If you think about it, many of our everyday movements require us to balance on one leg. When you break into a light jog to catch a bus or catch up to your colleague in the hallway, there’s a brief period in each step when you’re balancing on one leg. When you climb stairs, you push up with one leg at a time. The last time you jumped over a puddle or off a curb, you landed on one foot.
For athletes—by which I mean anyone who participates in any sport or physical endeavor, novice to elite—the need for impeccable balance is even greater. Runners obviously spend a lot of time on one foot, but so do hikers, dancers, and aerobics buffs. Sports like basketball, tennis, Ultimate Frisbee, flag football, squash, and soccer add an extra degree of difficulty by introducing lateral movements where you move in one direction, land on one foot, and then juke in another direction.
Being bipedal creatures, you’d think balance would come naturally to us. And it surely did for our ancestors who moved every day, climbing over rocks and walking on uneven terrain, running and sprinting as needed. Sometimes they stumbled and succumbed to fall-related injuries surely, but honed their balance every day doing the simple acts of living.
We modern humans aren’t tripping over ourselves all day, but we certainly don’t push ourselves in the ways our ancestors did. Chairs, cars, and paved sidewalks have made us soft. Even super fit athletes often struggle with the type of single-leg balance and stability exercises we’re presenting today.
Just like we need to lift weights to develop the strength that our ancestors would have developed naturally, we need to intentionally cultivate excellent balance. That’s what the exercises below, presented by my pal and collaborator Brad Kearns, are for.
Before attempting these exercises, you should feel comfortable balancing on one leg while standing still. Folks still working on building that solid foundation must start with beginner balance exercises first and work your way up to these more advanced movements.
That said, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself! You might be surprised at how wobbly you are the first time you attempt these exercises. Stick with it. If you’re serious about working on your balance, do the following exercises a few times a week.
Before launching into the specifics, here are some guidelines that will make these exercises safer and more effective:
Keep your core engaged throughout the exercise.
When you bend your knees (lunging, for example), keep the knees tracking over your foot. Do not allow them to cave inward or flare outward.
Land softly when you jump.
When you first start out, have a wall or pole nearby that you can grab for support, but don’t hang onto it. Use a light touch if you need it.
Do these exercises barefoot or wearing the most minimal shoes possible. Remember, balance starts in the feet.
You can do all six of the exercises below as one dedicated balance workout. Do one or two sets of each exercise as described. Or like Brad, incorporate a couple of them into your morning routine or as part of a microworkout.
Low lunge with torso touch
This is similar to a walking lunge with which you’re probably familiar. The difference here is that with each forward lunge, you’re going to bring your torso toward your front thigh. Focus on form over speed. Make your movements deliberate as you lunge forward with the front knee tracking over toes, hinge forward at the hips without rounding your back, and then push up powerfully to take the next step while keeping the glutes and core engaged.
Take 10 to 15 steps in one direction, then turn around and return to the starting point.
One-legged step ups
Place your left foot on a bench, step, or box. Engage your glutes and push through your left foot to stand up on the bench. Bring your right foot to meet the left. Make sure your body rises straight up in the air rather than throwing your body forward and back to harness momentum.
Do 12 to 15 on the left foot, then switch and do the same number on the right.
For a more advanced variation, drive the left knee up to hip height while raising your arms in the air with each step up.
Elevated leg soft jumping
Place one foot on a bench, step, or box behind you. You can dorsiflex the back foot so the toes anchor to the bench, or point the toes so the top of the foot rests on the bench. Hop on the standing leg, keeping a microbend in the knee. These hops should be small, with the foot barely leaving the ground. Mix up the speed from one workout to the next to play around with different stimuli.
Do 10 to 15 on the first leg, , then switch and do the same number on the second side.
Side to side jumps
Jump laterally from one foot to the other. The knee will want to cave in as you land, so pay careful attention to keeping the knee tracking over the foot.
One set is 10 to 20 jumps.
Bulgarian split squat
Place one foot on a bench, step, or box behind you. Nearly all your weight is in the standing leg. Squat down, then stand up and finish with full extension of the hips, snapping your hips forward.
This is a hard one, so 8 reps per leg will suffice. If you want to make it even more challenging, hold a weight in one or both hands or a kettlebell at chest height.
Stand on your left leg, keeping the knee soft. Hinge forward at the hips and lower your torso toward the ground while your right leg raises straight behind you. Imagine your head, torso, and right leg all being connected in a straight line and moving as a single unit. Reach forward toward the ground with your right hand for balance. Contract your left glutes and hamstrings to reverse the motion and return to standing. Tap your right foot to the ground if needed, but strive to keep it elevated throughout the entire movement.
Tip: Make sure the head stays fixed on the neck so that your gaze should travel up and down with the upper body. When you’re standing, you’re looking straight ahead, and when you’re bent over, you’re looking at the ground. Aim for 15 to 20 reps per side.
For a complete demonstration of all these moves, plus more helpful tips from Brad, check out the YouTube video: