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Balance is one of those skills you don’t really appreciate until you lose it. The good news is that it can be improved with training, just like any other area of fitness. Try these four unilateral exercises to boost your balance game and take your performance to a whole new level.
Level 1: Single-Legged Medicine-Ball Lift and Chop
Keeping your balancing leg straight as you move your other limbs around in space teaches your central nervous system to make small, reactive “corrections” in your ankle, knee and hip to stand firm.
Stand with your right leg straight, knee soft. Bend your left knee and hold your foot close to your right ankle without letting it touch the floor. Hold a light/medium medicine ball with both hands at your left hip. Lift the ball diagonally up and across your body in an arc until it is above and just outside your right shoulder. Return slowly to the start.
- All the movement should occur with your arms, and you should not be twisting through your torso or hiking up your hip, which detracts from the work done in your lower body.
- If your ankle is burning after a few reps, it’s working too hard. Engage your glutes on the standing leg and brace your core to help stabilize your trunk and to reduce swaying and subsequently the wiggling at your ankle.
Level 2: Single-Legged Squat
This move requires you to control flexion and extension at your hip, knee and ankle while simultaneously performing all those tiny muscular corrections learned in Level 1.
Stand on one leg with your knee soft and bend your other knee, holding your foot close to your standing ankle without touching the floor. Place your hands on your hips, fix your gaze on the floor about 4 feet in front of you, then push your glutes back and bend your knee to slowly lower into a squat. Drop as low as you can while maintaining control, then return to standing.
- If you begin to lose your balance, lightly touch your other toe to the floor to regain stability, then continue. However, if you’re really sloppy, put your foot down completely, stand up and start over to prevent ingraining poor movement patterns.
- Extending your arms to the sides assists with balance, so place your hands on your hips to eliminate this “crutch” and make your lower half do all the work.
Level 3: Single-Legged Romanian Deadlift and Single-Arm Row
This move combines the upper- and lower-body movement patterns practiced in Level 1 and Level 2 and adds some resistance to amp the challenge and energy cost.
Hold a dumbbell at your side in your right hand and stand on your left leg, knee soft. Extend your right leg behind you, foot flexed and hovering just above the floor. Hinge at your hips to fold forward, spine neutral, simultaneously lowering the dumbbell as you lift your right leg behind you. When your torso and leg come parallel to the floor, hold steady as you drive your elbow up and back to row the dumbbell. Lower the weight and then slowly stand back up.
- If your hips open to the side rather than staying square, you will lose balance. Prevent this by driving your non-balancing hipbone toward your opposite foot to stay level and focus on engaging your hamstrings and gluteal muscles on the standing leg.
- Tipping over is a common issue with this move, especially with the addition of the row. Solidify your stance by pressing your elevated heel toward the wall behind you to engage your glutes and solidify your lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.
Level 4: Single-Legged Squat Jump
Being able to absorb an impact upon landing is probably the most applicable exercise for sports situations, but because your goal is balance, it doesn’t matter how high you jump. Instead, focus on sticking the landing and holding it for up to five seconds.
Stand on one leg with your knee soft and place your hands on your hips. Bend your other knee and hold that foot close to your standing ankle without touching the floor. Quickly bend your knee and hip to dip down, then explosively extend your leg to jump off the floor. Land softly and immediately absorb the impact by bending your knee and hip into a quarter-squat. Hold in the bottom for three to five seconds, then stand all the way up and repeat.
- Don’t allow your knee to collapse inward on the landing, which can stress your ligaments, ingrain poor mechanics and potentially cause an injury. Make your jump smaller and focus on engaging your glutes and core as you land to maintain optimal knee and foot alignment where your kneecap lines up with your second or third toe.
- If you’re landing with a thud, you’re absorbing the impact with your joints and not your muscles. Decrease skeletal stress by landing on the ball of your foot and rolling through your foot to your heel.