Training for Balance
By: Barbell Logic Team
When we are very young, balance is the key to mobility and growing independence, and when we are very old, the loss of balance is a key limiting factor on continuing to live independently. A lot happens for you to simply not fall down. There’s input, processing, and output, with the ultimate goal being one of basic physics determined by gravity. With so much going on, it is difficult to quantify balance in human beings, particularly if we want to know who has it and who doesn’t. But, there are some things we know about balance that can help us maintain and improve it through barbell training.
Balance, Fitness, and Training
For barbell training, we are primarily focused on increasing our strength. The process that increases our muscles’ ability to produce force brings with it so many salutary responses that it is hard to argue with the overall benefits to our basic existence that comes from strength training. That existence can be carried out in so many different possible states, from sickness to health, sloth to adventure, weakness to strength. And, while some of these states are incidents of our birth or environment, modern societies will accommodate just about any state of being that you people live and occupy space. As a result, we’ve developed a modern term for the ability to do the things you need or want to do. Instead of survival, it’s not called fitness.
Fitness at its core is the measure of your physical ability to complete all the tasks you have to do today, whether related to your provision, protection, or entertainment, as well as anything you may encounter. Given the infinite ways that your day might go today, fitness is not easily quantifiable.
Instead, we tend to focus on certain physical aspects that, if improved (or lost), impact our fitness. The ten most common aspects of fitness are:
- Cardiovascular/Respiratory Endurance,
- Accuracy, and
Some of these are task-dependant for their usefulness: Few people are inflexible enough for basic existence, for example. Other aspects are more obviously focused on sports performance like stamina, speed, power, and agility. Strength and cardiovascular endurance underlie most of these other aspects of fitness, providing the ability to move and fuel movement. But other than those two, we only observe the vast impact of balance (and coordination to an extent) on independence and the ability to interact with our environment in a meaningful way at each of the extremes of human development and decline.
Stated another way, when we are very young, balance is the key to mobility and growing independence, and when we are very old, the loss of balance is a key limiting factor on continuing to live independently. So, let’s take a look at what balance is and how it ties in with our efforts under the barbell.
What is Balance?
There are a few different ways to think about balance. Balance is a state in which the center of mass of an object is located vertically over its base of support. Every object that exists within the gravitational framework of the earth has a center of mass—it is the mathematical average of gravity acting on your body—and because gravity pulls straight down, we are concerned with maintaining that average vertically over your base of support, an area created by your feet. Front to back, your base of support is represented by your toes to your heels, and from side to side by the width of your feet.
Center of mass and base of support isn’t the whole story, however. Your ability to maintain balance is a combination of sensory input, how you process that input (your sensory perception), and muscular output. There is a lot that goes into keeping your balance.
The sensory input part of balance is concerned mostly with your visual, somatosensory, and vestibular systems. These systems work together. Your brain receives and processes visual input, input from your sense of touch and your sense of position and movement, and movement of your equilibrium determined by the structures of your inner ear. This is a lot of information for the brain to process, so it has dedicated areas for that job.
Your sensory input is transmitted to and sorted out by your brain stem. The brain stem regulates your central nervous system and controls many of the “automatic” muscular responses that help keep you alive like your heartbeat and breathing. It also helps control your balance by combining sensory input with learned information. That’s why riding a bike is just like riding a bike. Once you’ve done it enough, your brain knows how to process the information of your balance and make adjustments.
From there, the brain sends signals to the muscular systems that make adjustments for you to maintain your center of mass over your base of support and maintain balance. This motor output mostly results in subconscious micro-adjustments. Lab studies have observed that the more a person tries to consciously control his or her balance, the more difficult it is to do so.
A lot happens for you to simply not falling down. There’s input, processing, and output, with the ultimate goal being one of basic physics determined by gravity. With so much going on, it is difficult to quantify balance in human beings, particularly if we want to know who has it and who doesn’t.
How is Balance Measured?
There are two main forms of balance assessment: Functional and quantitative. Functional assessments, which test a person’s ability to control their balance in different scenarios or while performing different movements. For example, the Berg Balance Scale, “is a performance based measure of balance consisting of 14 observable tasks. The movements are deemed important by patients with varying abilities to balance and by health professionals.” (Berg, Wood-Dauphinee, Williams, Gayton, “Measuring balance in the elderly: Preliminary development of an instrument” Physiotherapy Canada 41(6):304-311 · November 1989). A few of the tasks that are performed and measured are:
- Sitting unsupported
- Sit to stand
- Standing unsupported
- Standing on one leg
- Retrieving an object from the floor
- Reaching forward while standing
Functional assessments like the Berg Balance Scale provide some predictive power of whether an individual is more prone to falling. And it seems to confirm some known observations. For example, individuals who rely on walkers tend to have poorer scores than those who do not, or that people with vision impairment will are more likely to have balance problems. In this way, the functional assessment is useful as a numerical descriptive tool, but it does not describe or interpret the mechanism of the person’s balance.
In laboratory settings, balance can be more completely described by observing the multiple mechanisms that affect balance. Ascribing values to these mechanisms make up the quantitative assessments of balance in laboratory settings. Using force plates and EMG receptors, researchers can observe the actual process of maintaining balance. They observe the center of mass over the base of support in the “center of pressure” or where the person’s foot they are supporting their weight.
This concept of the center of pressure should be familiar to anyone who has used barbells for strength training, we are constantly trying to keep our “weight over the midfoot.” In doing so, we are trying to maintain our center of pressure on the most stable part of our base of support.
Center of pressure tests give a quantitative assessment of postural sway for an individual. You can think of postural sway as similar to what happens when you try to carry a large, shallow tub of water. The water sloshes to one side, you over correct and it goes the other way, so you correct again. It gets worse until eventually the water spills. Similarly, for older adults, postural sway is the amount of constant correction of their balance, those with greater observed sway tend to experience more frequent spills of their own.
In addition to postural sway, studies may concurrently observe muscle activity. In general, older adults have greater muscle activity related to postural sway than younger people. It is, however, unclear whether greater muscle activity is caused by or a contributing factor to postural sway. There is no correlation between elevated muscle activity as you age and the observed risk of falling. (See, e.g. Carrie A. Laughton, Mary Slavin, Kunal Katdare, Lee Nolan, Jonathan F. Bean, D.Casey Kerrigan, Edward Phillips, Lewis A. Lipsitz, James J. Collins, “Aging, muscle activity, and balance control: physiologic changes associated with balance impairment” (2003), Gait and Posture 18, pp 101-108.)
The attempts to measure and predict falls are not terribly insightful. From the functional assessment, those with greater risk factors or observed balance problems are more likely to fall. From the quantitative assessments, we get more data and a few questions. Likely if you have greater postural sway, then you are more likely to lose balance. And, we know that motor output plays a role but increased muscle activity doesn’t seem to cause actual losses in balance, rather it seems to be more of a natural consequence of aging.
These assessments don’t help us determine the most common balance issues. They cannot pinpoint the source of potential problems, whether they lie in the individual’s sensory input, some impairment in their perception and processing of that input, or something muscular, having to do with their motor output. But, there are some things we know about balance that can help us maintain and improve it.
Training For Balance
Balance is a trainable skill; just ask any gymnast. More than that, part of the process of keeping your balance comes from the combination of sensory input with your learned experience. As with any skill, balance improves with practice.
This is encouraging for anyone engaged in barbell training. Part of the benefit of barbell training is the need to control and maintain balance:
“[B]asic barbell exercises that use lots of muscle mass over a long range of motion while standing on the ground in a balanced position, thereby allowing the use of heavy weights that develop the ability to generate high amounts of force while balancing the load and controlling the position of both the load and the body in space.” (Practical Programming)
Controlling the bar and the position of your body in space while squatting, pressing, and deadlifting requires coordination and the maintenance of your center of mass over your base of support. If you were standing on a force plate in a lab, this would mean you had to control your center of pressure. Through barbell training, you also gradually challenge this skill by loading the barbell incrementally and continuing to execute each lift with perfect form.
Some of our favorite coaching cues will also bring your attention to your balance for the correct execution of the lift. In particular, the Master Cue brings together sensory input, learned processing power, and your conscious motor output, requiring that you try to maintain your balance. In this way, barbell training is balance training.
More than that, however, while you are training your balance you are building muscle and making the muscles that control your balance stronger. Skeletal muscle mass is associated with balance as you age. The more you have, the better. (See, e.g., Pawel Szulc, Tom J Beck, François Marchand, Pierre D Delmas, “Low Skeletal Muscle Mass Is Associated With Poor Structural Parameters of Bone and Impaired Balance in Elderly Men—The MINOS Study” (2009) JMBR vol. 20, no. 5 (citing Baumgartner RN, Koehler KM, Gallagher D, Romero L, Heymsfield SB, Ross RR, Garry PJ, Lindeman RD 1998 Epidemiology of sarcopenia among the elderly in New Mexico. Am J Epidemiol 147: 755–763, Melton LJ, Khosla S, Crowson CS, O’Connor MK, O’Fallon WM, Riggs BL 2000 Epidemiology of sarcopenia. J Am Geriatr Soc 48: 625–630.)
Balance is a complex interaction between your senses, your brain, and your muscles. It is, at its core a matter of maintaining your physical equilibrium as you move and interact with your surroundings. It is trainable as a skill, and balance benefits from improved muscular strength. While we cannot say definitively that barbell training will improve your balance—there are too many possible factors that affect balance—we can make a strong argument that the most commonly affected areas of balance are positively impacted by strength training in general and barbell training in particular.