Fitness Friday: Balance Drills

Many people think that balance training is only for certain types of athletes (gymnasts, dancers) or for the elderly. In fact, balance training is a great way for everyone to not only build and maintain a robust sense of proprocieption (where your body is in space), but it also works many smaller muscles that most traditional strength and movement exercises don’t. Standing exercises are especially good for the muscles of the foot, ankle and knee, and are often used to rehabilitate knee or ankle injuries and rebuild stability. Exercises done on a stability ball are good for the entire core, and they help promote good posture.

If you plan to include balance training in your routine, be sure to put it at the beginning of your workout, right after the warm-up, because fatigue takes a big toll on our ability to balance, so the training is less effective when it’s done after a cardio or strength session. Also, in order to prevent injury, there are three other rules to heed:

1. Make the environment safe. Give yourself plenty of space, at least two arm’s lengths away from surfaces with sharp corners, pets or children, and other objects such as toys. Also, don’t cobble together your own balance surface using common household objects. (There are a couple of safe exceptions to this, which are noted in the exercise descriptions below.)

2. Start with something really easy. Whether you start standing on one foot or sitting on a stability ball, don’t get too fancy and don’t try to hold the position for too long. Also, be sure there is a stable surface nearby that you can grab to steady yourself – one without sharp corners! Good candidates include bare walls and door jambs for standing exercises, and sturdy tables for sitting exercises.

3. Progress slowly, but do progress. Once you can consistently do an exercise for 10 or 15 seconds, progress by adding time, until you reach 30 or 60 seconds. At that point, it’s probably safe for you to move on to a more complex variation of the exercise.

Here are some examples of a few exercises you can do with no equipment or with low-cost equipment (nothing over $30).

One-Legged Balance Stands – Like it sounds, here you simply practice standing on one leg. This is harder than it sounds. Try it for 15 seconds on each leg, then 30, then 60. Once you can do that, it’s time for variation. Start by holding an index finger at eye level. Move it around randomly and follow it with your eyes. When that becomes easy, try looking straight up at the ceiling. Still easy? Do simple mathematic problems out loud as you look up. Finally, close your eyes as you balance (be sure you’re standing near a wall or door jamb that you can touch or grab to steady yourself for this one).

Stability Ball Sits – If you own a stability ball (big, round colorful thing you can sit on), then just sitting on it can be a challenge. Position your butt in the very top center of the ball, and don’t let your legs touch the front of the ball. Sit up very straight. If this is easy to do for a minute or more, challenge yourself by picking up one foot off the floor for a few seconds, then putting it down and picking up the other. When this becomes easy, practice doing it with your arms crossed over your chest (so that you can’t use them out to your sides to steady yourself) and finally try it with your eyes closed. It’s a good idea to have a spotter nearby when you close your eyes.

Moving Balance Stands – Once you’ve mastered the one-legged stands, you can start adding some movement. Extend the foot that’s off the ground out in front of you a few inches and draw the alphabet in capital letters. Or try shifting your center of mass forward and do a half squat, touching a spot on the floor with one hand, then returning to the full upright position. For a real challenge, have a friend toss you a tennis ball while you balance on one foot. They can make it more difficult by varying the spot they toss the ball to.

Balance Stands on an Uneven Surface – Once you’ve mastered all of the standing exercises on a hard surface, you can make the same moves much more challenging by altering the surface you’re standing on. Start by folding a bath towel in half and then in thirds again, so that it is uniformly flat and about 3 inches thick. Be sure to place the towel on a surface where it won’t easily slide, like carpeting or a rug. Moving beyond the towel, you can use pillows of varying thicknesses, as long as they are uniformly flat (so overstuffed throw pillows are probably out). For the best challenge, though, buy an inflatable balance pod. Sporting goods stores carry them, or you can order one online. There are tons of different types, ranging from about 1.5 inches thick to half-balls that reach 12 inches off the floor at their apex. The larger ones are more expensive, but they can be more versatile, too. It’s really a matter of personal preference, so do a little research and choose the one that sounds like it will deliver the features you’re looking for.

Stability Ball Drills with Movement – For a serious core workout and a real balance challenge, you can add some movement to your stability ball exercises. From a seated position, you can walk your feet forward as you unhinge at the hips, coming into a tabletop position with the top of the ball resting beneath your shoulder blades. From here, you can do a few Russian Twists. Challenge yourself in a different way by flipping over onto your stomach and walking your hands out as you come into a plank position on top of the ball. The further you walk out, the more challenging it is to balance. Start by walking only until the ball is in contact with your upper thighs. Then progress to your knees, and finally, to your ankles. Most stability balls come with an exercise guide, so you can get other ideas there.

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