This past weekend, my wife and I had our very first slackline delivered to the house. Obviously, we had to go try it immediately. Neither of us had tried it before…ever, and needless to say, it was very surprising how difficult it was at the beginning. My legs have never shaken so much in my life :-). We started to get the hang of it after about 4 hours over the course of 2 days. By this time I was able to transverse 2 full lengths in one go, and my wife was able to get one full length walk in. The whole process was very fun, and it started to remind me about a couple things I have read about balance or proprioceptive training. Number one, such training often falls in the realm of play, and as we know, play is essential in our lives for a number of reasons. Number two, this type of training may play a beneficial role in improving our mobility. I remember reading about balance training improving our mobility during this Mobility WOD episode
If you don’t know what slacklining is, the above video should have given you a good idea, but for those of you that didn’t click the link, slacklining is basically tightrope walking on a 2 inch nylon band that is strapped between 2 trees or poles. Obviously, given the name, there is a bit of slack in the line allowing for vertical and lateral movement when you are on the line. I got my slackline from amazon.
At first thought, I would have put this type of thing simply in the area of play and a fun thing to do/party trick. Similar to what my recent views of stability balls and bosu balls have been. Basically, my thought was that they could be used for warm ups sometime, but in reality they most likely would not lead to increases in performance or strength. The rationale was as follows: we do not play sports and move throughout life on a ball, so why would it make sense that skills gained on such equipment would transfer to real life when we are pretty much always on solid ground? So, based on this realization, I totally stopped all bosu and stability ball exercises, which I had gotten quite good at (squats on a stability ball was my best). However, once I tried the slackline, it reminded me of the above noted Mobility WOD and I was taken back to thinking about how balance training may actually benefit our everyday performance.
Balance Training and Mobility
So I learnt from the above noted Mobility WOD that balance training can help with mobility by decreasing joint stiffness. Not much other information was given considering it was only a 5 minute video, so I decided to try and find some journal references to it. I was able to locate a couple studies that comment on muscle co-contraction and it’s impact on joint mobility. Muscle co-contraction appears to lead to an increase in muscle viscosity and musculotendon elasticity (1, 2). As you will note in the previous link, this is important for muscle efficiency and joint/muscle flexibility. More efficient and flexible muscles means increased mobility, which is your ability to move safely through full ranges of motion. Another great thing about muscle co-contraction is that it achieves increases in mobility while maintaining joint stability (2). So in the end, co-contraction means that your muscles will be contracting more efficiently, with greater flexibility and joint stability. Sounds awesome to me 🙂
Ok, so now you might ask why I am talking about muscle co-contraction when the title of the post is playing with balance training. Well, as I am sure you can imagine, instability will cause higher levels of muscle co-contraction to allow for load or body stabilization. In fact, the greater the instability of the task the greater the muscle co-contraction that is seen (3). So, go ahead and step on a slack line and see just how unstable that task really is. Obviously, this same principle should apply to any unstable task such as a bosu ball, stability ball, wobble board, slosh pipe, gymnastic rings, etc.
Other Benefits of Balance Training
Now let’s talk a bit about the more well known benefit of Balance training. There is plenty of evidence out there that proprioceptive, or balance training, is great for rehabilitation from injury. Think along the lines of one foot balancing when rehabilitating from an ankle or knee injury. Taken even further this could involve balance disks, bosu balls, or wobble boards. One such study (1) was able to determine that balance training reduces the rehabilitation time required for certain sport injuries. I would assume that the same mechanisms listed in the above section is what may lead to decreased recovery times when such exercises are used.
Interestingly, I also came across this study (2), which indicates that the combination of strength and balance training lead to greater increases in hypertrophy than strength training alone. However, this was only tested in neck muscles (weird), and I am not sure if this is shown in real life application. Still an interesting thought, given what we discovered about balance training and mobility.
How to Use Balance Training
I have now changed my position that balance training is only good for a nice party trick, there are clear benefits of this type of training; however, we must be careful, because the benefits of balance training are quite specific and if we only stick to balance training it is highly unlikely that we will increase our real life performance. This is even more evident when our arena of performance does not involve standing on unstable surfaces. I guess it could be very beneficial for say, a wakeboarder, a waterskier, and oh ya, a slackliner :-). Take golf for instance, where we are generating power against a stable footing surface, so standing on a bosu ball is likely not going to be directly transferable.
That being said, it is clear that combining balance training with a high quality training routine, could be very beneficial. It seems that the most appropriate way to implement balance training would be during warm up and recovery activities. This way we can get our bodies properly prepared for heavier training, and also help us get rid of that between training session stiffness.
The Barefoot Golfer