Unless you're an avid yogi or surfer, chances are you don't think about your balance—and how good or bad it is—all that often. But Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., adjunct faculty member in exercise science at Mesa College in San Diego, says it's an integral part of each and every movement you make. "You want to be able to maintain your balance as you move through space, change direction, or do any kind of quick movements," he says. Doing so can prevent injuries, whether you're working out or doing everyday tasks like cleaning the house or taking care of the backyard.
Plus, Joel Martin, C.S.C.S., assistant professor of kinesiology at George Mason University, says there's always room for improvement. These four exercises will help you see how your balance stacks up, and provide a starting point for those looking to spiff up their skills.
Single-Leg Balance and Squat
A single-leg balance is exactly what it sounds like—balancing on one leg with the other lifted up, knee toward your chest, for as long as you can. Ideally, you can do this for 30 seconds on each leg with no problem. If not, McCall says to start here and work on improving your time until you hit that 30-second threshhold.
If you're ready for more of a challenge, test your balance with a single-leg squat. Starting in a single-leg balance on your right leg, lower into a squat until your leg is nearly parallel with the ground, reaching your left hand toward your right foot. McCall says to let your left leg float behind you or wherever is most comfortable, and focus on pushing your hips back so your standing knee doesn't come past the toes. This counter balance not only tests how stable you are, but also incorporates flexibility. (Speaking of, do you know how flexible you are?) Repeat 8-10 times, then switch to the other leg. If you find yourself falling and losing your balance after two or three reps, that's your cue to incorporate this exercise into your regular routine.
You may not have ever heard of a bound, but it's just a fancy way of saying, "jump." To get started, stand on one leg and make a small jump forward. Pause for 2-3 seconds with good control, then jump backward. See how many you can complete on each foot while maintaining your balance. Pro tip: It's all about the landing technique, says McCall. Once you perfect a stable landing (practice makes perfect!), you'll be able to jump forward and backward comfortably, making it easier to maintain balance whenever you find yourself in an unsteady stance.
Once you've mastered the forward and backward bound, try lateral bounds. Standing on one leg, make small jumps side to side, about a foot in each direction. McCall says you should be able to comfortably do 6-8 bounds on each foot without losing your balance. The lateral movement works your outer thighs, which is where a lot of power comes from for runners, he explains. It also helps prevent injury, as lateral movements can be ignored in everyday workout routines if you're not careful.
Unless you grew up doing gymnastics, chances are handstands don't come easy to you. But Martin says they're a great way to switch up your balance training routine. If you can hold a freestanding handstand for five seconds or longer, you're a balance pro. But if that seems intimidating, kick up into a handstand against a wall, and work up to holding it for 30 seconds. Not only will this help you get a better sense of your center of gravity, but Martin says you'll also work the stabilizing muscles in your upper bod while you're at it. (P.S. Here are 9 Yoga Poses That Will Help You Nail a Handstand.)
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
You'll need to grab a kettlebell or dumbbell for this one. Start by balancing on your left leg, weight in your right hand. Hinge at the hips and, as you slowly bring the weight down toward the floor, lift your right leg up behind you with toes pointing toward the floor. Once you reach close to the floor (or as far as you can reach), reverse the movement until you're back to a standing position.
If you've never done this movement before, McCall suggests beginning with a light weight to gauge your level of comfort—you can always add more later. The goal: 8-10 reps using a 10- to 15-pound weight. "This exercise really requires a lot of control, coordination, and core strength," he says. If adding weight is too tough, try doing 8-10 reps with just your body weight until you're ready to bump it up.