Learn how to identify issues with your balance and take your abilities from decent to exceptional.
How do we “find” balance? If you run, exercise/train or are an athlete you probably already have decent balance. So what is there really to find?
The ability to balance could save you from a potential injury giving you the dynamic stability to transfer energy across your body rather than solely through one particular body part.(1) It could also set you apart from your competition and give you a competitive edge that gives you the long-term health and success that you’re looking for.
However, since we do not test and practice balance frequently enough in modern day training we really do not know that our balance is bad until we have to rely on it.
Think of balance simply as the internal governor of your body that allows you to keep your center of mass positioned in control over your base of support.
If you played one or more sports growing up, and still do, you likely have a dominant side of your body where your balance is better compared to the other side.
Normal? Not so much. Common? You betcha!
We do favor sides, particularly in sports where kicking, hitting, or passing a ball/object/person is involved. But if we want to expose more than the strength and weakness of our dominant and non-dominant sides we need to understand the systems of balance that are in play, especially if we want to factor in our risk for injury. (2)
Here’s a quick peek at the anatomy and physiology which keeps us in balance.
- Visual - what we see in our environment helps us integrate positional awareness
- Vestibular - orientation of our head in space allows 3 small semi-circular canals which are filled with fluid act as a “bubble level” to relay information to our body and brain with regards to our position in space.
- Somatosensory - the sensory information that comes from our feet and other tactile feedback through our body aids in our ability to stay balanced
- Cerebellar - the “hind brain” is highly responsible for our sense of coordination which can be helpful for beginning a balanced posture and maintaining it while doing something else. I.e. standing on one leg while throw a ball up in the air with our hand
- Proprioception - a fancy word for how we become aware of our body’s position in space. Although it may not be regarded as a primary factor in our balance it can serve as a helpful awareness to our posture ultimately giving us better time to react and keep our balance. For example if you were to close your eyes while a friend passively bent your thumb towards your palm you would know that it is bending and not straightening. This is because small mechanoreceptors in your joints, muscles and tendons send out a signal that movement is happening. We acquire more skillful proprioception as we grow from babies and practice higher level movements.
It’s not hard to understand why we need good functioning balance. If you want to avoid falling, injuring or beating yourself up you should know that keeping yourself upright is important. And furthermore, if you want to have spidey senses or that ability to land on your feet like a cat you might as well train these systems to ramp up your physical capacity.
Let’s focus on the first 3 of the balance systems - why these 3? Because this is where we can get the biggest bang for our buck when it comes to spending time working on our balance. Just remember VVS
Not the diamonds but VISION VESTIBULAR SENSORY
- Vision - we have two (main) options here
- Make balance easier - fixate your vision by focusing on a target
- Make balance harder - close your eyes.
- Vestibular - we have a variety of options but for simplicity we are going to focus on two head movements that will increase the complexity of the task
- Nodding your head “Yes”
- Shake your head “No”
- Both options can have variation in the amount of movement you perform and the speed in which you perform them
- Sensory - There are no shortages of changes you can make when it comes to the sensation that you perceive through your feet
- In shoes
- Unstable v. Stable surfaces
When it comes to working on your balance we can play with these 3 systems very easily to improve your success or challenge your performance. What’s great about interchanging inputs from these systems is we do not have to make the task very complex.
Instead of thinking about balancing like this guy, let’s just start from a single leg balance working some head turns.
Imagine you’re shaking your head saying “no way can I do this” while maintaining your balance and your vision fixed on a single target.
Here we have influenced all 3 systems to challenge your balance. Close your eyes and continue with your head shaking and you will influence the vestibular and sensory systems more... harder right? Open your eyes, stop shaking your head and stand on something like a pillow to influence your sensory system.
Now these are very basic and rudimentary and probably not enough to challenge a highly skilled athlete. But any slight difficulty noted when taking away certain balance systems may be a good indication of how you can start training your equilibrium.
This list is not exhaustive, and when it comes to movement training there are always an infinite amount of variations to try. But, I hope this gives you some insight into why your balance may be good or bad. Ultimately all of these systems need to interact with each other to give us exceptional performance so keep practicing.
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(1): Hrysomallis C. (2007). Relationship between balance ability, training and sports injury risk. Sports Medicine 37 (6): 547-56.
(2) Vanessa K.N. Petry et al. (2021)The dominant leg is more likely to get injured in soccer players: systematic review and meta-analysis. Biol. Sport 2021 Sep;38(3):397-435