Having recently immersed myself in the methods of high intensity training, a very common trend which has made itself apparent over the last short while is the mammoth disconnect which exists between what the public generally believes about exercise, and what is actually testable, verifiable, and true.
Unsurprisingly, this disconnect extends beyond what the public generally considers to be a ‘normal’ exercise routine, and actually flirts with what many consider to be the outer edges of fitness. If we think about exercise in terms of concentric circles, what most people will generally place in the middle – as being the most important – is aerobics, followed by free-weights in the next circle moving outward, with stretching & balance making up the third & fourth circles respectively.
Never mind for a brief moment that even a basic understanding of muscle physiology informs us that all four of these exercise elements are actually the same thing – or at least are optimized in the same way if overall health is your goal – but let’s hone in on balance & stability as separate exercise goals, and see if we can fill the missing links & improve our practical understanding of a very essential topic.
People generally believe that together, balance & stability form some kind of nebulous skill that they can simply grab from the exercise Ether. “If I just stand on my toes long enough and reach to the left with my head flung back, eventually I’ll have great balance!”
To be fair, there is almost always an element of ‘finding your center of gravity’ with any given activity, and anybody who has ever experienced any kind of Vestibular pathology will know that functional stability can be the last thing on your mind when you’re trying to avoid your head bouncing off the floor.
According to the Vestibular Disorders Association:
The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that process the sensory information involved with controlling balance and eye movements. If disease or injury damages these processing areas, vestibular disorders can result. Vestibular disorders can also result from or be worsened by genetic or environmental conditions, or occur for unknown reasons.
But balancing on your toes for an extended period of time accomplishes very little in the way of actually improving functional stability – assuming of course you’re not training to be a professional Ballerina.
For the purpose of this article however, I won’t focus on the Vestibular apparatus & its relation to balance, because I don’t see it as something that goes unnoticed, & nor is widely misunderstood by the general public. Instead, I’ll proceed assuming all things being equal, and that Vestibular pathologies are medically dealt with as they arise.
What most average, healthy people actually seek when they attempt to improve their balance, is the ability to confidently & non-strenuously remain erect, ambulatory, reflexive, & freely active well into old age.
So, if this functional stability doesn’t come from standing for two hours on the tips of ones toes, or practicing a one handed tree pose on the slope of a mountain side, where does it come from?
The answer: STRENGTH TRAINING
Our muscles are simultaneously the most important, & very often the most neglected parts of our bodies, and our equilibrium can suffer greatly as a result. With some context, it seems kind of obvious given a moment’s thought. If your Gluteus Medius muscle is overused, weak, and constantly tired, it won’t be able to stabilize your pelvis while you walk, leaving you with a type of Trendelenburg Gait, where your hip is dropping towards the ground while you swing your leg forward. This inevitably & obviously results in further muscle imbalances – to compensate for the inefficiency of movement – and a further loss of functional stability over time.
This same principle applies to all muscles, all the time. It applies to larger muscles that move joints, and it applies to small muscles that stabilize joints & posture. Weakness begets instability begets weakness, and so on.
What we seek as a matter of achieving greater balance through strength training is something called PROPRIOCEPTION. Your muscles are covered with little sensors which constantly – assuming an optimal amount of resting tone & muscular integrity – provide information about changes in the length and tension of the muscle, as well as the angle of the joint. These sensors, when fully operational, enable you to react to a quick change in your environment. Miss a step going down the stairs — your arm extends to quickly grab the railing. Stub your foot on an uneven sidewalk and begin to fall forward — your hip flexes to lift your leg a fraction of an inch higher so you can catch yourself. Open a cupboard and glassware begins to fall — your hips extent a few inches to move your feet away from the falling object while your shoulder & elbow simultaneously flex to catch it. These are the normal reflexes that occur in healthy, well developed muscle. It’s all automatic. No thinking or calculating required.
Briefly, getting back to the sensors, you can think about your muscular sensors as if they were the cameras on an expensive car. They’re constantly scanning the environment searching for pertinent information relating to what you’re trying to achieve, and relaying that information back to you in real-time. If while in your car, you back into your garage and approach the wall too quickly, the buzzer sounds to inform you, which prevents a costly trip to the mechanic.
The same can be said for the sensors in your muscles. Move too quickly or with too little control, & you will usually experience this as reduced performance in whatever your chosen task may be. It’s kind of like trying to hit a bulls-eye while bouncing on a trampoline. It’s also possible to experience this lack of control as pain in the form of an injury which has resulted from forces that your muscles & joints simply couldn’t handle due to weakness.
And this is where the rubber meets the road. Weak & atrophied muscles cannot exert any meaningful control over movement, even during light activities, let alone more strenuous ones. Your larger muscles fundamentally lose the movement producing ability they once held, & perhaps more importantly, the smaller, deeper muscles lose the ability to stabilize your joints, resulting in a steady loss of balance over time. When you consistently fail to activate your motor neurons with proper muscular contractions – High Intensity Training; (H.I.T.) – then over time, the sensors in your muscles lose their sensitivity, kind of like if the cameras in your car were to short-circuit & lose their ability to sense a rapidly approaching brick wall.
It’s unfortunate however, that unlike a car, the dinged metal of the human body cannot simply be untwisted by a competent mechanic, rather, when the body’s cameras cannot accurately & reliably sense their surroundings, permanent dysfunction very often results, because as we know, wear & tear is cumulative.
A sizable percentage of the health outcomes in society are driven by genetic susceptibility, in combination with environmental factors – largely affected by lifestyle choices. If you’re looking for the number one activity you can pursue in order to mitigate a heck of a lot of the risk associated with reduced balance and stability, then effectively training your muscular system to it’s full potential is undoubtedly the way to go, and H.I.T. is simply the safest, fastest way to get there.
Best of Luck!