Balance and “proprioception” usually take a back seat in many training programs, but what most fail to realize is that our movement all begins with how our brain senses the floor.
Ever feel like you aren’t as stable as you’d like? Single-leg tasks are harder than they should be?
Maybe you haven’t noticed these things at all yet. Try this: Stand up and stand on one leg. Maybe that’s hard, maybe that’s not. Now, close your eyes and try the same thing. If you lasted more than 10 seconds without losing balance and/or wobbling around, I’m impressed.
The problem is, we are naturally visually dominant, often to the point of fault, in our balance systems. Next time you walk down a street, notice how many people walk with the heads down.
They’re relying on their vision to give them a sense of the ground and where they are in space. This is compensatory, and it results from us first losing a relationship with the ground through our feet.
Our feet were never evolved to be in shoes, especially ones that don’t give us proper stability. Feet have tons of sensory receptors on them that allow us to feel where we are in space, and chances are, your shoe is acting as a sensory deprivation chamber for your feet.
This brings me to a concept called “grounding.”
What Is Grounding?
Grounding refers to the reference we have of feeling a weight, a sense of the floor, and a feeling of the floor pushing back up.
The ground is sensed via our plantar (bottom of feet) proprioceptors and baroreceptors (mechanoreceptors located in the carotid sinus and in the aortic arch. Their function is to sense pressure changes by responding to change in the tension of the arterial wall).
The ground pushes down while ground reaction forces go up. The brain has to be able to feel and appreciate the forces going in both directions. If we push down on the floor, the brain must process the floor pushing into our feet (think: physics class).
This can help with more appropriate muscle activity. For example, in a lunge, instead of lowering yourself to the ground, think about feeling the ground come up to you.
This will activate the proper muscles for stabilizing your femur and pelvis while providing your brain with a sense of the space around you and limits the need for neuro-reflexive extension movement patterns to keep us upright (basically, when we can’t use the proper muscles, we arch our low backs to compensate).
Lack of grounding results in movement impairments, poor motor sequencing, poor balance awareness, and disorganization of body sense and poor processing of input into the brain.
It even can affect the physiological process within the human body.
Insufficient grounding can take the shape of:
- “Bouncy” walking – early heel rise
- Leaning or excessive weight shifting outside the base of support to counterbalance
- Increased activity of low back extensors and calves
- A decrease in arm swing in walking
- Feet turned out
How To Improve Balance and Grounding
Get a good shoe. Those fresh new Nike’s you got probably aren’t getting the job done.
If your shoe does not fit the below criteria, you are only further dissociating yourself from the ground:
It’s important to have a heel counter that is stable, as that provides heel stability and the ability to have a proper heel strike during gait. The toe box should only bend to ensure proper toe-off with the big toe.
And finally, an asymmetrical shoe will put you on the inside or outside of your foot, setting you up to be excessively pronated or supinated during gait
Now, I am not saying shoes are everything. They’re a good first step to success.
Once you have a good shoe, it is important to train ourselves to have a relationship with the ground.
We need to keep our eyes up when we move and/or exercise, feel stability through our arches when we exercise, and ensure we can find and feel our heels.
In order to feel our arches, short foot training is a very good start.
Many people unconsciously walk on their forefoot, but that is an improper gait (walking) pattern. This is tied to our normal asymmetric nature as human beings, but we can fix it.
This is why a good shoe is so important, it will help you find all of those previously described qualities, but we must also consciously make an effort to train our brains into a better pattern as well (see the article linked above).
This is why the concept of grounding is so important.
How To Fix Your Balance
How Visually Dominant Are They?
This is usually the primary culprit. They need to learn how to sense the ground (will also check their shoes here), keep their eyes up, and use their peripheral vision. Training them to move their eyes separate from their head and to use their head separate from their eyes is usually a good start. I’ll also have them walk and focus on an object in the distance while calling out things they see in their peripheral vision in as much detail as possible.
Can They Control Their Center Of Mass?
Most people struggle with this to some degree at first, even if they don’t have balance issues. My goal is to improve the sagittal plane center of mass control, then frontal plane single leg stance and, therefore, their ability to control their center of mass over their foot when they walk, run, or even cut in an athletic movement if that’s their thing.
Here are examples of the aforementioned exercises: