Balance work is an essential component of any well-rounded exercise routine or yoga flow. By improving your balance you are also strengthening your deep core muscles and leg muscles, especially targeting the ankles and knees. Balance exercises are also very functional, as they translate from the gym and the yoga mat into your everyday life.
Appropriately challenging your balance can increase proprioception and vestibular awareness. These are the sensory and communication systems in your body that determine the position of your body in space and react to any changes in that position. Basically, whatever you are doing—whether you are sitting, standing, walking, or playing sports—your body is constantly adjusting to keep you from toppling over and breaking a leg or face planting on the pavement. Despite this elaborate and intricate internal system, accidents still happen. Working on your balance improves your body’s sensitivity to and ability to react to changes in position. This can help you avoid or minimize the severity of injuries during exercise and in carrying our daily tasks.
Try to incorporate one or two balance exercises into your routine, and as they become easy, progress the difficulty of the task. If you are just beginning to integrate balance into your routine, start off standing near something sturdy—like a wall or counter—in case you need some support. You can lightly place your fingertips on the wall or counter to help steady yourself as needed. Taking your balance work to the floor is another way to ease in and make it safer. Whenever you are doing any balance work it is best to engage your abdominals and lift your pelvic floor, to keep the knee(s) or elbow(s) of the balancing limb(s) slightly bent, and to fix your eyes on one steady spot.
Here are two balance exercises especially good for beginners:
1. Balancing Cat
Option 1: One leg extended. Option 2: Opposite arm and leg extended.
Technique tips: Keep the abdominals engaged to support your low back and prevent arching. Square your hips to the mat and distribute even weight across both sides of the body. Relax your shoulders and elbows.
2. Standing Calf Raise
Option: Stand near a wall or counter in case you need something to grab on to. Put your fingertips on a steady surface during the exercise for a good modification.
Technique tips: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your body stacked: shoulders over hips, hips over knees, and knees over ankles. Don’t let your hips press forward. Lower your heels back down slowly, with control, and repeat.
Once you’ve developed that initial bit of strength and balance, you can keep challenging yourself by adding new exercises and by progressing those exercises over time. Two ways to progress a balance exercise is to add movement or resistance training. Here are a few different balance exercises with progressions. Please note that when adding a resistance training component you will likely need to drop down the weight you are currently lifting at until your body has adapted to this new version of the exercise.
3. Standing Glute Squeeze
Technique tips: Keep the chest tall, and avoid leaning forward as the leg lifts. Keep the weight on the balancing leg, and lightly tap the ball of the back foot down between lifts. To progress do not tap down at all, but keep the foot a half inch above the floor when the leg lowers. Don’t focus on height—the exercise is about balance and not flexibility.
4. Glute Squeeze with Back Row
Option 1: Lift and lower the leg with the row. Option 2: Remain balanced during rows.
Technique tips: Move slowly and with control; fast movements may knock you off balance. During the back row keep the upper arms tucked in close to the ribcage, slide the elbows straight back, and focus on squeezing the shoulder blades toward the spine.
5. Knee Lift with Hammer Curl
Option 1: Steady balance. Option 2: Alternate lifting your knees with the bicep curl.
Option 3: Remain balanced while executing bicep curls. Option 4: Add a shoulder press
Technique tips: Stack your shoulders over your hips, and do not lean back. During the bicep curls, keep your elbows tucked close to your sides. During the shoulder press, keep the elbows soft and your shoulders relaxed down away from your ears.
6. Lunge and Knee Lift with Frontal Raise
Option: Lightly tap the foot down between the lunge and the knee lift to modify.
Technique tips: During the lunge, keep the front knee stacked over the ankle. For the frontal raise, bring the arms to collarbone height and keep a slight bend in the elbows.
Balance work can also be added to the stretching portion of your workout or into your yoga flow. These balancing stretches can be done anywhere, after any activity, and are great for lengthening some of the major muscles groups of the lower body.
7. Dancer’s Pose (Quadriceps and Hip Flexor Stretch)
Option 1: Remain upright Option 2: Hinge forward from the hips
Technique tips: Press your foot away from your glute and into your hand to deepen the stretch. To moderate the balance work keep your arm at your side, rather than over your head.
7. Standing Keyhole Pose (Abductor and Glute Stretch)
Technique tips: The further you hinge back from your hips, the deeper the stretch and the more challenging the balance work. Keep the knee of the balancing leg over top the ankle.
Regardless of fitness level or age, you can—and should—always work to keep improving your balance. You will be stronger, more coordinated, and at less risk of injuries, now and as you age. It may seem challenging at first, but you will be surprised at how quickly your body adapts and your ability to balance advances.