Balance and Reach
The Mother of all exercises

by Janet Hamilton, Team Oregon
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? Read on.

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.

FORWARD LUNGE

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 sacrificing distance.

LATERAL LUNGE

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

ROTATION LUNGE

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 rotator muscles.

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 (YIKES!)

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 "cheating"

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 techniques.

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.


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