Balance Training is one of the latest trends in the training of athletes and in the fitness industry. Most physiotherapy, athletic performance centers and gyms across the country are full of the latest in balance and core conditioning devices such as mediBalls, balance boards, Duradiscs, Balance pads & beams, foam rollers, and many others amongst the hundreds of devices currently available on the market.
The premise for using such devices, is the dramatic improvements in functional balance and core conditioning that can be achieved. This is often the case when these abilities are compromised through injury or other deficits but not always the case when talking about sport-specific gains that are reported from using all these tools.
What Is Balance Anyway?
Uninjured or impaired athletes don’t have the same balance training needs as the rehabilitating athlete. In order to fully critique the current use of balance training for athletes, we should first have a general idea of what balance is. Balance, is simply defined as the ability to maintain the center of gravity (COG) over the base of support (BOS).
This ability is made possible by the co-operation and co-ordination of three primary sensory systems: the visual, the vestibular (inner ear), and the somatosensory (Click here for a Power Point Presentation – Proprioception changes with injury) systems. These three systems are often referred to as the triad of postural control. It is through the combined feedback from these three key systems that we are able to move and maintain balance without falling over.
An important concept to understand how we regain balance after losing it is postural sway. Postural sway is the normal, continuous shifting of the COG over the BOS. When an individual is able to keep within their limits of stability, balance is maintained. However, when postural sway exceeds these limits, a restabilizing strategy is required in order to prevent falling. There are three fundamental strategies for regaining balance that have been identified: the ankle strategy, the hip strategy, and the stepping strategy.
During mild postural perturbations, most people will use the ankle strategy to regain an upright stance. This strategy simply recruits the ankle platarflexors, dorsiflexors, invertors and evertors to correct any minor disruption in upright stance. No stepping action is necessary with this strategy. Several common balance devices such as the rocker board, foam rollers, and balance pads elicit the ankle response.
If postural perturbations are even greater, the hip strategy might be used alone or in conjunction with the previously mentioned ankle strategy. During the hip strategy, balance is regained by flexing and extending the hips and spine in order to keep the COG within the confines of the BOS. If successful, no stepping action is needed.
With even more disruption to ones balance, the body calls upon the stepping strategy in which a forward, backward, or lateral step must be taken in order to restore balance. This type of strategy is much more common in sporting type of situations as it typically occurs under more ballistic conditions than the previous mentioned strategies. Also, due to the speed in which these corrective steps must be taken, little or no feedback is used to modify the movement. This type of control is also known as feedforward or open loop control, and it is common to many sports and even daily activities that require speed, quickness, or a fast reaction time.
When an athlete is standing on a balance device, they are typically only working the ankle and hip strategies to regain balance and are able to receive adequate feedback about how to correct their balance. This is not very specific to the demands of real life and sport so these balance drills can hardly be called sport-specific. Also, many of the surfaces (foam rollers, Swiss-balls) differ greatly from any surface found in most sporting situations.
Unless incorporating very innovative training drills the reality of using most of these devices, is that they are specific skills that may really only help the athlete learn how to better use the particular device. While there is probably no harm in using them, one has to ask if time could possibly be spent doing something more beneficial. Balance, like most other motor qualities, is specific to each task and sporting situation. Good balance in one situation does not guarantee good balance in another!
So What Is One To Do?
There is nothing wrong with using these devices so long as their limitations are realized and other, more sport-specific exercises are not being left out. Many of the devices are a lot of fun to perform and can provide novel variation for athletes. I personally like to use the various balance devices as active recovery or during periods of lower loading as might occur in a periodized program. However, if ones time is limited, only the most beneficial exercises should be included exercises such as variations of Olympic lifts, the 3 power lifts (squat, deadlift, and bench press), (Click here for downloadable document on Plyometrics) Plyometrics, and other important accessory movements should never be omitted for specific balance exercises.
If one includes variations of gymnastics tumbling, hopping, skipping, jumping, and sprinting activities in is hard to think that any further balance training is necessary. The martial arts also provide some very dynamic and effective forms of balance training for athletes. Getting back to balance devices, there are a couple of that I think prove to be more useful than others. The Fitter Bongo and Indo board serve as useful balance challenges that can be made to be much more unpredictable than the common balance board and foam roller exercises.
Additionally, if one takes an upright sport-specific drill, Olympic lifting or strength movement and closes the eyes (or wears a blindfold!), the proprioceptive demands increase considerably. The late Dr. Mel Siff, world-renowned sport scientist, referred to this as imperfection training. One can, for example, shift slightly back and forth while at the bottom of a Snatch, holding a bar overhead, or during the beginning of a Squat before the descent. With a little creativity, one can turn any drill, exercise, or sport-specific movement into a balance or imperfection drill.