standing on one foot but this time instead of using the entire foot you’re balancing on the ball of your foot.
- Keep your heel slightly off the ground.
- Don’t go up on your toes, but stay on the ball. It’s a fine line but an important distinction.
- Keep a soft bend in the knee rather than a rigid knee.
- When you start to wobble and struggle, switch feet.
Bent knee ball of feet balance
This is a “two leg” balance, but instead of standing with straight legs you will bend the knees.
- Go up on the balls of your feet and bend your knees as if you’re getting ready to move quickly in any direction.
- Really emphasize and “feel” and articulate the tendon running from the big toe up the front of your lower leg.
- Great for fascial conditioning.
- This is the “ready position” for athletics—on the balls of your feet, ready for action, ready to spring in either direction.
Balancing on unstable surfaces
Do the previous three drills (and the next two) only on an unstable surface: sand, foam pad, deep gravel. Pay attention to how your tissues feel compared to doing the drills on a stable surface.
Get into a deep lunge position and hold.
- Keep your knees aligned over your toes, and both feet-legs aligned with their respective hips. Straight lines.
- Vertical shin, thighs parallel with ground.
- For advanced conditioning of the fascia and knee joint, allow the knee to drift ahead of toes, but avoid any pain.
- Arms over head—pinned against your ears—to really stretch your tissues out and make balance tougher.
- This is a tough stretch that’s actually a secret isometric strength workout, too. Hold until you can’t.
High knee takeoff
Take a few steps and make like you’re going to do a high jump. Pause when your knee comes up toward your chest and hold that position.
- Stand tall. Don’t slump over. Keep a straight line from ground to head.
- Don’t arch your back. Straight, not arched.
- Raise your knee as high as possible to really stretch the opposing hip flexors.
- Make it to 30 seconds and switch. Go longer if 30 seconds is too easy.
General Tips for Balance Drills
- It’s important not to overdo it. Just because a balance exercise “feels easy” or doesn’t involve heavy intense activity, you’re still stressing out your brain, and you still need to recover. Training is training.
- Pay close attention to where in your body you’re feeling the strain from balance. Is it your lower legs? Calves? Ankles? Torso? Or maybe you feel it “in your head,” as if you an’t. Feel the feelings and settle into them. The simple act of feeling the parts of your body and settling into them is how your brain learns to better balance.
- Note how you feel after. Your brain will be a bit fatigued because the brain is responsible for the bulk of your balancing.
- Test and retest your performance in the gym and on the sports field. Are you faster? More stable? Stronger? Better at whatever skills you choose to perform? Balance plays into everything.
- You might be tired. That’s fine. This is intense balancing that might tax you a bit, and that’s totally okay.
Do these drills 1-2 times a week, and do them consistently. If you keep this up for the rest of your life, you’ll be in great shape and far less likely to fall or get injured.
Take care, everyone!