Balance & Co-ordination.
Balance is one of the first things you should learn in a martial art. If you can’t stand still on one leg you have no chance of kicking. Balance is simple. Keep your eyes up and your back straight and you won’t go far wrong, even when kicking. These tips and exercises will help you understand more about balance and how to improve.
What exactly is balance?
- Balance is a reflex action to prevent falling and injury.
- It involves more parts of the body than any other. It uses 3 of the 5 basic senses, the majority of muscles from head to toe, a whole host of nerves and the brain.
- Balance is a whole-body reflex which is developed during infancy. It is essentially a hard-wired reflex action.
Example – if you lift one leg off the ground and are pushed from the side, your leg will come down automatically to prevent you from falling. In the 1/2 second that it takes to put your foot down, there is a great concert of actions occurring in your body :
- Your muscles receive increased pressure on opposite side of the push
- The muscles in the leg attached to the ground tense in response, attempting to maintain a balanced position.
- Core muscles tense to attempt to hold the upper body upright
- The ears perceive a difference in the body’s orientation to gravity
- The brain receives signals from the ear and musculature informing it that balance has been overwhelmed, that a fall is imminent
- The brain decodes the signals, determines the direction of travel
- A course of action is determined, signals are sent to the raised leg to drop.
- The leg responds, lowering towards the ground in roughly a 90 degree angle to the direction of the imminent fall
- The muscles of the body brace for impact
- The leg contacts the ground, while the muscles act as a shock absorber.
This all happens before your brain consciously registers that you are off-balance – it is for all intensive purposes automatic. Some portions of the reaction even occur without the brain being an active player – the nerves in the muscles have what is known as a feedback loop, reacting to changing pressure and tightening muscles subtly to keep balance without the brain even being aware of it. Standing still with both feet on the ground is a perfect example of this. Dozens of muscles are in constant adjustment for pressure just standing in one place, yet we are not aware of any of them working at all – we are ‘just standing’.
In the above example, we might choose to try and hold our foot up against the instinct to put it down, allowing the body to fall, but then other areas of the balance reflex will take over, such as holding out the hands to grab something or break our fall. In many martial arts, falling becomes an art form, granting the practitioner the ability to fall safely and recovery quickly and even use the act of falling in an advantageous way – so to some extent, the reactions that occur can be controlled.
So in order to improve balance, we need to strengthen the muscles that are involved in balance, improve their sensitivity to pressure differences, and teach the brain to use these muscles in a more efficient manner.
There are two popular theories for how to improve balance – “bottom up” and “top down”.
The bottom up method focuses on the legs and the feedback response, and involves exercises on an unstable surface such as a Bosu ball.
The top down method focuses on the upper body posture, involves balancing on a stable surface while strengthening the primary and secondary muscles used in balance.
For the most martial artists, it is my experience that top-down is the best way to train for balance. Until you develop strength in the correct muscles, you can wobble around on a Bosu ball or balance board all day and it won’t do much to actually improve your balance. However if you focus on strengthening the primary and secondary muscles needed for balance, responding to the fall reflex will be much easier, bringing dramatic improvements in balance.
Another goal of balance training is to teach the brain to reduce it’s reliance on two primary senses – sight and hearing – for balance. If you can train your body and mind to balance without them, you will never be off balance, even if your head is out of position, or your hearing is affected by a strike to the head or sickness, or even if you need to balance in the dark.
If you have bad knees, they will improve their strength and stability as well. So if you experience discomfort in your knees, this is OK and will improve in time. However if you feel a sharp, shooting or burning sensation in your knees, this is a sign of injury which should be seen by a doctor.
Any of these exercises can be performed with one hand against a wall if needed – The point of them is not necessarily to be in balance, but to strengthen the muscles used for balance – so don’t feel that needing top put your hand on the wall will in any way reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. However, do NOT use a hand rail. Using a hand rail will create reliance on the shoulder as a primary balance muscle, which is counter productive.
Exercise 1: Balance awareness With your shoes off, preferably on a hard floor, pick up one leg in front until the thigh is parallel to the floor. Become aware of your leg that is on the ground. Become aware of the feel of your heel, ball of the foot, the outside edge of the foot against the floor. Feel how it flexes back and forth, shifting your body position to keep you upright. This will become more apparent the longer you keep your leg off the ground, as the muscles tire, they will respond slower to the pressure changes and it will become uncomfortable. They will require larger movements to keep you in balance, and may begin to ache.
Now become aware of your calf muscles. Feel how they push and pull to move toes, the ball, the outer edge, working up to the quads (front of the thigh), how they are moderately tight, and if you stay long enough, you will feel them twitch and begin to ache as they keep the correct tension to hold your entire body weight in suspension, keeping the majority of your weight centered in a line that runs from the center of your foot to the middle of your hip.
Those muscles that you feel are your Stabilizers, also called the Primary balance muscles. They are responding to changes in pressure without conscious thought.
Now become aware of the abdominal muscles and back muscles. They are slightly tense as well, keeping your trunk and the greatest majority of your weight centered on your planted leg.
Become aware of your shoulders and arms – they are likely moving slightly in response to moments of loss of balance, reaching out to catch the wall, or circling to attempt to re-center the weight of the torso above the planted leg.
These are all called the posture muscles, also called the Secondary balance muscles. They are responding to conscious and semi-conscious thoughts sent from the brain to maintain balance.
Now put your held leg down, and repeat this exercise on the opposite leg, becoming aware of the primary and secondary balance muscles from the feet all the way to the shoulders and arms.
You may be wondering “Wait a minute, how is this top down training?” If yes then great! You are thinking, which is the entire point of the above exercise. The top down training starts with the brain. Awareness of the key muscles and pressures involved is one of the key mechanisms to top-down training.
Hold each leg for as long as you can until you have to put your foot down, up to 3 minutes (it will get better with practice)
Exercise 2: Slow squats
- Start from standing position, feet shoulder width apart, feet pointed outward at a 45 degree angle.
- Bend the knees, lowering your body directly above the inward pointed heels of the foot. Keep the body vertical, and keep the back slightly arched.
- Move down into a 90 degree bend in the knees, moving down slowly across 5 seconds.
- Hold for 3 seconds.
- Move up into a straight leg position within a 5 second period.
Repeat for 10 reps
Pay attention to your upper body, making sure to keep your shoulders directly above your hips, your hips directly above your heels. This will improve your upper body posture. Remember that if the weight of your body is not centered left to right and front to back on the balance point, balance becomes more difficult. Don’t confuse this concept with “center of gravity”, which is an imaginary point somewhere just above the hips where half your weight is above and half your weight is below vertically, and is “raised or lowered” by the amount the knees and waist are bent. This concept of “center of gravity” is mostly useless for body motion and improving the balance reflex.
Exercise 3: One leg squats
- Raise one knee up to hip level in front of your body, thigh parallel to the ground.
- Pull your shoulders back, and arch your back.
- Bend the planted leg at the knee, lowering the body over the planted heel. (keep shoulders and hips vertically in line). Bend the knee to a 45 degree position in a 2 second movement
- Hold for 1 second
- Raise body to a straight leg position
- Place foot down
Repeat for 10 reps on each leg.
- As you get more comfortable with this exercise, begin working the knee bend deeper and deeper until you can reach 90 degrees.
- Once comfortable bending to 90 degrees, work on slowing the rate of travel into and out of the squat until you can perform 10 reps with 5 second travel.
- Once comfortable with 5 second travel, work on extending the hold duration until you can hold for 5 seconds.
- Once comfortable, work on same exercise with leg straight leg in front at waist level (extended front kick)
Exercise 4 (advanced): Side kicks
- Place your left hand against the wall
- Point your left toes to the same wall your hand is using
- Align your shoulders and hips to the same direction that your heel is pointing towards (opposite wall)
- Pull your shoulders back, arch the back
- pull your knee to your chest (Side kick chamber)
- While holding your shoulders in line (do not turn them!) – push the heel of the foot out into a side kick slowly (3 seconds)
- Hold for 3 seconds at a fully extended position.
- Retract the kick to the chamber position slowly.
- Set the leg down to the floor.
Repeat for 10 reps each leg Notes:
- As you get more comfortable with this exercise, begin skipping putting the leg down between reps, with the goal of repeating all 10 without setting down.
- Once comfortable with no step down, begin raising the kick height, with the goal to kick at chest or even head level (this may take a very very long time)
- Also work on extending the duration of travel to 5 seconds
- Once comfortable, work on extending the hold position to 5 seconds
- For a greater challenge, repeat exercise with round kicks after doing the side kicks!
Ideally, these should be performed 3-4 days per week. In the beginning, 3 days per week, then as the body acclimates to them and the muscle soreness goes away (usually about 2 weeks), increase to 4 days/week.
In addition to these top-down exercises, I recommend core strength training, such as situps, crunches, v-ups, flutter kicks, reverse flutter kicks, bicycle kicks (or if you are daring, go to an advanced Pilates class!). The stronger your core, the better your posture, and the better you are able to hold your upper body above your planted foot when kicking.
When kicking, remember to keep your heel on the floor – the more surface area left on the floor, the better your balance will be. If you doubt this, try this exercise:
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart
- Pick up one leg with knee bent to 90 degrees, thigh parallel to the floor (front kick chamber) – no hand on wall for balance assistance
- Start with the whole foot planted solidly on the floor
- Slowly rise up onto the ball of the foot and hold
Notice how much less stable it feels on the ball of the foot – if you can balance there at all?
The reason is physics – the ball of the foot has to maintain all the pressure of the weight of the entire body across a smaller surface area and fewer muscles are able to be engaged. In addition, the weight of the upper body must be much more precisely held in position above the center line to account for the reduced surface area contacting the ground.
Certified Instructor, 3rd Dan Black Belt