Being strong, powerful, or even looking good in the mirror are all desirable qualities. The thing is, if your balance and coordination are both poor, you’re going to eventually end up looking like a clumsy goof. Whether you’re a competitive athlete or just a regular person, improving your balance and coordination can go a long way toward better utilizing your gym gains in everyday life.
Balance and Coordination are a Nervous System Issue
Many think that improving balance and coordination happens as a result of improving some sort of physical skill. The truth is that it’s rooted in the nervous system. This is because it’s your nervous system that sends signals from your brain to your muscles to work in a particular way, in a particular order, at a particular rate and in particular groups.
Think of when you were a kid and learned how to ride a bike. You didn’t have to get stronger, lose body fat or improve your power output. You just had to learn how to balance on two wheels without falling over. This was doable because your nervous system learned how to fire muscles to make little micro-corrections that kept you balanced in a way that you really didn’t have to think about consciously.
In other words, you had a hard time riding your bike at first because you were having to think about trying to control everything. Hold the bike straight. Push the pedals. Don’t turn the handlebars too far one direction or the other.
But after you got the feel of balancing and riding down the street, it just became easy. Holding everything in a solid position wouldn’t keep you upright – you had to continually turn and pedal and lean and shift. It wasn’t until you could do these things in an almost subconscious manner that you were able to easily ride. In other words, your nervous system sent the right signals to the right muscles at the right times without you having to think about it.
Having better overall balance and coordination is the same idea, only applied to a wider range of activities and including more physical traits. For example, riding a bike requires balance, but not (necessarily) speed. Running a cone drill, however, requires you to make the same sort of micro-corrections, but only with maximum power.
Improve Relative Strength
One of the most simple ways to improve balance and coordination is to improve your relative strength. Remember that “relative strength” is basically how strong you are in relation to what you weigh. So say a 200lbs guy squats 300lbs, and a 275lbs guy squats 325lbs. The 275-pounder is stronger overall, but the 200-pounder has more relative strength because 300 is more compared to 200 than 325 is compared to 275.
This is important because when you have higher relative strength, then you have better base capability to have control over your own body. You may or may not be able to use your nervous system to completely harness that control, but at least it’s available to you.
Natural genetic ability and/or talent aside, the trainee who is stronger in relation to what they weigh is going to be able to put their body into different positions and more easily make those micro-corrections mentioned above. This is also why some balance feats are just not going to happen with someone who weighs too much – it would just require too much strength. After all, there’s a reason why world class gymnasts don’t weigh that much.
Learn about the different types of strength training here.
Balance and Coordination often Lack Carryover
One of the biggest misconceptions about improving balance and coordination is that it can be continually improved in a general sense. For example, an American football running back wants to have quicker feet on the field, so he spends excessive time running drills on an agility ladder. While it can improve speed and quickness a little, it’s going to be a finite amount that tops out fairly fast.
This is because, as was discussed above, balance and coordination are largely determined by nervous system efficiency. Once your nervous system can manipulate your musculature in a specific way to improve one particular type of performance, that doesn’t mean it can do it for different types of performance across the board.
Think of a high level baseball player who can hit the ball very well. They’re holding an external object at one end (a bat), starting with it in a stationary position, “cocking” back with it one direction, then utilizing the hips, legs, core, shoulders, and more to swing the other direction with as much explosive power as possible. This has them swinging the bat to hit the ball, thus making the ball go as far as possible and/or (if they’re really adept) hitting it to one specific area of the field.
While not a ton of balance is needed, excessive coordination is the difference between a mediocre hitter and an all-star. It’s why teams have batting coaches to help players better their swing, and why some smaller guys can hit just as far as your muscled-up monsters. They’re able to utilize their entire musculature in a highly coordinated way to hit the ball over the fence.
Now compare that to a golfer driving a ball off the tee. At a base level, everything just described about how a baseball player hits a ball applies to the golfer, too. Sure,the implement is different, but the ball is smaller and more importantly, stationary. This means it actually takes way less hand-eye coordination to hit than a baseball does.
Given all this, it would seem that your best baseball hitters would also be your best golfers at the driving range. After all, aren’t the motions very similar? And if the player has developed the coordination to hit a baseball far, shouldn’t they be able to do similar with a golf ball? You might think so, but by and large, this isn’t the case. At least, no more so than anyone else with above average strength and athletic ability.
This is all because since balance and coordination are dictated by the nervous system, they’re highly specific to whatever activity you’re engaging in. Your baseball player might be a little better at driving a golf ball, but not that much better. Running tons of agility ladder drills might help your footwork on the American football field a little, but not a ton. Learning how to ride a bike gave you improved balance on two wheels, but doesn’t give you the balance to walk on a tight rope.
Practice Your Sport or Activity
As a result of everything discussed, the best way for a competitive athlete to improve their balance and coordination is to simply just practice their sport or activity. Baseball players become better hitters by taking lots of batting practice. Basketball players sink more baskets by always practicing their foul shots. Boxers improve their footwork and punching ability by consistently shadow-boxing and hitting the bag.
Specific sport/activity practice aside, athletes are then better off getting stronger and developing more explosive power at a given body weight. This improves the base physical traits discussed above, which they can then apply to their specific sport/activity practice later. In general, things like agility ladders, balance balls, wobble boards, and the like are really just more gimmick than they are useful.
What if You’re not an Athlete?
If you’re just an everyday gym-goer who doesn’t have a specific sport/activity to practice, then there are still a few ways you can improve your balance and coordination without all the supposed balance training gimmicks.
One easy way is to incorporate body weight training into your overall regimen. There are many who feel that given roughly the same resistance level, calisthenics have a higher NMA (neuro-muscular activation) than their weight training counterparts. This means they stimulate better muscular development. However, moving your body through space is always going to take more balance and coordination than keeping your body stationary as you move a barbell.
Another way would be to strive for improved mobility. It’s almost impossible to be balanced or coordinated if your muscles are stiff, tight, and inflexible. Adding some mobility drills or a dynamic warm up to the beginning of your workout can not only help you move more easily and stave off injury, but improve base level balance and coordination, too.
It’s not always doable at commercial gyms, but including “odd object” training can go a long way toward upping your coordination. Using battle ropes, lifting sandbags, loading kegs, and so on will work your muscles in non-traditional ways than standard weights. By working the muscles at different and strange angles, it will force the body to make more of these micro-corrections, stimulating the nervous system.
If nothing else, just be active, if you can. You don’t have to join a sports team or start practicing a new activity a few times per week, but any time you can get out to move your body around, you’re going to train more of that base level nervous system adaptation that keeps being mentioned. You might not be developing specifically better balance and coordination, but you are improving your nervous system’s ability to adjust and improve at new activities on the fly.
The balance and coordination training tools might look fun, but they’re largely not worth your time. You’re best off just training your actual sport/activity if you have one, and just being active as a whole if not. This is because you want to develop the nervous system’s ability to manipulate your musculature. Do all this while striving to improve relative strength, and you’ll surprise yourself how much more athletic you can become.