The 6 Pillars of Fitness: Balance

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When I originally got the wheels spinning for Fitness in Five, I spent a lot of my time contemplating the 6 Pillars of Fitness. I wanted to determine how I could wipe my fitness slate clean, layout everything I had taught myself the past ten years, and start rebuilding myself from scratch along with heightened knowledge on topics I had explored less diligently.

My entire process started from what I knew best, strength training. I evaluated every tiny aspect of what it takes to move my body and objects (e.g. weights). In order to perform all of these movements with that “you make it look so easy” appearance, I came at a crossroads when evaluating strength and balance.

These two pillars are so codependent that I was struggling to determine whether or not they should be viewed in isolation. For instance, if you have difficulty balancing on one leg, you might have weak ankles, a weak core, or dormant proprioceptors.

The first two components are addressed through strengthening programs, although their overall purpose is to provide the body better stability and balance. The final component is more purely a balancing issue, which leads us to a discussion on proprioception.

What is Proprioception?

To put it in simple terms, proprioception is your body’s ability to sense itself (via receptors in the skin, muscles, and joints) without you having to physically see where a certain part of your body is at all times.

Think about throwing a ball into the air and placing your hand underneath the space you expect the ball to fall. While your eyes are focused on the ball coming down, your body is able to place your hand in the empty space where the ball will land without you having to watch your hand move into the position (whether or not you catch the ball is not the priority here).

You are able to perform this “blind” movement thanks to the work of your proprioceptors.

Interestingly enough, although your proprioceptors give you a sense of where your body is in space, they don’t do a great job determining the size of specific areas on your body. Due to this reality, scientists believe we have a preset body map that our brains rely on to generally estimate the size of our limbs.

Your body map is always in flux. When you are focusing on a task that involves your hands, your brain begins to create a more specific and more accurate map of this area of the body. Once the stimulation is removed, and if it is rarely repeated, the brain will revert to a base level mapping that represents a vague reality of what your hands actually look like.

There was a really neat study conducted to address this peculiarity and the results were fascinating. Focusing on the hand, participants were asked to hover a baton above various regions (e.g. knuckles, fingertips, etc.) to determine how accurate their brains were at determining their positions. The results were a gross underestimation of the length of each finger and a gross overestimation of the spacing of the knuckles. This resulted in an image of short fingers with a wide palm.

So, this tells us that our brains aren’t super great at determining the size and length of our body parts, but that doesn’t equate to an inability to use these parts effectively when we don’t have our eyes on them. With this really cool, natural ability, some of you will find you actually aren’t too great at using it. This might cause you to say, “I just wasn’t born with that I guess,” but I’ll stop you right there.

Your proprioception can be improved. Just as your hand eye coordination (check out kinesthesia) is improved through repeated practice and creating a sense of muscle memory, repeated stimulation to your proprioceptors can enhance their functionality as well.

How do you go about improving your proprioception?

One of the simplest ways to test your proprioceptive abilities is to close your eyes. This quickly eliminates kinesthesis from the equation due to its heavy reliance on your vision. If your proprioceptors were completely faulty, which would likely be a far more serious medical issue, you would be unable to perform any movements successfully with your eyes closed.

Imagine getting up in the middle of night to use the restroom and falling flat on your face the moment you take your first step. If your body can’t sense itself (proprioception) and you have zero visual cues of your surrounding environment (kinesthesis), your brain will fail you one hundred percent of the time.

Now, imagine the same scenario, but instead of falling on your face, you begin taking steps in a measured manner, which most of us probably do anyway. You try to feel the empty space your stepping into until your foot is safely back on the ground. All of the sensory inputs involved in this simple task are greatly influenced by your proprioceptors and any wobbles of uncertainty are a good indication you have substantial room to improve your balance at the most basic level.

When engaging in a balance program for the first time, it’s just like any other form of training. You need to start with the fundamentals and work your way up to more dynamic movements. For me, working on my balance is a humbling practice because it constantly reminds me how much room for improvement my mind and body have. So, when you challenge yourself with the activities below, I don’t want you to get discouraged. The tasks will seem relatively easy, but you will likely be surprised at how challenging things can get, especially as you progress.

STANDING SINGLE LEG REACH

Progression 1

Standing with your feet together and a slight bend in your knees, you will start by lifting your left foot slightly (one to two inches) off the floor. Just let it hover in place as you feel your right foot making micro-adjustments to keep your balance.

Your weight should be concentrated in the middle of your foot. You don’t want to be leaning back on the heal or forward on the toes.

The hips and shoulders should remain level with the floor as if you were standing sturdy on both feet. If you feel yourself leaning to the left or right, this is an immediate sign your hips or shoulders are out of place.

Once you are able to accomplish this balancing task on each foot for 30 seconds, you can move onto the next progression.

Progression 2

Following the same instructions as Progression 1, you will begin to add movement. With your left foot off the ground reach your toe out in front as far as you can without leaning back. Keep all of your movement in your left leg only. Once again, you’ll want to steadily hold this position for 30 seconds on each side.

Now, you’re going to reverse the movement by reaching your foot backward. As soon as you begin this movement, you will have a natural tendency to lean forward. Stay mindful of this tendency and keep yourself upright as you reach back.

Progression 3

Now, you’re going to bring everything together into a fluid movement. Starting from the usual position, you’ll reach your left foot out in front and work your foot around in a counter-clockwise direction to 6 o’clock (directly behind you), then swing it back to the starting position. 

Remember to keep your shoulders and hips parallel to the floor and centering your weight in the ball of your foot.

As your balance improves, you will be able to move your foot in this semi-circle in a swifter manner, but you must remain disciplined in your focus. As your weight shifts around the outside of your foot rather than staying in the center, you are doing yourself a disservice (and risking injury) by progressing to more dynamic movements when your body is quietly letting you know you aren’t quite ready.

Notes On The Upper Body

As you go through each progression, you might find raising your arms out to the side or placing your hands on your hips will give you better balance and a better sense of whether or not your hips and shoulders are tilting.

The ultimate goal is to have your hands down at your sides, but using your arms in the beginning is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. Remember, start slow, and as you learn more about your body, make the exercises more challenging.

Also, keep your eyes focused on a single point in front of you. Start with a spot on the floor just in front of your foot, and as you gain more confidence, locate a point further and further away, ultimately looking up at the ceiling (or sky).

TABLE TOP

Starting on your hands and knees, make sure your wrists, elbows and shoulders form a straight line that is perpendicular to the floor. Accomplish the same feat with your knees directly under your hips.

Be sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows, so your arms aren't completely locked out. A good way to test this is to pay attention to whether or not you feel like you're flexing your triceps. If you have this feeling, you're likely rotating your elbow into an unnatural position as well. Let your upper arms relax, and feel your tension release.

Flatten your back to make sure you aren’t arching or curling into a “C” shape. You want to be as strong and sturdy as the very dining table you eat on.

This is the position you will always start and finish in. As you perform various movements, you will always keep your back exactly where it is by tightening your core, preventing any arching or curling.

Strength Assessment

Before moving into the progressions for the Table Top, you will need to assess your current level of strength.

When it comes to hand balancing exercises, there is no way to avoid the fact you need a foundation of strength that is uncommon in daily activities. Balancing on your feet doesn’t present this degree of difficulty because you carry the weight of your body through your lower half every single day, whereas your arms swing around freely without bearing any weight at all.

So, to test your strength, I want you to start in the position described above and simply lift your left hand off the ground. Try to distribute your weight through the three remaining “legs” of your table and squeeze your core. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds.

You will repeat this test by lifting your right hand, left leg, and right leg off the ground (not at the same time). If you find you are able to perform this test without issue, you are free to move onto the first progression. If you feel unsafe when lifting your hand, or can't gather the confidence to lift it to begin with, I don't want you to stress out.

I want you to hold tight until next week's post on Strength is available where I will provide strength progressions that will fit in perfectly and get you to test out the Table Top in no time.

Progression 1

To test your most basic level of balancing in the Table Top position, I want you to repeat the strength assessment laid out above, but hold each position for 30 seconds. Make sure your hips are not tilting one direction or the other throughout the hold. Once you are comfortable in this position, move onto Progression 2.

Progression 2

You've gained confidence standing on three "legs," so now it's time to test your skills out with two "legs."

In this progression, if your left hand moves, your right leg moves, and vice versa. So, starting with your left hand and right leg, lift both limbs off the ground and find your balance with just your right hand and left leg on the ground (don't forget to tighten that core).

Once you find yourself comfortable in this position, increase the degree of difficulty by reaching your left arm straight out in front of you and your right leg straight back. Depending on your flexibility (particularly in your hamstrings), you may or may not be able to create level extensions from your original table top, with your arm and leg acting as table leafs.

Regardless of the current aesthetics you can achieve in this extended position, you should feel added tension on your abdomen compared to keeping your arm and leg tucked in.

As you feel at ease holding these positions, add some movement by moving your arm and leg in and out, making sure to keep your back completely level without any curvature. Play around with this hold as you wish and see what positions feel most challenging.

Progression 3

The final progression is a doozy (I continue to struggle with this one). Instead of lifting your opposite hand and leg off the floor, you are now going to lift the same side (left hand and left leg) off the floor, while balancing solely on your right hand and leg.

You will want to center your weight by placing your right hand almost directly under the middle of your chest and drawing a straight line back to your knee.

You will want to accomplish the same position (flat back, slightly bent elbow, etc.), but feel free to play around with things a bit to find your balance point. However, keep your weight evenly distributed from your wrist, through your core, and all the way back to your knee.

UP THE ANTE

As you move through the progressions in these balancing exercises, you have one final challenge. Perform everything with your eyes closed. As I highlighted previously, closing your eyes will enhance your reliance on your proprioceptors and allow you to level up even further on your fitness journey.

WRAP UP

The problem with balance training is its common association with the elderly and their risk of falling. Personally, I see this as yet another form of reactive care society is so fond of participating in.

Why address something that’s not an issue before it becomes one? Well, your brittle bones might have something to say about that “strategy” the first time you tumble to the ground and break your hip.

As your balance improves, you will begin to build confidence in your ability to move more freely and eliminate habitual fears in performing tasks like reaching the top shelf on your tip-toes, side-stepping as you shimmy your way down the movie theatre aisle, and participating in virtually any physical activity (e.g. tennis, basketball, soccer, swimming, etc.).

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about anything that has been discussed in this post, leave a note in the comments below or shoot me an email!


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