Balancing Act on a Board

You’ve seen them in the gym, you’ve seen them at stores that sell fitness equipment. I’m referring to balance boards, Bosu balls, wobble boards, stability balls, rotating discs, and the multitude of variations on the theme of ‘balance’.

Are these gadgets simply gimmicks; a trend offering great exercise results to the inventors and manufacturers ‘running’ back and forth to the bank? Or do they offer fitness results?

It all depends on how you use them, how often and for what purpose. Otherwise, more often then not, they are simply gimmicks that may or may not confuse the consumer, or be used as a marketing tool at a fitness facility that offers classes based on using the products.

Most of us who are able-bodied walk upright on the ground, be it pavement, sidewalk or ground. From this ‘unconscious’ practice we develop both strengths and weaknesses. If we are attuned and aware of posture and gait and also what is happening in and to our bodies on a physical level, then we will know when something is working well, or when some form of movement becomes a challenge.

Fitness or Balancing Act?

How many people do you know who stand around all day on balance boards? The answer to that rhetorical questions is, no one.

So let’s say someone has a weakness on their right ankle. For now we will only consider the symptom and not the cause. How should we prepare the ankle for improved physical preparation? Here are the steps I take in my approach:

Ask the client when the challenge or imbalance appeared. Were there past injuries of any kind? Any other physical challenges that may be the cause? What do they do for sport, athletics and for work? All of these may be factors to consider and address.

I will look at the client’s static posture, gait and run if necessary. I will also observe the client’s muscle length and tension and mobility at the ankle.

I will share my findings, get feedback, and offer a path for injury prevention followed by performance/physical enhancement.

I will program the relevant physical qualities to be addressed, be it flexibility, strength, speed or endurance, to improve the quality of the client’s ankle mobility.

Will I use any of these balance devices in my prescription of exercise? Very rarely. The reason is simple: ‘transfer’. We get a transferred result from everything we do. To offer an easy to understand example, consider a sprinter. In order to increase his or her ability to explode at the start, we may practice moving a weight explosively in the gym; either a light weight quickly or a very heavy weight as quickly as possible. Both choices affect different outcomes and physical systems.

When it comes to balance, let’s assume that the imbalance in our ankle example was from a previous injury. Due to the time required to heal, the client put more weight on their non-injured leg and the lack of use on the injured side resulted in atrophy of the muscles. To get the best transfer – in this case improved balance and strength at the weak ankle – I would prescribe unilateral or single leg exercises starting with the weaker leg.

You can see how effective single limb exercises are for yourself. As an example, stand up on one leg. Hold one leg out in front and carefully squat down, as if you were to sit into a chair. Do this a few times then repeat on the other side. Which side was stronger? How was your balance different at various parts of your body (from foot to hips)?

To wrap it up, there is a time and a place for balance devices, albeit very infrequently. They can be great fun and entertaining, but when we are looking at physical and performance enhancement, the foundations of physical preparation are based on real-world movement, not standing on balance devices.

© 2011 Darren Stehle & Integrated Fitness. All Rights Reserved.