Principles of Balance and Stability
Having good balance and stability isn’t just for gymnasts — it’s integral to our everyday life. From yard work to house work to grueling WODs in the gym, better balance and stability improves our quality of life and drastically reduces our risk of injury. For athletes in the gym, pair the following tests and exercises with proper breathing strategies and mindful cueing of your movements, and you’re well on your way to significant improvements in athletic performance.
Balance and Stability
Let’s start with a simple test to identify your general endurance surrounding basic balance: right now, stand on one leg for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, lift one knee up in front of your hip and hold for 10 seconds. Note how your balance feels. Try the other leg. Now, try it again with your “stronger leg” with your eyes closed. Harder, isn’t it? That’s because visual cues from our eyes give us information about where we are in space. Your eyes also act as the directors of movement; sending signals to your brain, telling your joints and muscles where and how to move. This becomes increasingly important when lifting heavy weight, or doing unilateral movements over long periods of time.
Now try the one leg balance exercises again. This time, spread the toes (it is best to be barefoot for more tactile feedback), engage the core muscles (“tuck your belly button into your spine”, as our coaches at CrossFit Renew often tell us), and adjust your upper body position so that your center of gravity is right above the center of your supporting foot. Spreading out the fingers and toes can make a better support through the hands and feet, so here, think of having “tripod feet”, and spread your toes out, gripping the floor with your toe pads. Repeat the same 30-second set as above, lifting your leg for 10 seconds, then trying with your eyes closed. How’d it feel? With more concerted engagement, hopefully you felt more stable, balanced.
Here are a couple more tests and cues you can perform to see where you land on the stability/balance scale:
- When supporting your weight on your hands, as in a push-up, plank, or handstand, slightly spread the fingers, and press firmly into the floor through all the fingertips and the whole circumference of the palm, nearly gripping the floor with your finger pads. This will not only relieve tension in the wrist that can occur if we keep all our weight in the heels of the hands, but will also serve as a more conscious, stable base — allowing for a more efficient movement.
- In balance-challenging positions, such as handstands or overhead squats, it can help to visualize the center of gravity of the body, which is approximately three finger widths below the navel, and midway back to the center of the body from there. Picture someone drawing a chalk circle on the floor around the outside of whatever body parts (feet, hands, etc.) are making ground contact. Keep approximately equal weight on all the body parts touching the floor, and position the center of gravity over the middle of that imaginary chalk circle.
Rotation and Stability
As we learned with the re-test, generating rotational forces (torque) in the arms or legs provides stability. This becomes especially relevant and important as we perform more load-bearing movements like the squat.
In the squat (and all other movements that build upon it), rotating the feet externally (outward) without actually allowing them to move will provide more stability whenever the legs are in flexion (under or in front of the body). We often hear the cue “knees out” for this — aiming to generate torque and tension in the glutes and IT bands without allowing your stable base (feet) to move from underneath you. If you’re having trouble feeling this in the squat, imagine squatting on two lazy Susans and trying to rotate them outward (without allowing your feet to move) while descending down into the squat.
Further, the lunge and pushup can help us understand how applying rotational forces at the hips and shoulders create stability. Try one of each of those movements now, and I’ll ask you to try them again later applying the principles of rotation:
- Perform 10 walking lunges. Note where you feel imbalance — is it on the ascension? Is it the opposite? For the most stability in a lunge, we need to remember the front leg can generate an external rotation force, and the back leg an internal rotation force (without actually allowing the feet to rotate).
- Perform 5 push-ups (whether on knees or toes). Note where you break in your stability — do your hips drop, do your shoulders sag? In push-up position, it is best to have the fingers more or less pointed forward, and then externally rotate the shoulders, which will bring the elbows closer to the sides of the ribs, and turn the insides of the elbows to face forwards. The same principles of the lower body can apply to the upper. When the arms are in flexion (in front of the body or overhead), as in a push-up, bench press, push press, or ring dip, then we know we can apply external rotation.
Now try your lunge and push-ups again, generating external rotation of the front leg hip and internal rotation of the back leg hip in the lunge, and with external rotation at the shoulders in the push-up. Did engaging muscles around the hip and shoulder joints in those ways help you feel more stable? I hope so.
For the next week, think of applying these principles in your WODS. In any positions requiring balance, visualize where your center of gravity is with regard to whatever parts of the body are touching the ground. Keep your toes and fingers slightly spread whenever they are supporting your weight, and grip the floor with your finger or toe pads. Apply the external or internal rotation of your shoulder joints based on whether they are in flexion or extension during your exercises. These tips should help you feel more stable and balanced, as well as reducing your risk of injury.
Paul Kevin Smith is an Adjunct Professor of Exercise Science and Student Development at Austin Community College, as well as an experienced yoga teacher, trainer, and functional movement specialist. He has a M.Ed. degree in Kinesiology from U.T. Austin, and is a Level 2 certified provider of the Functional Movement Screen. His other certifications include ACSM Clinical Exercise Physiologist, ACE Health and Wellness Coach, PhysicalMind Institute Pilates Mat Work Instructor, and IAYT Yoga Therapist. For training, functional movement screening, or other queries, Paul can be reached at 512-731-7167, firstname.lastname@example.org, or at @pksmithatx on Instagram.
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