One thing not to underestimate is the importance of having good balance skills, the ability to stay upright when doing the complex movements we do on a daily basis. The two most important reasons to buff up your balance skills is to lower the risk of injury when you play sports or train and to offset the decline in balance skills we inevitably experience as the years go by. Don’t forget, an injury can happen in a second – a misstep or turning too quickly can lead to a fall and, in some cases, a serious injury. Even a simple injury, like a sprained ankle, can alter your training and your lifestyle. That’s why we need to do everything we can to stay injury free and working on balance skills helps you do that.
Aging places a burden on our balance capabilities. In fact, balance skills start to decline in the mid-50s, unless you regularly work on these skills. At the same time, muscle loss accelerates and this further increases the risk of injuries and falls. The main reasons older people fall is related to a decline in muscle strength and difficulties with balance and coordination. We can address the strength component through weight training, but you can also incorporate a balance component into your training to help reinforce the neural pathways that control coordination and balance. Research even shows that exercise, in general, helps older adults tap into additional brain resources to improve balance and motor skills. Plus, exercise helps preserve brain volume in general.
We know that for long-term health, both aerobic and strength training are important – but so is maintaining other functional attributes such as flexibility and balance. The good news is you can work on balance when you strength train, so that you’re killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Let’s look at some ways to do that. Ready for a little balance challenge? Here’s how to work on your balance when you train.
Add More One-Legged Exercises to Your Routine
Chances are, you already do squats and deadlifts but you don’t get much of a balance challenge if both feet are planted firmly on the ground. Why not add some one-legged squats and deadlifts to your strength-training routine? The objective here is to lighten up on the weight you’re using and focus on the balance aspect that unilateral exercises offer. Both unilateral deadlifts and squats are more challenging when you’re balancing on one leg.
One-legged squats are pretty straightforward, you just lift one leg off the ground when you do the exercise – but what about a one-sided deadlift? First, put a light weight in one hand and hold it at your side. Bend forward at the waist as you extend one leg behind you while lowering the weight toward the floor. As you return to the starting position, lift the weight above your head as you bring your leg forward and into a right angle with the floor. Do eight repetitions and switch the weight to the other hand and repeat. A bit more challenging, huh?
Do Squats on a BOSU Ball
Another way to turn squats into a balance exercise is to do them while standing on a BOSU ball. Position the ball so that the flat side faces up and the curved surface is touching the floor. First, master the exercise first without weights. Step onto the flat surface of the ball and position your feet about shoulder length apart. Then, practice descending into the squat until your legs are parallel with the floor. Do the exercise slowly and focus on using good form.
How does doing squats on a BOSU ball add a balance challenge? Your body is forced to stabilize itself as it fights the unstable surface. Once you can do the exercise without weights, grab a light pair of dumbbells and try it. You can include this exercise at the end of a squat sequence.
Do More Lunges
Lunges challenge your balance skills as well, but some variations are better than others. To kick your balance training up a notch, do walking lunges rather than static ones. Of the two standard lunge types, forward and reverse, the forward lunge challenges your balance more since you’re shifting your center of gravity as you step forward whereas you’re retaining your center of gravity when you step backward. Of course, you’ll want to include a variety of lunge variations to work your muscles in different ways. The good news is they all help improve balance skills.
Turn Planks into a Balance Skills Challenge
It’s no secret that side planks test your sense of balance, but you can modify a side plank and make it even more challenging from a balance standpoint. For example, do a side plank with a leg lift to make your body work harder to stay balanced or add an elbow crunch to a side plank. You can also do a rotating side plank. These variations are a bit more challenging but worth the effort since you’re getting multiple benefits from a single exercise.
Close Your Eyes
You don’t get much of a balance challenge when you do most strength-training exercises, but you can improve your proprioceptive skill with any resistance training exercise by closing your eyes when you do it. When you close your eyes, you lose visual input and it becomes harder for your body to stay balanced. By removing visual input, you force your body to use the other two components of balance, proprioception and vestibular feedback (from the inner ear) to maintain balance. Do this enough and the ability to do this gets easier.
Work on Balance Skills When You Aren’t Weight Training
You can work on improving your balance skills even when you aren’t actively training. Start with something simple like balancing on one leg while you’re standing in line at the grocery store. Once you can hold that position for a long period of time, try it with your eyes closed. The first few times you do this with your eyes closed, it’s a good idea to have a chair next to you to grab a hold of should you need it. Now, try walking in a straight line heel-to-toe. That’s the same test, law enforcement officers ask people to do to test for sobriety. But now try it with your eyes closed. Again, it becomes significantly harder because you lack visual cues. Fun, huh?
The Bottom Line
Now, you know a few ways to sharpen your balance capabilities when you strength train. Don’t underestimate their importance! One day, it could keep you from taking a tumble.
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2010 Apr; 34(5): 721–733.Published online 2009 Oct 20. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.10.005.
Active. “7 Exercises to Improve Balance”
American Council on Exercise. “Are All Lunges Created Equal?”
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2010 Apr; 34(5): 721–733.
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