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It hangs in the balance


It's something you take for granted until it's no longer there. It's something we all use on a daily basis, without giving it much thought. We are talking about balance. A recent article in The Guardian explains how science hasn't quite figured out how to describe balance, so I won't go down that route. The point is - we need balance in our lives, in more ways than one: Work/Life balance, being emotionally balanced, taking a balanced approach to nutrition. For the purpose of this post, we're talking about physical balance.


Why focus on balance?

As we age, our balance is compromised. But that doesn't mean we start doing balance exercises once we hit retirement! It is what we do earlier in life that determines our how we age, our longevity, our quality of life. Our balance can take a hit from an injury or during pregnancy, vision problems or hearing issues, regardless of age. So if balance doesn't come up in your training programme - now is the time to add it in. Why? Because we want to avoid falling, or we want to be strong enough to avoid injury if we do fall. With unilateral movements (using one side of the body), we can correct imbalances, improve our core stabiliser muscles and improve overall performance in sports and exercise. We also give our central nervous system and coordination a run for their money - brains needs exercise too!


The beauty of balance is, it doesn't have to be standalone (excuse the pun) exercises, but rather something that is incorporated into your strength and conditioning work. For instance - lateral jumps from one leg to another (like ice skating) will get your heart rate up, weighted single leg squats or deadlifts improves your glute/hamstring/quad strength and doing sports like golf or yoga classes are also great for improving balance and coordination.


Balance exercises

Below are a few exercises that improves your balance. Try to incorporate these into your daily activities, or for more advanced moves - add these to your exercise routine.


Beginner

  1. Stand on a single leg: Practice standing on one bent leg whilst doing everyday activities like brushing teeth or doing dishes. Stand still first, and move onto bending down and up in a mini-squat movement. Try closing your eyes to challenge yourself

  2. Single leg raise: Stand up straight and bend your knee up as high as you can go, aiming for hip height and hold. Challenges yourself by moving knee out to the side and back again and/or close your eyes.

  3. Single leg step-up: Step up and step down with alternating legs, starting from a step on the stairs and progress to a higher step. Challenge yourself by slowing down, so that you spend more time with one leg off the floor

Intermediate

  1. Single leg lateral step-downs: Stand sideways on a step and lower other leg down towards the floor. Try to not touch the floor and focus on using the top leg to get back up to standing straight on the step.

  2. Single leg bodyweight squats: Start by standing up from a chair with one leg out in front and sitting back down with leg lifted. Make it more challenging by doing this movement without the support of a chair.

  3. Single leg bodyweight deadlifts: Hinge at the hips and bring a straight leg back behind you in line with your upper body. Stand back up and try not to put the foot on the floor before you hinge again. Keep back straight and hips aligned

Advanced

  1. Beginner movements in a dynamic/explosive fashion, to challenge your ankles, your proprioception and to get your heart rate going for a cardio benefit at the same time.

  • Single leg jumps in one place: Stand on one leg and jump up and down

  • Lunge and leg raise: From a lunge position, drive back leg up to knee bent at hip height in explosive manner. Hold knee up for a few seconds before returning to lunge

  • Jump around the clock: Jump sideways in each direction, forward, backwards on one leg. This is great for strengthening ankles, too

2. Intermediate movements with weights: You simply hold dumbbells or a kettlebell in front of your chest or one weight in each hand. Start by simply holding a weight of your choice and increase the load over time. The more weight you add, the more you challenge your core system, so don't forget to fully engage the core and practice good posture!


3. Weighted intermediate moves with upper body: If you want to really challenge your coordination, torch calories and improve upper body strength - these exercises are for you! Note: The more complex the move, the higher the risk of getting it wrong, so I would only recommend doing these exercises once you've really nailed the above, or under supervision.

  • Single leg lateral step-down w/ hammer curl: As above, with bicep curl as you come up to standing

  • Single leg bodyweight squats w/shoulder press: As above, press dumbbells up above shoulders as you come up to standing

  • Single leg deadlifts w/bent-over row: As above, do a bent-over row in hinged forward position, keeping core switched on and lats engaged


Further reading:



Contralateral effects of unilateral strength training: https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00531.2006

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