It’s funny how popular “functional training” is these days despite the lack of evidence. One element of the functional training fad that I want to discuss today is training for “balance”. The idea is that we have “stabilizer” muscles to support the bigger muscles in our body. Train these muscles and we’ll be better equipped for balance.
For example, if we can shoulder press with a barbell, we should have better balance lifting something over our head than someone who shoulder pressed on a fixed plain machine, right? It seems like a good guess. A lot of people like to believe stuff like this because they can easily make sense of it. Training for balance seems like common sense, based on this paradigm. Unfortunately, it’s bullshi’t.
- Balance is a neurological skill, not a physical feat
- Learning how to balance a heavy weight is no different than learning how to balance on a skateboard
- Skill is very specific to the activity and can’t be transfered
- Strength training only builds strength and endurance, not balance
- Strength training can help give you the power to LEARN balance, but won’t teach you to balance
Exercise & Balance
There’s no denying that training with free weights allows us to balance better, but the balance we acquire is extremely specific to the exercise. There is no such thing as training for general balance. Doing a dumbbell press for the first time will make you look like you’re having a seizure. After about a month or so, you’ll find that the shaking has pretty much disappeared and you can lift more weight. So most people make an observational conclusion that they developed their “stabilizer” muscles for that are used for “balancing” by doing an exercise that requires a lot of balance. The reality is that your ability to balance was learned separately from your strength development. Of course lifting weights will get your stronger, but once we are able to balance, we can lift more efficiently. Balance is a motor skill, meaning it’s developed in the brain, not a muscle.
Balance is extremely specific to the activity we do. For example, when we’re skateboarding, our body will learn how to balance on a skateboard after enough practice. Try surfing after. It’s not going to make your learning efforts for surfing any better. Learning to spin a basketball on your finger isn’t the same as spinning a plate on your finger. Even walking a tight rope is different than walking a steel pole.
Why Not Mix Exercise & Balance
Those who strength train do have better balance than those who don’t, but that has nothing to do with strengthening of specific, “stabilizer” muscles (which don’t exist). Ever wonder why old people lose balance easily? As we age, we gradually lose muscle, which means we lose our strength. Old people lose their balance because they’re not strong enough. Strength does help with balance, but balancing while training for strength is inefficient for building muscle and power.
Imagine yourself sprinting and juggling at the same time. Can you beat someone in a race doing so? It’s hard because you have to focus on not dropping the ball as well. Same with exercise and balance. Squatting on a balance ball is worthless and dangerous. Not only are you extremely prone to getting injured, but you’re half assing your strength training. It’s common practice to stop doing an exercise when your form gets sloppy in order to avoid injury. Form gets sloppy when you’re tired, but the best gains come from those last few reps. So what’s the solution here?
Machines are designed to isolate strength, rather than having to work on both skill and strength. This way you can go to failure without having to worry about tearing a muscle or being crushed by weights.
Sports & Balance
Balance is a big deal when it comes to sports . Everyone in sports wants to improve their performance. Athletes usually want to increase their speed and balance, but don’t go about the best ways of doing it. According to research, sports should be practiced exactly like the are played. No weighted vests, leg weights, sauna suits, etc.
I’ll leave you guy’s off with an excerpt from Richard Schmidt, Ph.D:
Motor Learning and Performance: From Principles to Practice
By Dr. Richard A. Schmidt
“A common misconception is that fundamental abilities (running, gymnastics, etc.) can be trained through various drills or other activities. The thinking is that, with some stronger ability, the athlete will see gains in performance for tasks with this underlying ability.
For example, athletes are often given various “quickening” exercises, with the hope that these exercises would train some fundamental ability to be quick, allowing quicker response in their particular sports.
Coaches (as well as physical therapists) often use various balancing drills to increase general balancing ability, eye movement exercises to improve vision, and many others. Such attempts to train fundamental abilities may sound fine, but usually they simply do not work. Time, and often money, would be better spent practicing the eventual goal skills.
There are two correct ways to think of these principles. First, there is no general ability to be quick, to balance, or to use vision. Rather, quickness, balance, and vision are each based on many diverse abilities, so there is no single quickness or balance ability, for example, that can be trained.
Second, even if there were such general abilities, these are, by definition, genetic and not subject to modification through practice. Therefore, attempts to modify an ability with a nonspecific drill are ineffective. A learner may acquire additional skill at the drill which is, after all, a skill itself, but this learning does not transfer to the main skill of interest.”