I work with many different clients who have very different goals but if there is one thing I hear over and over again during training, it is that their balance is shocking. It is also the case that no one has ever come to me and said that their primary goal is to improve in this regard. I think this is for two reasons: people don’t see it as something worth focussing on, and also don’t understand how influential it can be to other qualities.
Balance in and of itself is hardly impressive in the same way the raw speed or strength is. But the crucial thing to appreciate is that balance is a fundamental component of those qualities. When you aren’t balanced you cannot produce force optimally. And without balance your tissues will not be able to relax (essential for speed and efficiency in movement). The other misapprehension is that balance is a quality which needs to be trained and gradually improved like flexibility or fitness. In reality, balance is more about simply knowing the tricks and understanding how to organise your structure. When things are in the right place then balance as a concept is not one worth considering. We have all seen those toys (typically an eagle based on my childhood memory) which you can place on the tip of your finger and suddenly, with no skill or practice, can easily control its movement. But if one of those eagles had one wing bent differently to the other, it would be a real challenge to balance it on your finger. You would find yourself constantly chasing and adjusting back and forth to control the chaotic movement. The body is not entirely different. If you cannot achieve or find the proper position, then spending hours wobbling around and strengthening “the core” will not get you anywhere.
So, what are these tricks and positions?
The answer to this depends on the specific task but there some consistent principles which can be broadly applied. The most important is “head over foot”. All top sprinters will have their head over their “stance” foot (the one on the ground). This either means the head bobbing back and forth to match a wide foot fall, or it means the feet strike towards the middle and the head stays fairly still. Typically, you will see sprinters start with the feet striking wide and massive shifts of bodyweight side to side to meet this principle, and once they are done accelerating their stride narrows and their weight centralises. This idea of a “stance leg” doesn’t just apply to sprinting, however. Interestingly it applies even when both feet are on the ground. Almost everyone will place the majority of their weight on the right foot. This means the right foot pronates, the right femur rotates internally as the the pelvis shifts right and back, and the ribs compress on that side. This is why right sided neck tension and headaches are more common. Something that can be alleviated with proper balance! The movements listed above are typically very difficult for people to achieve on the left side. It’s hard for people to shift their pelvis back on the left side. It’s hard to get the weight of their torso over the left side of the pelvis. Essentially what happens is that when you put your weight towards to left, the intrinsic tension with your body pushes you back towards the right and doesn’t allow a true “stance” phase. Without experiencing examples in dynamic movement this concept often seems strange to people. But people who think they can truly load weight through their left side are like young children who think they can do a handstand because they put their hands on the ground and jump their feet into the air for a second.
Much of my coaching is based around demonstrating the differences side to side, and then addressing that asymmetry. I have seen amazing results like a single drill, cueing all the movements listed above, enabled a client to perform 3 single leg squats to 90 degrees less than 15 minutes removed from being unable to perform a split squat without wobbling side to side or seemingly having the strength to perform that exercise. By teaching her body the position and relevant tensions she was able to create better balance, which meant that she was able to immediately express a higher proportion of her existing strength. She also had gained 10-15 degrees of internal rotation in her hip with no stretching or mobility drills. This anecdote (which I have seen play out many times over) goes to show the interconnectedness of training qualities. Good movement is strength, balance, power, flexibility training all in one.
The principles of sprinting, and gait in general, are the blueprint used to create positive change in the body. Training these qualities in isolation might have meant each individual measure improved slightly but not in a why that could be used by the client. We could have stretched her to gain hip rotation, performed progressively overloaded split squats for several weeks to gain strength, done “balance” training on the bosu ball without cueing, all without changing her ability to manage her structure and tension appropriately. Instead, it was one drill that solved it. Now, it isn’t always that fast and dramatic. It is common that the compensatory tensions of the body won’t allow you to reach the ideal position, or that your joints lack the relative motion to allow weight shifts, or that you are so disconnected that you cannot link everything together to provide the stability. Here, the drills have to change but the principles stay the same. I don’t expect many people to read this post and immediately come to me asking to improve their balance. But I do hope that people read it and appreciate that all training qualities are connected, and that time spent training balance, and not just wobbling, can have vast reaching positive effects.