Open any fitness magazine and you’ll read a multitude of buzz words and phrases such as balance training, core strength, functional training, proprioception, and core stability. While it’s possible to find well-written information on these topics, some articles are either inaccurate or misleading. Since the trend towards balance training is probably one of the most important developments in the fitness industry, a clear understanding of this subject is essential for any fitness enthusiast.
Balance Training Movement
The balance training movement has its roots in physical therapy. Much of the balance training equipment used in fitness centers can be found in physical therapy (PT) offices. There is a growing trend in the fitness industry towards using traditional rehabilitation exercises for injury prevention. This trend was influenced by many sources. In 1987, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) was founded by a group of fitness professionals, physicians, and physical therapists. Through extensive research, they developed a sport specific training module, which integrates balance and stability training with strength, flexibility, and aerobic activity. Postural analysis and its relationship to core stability is also a part of what NASM calls their Performance Enhancement protocol.
In August of 2000, the International Dance Exercise Association (IDEA) awarded Suzanne Nottingham, a fitness instructor and ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain, the title of Fitness Instructor of the Year. This would mark the first year that IDEA presented this title to a “non dance-like” instructor. Suzanne’s fitness programs emphasized balance, proprioception, and agility–a far cry from the dance-orientated, “spot toning” programs of the previous decade. Since certified fitness professionals are strongly influenced by whoever wins the Fitness Instructor of the Year Award, balance programs began to gain popularity at fitness centers. In addition to discovering a new, fun way to get in shape, participants had the satisfaction of acquiring new skills.
Progressive Balance Training
Today, balance training has obviously become trendy. It is the ingredient that adds finesse to any workout routine. By integrating balance, core work, and proprioception training to your workout, you will move with a sense of grace and fluidity. Your recreational sport skills will improve, and you will be less likely to get injured.
While some excellent balance and proprioception exercises can be found in magazines and online, not all exercises are suitable for everyone. All too often, advanced exercises are presented to the general public that are only suitable for elite athletes. Even though some people are able to fake the exercises by using their larger muscles as stabilizers, a progressive system that begins with simple core muscle activation exercise is preferable.
When most people hear the words “balance training,” they think of the various forms of balance equipment, such as the stability ball, balance disc, core board, wobble board, and indo boards. While these are excellent devices, it is important that your program is progressive in its development.
Balance and proprioception are strongly influenced by postural alignment. A forward head, hunched or tight shoulders, an arched back, or hyper-extended knees are common misalignments that impede balance and can lead either to injury or chronically painful conditions. At least some misalignments should be corrected prior to attempting any advanced exercises.
If you are serious about incorporating balance training into your fitness routine, you might consider having your postural alignment accessed by a qualified fitness professional. Pilates instructors as well as trainers certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine specialize in alignment assessment. Your first step on the road to improved posture and balance will involve locating and activating your deep core muscles.
The Core of Balance Training
Ask most people what is meant by core muscles, and they will answer, “my abs.” The “abs” are actually the superficial layer of abdominal muscle known as the rectus abdominus. Since they are surface muscles, they are not considered part of the core, and they do very little to assist with balance. The rectus abdominus is associated with spinal flexion, which is the action performed in traditional abdominal crunches. Ironically, it is designed to be a “fast twitch muscle,” which means that it is supposed to be used for quick bursts of activity. However, due to sitting hunched at a computer during the day, and performing hundreds of crunches at the gym, many people have trained their superficial abdominals to become “slow twitch” or endurance muscles. This can explain the hunched posture of many people who seem to be going through a de-evolutionary process in their postural alignment.
The Inner Unit, Deep Core Musculature
The deep core musculature is sometimes called the Inner Unit. It is comprised of the transverse abdominal muscle, the pelvic floor, the multifidus, the erector spinae, interspinales, and the internal obliques. The compressive force exerted by the transverse abdominal muscle and internal obliques helps increase spinal stability. The multifidus connects the transverse abdominal muscle to the spine. The interspinales are important for rotary movement and lateral stabilization, while the erector spinae helps balance the forces involved in spinal flexion. All of the muscles of the inner unit are slow twitch muscles, which means they should be active to some degree at all times.
Perhaps the most interesting study about the transverse abdominal (TVA) was done by Paul Hodges, PHD, at the University of Queensland. Hodges wanted to explore the relationship between low back pain and the TVA. He took subjects who experienced low back pain, and had them perform a traditional biceps curl. Through electro-magnetic monitoring, he discovered that these subjects first activated their biceps, and then, a few seconds later, they activated their TVA. In contrast, the subjects who did not have back pain activated their TVA a split second prior to activating their biceps, thereby providing the necessary spinal stabilization to protect their lower back.
One of the functions of the TVA is to press against the diaphragm to expel the air from the abdominal cavity upon exhalation. Think of how a balloon flattens when you let the air out. Practicing deep exhalations is a good way to get in touch with this muscle. Many physical therapists advise patients to simply hold a 10-count abdominal contraction ten times a day in order to get the TVA activated.
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