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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Balance and Stability

Balance and stability are two of the attributes that determine your overall level of fitness, but they are rarely given the attention they deserve in a typical training program. One reason is because most people do not appreciate their importance, at least not until they get older and their health and fitness naturally starts to decline. Another problem is the concepts and functions of balance and stability are often misunderstood and training to improve those attributes is rarely explained or even discussed by most media sources. As a result, balance and stability often go unaddressed, which can cause problems later in life.

One of the main misconceptions people have about balance and stability is that they are the same thing. While they are related and do share some of the same qualities, they are functionally different and the terms should not be used interchangeably. They are actually different enough that it is possible for a person to have good balance and poor stability and vice versa. The common link between balance and stability is they are both related to your body's awareness of how your muscles and joints are moving and where they are positioned at any given time, which is called proprioception.

Proprioception is not really something you consciously control or even have to think about, because your body is constantly relaying spatial awareness information to you brain. This allows your body to make minor modifications to your movements in order to improve functions like balance and stability. In general, the better your proprioception, the better you will perform at tasks related to balance or stabilization. That said, proprioception is certainly not the only factor that affects balance or stabilization and they are affected by different things and need to be trained in specific ways.

Balance is a measure of how well you control your body or keep yourself still in various circumstances. Tasks such as standing on one leg or kneeling on an exercise ball require balance and performing those types of tasks is a primary way to improve your balance. However, it is important to note that improving your balance at one task does not necessarily translate to significant improvements in stability or even in other balance related tasks.

When performing balance exercises, your balance mainly improves only in the specific activity you perform, so it is important to practice balance activities that have some relevance to your daily activities or goals. On the other hand, you do get some small improvements to your proprioception, which can lead to improvements in other activities, although these improvements are much smaller than what you would get if you specifically trained the other activity.

From a functional standpoint, balance mainly deals with your ability to control your body's movements in space, while stabilization is more about how your body responds to external forces. For example, if you are outside and a strong gust of wind hits you, your ability to resist the air and hold your ground is a form of stabilization. Athletes in any contact sport are constantly faced with stability challenges from their opponents trying to prevent them from accomplishing their goal. A prime example would be a football player's ability to resist being knocked down during an attempted tackle.

Stabilization is basically an unconscious reaction that involves a few different steps. Your body has to identify the external force, figure out which muscles need to contract to counter the force and by how much, and finally your brain conveys that information to your muscles to create the contractions. If everything goes as planned, your muscles will create the appropriate contractions and you will resist the external force and remain stable. However, there are a number of things than can prevent your from achieving adequate stability.

Since stability is partially dependent on perceptions of what is going on in your environment, anything that prevents you from identifying external forces will interfere with stability. A common example is stepping off a curb and misjudging the distance to the street or stepping into a hole or dip in the sidewalk. In these situations, the external force is caused by the ground and your body expects to make contact with the ground at a specific time. However, if your foot makes contact at a different time and you are caught off guard, it usually results in stumbling or falling down.

In these cases, you body has the physical ability to prevent the instability, but your muscles do not contract at the correct time and stability is lost. Once the stumble begins, your body's reflexes kick in and try to prevent you from falling down, which is also a part of stability. When you train to improve your stabilization, your muscles will react faster and the stabilizing contractions will be more accurate, which means you will be more likely to prevent yourself from falling.

Another aspect of stability, perhaps the most important one, is your body's ability to stabilize your spine and protect it from being injured. The abs, lower back, and other core muscles have to work together in order to protect your spine and low back, such as when lifting a heavy object. Most of the time when people hurt themselves lifting an object, it has less to do with maximal strength or the weight of the object and more to do with a lack of stability or stabilizer muscle endurance. In other words, the body is not able to appropriately stabilize and resist the forces created when lifting the object.

When external forces overwhelm the body's ability to stabilize, then mechanics break down and something fails. When stepping off a curb, poor stabilization may result in a twisted ankle or trauma from a fall and the external forces in this case are relatively small. When the external forces are larger, such as when lifting a heavy object or being run into by an opponent during an athletic competition, there is a greater chance of experiencing a more serious injury.

The important thing to take away from this article is that balance and stability are both important aspects of fitness and training to improve them should be included in every exercise program. Balance becomes critical as people age, because it helps prevent falls and avoid other injuries and stability is important for people of all ages. When unexpected physical challenges occur, it is usually stability that ends up being challenged. The better your body can stabilize, the better you will protect your muscles and joints, and the healthier your body will be throughout your life.

Source: Ross Harrison, CSCS, NSCA-CPT

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