Every day is a balancing act, literally!
No, really. You balance every single day, even when walking on flat surfaces. It’s very easy to take it for granted because it’s such an automatic part of life for most of us.
While this kind of “balancing” is pretty second-nature, improving overall balance fundamentals offers great benefits. Aside from practical benefits like walking safely over a log to cross a stream while hiking, or walking on a treacherously icy sidewalk up to your front door, intentionally challenging your balance on narrow surfaces can improve ankle, knee, and hip stability, alignment, and vestibular and proprioceptive systems. In essence, working on your balance makes you sharper overall.
To start practicing balancing a stable narrow surface like a 2×4 board is all you need. You can even start on a flat surface with tape on the floor. In fact, that’s where we’re starting today: on the ground with a balancing drill.
The single-leg swing can help you to find your center of gravity while shifting your weight from one leg to the other. With this basic drill, you line up your center of gravity over your standing leg and swing the free leg forward and backward. Shifting your weight over the standing leg will help you to feel more stable. You’re balancing!
The next step is mastering the art of counterbalancing, or the ability to “catch yourself” before you fall.
Practicing counterbalancing is important for everyone, but it’s particularly important for older adults, athletes, and anyone who is recovering from an injury or surgery who wants to reduce their risk of falling.
When you learn how to counterbalance more efficiently and effectively you lower your risk of injury and gain self-confidence to do things that you may not have tried in the past if you hadn’t practiced these skills, like walking across ice or very rocky terrain.
In the video below, I demonstrate how you can intentionally throw yourself off balance in a controlled and safe environment. Start on a flat surface (in the gym, on grass, in your living room, really anywhere with a stable flat surface). When you’re feeling more confident start practicing on a narrow (but still flat and stable) surface, like a 2×4 board or a sidewalk curb.
Now that you’ve practiced the single-leg swing and gotten more comfortable with counterbalancing, you can start to add some forward locomotion, or movement from one place to another. Try walking on a narrow surface. Beginners should use a stable, narrow surface that is not too far from the ground. A 2×4 board is a great tool for starting to train your balancing skills.
When practicing forward balance walking, maintain good body alignment (shoulders over hips, hips over ankles, and ribs down). Find your point of contact by leading with the ball of the foot, shift your weight to the leading foot, and then swing the back leg forward.
You may have noticed in the video above that I’m landing on the ball of the foot when balancing (as opposed to landing on the heel the way we normally do when we walking on flat, stable surfaces). Landing on the ball of your foot allows you to gather information about the surface you’re getting ready to step onto while balancing on a narrow surface. For example, if you are on a log you definitely want to know if the log is slippery, stable, or dead (which means that it can easily break) before fully committing more weight.
(This also leads to precision landing for jumps because when you land a jump properly, the ball of your foot touches the ground first, then the heel drops. But that is for another article!)
Once you’ve got the forward walk down, you can start to play with the backward balancing walk.
When navigating a narrow surface, sometimes it’s necessary to change direction because walking backward isn’t the safest or most efficient option.
When you need to change your direction one of the most stable ways to do it is by using a skill that MovNat calls the cross reverse.
When you step forward, place the foot perpendicularly to the board (or to whatever surface you’re on), shift your weight to that foot, then pivot the back foot so that the toes are pointing in the direction to which you are turning. Swing forward with the leg that was leading.
There are times in life when you may have to carry something (or someone) over a narrow surface. That’s challenging enough in and of itself. Now, imagine it’s a young child or an injured person who needs to be carried across a narrow surface. You don’t want to drop that precious cargo! Not only will balance carries help you train your stability and grip strength, this drill has a tremendous practical carry-over (no pun intended!).
In the two videos below, I demonstrate two beginner-friendly balance carries: a hand carry and a waist carry.
The balancing foot-hand crawl is a more advanced balancing skill, and I recommend building strength and efficiency in the foot-hand crawl on a flat surface before crawling on a narrow surface.
When you need to lower your center of gravity to feel more stable on a narrow surface, you might find yourself in this foot-hand position. The more points of contact you have with the surface, the more stable you will feel. It’s instinctual to lower yourself closer to the surface for safety and security. Sometimes you may have to stay low to move across a narrow surface.
For most people, a workout full of drills like crawling and balancing training might not really sound too exciting. It’s not as motivating as perhaps working toward a deadlift PR, or mastering pull-ups, but it’s undeniable that these are beneficial skills for all of us. The good news is that you don’t have to trade in your barbells and kettlebells. You can add some balancing training to your current workouts, and reap the benefits while still keeping an eye on other strength and performance goals.
Choose any of the following balancing drills and superset them with one of your heavier or more intense lifts.
For example, you can perform a superset like this:
Deadlift 5 x 5
Forward and Backward Balance Walking 5 x 10 meters
You can also perform any of these balancing drills as part of your warm up as way to stimulate your vestibular and proprioceptive system and stability. You can even incorporate any of the balancing drills at the end of your training session as part of a combo or finisher. For example:
Kettlebell Swing 5 x 20
Hand Carry 5 x 10 meters
Foot-Hand Crawl 5 x 10 meters
You stand to benefit from including balancing drills into your training program, and over time, you’ll notice many carry-over improvements in other exercises and movements. These drills can help you to feel more present, develop more situational awareness, and build self-confidence in your ability to move safely in different environments.
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