Balance Exercises for Strength and Stability

Plus: Wobbly workout tools that work hard for the money

Busy and broken. As a personal trainer, that’s how I would describe most of the clients I see. They don’t have time for consistent workouts, and they think their daily aches and pains are just a part of getting older. Not so!

You don’t need to spend hours in the gym to get an effective workout, or a medicine cabinet full of drugs to alleviate your pain. One easy way to get more from your workouts without adding minutes to your routine is to add a little “wobble.”

Balance training, or functional training as it’s called in the fitness biz, will get you a more complete full-body workout in the same amount of time by using more of your muscles to keep you steady. And functional training is simple and affordable to do at home or almost anywhere with tools like a stability ball, balance platform or balance pods — or with freeform exercises that challenge your balance, like lunges and squats.

Here’s a guide to stability and balance exercises, including how-to video and photos using a half ball.

How are balance exercises different from other exercises?

Exercise isn’t just about burning calories — it’s also a way to strengthen your body so you can safely perform your everyday tasks. If you add stability work to your exercise routine, everything from running after your kids to lugging groceries to climbing the stairs will be easier.

Machines at your gym isolate muscles. They force you to stay in a specific position to work only one muscle in one direction at a time, in a linear pattern on a one-dimensional plane. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — these machines allow you to safely stack on a ton of weight to gain strength by ensuring that you perform the exercise correctly.

But the ways you have to move your body in day-to-day life are far from one-dimensional. Think of lugging groceries from cart to trunk, swinging a child around in a circle, righting yourself when you accidentally step sideways off a curb, twisting to see behind the car when backing up, or emptying the dishwasher. These arcing, rotating and diagonal motions are called multi-planar because they require you to move outside a front-to-back or side-to-side plane.

“Multi-planar movements are desirable because the body is designed to move as a unit,” says Damon Roxas, national director of personal training for Crunch Fitness, New York, N.Y. “When using multiple planes during an exercise, the body recruits more muscles, uses more joints and distributes the stress of the exercise across the body — whereas a repetitive isometric movement can lead to injury. [Doing balance training] results in a more functional workout that limits the risk of injury and is more useful for day-to-day activities.”

Functional training conditions your body to move in these multi-planar ways — the ways it’s designed to move in everyday life. It engages your stabilizing muscles, the ones that fire to keep you steady when you are off balance or just moving in a non-linear pattern.

How to do balance exercises

To add instability and get more muscles in the mix, try using workout tools designed to challenge your balance — such as a Bosu ball, balance ball, stability platform or balance pods.

Look for a balance training kit that comes with an instructional DVD or exercise guide to help you safely do squats, crunches, lunges and pushups using these tools. Or use freeform equipment such as kettlebells, resistance cords or a cable machine.

Any of these will engage stabilizer muscles to keep your balance or to keep your limbs steady while doing the functional training exercises.

Stabilizing muscles include your core (torso) muscles, which are so important to your quality of life! Having a strong core helps prevent and reduce lower back pain, one of the leading causes of doctor visits in America. Your core’s job is to transfer momentum from your upper to lower body; a strong core can handle the momentum shifts safely, while a weak link can lead to injury and lay you up for days or weeks.

Keeping your stabilizing muscles strong with balance exercises goes a long way toward preventing other types of injuries, too. For example, weak knee stabilizer muscles can lead to injuries such as a torn ACL or meniscus, and weak ankle stabilizers are a primary cause of rolled and twisted ankles. Strengthening these muscles can not only help prevent ankle and knee injuries, but also help ensure that you have the stability and agility you need for everyday tasks.

You can sneak stability moves into your exercise routine even if you don’t have balance tools handy. Simply standing on one leg, doing squats (or squats on one leg), or using hand weights while standing on one leg, is enough to engage your lower body and core stabilizer muscles. You can also combine lunges and bicep curls, or squats and shoulder presses, to challenge your balance and knock out two muscle groups in half the time.

If you want to get better fitness results in less time and steer clear of aches and pains ... balance training adds stability and strength to your workout!

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Sash1113's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 36 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/05/2010

I keep looking for the Gaiam kit and the page seems to have disappeared. The link in the article also seems to be broken. Have you discontinued the item when it was just advertised in the Oct. 21st email newsletter? Where can I find something like this if not here?


Kirs10's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 44 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 12/07/2007

Thanks for pointing out the missing link! Here's where it should go: Happy wobbling!

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Anonymous's picture

Balance exercises are so important for strength. Think about it, our ancestors used their "balancing" muscles a lot more. They walked on sand more and up and down mountains which were much more unstaible under foot that what we have today. They didn't have the benefit of footpaths everywhere.

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