How long do you think a tree would last in a storm if it had no roots? That’s about how long you’ll last if you don’t have sufficient balance and stabilization.
If you can’t stabilize your joints, you can’t use them. If you can’t control your center of gravity and consciously shift your weight form one stable position to another, you’re dead in the water.
To your central nervous system, stability comes before action. Your nervous system won’t give you the green light on a maximum effort unless it knows it can stabilize you in it.
This is why getting your opponent off balance is so effective. They can’t defend themselves or strike back until they first recover their balance. There are few disadvantages greater than being off balance when your opponent is stable, so advanced stability training is essential to developing a strong defense.
And since you’re going to be moving, you have to create stability in every position in which you might find yourself. How stable are you on one foot when the other foot is high in the air? How are you on one hand and one foot? How are you when someone is tugging your arm, trying to take your balance? How quickly can you re-establish stability when you move to a new position?
Stability is also about how well you secure your core against any force that passes in or out of you. If you’re trying to go faster, harder, and stronger, and your core stabilizers aren’t up to the task, your nervous system will actually resist you, because it’s getting the message that it won’t be able to protect you against those high forces passing through your body.
So let’s take a closer look at these aspects of stabilization, and then talk about how to train it.
Stability Starts in Your Core
The term “core” is a bit vague these days. To most people, it’s some nebulous region covering most of their vital organs that they can effectively train with a few sets of crunches. On the other extreme, some seem to think you can only train your core with movements so complex and contorted you’d be better off at a circus sideshow. These extremes are both silly misconceptions, as you’re about to see.
First we’re going to discuss how to engage your core, and then we’ll talk about how to train it.
Engaging Your Core
Training styles that emphasize stability, such as Yoga and Pilates, consistently present three foundational aspects:
- An engaged core
- Deep, abdominal breathing
- Relaxed concentration and control
Some of your core muscles, like your transverse abdominis (TVA) are not under your direct conscious control. You can’t flex them like you can your biceps. All you can do is trigger a primal action that engages them. In states of strong emotion, such as crying, laughing, or screaming, Your TVA engages automatically. Since you’re probably not in the middle of a primal rage right now, just try and grunt. Feel that tightening below your navel? You’ve just engaged your core.
You can flex your abs (rectus abdominus) at will, and some people confuse flexed abs with an engaged core. To feel the difference between a flexed and a completely engaged core, go ahead and flex your abs and then grunt again. Feel the difference?
Once engaged, deep abdominal breathing (the kind where your inhales push your navel out, and your exhales draw it back in, and your chest cavity barely moves) will help keep your core engaged with every exhale.
If you are doing powerful movements, it’s usually best to synchronize your exhale with them. Power lifters do this routinely. They call their technique blocking, and it’s just another word for recruiting maximum support from the core with a forceful but slow-leaking exhale. People who are blocking will often hiss through their teeth. They do this to slow down the release of air but still allow enough to escape that they don’t blow blood vessels in their head.
Training Your Core
Much to the chagrin of those who are lying on their back trying every variation on the crunch known to man, your core muscles are most in their element when you’re on your feet, doing something that resembles walking or running: specifically, any time your pelvis and your thoracic spine rotate in opposition to each other, just like they do with a healthy gait cycle.
To enhance your core so that it serves you in real life challenges like a fight or a high contact sport, you have to train with movements that properly distribute the forces that interact with you while you’re moving on your feet: with gravity pulling straight down, with momentum in your actions, and with ground contact sending equal and opposite reactions back through your feet.
So if you want to find the best exercises for your core, look for ones that utilize alternating foot patterns, trunk rotation, or both. Some exercises that qualify are:
- Alternating lunges with rotation
- Wood choppers with medicine ball
- Hay bailers with medicine ball
- Alternating toe touches (opposite hand to opposite toe, with the untouched leg firing back. Most effective when performed explosively.)
If you want a few that get you off your feet, there’s still some things you can do to train your core effectively. Look for exercises that have you on your hands and feet, and that still involve some degree of trunk rotation, alternating foot movements, and ground reaction forces.
How to Train Your Dynamic Balance
Dynamic balance is balance while in motion. It’s you preserving your balance while changing from one position to another. It relies on a stable and engaged core, and then goes further by also relying on the stabilizers in your limbs.
There’s a couple ways to train your dynamic balance:
Use Asymmetry – You can make any standing exercise emphasize stability by doing it on one foot. Weight bearing exercises like presses, bent over rows, or single leg squats can all be done this way, along with sport specific exercises, like punching and kicking patterns. You can even take a super - simple exercise like a dumbbell curl and get a lot more mileage out of it by doing one hand at a time, with one foot off the ground, and your eyes closed.
Use Unstable Surfaces – the less stable your environment is, the more your stabilizers have to work. Exercises you would normally do while sitting or lying on a bench can be changed into stability exercises by sitting or lying on Bosu balls and stability balls. When you get good at a dumbbell bench press on a stability ball, increase your challenge more by adding asymmetry to it – now do one dumbbell at a time with one foot in the air. (This particular movement, believe it or not, is a great way to train the entire kinetic chain involved with delivering a straight punch.)
Sound boring? Then try practicing your forms while surfing instead, and see how far you get.
Use Sensory Deprivation – because your eyes send information directly to your central nervous system, you can improve your balance and stability by focusing your eyes on a single non-moving object outside of you, like a post or a tree. Most dancers know this trick.
But once you’ve achieved a certain level of stability, you can get even better by taking away your visual cues and doing the same thing with your eyes closed. This forces your stabilizing nerves to take responsibility for all of the work.
How to Increase Your Challenge and Measure Your Progress
Because stability improves with time and repetition, any resistance you apply should be light. Your stabilizers have to hold you together all day every day, so they are mostly endurance-oriented muscles. This means that the primary fuel system for most stabilizers will be oxidative, so they will get their smartest and their strongest by training them in sets that emphasize continuous tension for 90-120 seconds.
However, you also want to train your whole stabilization system to be ready to recruit quickly in emergencies, and to perform at high levels of force output. So some explosive training is also beneficial. To achieve that, you’d benefit from including some movements that involve intense bursts of activity for no more than 30 seconds.
Ways to Increase Your Level Of Challenge
Once you start getting the hang of things, you need to increase your level of challenge to reach advanced levels. There’s no shortage of ways to do that. Here’s a few of the most useful:
- Increase your resistance level (load)
- Increase the time under tension
- Join your core exercises in sequences and minimize your rest periods
- Increase the asymmetry of your movements
- Increase your sensory deprivation
- Increase the surface instability
Follow these guidelines, and you’ll create a hedge against injury, open the door to superior levels of performance, and gain a significant competitive advantage over your opponent.