Enhancing Sports Performance with Dynamic Balance Training
Athletes need to challenge their static and dynamic balance and improve coordination.
Many people believe that participating in sports is the best form of sports conditioning. Sports participation does provide great conditioning, provided you are proficient at sport technique and can focus on rhythm, flow of movement and the surrounding aesthetics. But playing sports without a technical understanding can cause “inefficient flailing” (using unnecessary movements to accomplish the sport), which is a direct result of being out of balance. By improving your balance, you can also improve your sports performance and skills.
Balance and sports
While strength and cardio training are critical aspects of conditioning, balance is the foundation of good health, and everyone can improve their balance, regardless of ability, according to Louis Stack, a Canadian National Speed Skiing team member and balance training expert. In fact, some researchers suggest that the better you can balance, the less time you will need to spend increase your strength. “Balance conditioning is a way to train the body to make better use of the strength you already have,” says Stack. He suggests placing more emphasis on learning to move efficiently, with little wasted effort: “When you train someone for stabilization, proprioception and balance, by default he or she is at less risk for injury. Good balance reduces [the] need for additional effort.
“Balance is both a movement skill that enhances technique, and a conditioning element that can be improved. Another way to understand balance is as a function of the nervous system, which is directly influenced by the five senses. A sixth sense — proprioception — in the muscles, bones, hands, feet and connective tissues alerts the body when balance is threatened. The body’s balance centers — the eyes, ears and feet — work together to sense imbalance and help correct posture. Basically, the body’s ability to right itself (balance) is activated by stimulus: a response to an unexpected bump in the terrain, a sudden change in wind direction or an impulsive pass of the ball. Action in the canals of the ears detects abnormal tipping of the head in relation to gravity, and sends signals to the nervous system. When you lose balance, your brain sends instructions to the muscles and bones about how and when to react.
Balance training facilitates body awareness about the relationship of mass (hips) over the base of support (distance created between the feet or over one foot). While playing sports, this is a difficult thing to sense, but in a controlled training environment, these “feelings” can be introduced to athletes. The benefit is in “remembered” reactions to imbalance created in training situations. Balance awareness becomes an innate, automatic skill.
Posture is the pinnacle of balance
Paul Chek, founder of the C.H.E.K. Institute in Southern California and an exercise kinesiologist, says that unless you are aware of posture, balance will be less effective. “Always work to maintain perfect postural alignment at all times,” he recommends. “Stop any exercise at the first sign of stabilizer fatigue.” Without stabilization of the spine and trunk during balance conditioning, agility will be limited. In other words, if you haven’t trained the body to stand on one foot, how can you move quickly to the other? An efficient standing posture is the prerequisite to cultivating a perception of balance and body position while static or moving. An efficient standing posture means the following:
- Legs slightly flexed or relaxed at the ankles and knees
- Shoulders follow a relatively straight line over the pelvis, allowing for the natural curve of the spine
- Arms comfortably down at the sides
- Comfortable tension in the lower abdominals
- Head up, ears over shoulders, eyes focusing ahead
- Level chin, shoulders and hips even with the terrain
It’s not known how much practice is necessary for substantial balance improvement. In response to a study conducted by Fitter International, Stack recommends that “more exposures [to balance] in smaller time increments may be more beneficial than longer balance sessions [that] are less frequent.” Balance training can teach body awareness and position sense (knowing where the limbs and body are in space at any given moment).
Balance training protocol The ideal balance program is one that challenges both static and dynamic balance with a focus on coordination. Static balance training is stationary training with a solid, predictable surface underfoot. Dynamic balance training is facilitated by adding stimulus underfoot that is unstable, like a wobble board. Dynamic balance can also be trained creatively by using hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, agility drills, sprints and other power conditioning drills.
Balance exercises should be added to your usual cardiovascular, strength and flexibility routines. Athletes new to balance conditioning should practice the exercises twice each week, from simplest to most difficult. For a challenge, you should warm up, then try the exercises from most difficult to easiest. If a task calls for work on one leg, be sure to train the other “non-dominant” leg too. Continue only to fatigue. Make a physical note of your head and neck position when balance is best. Recalling this position will improve posture, sports performance and reactive balancing abilities. Also, take note of how long it takes to regain balance. The less time it takes, the better your sports abilities.
Balance training protocol includes challenging balance, sensing imbalance, reacting quickly and recovering from imbalance via subtle physical adjustments. Even athletes in great shape will find these tasks challenging until they become efficient at making balancing adjustments.
Static balance training. To feel balance, have clients walk forward a few steps. As they extend one leg forward, they should feel how the center of mass (hips) moves over that leg to balance.
Have clients develop an awareness of the body’s natural amount of “sway.” Sway happens constantly during all movement, whether static or dynamic. Generated by the nervous system, sway is an oscillating, unconscious series of impulses that charge the muscles to remain upright with minimum effort. To feel sway, have clients stand with their eyes closed, feet in a walking stance. Note how their body moves fore and aft, side to side and in inconsistent circular patterns. It’s critical to training success that they notice too. Have clients stand on one foot and notice the first place in their body that adjusts to imbalance: the ankles. Often, this awareness of ankle movement is what separates intermediate from advanced athletes.
Dynamic balance training. Participating in activities that require coordination, agility or quick footwork, and movements that challenge normal range of motion, are great ways to cross-train for proprioception and dynamic balance. Basketball, racquet sports, jump rope, soccer, hacky-sac, aerobics and other balance sports like hockey, sail-boarding, inline skating and mountain bike riding are options for balance-specific training. Clients can also ski, skip over stones or play hop scotch with their kids.
Exercises and drills
Following are several balance exercises and drills, listed from simplest to most difficult to accommodate all of your clients.
Stabilization and control. These drills will help your clients to develop upper-body stabilization and control.
1. Ball/wall push-ups. Have your client stand slightly more than arm’s distance away from a wall; place a ball between them and the wall, and have them put their hands on the ball slightly wider than shoulder distance. Have your client keep a neutral upright posture and move their chest toward the ball, then back to neutral.
2. Wheelbarrows. With your client in a push-up position on the ground, grasp their feet/ankles and have them push up to their hands and walk for a short distance while you guide their lower body. Try 30-second intervals. For a challenge, have them go uphill.
3. Hand-stand against a wall. Have your client practice cartwheels. Then, have them stand about 10 feet away from the wall, facing it. Have them take a couple easy bounds toward the wall, place their hands on the ground and allow momentum to whip their feet to the wall. Have them perform a push-up for a greater challenge.
Core strength and resiliency. The following exercises help to maintain proper posture and alignment of the hips over the feet.
1. Standard crunches on an exercise ball. Have your client lie on their back, supporting their head with their hands, with both feet on the floor. Then have them raise and lower their upper torso and strive to decrease, then increase, the distance between the rib cage and front hip bones. For a challenge, have them perform more than 10.
2. Balance on all fours. While you hold the ball, have your client balance on all fours on a stability ball. When they’re comfortable, have them straighten upright onto their knees and hold for 10-second intervals.
3. Push-ups on a stability ball. Have your client get in a push-up position on a stability ball with their legs on the ball and hands on the floor. They should first lie over the ball and roll forward until it’s at their thighs (easier) or shins (more difficult). Their hands should be wide and comfortably supporting the core and upper body, while their head stays in line with the spine. Have client lift one leg off the ball for 10-second intervals. For a challenge, have them lift one leg and the opposing arm.
Single-side stabilization. Your clients can perform these exercises to stabilize single-side balance and strength and agility.
1. Have your client stand and balance on one foot at a time. For a challenge, have them stand on a couple of folded gym towels.
2. Place a resistance tube under your client’s arch of one foot. The tube handle should be on the outside of the foot, and the handle should line up with their knee. With the handle anchored at their waist (this is not an arm exercise), have them lower their hips to flex and extend. Try 15 on each side.
3. Use a stair-climbing machine to improve balance. Have your client start stepping slowly, without using their hands. After a few minutes, have them speed up, still without using their hands. Have your client perform this for 20 minutes at a pace comfortable enough not to hold on.
4. Have your client stand on a mini-trampoline and balance on one foot. Toss a ball to your client from various directions while they recover their balance.
Dynamic balance and balance recovery. These exercises help your clients to develop a keener sense of dynamic balance while moving and enhance balance recovery ability. They put the body in unpredictable and sometimes strenuous situations where it must react with quickness and strength. Full body interaction is key.
1. Step-ups with cups of water in each hand. Use a stair or 4- to 8-inch platform, and have your client step up with the right foot then the left foot, and step down with the right foot then the left foot, without spilling the water. For a challenge, try it with full cups.
2. Single-side agility. Have clients play hopscotch or hop their initials on one leg at a time with eyes open and closed.
3. Tug-o-war (trainer and client are active in this drill). Using a rope about 6 to 8 feet long, line up two wobble boards (or any other type of equipment) about 6 to 8 feet apart. Stand on the balance board on one foot, face each other and try to get each other off balance.
4. Dot drill (single-leg agility test). Place five pieces of masking tape in an hourglass shape. The pieces should be about 18 to 24 inches apart (two on top of the hourglass shape, two on the bottom and one in the middle.) Have your client jump to each “dot” with both feet in a clockwise pattern, then counter-clockwise. Next have them try this with one foot, and count how many dots they miss in 20 seconds.
5. Multi-directional sprinting. Set four cones up to make a square. Have your client run to cone A, B, C or D on your cue.
6. One-legged turning. Have your client turn in one direction on inline skates.
7. Mountain biking. Have clients bike through a grove of trees where they must constantly dodge obstacles and react.
8. Drills with a wobble board (a rectangular-shaped board with a plastic circular roller underneath that moves in a variety of planes). Place the roller under (and close) to the left end of the board. Stand in front of your client with your hands close to their waist. Have them place their right foot on the right side of the board where the board creases (not at the very end) and their left foot on the elevated side. Have them adjust their posture: relax ankles, bend knees, look ahead, hands in front of the body, palms down. Have them subtly shift their left hip toward the left side of the board until they feel the roller move toward the center of the board. Then have them work to balance the roller under the middle of the board with subtle hip and foot pressure. Have your client shift their hips from side to side to move the roller from end to end. For a challenge, have client try this in a squat.
Balance is the most innate human function for creating and maintaining movement patterns. Encourage your clients to spend minutes each week performing balance tasks. The result is an immediate ability to sense imbalance and to react quicker when balance is lost. This translates into injury prevention and sports improvement, among other benefits.
Managing Balance on the Field
The nervous system takes five times longer to rejuvenate than tired muscles. There comes a point when it’s better to take a break or quit for the day. As difficult as that is for some athletes, Paul Chek, founder of the C.H.E.K. Institute in Southern California and an exercise kinesiologist, says that playing beyond fatigue is like driving drunk. “When the nervous system fatigues, balance and other skills diminish,” he says. “Sports become less fun and more of a muscular challenge. Continuing past that point has a reverse effect on your performance.” Chek recommends the following:
- Warm up to fine tune balance. The more aggressive or strenuously your client plays, the longer the warm-up should be. Have them perform non-specific limbering movements, then warm the nervous system by playing easily for several minutes.
- Once your client feels fatigue setting in (muscle burn), have them take an occasional five-minute break.
- Have clients brush up on technique by taking lessons to improve skills.
- Common Problems Associated with Poor Balance
- Feet not leveraged under hips
- Too much forward flexion at the shoulders or waist
- Head down reduces field of vision
- Stiffness through joints
- Spastic rhythm
- Holding breath
By Suzanne Nottingham.