Balance is one of the fundamental skills for a ninja. Learning how to improve balance requires practice and precision. Even for veteran ninjas who already know how to balance, it’s easy to slip up. Balance can be very unforgiving, and even the best of the best can go down if they aren’t focused.
How to Improve Balance through Muscle Control
On a balance obstacle, the most necessarry muscles are the stabilizer muscles in the ankles, and the muscles of the lumbopelvic hip complex (LPHC).
Lower leg stabilizers and the strength they hold determine how much a person can move out of equilibrium and remain upright. These muscles are used when standing, walking, and running, but they are really put to the test in unstable situations.
Before you go into an all out lower leg conditioning workout, warm up properly with joint rotations and some light calf raises.
The best way to train the stabilizer muscles, as is often the case, is to train the motions and movements you plan to make in competition. Where you begin depends on your ability to balance. Start with a rectangular beam that doesn’t move and is at least the width of your foot. If that’s too easy, move on to pieces that are skinnier, circular, and/or able to move. Slacklines and teeter totters get easier with practice.
Because most athletes rarely train these muscles, they will likely become much stronger very quickly. When you begin focusing your workouts on a new muscle group, the first several weeks involve more parts of the muscles being activated, allowing the muscles to work together more efficiently.
How to Improve Balance Through Proprioception
Balance can also be improved while focusing on other muscles by training in a proprioceptively enriched environment. Proprioception is the awareness of your body’s position and movement. Therefore a proprioceptively enriched environment is one in which you perform exercises in physically unstable, but controllable, situations. One of my favorite pieces of equipment for this is a bosu ball. For example, you can work your legs by doing squats, or chest by passing a medicine ball while standing on a bosu ball.
The lumbopelvic hip complex, more commonly referred to as the “core”, allows you to move your upper body quickly in order to maintain equilibrium. Also relied on for the majority of other obstacles, the core muscles are arguably the most used muscles in all of ninja. While practicing on balance pieces is a good start, the fastest way to train the LPHC is to perform exercises designed to isolate the core muscles.
Here’s a quick list of a few exercises to build up core strength.
- sit ups
- toes to bar
- windshield wipers
- flutter kicks
- scissor kicks
- Russian Twists (Cherry Pickers)
- Back Extensions
Many of these exercises require a pull up bar. If your looking for a great home pull up bar, try this one. It comes with two rock hold attatchments, allowing you to work grip simultaneously.
How to Improve Balance using Body Positioning
Where you intentionally put your body as you make your way through a balance obstacle, and how your body instinctively reacts to losing your balance, are of the utmost importance. Generally speaking, you want to keep your chest centered at all times. That means when your feet aren’t together (they rarely are on balance) your chest should be centered between them, not leaning over either one foot. Major exceptions are if you begin to lose your balance and need to move your upperbody accordingly to stay upright, or certain movable balance pieces which need to be slowly weighted.
On most pieces, you want your foot to have as much contact with balance piece as possible. That usually means keeping your feet facing forward. This changes when you’re on a piece that can turn left or right. Because your ankles are more powerful moving your foot up and down than left and right, turning your feet in or out allows you more opportunity to save your self should you lose balance. You may turn your entire body to one side and side shuffle. If you have the flexibility, you may also choose to turn both legs out (duck footed) so that you remain facing forward.
Balance Vs Agility
Many ninjas, specifically the producers of American Ninja Warrior, consider balance and agility obstacles to be one and the same. It’s not surprising considering how much they have in common. In fact, balance can often be attempted the way you would approach an agility obstacle. The major difference between the two is that you cannot approach an agility obstacle with a balance oriented mindset.
An agility obstacle is set in a stright line, using pieces which move very easily, and are very difficult to balance on. As such, the method that will give you the most success is to sprint across, bounding upward with each step and using your initial forward momentum to carry you across.
The most important quality to have when attempting an agility obstacle is confidence. In fact, most agility obstacles are widely considered easy by those who attack them without slowing down. It’s when a ninja gets nervous mid obstacle and slows down that they usually fail.
Learning how to attack agility obstacles is important. Unfortunately, it will not teach you how to improve balance.
How to Improve Balance by Thinking Ahead
Thinking about how to approach every move on every obstacle in advance is important. Balance is often overlooked as a type of obstacle that doesn’t require much planning. Unfortunately, that also makes it one of the obstacles where you are most likely to see a veteran ninja take an unlikely fall.
Before you get on the course (or before approaching a balance obstacle in practice) take a good look at what you’re doing. Do the pieces move? How do they move? Are they in a straight line? Is it safer for you to treat it as balance or agility? Which direction should your feet go. Develop a plan of action ahead of time. Go over it step by step in your ahead before you begin. Where possible, stick closely to your plan.
And that’s how to improve balance. Let me know what you think! Do you know of any other methods for how to improve balance?