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Seven Strategies for Building Balance and Coordination

By Devin Wicks

As gay men—heck, as men—we tend to focus our workout efforts on building bigger, stronger muscles and burning unwanted fat from our waistlines. But to be truly fit, you need to look past what looks good in the mirror and draws admiring eyes. That includes balance and coordination training, which are crucial to your overall fitness but are too often ignored. Whether you want to live a longer, healthier life, or just want to keep drawing those looks into your later age, you need a strategy to train your balance and coordination.

Getting Started: Defining Balance and Coordination
Balance is your ability to maintain your body's position against the pressure of movement. It requires a number of skills operating together—your sense of equilibrium has to tailor with your proprioception, or awareness of the relative positions of the parts of your body. And both need to be managed by your muscular and nervous systems, which have to quickly fire to maintain your position. Balance is, in fact, an enormously complex interrelation of brain and body.

Coordination is a loose term to describe your ability to put together a variety of physical movements and skills into a single action. It is a mixture of timing, balance, and skill. Coordination is not only your ability to, for example, balance a soccer ball on your toe—it is your ability to do so quickly, with little preparation.

Clearly, to train these skills you will need fast neural firing and good muscle control. And those are things you can improve.

Why Train Balance and Coordination?
No matter what your athletic interest, your balance and coordination training plays a key role in your overall fitness:

  1. For athletes, targeted work on your balance and coordination will enhance your performance and reduce your risk of injury. Basically, you can do more complex movements faster and with less risk.
  2. For bodybuilders and other guys seriously into strength training, this kind of work will help you get off the dreaded plateau. No, you won't directly make yourself bigger from this kind of training—but with better balance and coordination you'll be able to progress to more complicated and challenging exercises. Sometimes brute strength isn't enough to get you over the hurdle—you need to be able to manage complex movements.
  3. As we age, our risk of falling rises—as does the chance that those falls will prove debilitating. You want to be able to catch yourself before you fall, but you also want to be able to manage your fear of falling, which can in itself begin to restrict your range of motion. You need to be able to move confidently through the world, rather than tentatively—and for that you need to be able to trust in your own powers of balance and coordination.
Seven Strategies for Better Balance and Coordination
When you train balance and coordination, you are essentially training your nervous system to better control your body. Ready to get started? Follow these seven strategies to build better balance and coordination:
  1. Condition with cardio: Cardio is important for more than just the heart. One of the best ways to avoid injury is to avoid the situations that put you at risk in the first place. One such situation is intense fatigue, when you start to get sloppy, and your fine muscle control gives way as you struggle just to maintain large body movements. To avoid ending up there, you need endurance—the ability to do more before becoming fatigued, and practice at pushing through fatigue while maintaining physical function. So, in addition to your strength work, make sure you train your cardio.
  2. Do balance work on a BOSU: To train for the kinds of destabilizing events you encounter in sports—and life—you need to place your body in unstable environments and train the neural pathways required to maintain you there. But you want to do this safely. Enter the BOSU (you can also use a balance pad if your gym has these instead). Balance work on a BOSU—with exercises like alternate scissor switches onto BOSU or dumbbell squats on BOSU—places your body, safely, in an unstable environment and allows you to challenge your nervous system to cope. If you don't have access to a BOSU, do exercises on a stability ball instead.
  3. Take yoga: Yoga class is really a must. Your flexibility is a safety mechanism: When you go to catch yourself as you fall, or over-rotate, or hyper-extend, your yoga training will give you a greater range of motion for that corrective motion. Basically, you can save yourself in more extreme circumstances, allowing you to go for more in your athletic life. Plus, yoga has the added advantage (given the right postures) of challenging your nervous system to function in unique environments (such as upside down, horizontally, face-down, and so on).
  4. Practice shifting your weight: This sounds simple but isn't. You probably feel like you stand evenly balanced in your two legs. And you're almost certainly wrong. Most of us lean more heavily to one side, and move through the world with one side dominant. Try to learn to feel this, and correct for it. Here's how: Using two well calibrated, similar scales, stand with one foot on each and try to get the two scales to register exactly the same number. Once you get them even (which will be surprisingly difficult), try to do it without looking. Keep practicing this until you learn to recognize in your body the feeling of standing evenly.
  5. Step over objects: Practice stepping over high objects (both walking forward and backward). You can use boxes, Reebok steps, flat benches—whatever you can find. If you want to progress, you can increase speed. See if you can do this without looking down, so that you know proprioceptically where your body is relative to the object. This will help you develop a feel for where you are in space, and will also challenge your body to quickly catch and stop your motion, and to stabilize you as you change direction. All of these are fundamental components of sport and life.
  6. Stretch daily: In addition to yoga class, you need a daily stretching routine. Tight muscles get injured when they try to react quickly to extreme circumstances. Make stretching your muscles as important to you as contracting them in strength training programs.
  7. Train overall functional strength: The gym is an artificial environment where we tend to train movement patterns not found in nature. When training in the gym, consider exercises that mimic your natural movement patterns. That means, for example, squats, walking lunges, and standing cable chest flys—exercises that use muscles the way you need to use them in life. Note that the goal is to train movement patterns that simultaneously utilize multiple joints and muscles. That way, you develop strength while training common, and therefore usable, neural pathways.
About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is the Director of Fitness Operations for UC Berkeley where he develops health and fitness programs for the campus community. He also works as a conditioning specialist for Cal Athletics where he has developed targeted training programs for several Olympic Gold Medal athletes. Devin has presented and toured nationally, providing cutting-edge education for fitness industry professionals and enthusiasts alike. In addition to contributing regularly to RealJock, Wicks developed the comprehensive RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program for beginners and those returning to the gym after a long hiatus.