Balance is something we don’t tend to think about until we need it. The dog runs under our legs, and we go crashing to the ground. Our foot awkwardly steps onto the curb, and we twist an ankle. But including balance training in your fitness protocol not only helps prevent these mishaps and injuries, it also helps you grow stronger. And you don’t need any fancy equipment to work your balance. In fact, you’re probably already training without realizing it.
“If you’re using free weights, you’re doing a good bit of balance training,” says John Ford, a New York City-based personal trainer. If you use machines to train, you’re usually sitting or otherwise supported. But with free weights, you have to coordinate not only the muscles performing the exercise but also those keeping your body upright, even if you are “just” standing while doing biceps curls.
Secondly, if you do any lunges or planks, you’re already doing the stability and proprioception training we tend to think of as balance training. So overall, “you do [balance training] a lot more than you think you do,” Ford says.
That’s a good thing for several reasons, starting with injury prevention both in and out of the gym. “Balance training helps increase your body awareness,” Ford explains. “It trains your brain to move and control your body through all of your everyday activities.” That helps reduce the risk of falls and, subsequently, injuries.
For athletes, this improved balance lends to improved performance. “They need to roll with the punches,” Ford says. “Their bodies need to know how to react and shift.” Proprioception training helps your muscles send signals to your brain, which then sends signals back to your muscles so they can react more quickly. That’s all the more essential when your opponent suddenly zigs rather than zags, or you hit a bump skiing.
Lastly, balance training may even help you make gains. “The better your balance is and the more control you have over that, the more efficiently you can do exercises and, in theory, the stronger you get,” Ford says. See, balance work may help you push through plateaus because it helps your muscles, joints, tendons and receptors in your brain “talk” to each other, he explains. When this happens, you’re more aware of when you are — and aren’t — using the proper muscles to perform an exercise. Then you can adjust to do the movement properly. As a bonus, you’re also less likely to create imbalances because of this awareness.
8 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR BALANCE
You can improve your balance and proprioception anywhere and without any equipment. Ford suggests adding some or all of the movements below into your fitness routine:
HEEL-TOE SLOW WALKS
Standing tall, come up onto the toes of your left foot as you raise your right knee. Stepping forward, slowly place your right heel onto the ground. Roll onto the toes of your right foot as you slowly raise your left knee in front of you. Continue moving slowly and with control as you “walk” forward. With each step, the lower you can come and the slower you go, the harder it is.
With a chair behind you, slowly squat down, putting your weight into your heels. When your butt just touches the chair, start to press back up with control, keeping the weight in your heels. As you stand, slowly roll your feet from heel to toe so you are on your toes when you are fully standing. Throughout the exercise, keep your balance and be aware of which muscles fire when.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Come onto the toes of one foot. With control, lift that straight leg behind you as you lean forward, keeping your back straight. The leg you’re standing on should be slightly bent. With your arms hanging straight down, keep leaning over as far as you can with balance and control. Stand up to complete the rep. Do all reps on one side, then switch sides.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. To begin, press your lower back into the floor. Then, lift both knees until your shins are parallel to the floor and extend your arms toward the ceiling. Contract your abs and slowly lower one arm toward the floor alongside your ear while you straighten the opposite leg toward the floor. Only lower your arm and leg as far as you can without letting your lower back peel off the floor. Return to start and repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Continue alternating sides.
Come to all fours with your hands directly underneath your shoulders and knees directly underneath your hips. Brace your abs. Raise one arm out in front of you while simultaneously raising the opposite leg behind you. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Continue alternating sides.
PLANKS WITH REACH
Start in a plank. Lift one foot off the floor while simultaneously raising the opposite arm in front of you. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Continue alternating sides.
FOREARM SIDE PLANK WITH REACH
Start in a forearm side plank. With control, reach your top arm under your body. Then roll up slowly to the starting position, but keep going to reach back behind you with your arm. Do all reps on one side, then switch sides.
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping the weight in the heel of your left foot. Moving slowly and with control, raise your right knee up, then step back and down as if you are doing a reverse lunge, but do not let your foot touch the ground. Go as low as you can with good form. Then return to the starting position. Do all reps on one side, then switch sides.
Unlock an experience that’s like having a dietitian, trainer and coach at your fingertips. Sign up for Premium for expert guidance and tools to help you reach your personal health goals.