Balance training: flexibility and agility workouts

Learn to keep your balance with some simple balance training drills

Many athletes today are using balance training as an integral part of their overall training programmes, both for injury prevention and performance enhancement.

Balance is needed by runners when negotiating woodland, by tennis players when reaching for a drop shot and by footballers taking the ball on the volley from slightly behind themselves. Each of these situations requires the exercise of just the right amount of flexibility and agility at the right time and from the right areas of the body in order for us to execute the desired task, recover and then be able to repeat the same or similar tasks without injury. With balance training, as with most training, the idea is to recreate and manipulate in a controlled environment what we do in an event or game situation.

Maintaining balance means having the centre of mass within your base of support, ie with your trunk aligned over your feet. In the past we have tended to believe that perfect balance was best illustrated by standing on one leg and staying as still as possible for as long as possible. However, if we were to take a time lapsed photograph of someone performing that activity over several minutes, even the most skilful mime artist would fail to reproduce it. That’s because, even when we are trying to remain completely still, our body is constantly oscillating, transferring energy, loading and unloading in a type of perfect chaos. The point is that the body’s systems are set up to respond to feedback, and if we were to remain completely still no feedback could be offered.

As well as the centre of mass, we have to appreciate the importance of the centre of pressure within the balance equation. Scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada have tried to help us understand these concepts by means of a nice analogy with sheep-farming(1). They describe the centre of mass as a sheep that we need to keep contained within a certain area, while the centre of pressure is the sheep dog. If the latter sees the former straying too far from where it should be, it has to round it up and push it back.

This analogy tells us that balance is a dynamic process which applies to everything we do, including walking or running, where we are perpetually losing and regaining our balance, tennis, where we are loading the system on the forehand, decelerating those forces and exploding out, and football, where we could be rotating to go one way then suddenly have to change direction. The questions we have to ask ourselves as athletes are: how far out of the centre can I go? How far and how fast can I load the system, decelerate those forces and reel myself back in? And am I able to deal with those forces and those torques in all three planes of movement?

To understand the body’s dynamic balance capabilities you need first to have some grasp of the ‘proprioceptive system’, which feeds back information about position, movement and balance from the body’s other systems, including the central and peripheral nervous systems(2). A recently-published study from America illustrates the synergy of the proprioceptive system, with key implications for balance training(3). Eighteen college students were asked to stand on one leg (the balancing leg held in a crossover position to act as a counter balance) with eyes open for 12 seconds on three different surfaces – firm, foam and sloping. They then repeated the test with eyes closed on a firm surface. The researchers found that the ankle was the dominant source of corrective action under all conditions. However, under conditions of greater challenge (as with the foam surface or with eyes shut), there was more corrective action at the hip and/or knee.

This study shows that when training for balance we can use different ‘tweaks’ (such as repeating the same drill with eyes shut or while shaking the head) to intensify the effects of the training. Alternating the surface of your balance workout is another good ‘tweak’: work out on some lumpy, bumpy grass every so often or, for gym workouts, simply repeat each balance drill on an exercise mat to get a different ‘feel’.

At this point it is worth advising you not to go to the logical extreme by investing in a wobble board or similar device because there are very few sports that require this level of instability and, as the above-mentioned study points out, the more unstable the surface the more compensatory action is needed further up the chain in the knee, hip, and trunk. Even for ankle rehabilitation, the effectiveness of wobble boards is limited when compared with what you can do simply by using your own body to create instability. These pieces of kit are artificial, do not reproduce any tasks associated with function and suggest a lack of creativity in functional training and rehabilitation.

Balance training for your sport should involve replicating components of function associated with that sport, and thus the exercises outlined in this article range from the general to the sport-specific (tennis and football), with various suggested tweaks for purposes of progression. For all runners, the general drills will be best suited to your needs.

Exercise1: crossover punches

1. One-leg punches

Stand on one leg, with the other leg next to, but not touching, the supporting leg. Using 1kg hand weights, alternate punches in the air above the head (10x each arm), keeping the supporting knee soft, perhaps with a little bounce on each rep. Then repeat, punching out to the side above shoulder height. Now (still balancing on the same leg) alternate crossover punches above the head, still 10x each arm (exercise 1, above). Then repeat the whole routine while standing on the other leg. You then repeat the entire drill once more, this time starting with alternate punches in front of you at shoulder height (exercise 2, below), moving onto lateral punches (out to the side) at shoulder height, and finally crossover punches below head height.

Exercise 2: atlernate punches

Suggested variations on this drill are as follows:

  1. Introduce progression by using slightly heavier weights, or repeating the drill with eyes closed, or on grass or an exercise mat;
  2. The football tweak. Stand on the left leg while taking 10 headers from a server 1.5 metres in front of you, heading them directly back. Then, still standing on the left leg, rotate your head to the left while the server feeds you 10 headers from the left and you head them down to the server’s feet. The server then feeds you 10 headers from his original position in front of you, and this time you direct the balls to a target at 10 o’clock on the left leg or 2 o’clock on the right leg. Repeat the drills on the other foot, always aiming to keep the free leg off the ground, next to but not touching the supporting leg.
  3. The tennis tweak. Standing at the net on the right leg, direct five forehand volleys (above shoulder height) straight down the line and another five cross court. Repeat on the left leg, this time using backhand (if left-handed do the opposite). Then do five overhead smashes on each leg. Then repeat the entire drill with volleys delivered at or below shoulder height.

2. Jump steps

The second series of drills involves a jump step forwards from a standing start onto one foot, holding for a count of two, then returning to the starting position. (The distance you jump will depend on your balance threshold.) Repeat on the other side. This forwards-backwards movement is what’s called working in the sagittal plane. Next we need to work in the frontal plane (side to side). So, from the starting position, take a jump step out to the left on the left foot, hold for a count of two, then jump step back to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. The third plane of movement (perhaps the most important) is the transverse plane, involving a posterior lateral jump step. Imagine you are standing in the centre of a big clock face, facing 12 o’clock. First take a jump step back to the 8 o’clock position on the left side, making sure your left foot is pointing to 8 o’clock; hold for two seconds then jump step back to the start. Now repeat to 4 o’clock on the right side.

Variations are as follows:

  1. For progression, repeat the drill with one or more of the following embellishments to accompany the jump steps:
    • arms above the head;
    • hands reaching out to touch landing foot;
    • (in the transverse plane) rotate arms away from the body when jumping out, then into your body when jumping back;
    • arms driving in different directions as you jump step – one forwards, the other out to the side.

Exercise3: jump step tennis tweak

  1. The tennis tweak. Take a jump step forwards onto the right foot while taking a forehand volley (exercise 3, above), then jump step back. Repeat on the left foot with a backhand volley. Now repeat the routine in the frontal plane, jump stepping to the right on the right foot to make the forehand volley and to the left for a backhand. Then repeat using the clock face analogy, jump stepping back to 4 o’clock to make the forehand volley from slightly behind you then repeating on the left to 8 o’clock for the backhand. If left-handed, do the opposite.
  2. The football tweak. Apply the same principles as the tennis tweak, jump stepping with one foot while a server feeds you volleys to strike with the other foot (exercise 4, below).

Exercise 4: jump step football tweak

These drills can be easily integrated into your current conditioning programme and can be performed when fresh or fatigued. It is a good strategy to vary the time of day you perform these drills as well as the surface you use.

Keep your balance training task-oriented, and try not to concentrate too hard on balancing per se as this just muddies the waters. We don’t have to ‘switch the core on’ to provide balance and stability; the design of the body is such that if it’s not switched on there is a bio-mechanical explanation. And if your balance on one leg is worse than on the other, it could mean something as simple as a tight calf or a stiff heel.

Balance is something we need for life. As we get older we need to train a lot smarter in all departments, and balance is no exception.

Sean Corvin

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