No matter what sport you play, you will see enormous benefits to your game if you regularly add balance training to your workouts.
Keep reading to learn the athletic benefits of balance training, the different kinds of balance, why they matter for sports, and how to add balance work to your training program.
Understanding Balance Training for Athletes
The ability to control where your body is in space and remain upright is essential for all aspects of daily life.
From carrying your groceries to picking up a child to playing sports–we all must navigate different terrains deftly without failing. This is especially true in athletics, as you could be running, diving, dodging, pivoting, or cutting–all at high speeds or under heavy loads.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, balance is defined as the ability to maintain your center of gravity within your base of support.
Your center of gravity is the midpoint of your body, and your base of support is the area between your points of contact–typically your feet on the floor.
You can narrow your base of support by closing the distance between your feet, which makes balancing harder. Or widen your base of support, which makes it easier.
To understand the importance of balance training for athletes, you first need to know the three different types of balance.
Static balance is maintaining control on a stable, non-moving surface, like standing or during a plank.
Semi-static balance is when you maintain the same position, but the surface beneath you is moving–like riding a snowboard.
Dynamic balance is when your body is positioning and your surface constantly change–like when you run over uneven ground.
I spoke to Veronica Tearney, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports and department nutritionist at Syracuse University, about the role balance should play in an athlete's training.
"Balance training isn't just the ability to stand on one leg without falling. It's a total body system of balance and control throughout a variety of circumstances, and it's essential for all athletes to develop," Tearney says.
According to Tearney, athletes must have advanced balance control in all three categories, so they must train all three types.
Coaches have long used balance training to prevent falls in older people, but as early as the 1950s, sports like men's gymnastics started to introduce balance training to mainstream athletics, and fitness equipment like balance boards became popular.
Today, there isn't a strength and conditioning program in any sport at the collegiate level or higher that doesn't understand and address the vital importance of balance training for their athletes.
Get our fitness newsletter
Stay on track with your fitness goals and get inspired! Sign up for the GymBird newsletter for twice-monthly expert fitness and nutrition tips.
The Science of Balance Training for Athletics
Our body maintains its position in space through a complex system that receives input from three different areas:
- Vestibular system
- Somatosensory system
Our eyes play a critical role in our ability to balance as they constantly receive input about our position in space. Try standing on one leg for 15 seconds, then try the same thing with your eyes closed, and you'll feel the difference.
Second, our vestibular system is made up of sensors in our inner ear and contributes to our sense of balance and spatial awareness. This system is crucial for movements such as bending over and jumping.
Lastly, the somatosensory system is made up of millions of tiny sensors in our skin that differentiate between pressure, hot, cold, sharpness, vibration, and more.
This system receives input about our environment and positioning every second of every day.
Each one of these sensory elements comprises our balance system, and each must be addressed separately in athletic training to achieve well-rounded balance.
Many different conditions can affect our balance temporarily and permanently. Some medications, ear infections, or head injuries typically limit balance for a time.
While long term conditions like Parkinson's, vertigo, and Meniere's disease can all affect our balance in the long term.
People experiencing these medical conditions, older adults, and those in rehabilitation all must undergo extensive balance training programs to regain function or fight off deficits, but athletes need balance training just as much.
The importance of regularly incorporating balance training for athletes cannot be overstated, as the performance benefits are tremendous.
By incorporating balance training into an athlete's regimen, they can see improvements in sport-specific performance, athleticism, a decreased risk of injury, and improved rehabilitation after an injury.
Benefits of Balance Training for Athletes
Improved Neuromuscular Control
Athletics require a symphony of nerve impulses translating into muscle movements and as well as reactions to things in the environment.
Neuromuscular control describes the communication from our nerves to our brain to our muscles, which causes muscle contraction, and, ultimately, purposeful movement.
Neuromuscular control is essential to learning, mastering, and becoming more efficient in movement patterns and developing postural control. Numerous studies have shown that balance training has been shown to improve the efficiency of this process.
Reduced Rates of Injury
Participation in athletics can be an excellent form of exercise and a source of joy. Still, an injury can take kids out of school and adults out of work. Thankfully, balance training has been proven to significantly reduce the risk of injuries.
Balance training programs targeted toward the lower body are the most studied and have consistently reduced the risk of lower extremity injuries such as ankle sprains by 46%.
Improved Balance & Rehabilitation
Balance training has also been shown to improve balance even after injury and enhance rehabilitation efforts during the physical therapy process.
Better Core Strength
One of the most essential requirements for good balance is the ability to resist movement, which requires a strong core. Balance training that utilizes anti-resistance core movements has been shown to increase balance and core strength in athletes of many sports.
Better Dynamic and Static Stability
A well-rounded balance program that addresses both static and dynamic stability has been shown to significantly increase both elements.
Strength & Improved Agility for Athletes
Interestingly, balance training has also been shown to help athletes improve their strength gains when incorporated into a traditional strength training plan. The improved postural control, stability, and positional resilience also contribute to improved agility.
Better Landing Mechanics & Time-to-stabilization
When you were a kid, jumping, running, and landing were all second nature. You didn't have to carefully position your body for optimum mechanics–you just jumped.
For competitive athletes, landing mechanics are essential and a significant predictor of injury if done incorrectly. And one of the ways balance training helps prevent injuries is by improving the athlete's landing mechanics.
Time to stabilization is precisely what it sounds like, a measure of the time it takes for the body to stabilize completely after a jump.
It is one way to measure postural stability, and it's yet another metric that is improved by routine balance training.
Improved Sports Performance
These individual elements, including neuromuscular control, stability, strength, agility, improved landing mechanics, and reduced time to stabilization, all translate to improve sports performance for athletes.
Whether you are running, jumping, cutting, or swimming, balance is required to move safely and efficiently as an athlete, and your athletic performance will benefit from balance training consistently.
Types of Balance Training Exercises for Athletes
Remember that to develop the high-level athletic performance required for sports, you must develop balance in different areas under different circumstances.
Balance training must develop progressively, just like any other aspect of fitness. So, it's important to start slow, get feedback about your form, and progress appropriately.
Static Balance Drills
You'll first want to develop your static balance, which can be done in many ways and progress from beginner to advanced. Here are a few static exercise drills you can try, listed from easy to difficult.
- Tandem stance
- Tree pose
- Single-leg balance
- Single-leg balance reach
- Single-leg hip internal and external rotation
- Single-leg lift and chop
- Single-leg arm and leg motion
- Single-leg windmill
- Single-leg throw and catch
Core Strengthening for Balance
While you may not think of traditional ab workouts as helping improve your balance, a strong core is essential to controlling where your body is in space and resisting movement. Anti-rotational core work is vital to developing strength and balance as an athlete, and these exercises are sure to do both.
- Pallof press
- Side Plank
- Single-arm farmers carry
- Single-arm front rack farmer carry
- Single-arm waiters carry
- Bear holds
Dynamic Balance Drills
After you've built a strong foundation of static balance and core strength, you can progress to dynamic balance movements and incorporate different surfaces. Dynamic drills can be made much more difficult using tools such as Bosu boards and stability balls.
- Single-leg squat
- Single-leg squat touchdown
- Single-leg Romanian deadlift
- Multiplanar step-up to balance
- Multiplanar lunge to balance
- Slide board lateral lunge
- Reverse lung from Bosu board
- Bosu board goblet squat
Balance Training for Athletes
Static Balance Training Exercises for Athletes
Single Leg Stability Exercises for Improved Sports Performance
Balance Training to Help Prevent Injuries for Athletes
15 Balance Training Exercises
Incorporating Balance Training for Athletes
You don't need a special warm-up or cool-down to add balance training into your program, but you should incorporate balance exercises strategically.
Veronica Tearney, Director of Strength and Conditioning at Syracuse University, recommends including complex or new exercises early in a workout to ensure that you can master the technique and you gain confidence with the new skill.
You also don't need to go overboard on your training either, as Tearney cautions against a warm-up that is too taxing and could affect your performance later in the workout.
"Eventually, you should build balance work into the midpoint or toward the end of the workout when you're in a fatigued state. This will more closely align with real-time athletic performance situations," Tearney recommends.
No matter where you decide to put your balance exercises, ensure you perform the exercises with good form and are not overtired.
Tearney cautions, "Every sport is different, and you need to make sure you're not doing balance training when you're exhausted, or the benefits could be minimal at best.
Sport-specific Balance Training Programs
Every sport is different and will require slight variations on which balance exercises will help you develop athletically for your particular sport.
For example, a basketball player may balance on one leg while reaching to mimic passing a ball. While a soccer player may perform a single-leg Romanian deadlift to build core and hamstring strength.
You should find a strength and conditioning coach (credentials CSCS) to learn more about developing in your sport.
While your average personal trainer may be able to get you started, strength and conditioning coaches are highly trained in every aspect of coaching competitive athletes and can write you a detailed plan to address all of your athletic needs holistically.
Advanced balanced training carries the same risks as other forms of exercise, such as weight lifting, so you must receive feedback on your form to prevent injury and overtraining.
Though you don't have to invest in balance equipment to get a challenging workout, balance training benefits from including one to two of the following pieces of equipment.
Tips to Incorporate Balance Training for Athletes
Veronica Tearney, director of strength conditioning of Olympic sports for Syracuse University, offers the following tips for athletes new to balance training:
- Assess your areas of weakness or concern and build upon that.
- Make sure you have a way to get feedback. If you can't have a coach, teammate, or partner to watch you and give you technique cues and feedback, try to perform exercises in front of a mirror or record yourself and watch as you go.
- Start and build your program steadily. But wait to introduce new exercises or increase the level of difficulty of individual exercises too quickly.
- Never use balance exercises with heavy loads! While you want to continually challenge yourself as an athlete to make sure you're progressing, never use maximal loads or even near-maximal loads with balance exercises.
TikTok may be full of crazy videos of people squatting 225 lb on a stability ball, but Tearney does not recommend it. Instead, focus on mastering the basics and progressing a little each week.
If you can add 1-2 balance exercises to each workout and stick with them, you will notice progress after just a few weeks.
Additional Balance Training Resources
There are three different kinds of balance-static, semi-static, and dynamic-and each one is essential for developing athletic performance and injury prevention.
You can develop these skills by regularly incorporating static and dynamic balance exercises and anti-rotational core strengthening exercises into your workouts.
Like any other form of exercise, balance work should be progressed slowly only when the form has been mastered and you feel confident. Balance exercises should never be performed under heavy loads or when severely fatigued.