Balance and Reach
by Janet Hamilton, Team Oregon
The Mother of all exercises
Have you gotten bored with your routine at the gym? Maybe you've always
avoided working out with weights or machines because you find them
intimidating, or don't like the atmosphere at the gym. Maybe you just aren't sure
which are the best exercises to do. If you fall into one of these categories, take
heart, you're not alone. For years, runners have been told to lift weights to make
themselves stronger and more resistant to injury. In a way this was correct, yet
little was known about how to optimize the time invested. Your typical personal
trainer may know much about how to increase your maximum lift strength or how
to help you sculpt your physique, but few of them really understand what you as a
runner may need in terms of strength and balance. Fewer still will understand the
different needs of a 5K runner and a marathoner.
Good news: you don't need a trainer, you don't need a gym, and for the most part
you don't even need weights to get the results you want. All you need is gravity
(always readily available and the price is right) a good flat surface to work from
(any floor will do) and the most important part, your imagination. Interested?
First let me pose a question to get you thinking. Picture yourself doing leg
extensions on a machine at the gym. You know the exercise -- you sit on a special
bench, hook your ankles under a pad and extend your knees to lift the weight
stack. Now, picture yourself throughout the day, doing your daily life -- getting in
and out of the car, lifting kids or groceries, climbing stairs, pulling a lawn mower
handle to start the engine, swinging a golf club, or better yet going for a nice trail
run or mountain bike ride. Now how much does the first activity (leg extensions)
look like anything you do during the day? I don't know about you, but I'm never
required to sit and kick my leg out against resistance. Hmm...does that mean the
exercise is wrong? Not necessarily, but it does mean that it may not be an optimal
one. When you do the things that make up your daily life you're required to do
more than just move a weight against gravity; you're required to balance that
weight and yourself, and move at the same time. You're almost never moving one
muscle group in isolation -- rather your body works as an integrated machine with
many parts contributing to the end movement. It makes good sense to create a
work-out that mimics the moves you make in real life. That is the premise behind
the kind of strength training I'm talking about. Make it FUNCTIONAL, make it
dynamic, make it challenging, but most of all make it FUN.
So how do you start? The first thing you need to know is that you probably won't
use any weight besides your body weight to start with and you'll probably want to
wear your shoes rather than doing these barefoot. There are two basic types of
exercise I'll describe: "lunges" and "balance and reach" exercises. Lunges are
exercises where you take a step with one leg and then return to your starting point.
These are in some ways easier than balance and reach exercises because you are
only on one foot briefly, but they are very effective in developing explosive
strength. Lunges are a great strength builder for everyone from the beginning
runner, to the 5K racer, to a seasoned marathoner, to the biathlete, to the serious
bike racer. Don't fool yourself into believing that you don't need explosive
strength just because you're a long-distance runner. Every time you trip on the
trail, or stumble on a curb you need a fair amount of power or explosive strength
to recover your position. The more explosive strength you have, the better your
ability to recover. Balance and reach exercises are exactly what they sound like --
you balance on one leg, while reaching your other leg or arm or arms in some
direction. Picture it being like a REALLY challenging game of "Twister";
because you never get to put the body part down, you just get to put it close to the
floor. Balance and reach exercises are a bit more challenging than lunges for most
people, due to the element of balance involved. When rehabilitating from an
injury we often start people on lunges to gain strength and confidence and later
move to the more balance oriented exercises. Each has their part to play. The
balance and reach exercises promote both strength and an awareness of your body
position in space (technically termed "proprioception"). The lunge exercises
promote synchronous movement of many body parts at once and develop power
and functional strength throughout a greater range of motion than running or
standard "weight-room" exercises. Neither type of exercise will do it all, so try a
few of each.
Now for a few "rules". First and foremost nothing you do should be painful;
challenging to the muscles - yes, but painful - NO. When you lunge, you only go
as far as you can, being able to return to home base in one push. No "bunny hops"
permitted. Lunge as deep as you want; the deeper you go, the more challenging it
is to get back to home base. When you do a balance and reach exercise, the
"target" you are reaching for is generally within one inch of the floor and use of
the other leg for counterbalancing when reaching with your arms isn't allowed. In
other words when you reach with your arms, the other leg has to stay right
alongside the leg you're balancing on. As in all other areas of life, some rules are
meant to be bent. If you need to touch your opposite leg to the ground for
balance, or need to reach your arms to knee or hip height rather than floor level,
rest assured that the exercise police will not hunt you down. These exercises can
be as challenging or easy as you like. I routinely teach them to elderly people who
are trying to learn to walk without a cane, and I can bring the most elite athlete to
exhaustion by tweaking the same exercise. Use the tweaking to your advantage,
make the exercises as hard or easy as you like.
Enough talk, lets get to it.
Step forward as far as you can with your right foot, bend your right knee then push
yourself back to your starting point.
MUSCLES WORKED: This one is great for the front and back of the thigh and
especially the buttock (that all important "seat" of your power)
TWEAKING: Make it harder by stepping out farther or bending the knee more to
lunge deeper, or by trying to accomplish more repetitions per minute without
Step to the right with your right foot, bend your right knee then push yourself back
to the starting point. Try to keep your feet parallel to each other.
MUSCLES WORKED: Like the forward lunge, this one works the front and back
of the thigh and buttock, but it puts an extra emphasis on the inner thigh (yes,
those muscles that are "up close and personal")
TWEAKING: Same as above
Step to the right with your left foot and turn the foot and hips to the left to face the
direction you're lunging. Keep the right foot facing straight and the left foot
facing the direction you're lunging. This will look a bit like a fencing move.
MUSCLES WORKED: Like the other lunges, this one works the front and back of
the thigh and the buttock but it puts a little extra emphasis on the deeper hip
TWEAKING: Same as above and try rotating around past 90 degrees. In other
words, if you're facing "North" go past "west" all the way around to "Southwest"
or diagonally back to the left.
BALANCE AND REACH EXERCISES (in my opinion, the "Mother of all
Exercises") -- you get a lot of bang for the buck here. There are literally dozens of
muscles that work to keep you balanced while you reach with another body part.
That work translates to noticable and rapid increases in functional strength. Most
people lose some sense of balance as they age, partly because we don't challenge
ourselves like we did as kids. Here, as in other things, it is true that "if you don't
use it you'll lose it." The good news is, you can regain that fine sense of balance
with a minimal amount of effort. For this reason, these are phenomenal
rehabilitation exercises. Because they are done in single leg stance, they are also
tremendously effective for gaining functional strength. Remember, when
reaching, your target is one inch off the floor unless you choose otherwise, and
counterbalancing with your arms or other leg is considered "cheating".
BALANCE AND FORWARD REACH WITH LEG
Balance on your left foot and reach your right foot forward along the floor as far
as you can without losing your balance or touching your foot to the floor.
MUSCLES WORKED: front of thigh and back of calf.
TWEAKING: Try doing it off a 6" step, keeping your target at floor level
BALANCE AND BACKWARD DIAGONAL REACH WITH LEG
Balance on your right foot and reach your left foot back and diagonally to the
right as far as you can without touching the floor. (You're reaching "southeast"
with the left foot)
MUSCLES WORKED: this one gets right to the "seat" - your buttocks, hamstrings
and front of thigh. This is a great one to do if you're trying to strengthen that
hamstring you keep pulling every time you do speed work on the track. (Just
remember the NO PAIN rule)
TWEAKING: Off a 6" step, or see how may times you can successfully reach
your "target" and return to upright standing in a set time period of 60 seconds.
BALANCE AND REACH DIAGONALLY FORWARD WITH OPPOSITE ARM
Balance on your right foot and reach your left arm diagonally forward to the
right. Remember your target is 1" off the floor (unless you determine otherwise)
and your left leg has to stay right next to your right leg - counterbalancing is
MUSCLES WORKED: This one is great for the back of the thigh, buttock and
lower back. If you've had back problems in the past, make your target a little
higher - perhaps waist height, and remember... NO PAIN!!
TWEAKING: try reaching with the same side arm and feel how different muscles
are worked. Try reaching farther around the circle to your side, or holding a
small weight (1-5 pounds is plenty) in your left hand.
Well, you get the idea here. The goal is to gain both balance and FUNCTIONAL
strength as opposed to "weight room" strength. Think of it this way, if you can lift
80 pounds on the hamstring curl at the gym, but you can't decelerate the forward
momentum of your body when you trip on a root while you're trail running then
the "strength" you've gained at the gym hasn't been functional. On the other hand
if you're training your body to balance and move in the same gravitational
environment you're going to live and play in, then there's a much better chance
that when you stumble on that root, your body will "recognize" that position of
lost balance and simply recover it much the way it does every day in your routine.
The good news is most people advance quickly with these exercises and find them
FUN as well as challenging. As your balance improves, be imaginative -- try
reaching or lunging in different directions. With each direction you lunge or
reach, new muscles will be challenged, so pay attention to which muscles you feel
working and play with this a little. Perhaps try doing a few repetitions of the
balance and reach exercises with your eyes closed (it will open up a whole new
area of challenge!) Remember you're limited only by your imagination. As long
as you don't break the cardinal rule, DON'T GO TO THE POINT OF PAIN, these
exercises will be some of the most challenging and potentially rewarding strength
exercises you've ever done. (And the next time you're challenged to a game of
"Twister" you'll be ready for whatever they throw at you.)
These are by no means the only dynamic FUNCTIONAL strengthening exercises
around, they are just two of the many types we frequently use. Squats (single as
well as double leg), step ups, hops, jumps and other various agility drills all have
tremendous potential for producing remarkable gains in strength, balance, speed
and power. These are just two of my favorites. Have FUN with them.
Special acknowledgment - to Gary Gray PT for much of the inspiration and genius
that lead to the development and refinement of these functional exercises and test
Gray, G. Lower Extremity Functional Profile.
Adrian MI: Wynn Marketing, 1995.
About the author: Janet Hamilton is on staff at Cedar Hills Physical Therapy in
Portland, and coaches with Team Oregon. She recieved her master's degree in
Exercise Physiology from University of Alabama in Birmingham in 1987 and is a
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and
Conditioning Association. She has specialized in Biomechanics and treatment of
lower quarter athletic injuries for 10 years and has been a Licensed Physical
Therapist Assistant for 18 years.
Team Oregon Running Tips are Copyrighted by wY'east Consulting and Team
Oregon which reserve all rights to republication.