In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how stability and posture relate to balance. Specifically, we learned that if either one of these factors are not functioning optimally, not only is there a chance one’s balance will suffer, but structural degeneration and/or injury will be a likely result if not corrected.
Part 2 of this article series will review the basic reflexes we use during balance activities and how you can apply this information to your clients.
Matching Environmental Demands with Balance Training Demands
As upright human beings, we move across the earth in a field of gravity. On any given day, we face a number of balance challenges, though depending on what we do for a living, the amount of balance we require varies greatly. For example, individuals that drive cars, work in office buildings or sit around the house all day will have far different balance requirements than people who climb mountains, work at construction sites, ride subway trains, or drive motorcycles. Each activity we perform requires activation of specialized reflexes intended to protect us from falling and hurting ourselves. These reflexes are, in part, responsible for the action of putting our hands out to catch ourselves after a bus begins to drive before we have had a chance to get seated. These reflex reactions can be broken into two main groups:
- Righting reactions.These are used primarily when we are on a fixed or stable surface. For example, if you are walking along a sidewalk and you are forcefully pushed by someone behind you, you will primarily use your righting reactions to stabilize yourself and prevent yourself from falling.
- Equilibrium reactions. These are used primarily when the surface beneath us moves. For example, if you were taking a step off a curb and accidentally stepped onto a skateboard, in order to catch yourself from falling while the skateboard shot out from under you, you’d be primarily using your equilibrium reflexes.
These responses are quite important to our development and survival, which is why the majority of our righting and tilting responses should be built into the nervous system before the age of three.
Righting reactions can be broken into five different reflexes that serve the following functions:
- Keep the head in a normal position
- Right the body to a normal position
- Adjust the body parts in relation to the head and vice versa
These reactions are called:
- Labyrinthine righting reflexes acting on the head. Stimulation of the proprioceptors of the labyrinth causes changes in tone of the neck muscles, which bring the head into its natural position in space.
- Body-righting reflexes acting on the head. Reflexive effects of the neck muscles, which bring the head into the correct position in space caused by stimulation of pressoreceptors in the body wall by contact with the ground.
- Neck-righting reflexes. Changes in position of the head cause alterations in tone of the neck muscles through stimulation of proprioceptors in the labyrinth, which bring the head into its correct position in space. Stimulation of proprioceptors in the neck muscles in turn causes reflex movements of the limbs, which bring the person into the normal position in relation to the head.
- Body-righting reflexes acting on the body.
- Optical righting reflexes.
Examples of activities requiring righting reactions are numerous. They are used any time we are on a stable surface. Included in this list but not quite as obvious an example is walking on a balance beam.
In addition to righting reactions, we also have equilibrium reactions. These reactions are developed in us as children for the purpose of maintaining or regaining control over the body’s center of gravity, thus preventing us from falling. According to Barnes, there are several categories of equilibrium reactions:
- Protective reaction of the arms and legs
- Tilting reactions
- Postural fixating reactions
As stated earlier, equilibrium reactions are more dominant when the supportive surface moves underneath us. Examples include wind surfing, working on a fishing boat in the open sea, riding a horse, driving a motorcycle, riding on a subway train or riding a skateboard (below). These activities use righting and equilibrium reactions together but may require a dominance of equilibrium reactions at any given moment.
To illustrate how this works, lets use the example of someone riding a subway train. When the train begins to move, if someone is not holding onto the pole and has slow equilibrium reflexes, there is a strong likelihood she will fall (cartoon below). The same could be said of any activity that requires a reflex response to maintain an upright posture or to protect the body. Vladimir Janda stated that if we could speed the reflex response time of our bodies by 50 percent, we would reduce the chances of acquiring an orthopedic injury by about 80 percent.
What is important about Dr. Janda’s statement in today’s training environment is that due to poor diet, lack of exercise and a number of other physiological stressors, many clients’ reflex responses are likely to be quite weak.The result of this is an increased chance of orthopedic injury, particularly during balance training exercises that may be too advanced!
How This Applies to a Fitness Professional
When selecting exercises for your client, it is important to consider the dominant reflex profile in the activity for which they are conditioning. In sports such as equestrian activities, surfing or motorcycle racing, it is important to determine which aspect of the task is most challenging to your client, and therefore needs the most attention.
- Example problem 1: A motocross racer has a difficult time sliding through corners, but can handle straightaway riding and jumping.
- Solution: They are likely to benefit from exercises that emphasize the tilting aspect of an equilibrium response. In this instance, kneeling on a Swiss Ball and catching medicine balls tossed from the side (below) would aid in improving the rider’s ability to respond more quickly to the motorcycle when sliding through corners.
- Example problem 2: Another motocross racer is competent in the corners but has a difficult time controlling the bike through rough sections of the course due to a lack of strength or strength/endurance (below).
- Solution: A circuit emphasizing righting responses and consisting of a series of exercises organized in a sequence of descending neurological demand would be useful in this scenario. For example kneeling on the Swiss Ball (below), followed by single-leg stance exercises and finishing with two-legged stance exercises would prove to be beneficial to this athlete.
The next progression would be a single-arm-opposite-leg cable push, followed by single arm abductions with a dumbbell (standing on the same leg), alternating between left and right sides for equal repetitions and finally finishing with a bout of body-blade work. The intensive interval method (~30 seconds per exercise) would be optimal. After one minute of rest, the circuit would be repeated up to five to 10 times, depending on the condition of the motocross racer. The key factor in selecting work volume is to make sure that bad motor skills are not being developed or reinforced by fatigue, as this may have a negative effect on racing performance.
Using a protocol such as the one described above will also serve to enhance postural fixating reactions regardless if the intention is to focus on improving righting or equilibrium reactions. This is important for the maintenance and development of any client reflex profile, as well as sound motor engram development.
I hope this installment of Scientific Balance Training has demonstrated the importance of identifying the type of reflex demands being placed on a client before you prescribe a balance exercise for them. Take a moment to think of any field or court sport (i.e., rugby, soccer, American football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, tennis). Are the athletes playing these sports on a fixed surface or a moving surface? Unless they accidentally step on the ball they are playing with or on another player, the surface they are playing on is relatively fixed – the athletes are moving across the surface. Therefore, using the information provided in this article, would they benefit more from a righting-based or equilibrium-based balance training program? Hopefully by now, the answer should be pretty clear.
More than anything, I’m trying to show you that simply putting someone on the latest piece of balance training equipment will not necessarily improve an athlete’s performance or prevent a client’s injury. As with any exercise program, it must be done scientifically, systematically and by using your brain! Remember, anyone can throw exercises at people and anyone can follow someone else’s recipe, but you are a professional. With the information provided here, you are now equipped to give your clients the right type of balance exercises based on the dominant reflex profile in their sport, work or everyday environment.
Part 3 of this article series will show you how the many control systems of the body relate to balance. For example, you’ll learn how the eyes, ears and the masticatory system all effect balance, as well as how levels of hydration and the presence of food allergies can also effect balance.