Has balance training become en vogue and the new rave? From physical therapy to the hottest glamour gym, fitness enthusiasts everywhere are jumping on the wobbling, jostling and teetering balance training bandwagon.
From a proprioceptive perspective (that is, from the perspective of sensory receptors, chiefly in muscles, tendons and joints responding to stimuli arising from body), learning balance work is highly specific because the nervous system learns it not in general but relative to the learning of specific skills. (1) That is why, for example, a highly-skilled kickboxer does not become a highly- skilled grappler without learning an entirely different set of skills.
Athletes are able to learn new balance skills more rapidly when the skills they learn are complex. Their trainers and coaches too often wrongly assume that the more rapid acquisition of these new skills is due to a "general" physical development of the "kinesthetic sense" rather than due to an improvement in the athletes' ability to focus and concentrate as they learn each new skill.
The mechanical "ear" of proprioception is mechanoreception (reception that responds to mechanical stimuli such as tension and pressure). One of the three aspects of mechanoreception is movement - or kinesthetic sense. The other two aspects are position sense and force/tension sense. It is important to remember that movement (kinesthetic sense), position sense, and force/tension sense are, in fact, sense aspects of mechanoreception rather than its attributes. And they are senses that a person is born with just as one is born with the senses of sight, hearing, and taste.
Proprioception, then, is not something athletes develop like strength or endurance, but, rather, it is a "sixth" sense athletes have that is critical and which should not be overlooked or ignored.
Regarding the recent pop balance culture, unless one intends on fighting or competing on a pneumatic "wobble" surface, or on a playing field on rollers, then balance training will transfer more rapidly if it is approached from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Top-down balance training actively perturbs the structural alignment to illicit the body's natural falling defense - the righting reflex.d
Notice I said "reflex" not "learned skill." This righting reflex is hard-wired into the human system, so we cannot alter it. However, skills to coordinate reactions subsequent to the righting reflex can be learned. And athletes can learn to coordinate their actions so that their center of mass remains aligned with their center of gravity, even when actively facing resistance.
Try the following to see what I mean. Lift one leg off the ground and have a friend push you. As your center of mass displaces off your aligned center of balance, your leg instantly comes down to protect you from the fall. You can of course interfere with this by allowing your hands to break your fall. Regardless, righting yourself so you do not fall becomes imperative in your mind, doesn't it, overriding all other thoughts? Your mind is rightly concerned with your situation and designed to be so. It is a matter of survival.
In the martial arts, there are numerous falling and rolling skills one can learn for engaging the ground. These skills demand extensive conditioning to wet wire our system. Likewise, in developing balancing skills, this wet-wiring is not "balancing" that we learn. Rather, it's improving our coordination through learning how to perform various stunts on equipment.
Developing coordination can be achieved much more effectively using the following drills for trainees of all skill levels. They combine strength, muscular endurance, muscle control, agility, soft tissue strengthening, dynamic range of motion and dynamic flexibility along with, of course, coordination training. They are listed in order of difficulty:
- Basic (1-3 months of training)
- Intermediate (4-6 months of training)
- Advanced (7-9 months of training)
- Elite (1-2 years)
They should be practiced for only 10-15 minutes a day, every day, 3-5 repetitions per position in ultra-slow and ultra smooth movement. Do this, and you will see dramatic developments within 3 weeks.
As far as balance training, this set of drills is the only exercise you'll ever need. Period. It covers every range of motion possible - hence the namesake of this article: Three Dimensional Balance: No Equipment. No Fuss. No Cost!
Four Corner Balance Drills
BASIC LEVEL /// Heel Thrust
Begin with your planted foot turned outside to a 45-degree angle with your knee slightly bent. Project your other leg forward, locking your knee by pushing with your heel and pulling your toes back toward your shin. Sit back as much as possible without leaning. Flex your raised quad and planted glute in order to relax the hamstring of the raised leg. Exhale and grip the ground with your toes.
From the front thrust turn with your whole leg, leading with your pinky toe so that your raised leg rotates outward resting with your foot turned outward 45 degrees. Sit down without leaning and continue to rotate your leg outward. Exhale and grip.
Leading with your heel, rotate your leg inward and thrust your leg backward until your foot rests behind you. Slowly dynamically resist your thrust backward to a locked out position. Exhale and dig.
Bend your knee and slowly swing your leg under you (bent knee) and begin again with your Front Thrust. Repeat.
INTERMEDIATE LEVEL /// Toe Point
Instead of leading with the heel, extend and point all toes in alignment with the entire leg, locking out the knee.
Swing the entire leg parallel to the ground outwards. Exhale and keep the toes pointed.
Swing around behind and rotate the entire leg as one cylinder. Counterbalance by leaning your torso forward. Extend with your crown in one direction, your toes in the opposite: a great exercise for decompression of the spinal vertebrae.
Bend your knee and swing your leg underneath you as if going to punt a football. Extend into the Frontal Point again.
Bend your knee and bring your ankle comfortably into your lap as you sit down. Stabilize with your planted foot directly in the middle of your frame. Counterbalance by extending your arms, as you exhale and sit. Come slowly out of this and use your hands to gently release the leg from your lap. Never let it quickly jerk out of your lap.
ADVANCED LEVEL /// Hand Lift
Begin by lifting your knee to your chest. Grab your heel with your outside arm. Extend your lower leg upward until your lock your knee. If you feel tension in your hamstring, lower the amplitude of your lift and contract your quad in your lifted leg.
Bend your knee and reach over to the inside and grab your heel. Extend your knee to a locked position while swinging your leg outward. Remember the goal is to rotate your leg so your toes point backward at a 45-degree angle.
Bend your knee and while continuing to hold your heel, rotate your knee between your arm and torso so that you arrive with your knee bent behind you. Lock out your hip. Press the top of your foot into your hand while resisting it with your arm.
Begin to lean forward and lift your lower leg upward. Maintain the press against your hand with the top of your foot.
Swing your entire leg as one unit underneath you and re-grab on the outside of your heel to complete a Frontal Lift again.
Do not lift your heel to your head! Take your arm underneath your knee pit and stabilize it against your tricep. Squat down and move your forehead toward your instep. Exhale deeply. Carefully place your foot on the ground when complete.
ELITE LEVEL /// Partner Assisted Squats
Frontal Squat Thrust:
Using your partner's hands as little as possible, stabilize yourself on the ball of your foot.
Lateral Squat Thrust:
Lift your leg up in an arc without touching your partner (and still minimizing the use of his spot) until your swing your leg out to the side. Keep your leg rotated outward so that your toes point backward at a 45-degree angle.
Dorsal Squat Thrust:
Rotating your leg and bending your knee, do not allow your leg to touch the ground. Extend your leg backward keeping your shin parallel to the ground.
Frontal Squat Thrust:
Bending your knee again, contract your knee to your chest and extend forward into the Frontal Squat Thrust.
Crossed Squat Thrust:
Bring your heel to your planted knee and place it on top of your thigh. If you need assistance, release one hand of your spotter's and grab your shin (not your foot) to bring it to your thigh.
ELITE LEVEL /// Solo Squats
The last and most difficult series is for the advanced athlete with strong, injury free knees and ankles. It took me two years to work to this point; the skill developed was all based upon the above progression of the Four Corner Balance Drill.
Frontal Squat Thrust:
Keep the heel of your planted foot pointed upward toward your center of gravity. Push with your heel and pull your toes toward your shin. Initially you may use your hands as training wheels to strengthen the foot and the responsiveness of your planted leg muscles.
Lateral Squat Thrust:
Swing your leg to the outside and remember to rotate your leg so that your toes point backwards at a 45-degree angle.
Dorsal Squat Thrust:
Bring your knee to your chest and swing your leg forward. Extend leading with your heel into a Dorsal Squat Thrust.
Crossed Squat Thrust
Load your leg into your lap and exhale. This one is tough, folks... and took my about two years to develop.