Activity, Lifestyle, physical therapy

Finding your true balance

Okay, this post is a little specific to dancers, gymnasts, and baton twirlers, but it is also very relevant in activities such as surfing, rock climbing, and yoga. We’re going to talk about balance, why it’s easy for some and very difficult for others. As a baton twirler, I struggled in the Super-X event with balancing, and it was circled quite often on my scoresheets. As a physical therapist, knowing what I know now about our body and how it moves, I understand why I struggled. It had nothing to do with lack of technique, lack of practice, or lack of flexibility. It had everything to do with the fact that my pelvis was in a crappy position and I was unable to stabilize myself through my femurs. Yes, even at 15 years old. In fact, especially at 15.

True stability and balance comes from solid coordination in the muscles and joints in which the position of those muscles and joints are driven by our respiratory system. Wow. That’s a mouthful; let’s break it down. First, I think we can all agree that we have to breathe, right? Of course we do. Air flow moves very much like water. If you watch water roll down an incline, it will ALWAYS take the past of least resistance. You won’t ever see water naturally go backwards or up against gravity. Airflow works the same way. When we inhale, we are going to take in as much air as we can through the path of least resistance. Through our posture, our body will develop patterns that allow us to breathe as efficiently as possible.

As first that sounds pretty awesome. We don’t even have to think about it and our body is naturally doing good work by helping us get oxygen. Eh…sort of. Unfortunately, our lifestyle of sitting in chairs all the time, using pillows to raise our head up to sleep, riding in cars, and lack of squatting, creates patterns of increased extension which causes our body to lose it’s ability to breathe in flexion. Remember how I said the body will breathe in the path of least resistance? If spinal flexion becomes more difficult. then the body isn’t going to keep breathing in that position because it’s more difficult. And I don’t mean just touching your toes, but true spinal flexion that occurs at the joint itself. You can touch your toes and still not flex your spine due to over-extending your ligaments and tendons in your pelvis and back.

Now think about these flexible sports like baton twirling, ice skating, gymnastics, even pole vaulting that require a ton of extension: back bends, illusions, scorpion holds, leaps, floor rolls…the list goes on. These athletes are at a high risk of developing pelvis instability. You can sometimes see this when the athlete lies down. If their ribs stick up when they lay on their back, it can be a sign of a pelvis problem. If they lay down and their feet flop out to the sides (“turn out” for my dancers out there), it could be a pelvis issue. They will also likely have a nice “6-pack” of abdominals, but will have very poor oblique activation (“side abs”). Dancers are required to “turn out” their hips with every movement. And that is okay, as long as they are doing something that requires turn in: i.e. internal rotation strengthening and adductor strengthening.

Here’s another layer to balance. Balance is a neurological phenomenon, that is generated through something called proprioception. We have proprioceptors throughout all of our joints, little tiny GPS tracking systems that mark and keep track of where we are in space. They are decreased in joints that are injured, poorly positioned, or degenerated. So let’s put it together: When the pelvis is poorly positioned due to increased sport activities of extension paired with everyday activities that also cause increased extension, the body will then teach itself to breathe better in that position. In turn, proprioceptors will also start to not be as active with flexion, so it will become more difficult for the body to stabilize itself in another position besides extension.

Let’s put this concept in an example. In my Super-X event, I always had a very difficult time holding a leg extension, especially with a combination. In order to balance myself on one foot with one foot up in the air, my pelvis had to move from an extended position (which my pelvis is over-extended), to a flexed and rotated one. You have to keep your hips “tucked under” when you raise your foot, requiring the pelvis to “flex” or “posteriorly rotate” for the biomechanical minds out there. But, after learning what we know above, I couldn’t hold that position because: A) I couldn’t breathe in the position because I could not achieve true spinal flexion, B) My pelvis stayed in a poor position so my abdominals (obliques) couldn’t activate to help support me, and C) my proprioceptors were not as active to be able to sense where my body was in space.

How do you improve your balance? Once you know the problem and what is actually causing the problem, then you can fix it. You need to learn how to breathe correctly, turn on your obliques, and stimulate your proprioceptors. You have to learn to maintain proper pelvis position in basic positions before you can learn how to maintain in stable positions.

Can you will your way into improving your balance. Absolutely, I see it all the time. It’s called compensation – your body will naturally compensate in order to try and do what you are telling it to do. Can’t do a high kick? You will hike your hip. Can’t get your back leg up when you leap? Arch your back. Can’t get your shoulders back when you stand, arch your back and pull your ribs forward. Can’t hold your leg in a leg extension? Lean forward, stick your butt out or over arch your back. Yes, you are accomplishing the movement, but at the expense of injury risk, back issues, and hip problems.

Courtney Stearn, circa 2011 Feature Twirler at East Carolina University

Do you have difficulty balancing or just not progressing in competitions like you want to? Do you feel like you have limitations that are keeping you from becoming more advanced in your skill set? You may have some biomechanical restrictions that are preventing you from going forward! To learn more about my online postural assessments, click here.

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