Balance is about efficiency not about brute strength. It is about using just the right amount of muscular effort for the task at hand and not more.
Good healthy posture has a lot to do with good balance.
Look at a young child and they tend to sit easily upright without needing to try hard to sit up straight. They don’t appear stiff or strained. Young children are not particularly strong compared with adults. But they are good at balancing. Just look at my friend’s daughter beautifully balanced over her sitting bones as she plays the piano. I believe she was about three years old when this picture was taken.
Strength is important, don’t misunderstand me. But when strength alone is touted as the answer to balance issues we are missing a lot. A balance class for seniors at my local health club is a perfect example of how so many of the messages we are getting are about balance as just about strength.
The class is advertised as being specifically for seniors with simple low-impact exercises and strength training to help improve balance and empower participants to move confidently and independently in daily life.
Being on the planet is a constant act of balance. We often think about standing on one foot as balancing. It is. But do you ever think of standing on two feet as balancing? It is. It is just easier because you have two touch points on the ground instead of just one. In general the more touch points you have the easier it is to balance. And hence you feel more stable.
At any moment you are either balancing or you are falling over. If you are falling over you will tend to tense and brace to keep from falling over. That requires a lot more strength (and it is less efficient) than if you are in balance.
Try this simple experiment: stand up with your feet underneath your hip joints. Take a moment to sense the weight of your feet against the floor (and realize you can do this without looking down at your feet!) Explore shifting your weight around and notice how you are able to sense where your weight is (if it is more on the balls or the heels of your feet; if it is more on the outsides or insides of your feet; if it is more on one foot than the other foot, for example). This is important information.
Now purposely shift your weight as far back onto your heels as you can (without toppling over) and just notice what your muscles do. Then, shift your weight as far forward onto the balls of your feet as you can (but don’t rise up on your toes). Notice what your muscles do. Then allow your weight to shift back so it is centered more over your ankles. Notice what your muscles do.
When I do this experiment in my group classes people share different places they experience themselves stiffening or bracing to keep from falling over when they are all the way back on their heels or all the way forward on the balls of their feet—even though they experience the stiffening in different places, almost all experience themselves stiffening somewhere.
When your weight is in your heels or all the way forward you are experiencing falling over. And it requires more muscular effort to stay in either of these two places. When you center your weight over your ankles you should notice that your muscles can let go a bit. In your legs, in your back, shoulders and neck—basically from your toes to the top of your head.
We learn by contrast.
Explore this on your own again and again and decide where you want to hang out. I prefer to stay over my ankles, balanced and save my energy for other things.