Balanced training or Training for balance



I’ve been working as a trainer for 25 years now. Back when I first started, I learned quickly that strength was, and is the most important quality we can cultivate. Strength training using evidence based exercise concepts is the safest, and most efficient method to impact global health and fitness in minimal time. As I have said before, strength is the foundation of function.

As a strength coach and personal trainer, the question of training for balance often comes up. Athletes often want to know if there is an exercise that they can do that will improve their balance in their chosen sport. For average fitness folks the balance question most often arises as it relates to aging and maintaining mobility.

Many coaches and trainers on the “Balance Training” Band-Wagon claim that functional exercises should be performed on an unstable surface, in order to promote  balance. This is a very common approach to training equilibrium, whereby the emphasis is placed on proprioceptive sensitivity and core stability. While it seems, superficially, to be an obvious method of choice, it is actually counterproductive to real functional stability. The irony in these methods is that the property that is introduced to try to enhance balance control — an unstable surface — is the very element that prevents the nervous system from correcting for postural deviations.

Stay with me here…

Equilibrium is maintained through the application of force into the ground. As the center of gravity shifts over the base of support, force is applied through the feet in order to re-center the center of gravity. The inherent problem with labile surfaces (wobble boards, dyna-discs etc) is that the objective of the exercise is to avoid displacing the surface. In other words, the goal is to keep the surface from moving. To do this, the subject must actually resist applying force to the surface, and therefore, is being trained not to exert force which is the exact opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. Clearly this practice would have a dubious effect on balance control.


Furthermore, this type of balance training involves static balance control, in which motion of the center of gravity is severely restricted. Hamilton and colleagues (2008), quite interestingly, report no correlation between static balance control and hopping capability, a very dynamic stability problem, and one of those “highly functional” movement skills.

What does seem to aid in balance control is increased muscular strength and power. Research demonstrates evidence of a direct correlation between muscular strength and power, and the ability to maintain balance (Orr, et al, 2006, Santos and Liu, 2008). Butler and associates (2008) have even determined that insufficient strength in the ankle musculature results in a reduction of proprioceptive acuity. Conversely, increased muscle force capacity contributes to enhanced proprioceptive capability. Arguably, equilibrium may be enhanced through a simple process of muscle strength development that promotes force application. This may, in fact, be accomplished on a leg press.

The truth is that balance is task specific. A common misconception is that fundamental abilities can be trained through various drills or other activities. The thinking is that, with some stronger ability, the athlete will see gains in performance for tasks with this underlying ability.

For example, coaches often use various balancing drills to increase general balancing ability. Such attempts to train fundamental abilities may sound fine, but usually they simply do not work. Time, and often money, would be better spent practicing the eventual goal skills.

There are two correct ways to think of these principles.

First, there is no general ability to balance, rather, balance is based on many diverse abilities, so there is no single balance ability, for example, that can be trained.

Second, even if there were such general abilities, these are, by definition, genetic and not subject to modification through practice. Therefore, attempts to modify ability with a nonspecific drill are ineffective. A learner may acquire additional skill at the drill (which is, after all, a skill itself), but this learning does not transfer to the main skill of interest.

Do not attempt to mimic or imitate a skill by using a completely separate *gadget, or with exercises in the weight room. It can’t be done. Strengthen the muscles in the weight room, develop a high level of conditioning, and practice the skills used to play your sport or game. It’s that simple!



*In Plain English: (Just in case I have not been 100% clear up to this point). You should never waste any time or energy doing any of the things demonstrated in the  images above if your goal is to improve performance in a totally separate sport or activity.

Excerpts from this article appear (with permission) from the article:

The Truth on Fitness:
Functional training
Paul M. Juris, Ed.D.
Executive Director, CybEx Institute

Other References

Bryant, C.X. (2008) What is functional strength training?
American Council on Exercise.

Butler, A.A., Lord, S.R., Rogers, M.W., and Fitzpatrick, R.C. (2008).
Muscle weakness impairs the proprioceptive control of human standing.
Brain Research. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.03.094

Greenfield, B. (2005). Functional exercise that makes sense.
Ezine Articles.

Hamilton, R.T., Shultz, S.J., Schmitz, R.J.



First let’s define strength training. For our purposes strength training refers to exercises using ones body weight or outside resistance such as barbells, dumbbells, sand bags, medicine balls, etc, which are designed to increase or enhance one’s natural strength to greater levels then when starting a given program.

As an athlete strength is the foundation from which all your tools are launched. Your goal is for your body to learn to work well as a unit. You want to maximize your strength to weight ratio as well as being explosive and quick when needed. You want strength that is functional and useable in motion. The term “Functional training” has become a buzzword of late. Some say what it means is to train movements not muscles. Well, it is muscles that cause movement to happen, so we cannot remove them from the equation. To train using functional exercises means choosing exercises which place demands on many muscles at once and which challenge your bodies energy systems in a variety of ways. So, how do we get there?

If you want to learn how to get big and strong you look at what the biggest and strongest guys do. This seems like a logical approach to take, but it can be a mistake. When I first started training I did just this. Like thousands of neophytes before me I sought to gain the secret knowledge of the massive men I saw in the “BodyBuilding” magazines. I surmised that these men were taking being big and strong to the outer limits so they must have a clue as how best to approach getting there. I also thought that they would naturally (no pun intended) choose what ever was the most efficient and effective way to achieve their chosen goal.

Unfortunately I was wrong. I came to find that there was no logic at all to the approach of these heavily muscled giants. They were for the most part just blindly following the trends that slowly flowed through their little world hoping as much as the rest of us to find the holy grail of the perfect strength and size routine. They did however have some advantages over most of us, these being genetics and drugs. I don’t want to spend too much time on this particular subject for this is not an anti-bodybuilding article. In truth I have nothing against bodybuilding at all. I just want to point out the folly of blindly searching for help based on a poorly placed assumption that bigger guys have a secret that others do not. It turns out that if what you want is truly effective and efficient training for improved athletic performance in sports, your best bet is probably to look at what the pro bodybuilders do and start doing the opposite.

Most Pro Body Builders use what I call the Frankenstein training method. They treat their bodies as if they were made up of a bunch of separate pieces that they are trying to combine into one glorious pile of muscle. They strive to isolate each section and blast it into submission with endless sets of exercises concocted to achieve maximum muscle in that one area. With this in mind they commonly use “Split” training routines so they can really focus on each area to the exclusion of others. Splitting their body into pieces also allows them to work out more often, chest on one-day shoulders on another, and then back, biceps, etc. Unfortunately this overlooks one important issue. Our bodies are not made up of many different compartments each with its own fuel, maintenance, and recovery needs.  Nor were our muscles designed to function in isolation. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with using a leg extension machine or doing a set of barbell curls, the mistake that some make is basing their routines around these movements or just doing too much superfluous training.  Doing multiple sets of Biceps or Triceps exercise may help pump up your arms, but it will also add unneeded training volume to your overall routine not to mention extra fatigue on some of your smallest and most used muscles.

When first assessing your body, pay attention to your strength and flexibility symmetry. It is normal to have a dominant or “strong” side but any major imbalances should be corrected sooner rather then later. If you are not a beginner and a basic strength foundation has already been established, you must still determine if any glaring strength or flexibility asymmetries exist and strive to correct them. This is where isolated, single joint movements may be beneficial to your development. Beyond these early training stages, unless you are correcting a very specific imbalance or rehabbing an injury you should not be wasting much of your valuable training time working muscles in isolation.

Don’t be like Doctor Frankenstein

For ideas about how to create well thought out, efficient training plans for any sport or fitness goal be sure to check out our other articles and pod-casts. If you feel you need help or just don’t seem to be getting things dialed in the way you would like, contact us here at I am sure we can help.