A Unilateral Approach to Good Balance - Retirement Net by Lisa Byrne

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A Unilateral Approach to Good Balance

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Want better balance? Learn to work one side of your body at a time.

It’s amazing the number of times I hear people in the studio say: my balance stinks. Huh?

Sure balance changes as we age, but balance is not something that we should have, especially as we grow older. Balance is always something that is being evaluated in our body. Our brain receives signals from incoming and through the feedback loop in our brain we adjust. Usually.

We’re able to do this very easily in our youth. We don’t even think about it. As we grow older and more bodily issues crop up, our balance becomes somewhat challenged. At least in the automatic way that we never had to think about balancing, we just adjusted.

I see all kinds of tips and pointers to help out with balance. Things like stand on one foot while brushing your teeth, close your eyes while you lift one leg, or stand on a wobble board and do bicep curls. These are all good for sure, but let me share an even better way to get better balance.

Do unilateral exercises, regularly.

Unilateral exercises are those that use only one side of your body. With these exercises you’re not relegated to just using one muscle group. (like only your biceps). You’ll get the best benefit if you incorporate a couple of muscle groups. (arm, low back, and hip).

Let me give you an simple everyday example:

Bending down to get the dog’s bowl, the fork that dropped out of your hand or to plug into that electric outlet. These are usually all one-sided. In all of these you’re using 2 to 3 muscle groups. And the movement is crossing over several unrelated joints. (Sure, it’s all related...but I’m talking about what your neck is doing as you lunge forward/down with your legs to get that fallen fork).

Not only do we tend to favor one side of our body in activities of daily living, but we love being able to do an exercise we’re good at doing. And doing those on our good side isn’t doing anything for a well-balanced body. It’s doing a whole lot for your ego. But you’re not exercising to get a bigger ego.

Or are you?

If you’re not into becoming only stronger and better on your good side and want to learn better balance for a well trained body, then I’ve got 3 really good unilateral exercises for you.

They may be challenging, but that’s what you want. In order to become better you must impose a demand on the body. The body will adapt specifically to the demand you impose. In exercise physiology it’s called the SAID principle: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. When you do a movement on one side of the body, different muscles need to engage to stabilize your spine and pelvis. Unequally load your body and you teach your body how to see the movement and respond.

So, Impose + Adapt = Become Better Balanced.

Here are my favorite 3 unilateral exercises to practice.

They may be a little different than what you’ve seen in publications such as Cosmo, Shape, or More. That’s the whole idea. These moves will challenge you to want to learn them on both sides rather than stroke your ego because you can do them.

Pay attention to the movement. Go slowly at first to let your nervous system sense the incoming sensations and allow you to move accordingly. Remember, because these are new to your brain, your body needs time and patience to adapt. Put your ego aside for now. You’ll be able to bring it back in once you’ve mastered these new moves!


The Setup
Start with your left leg forward and your right leg back. This is a split stance. You want to be apart enough so that don’t fall over, yet it’s not too easy. Two feet apart is ideal.

Start with your right hand up towards ceiling and leave your left hand/arm dangling, not holding onto yourself at all.

The Movement
Take your right hand and with a gentle swing, reach down and in between both your legs. This is the reach through portion.

What will make this movement golden is allowing your back heel to be off the floor. Having both your feet stuck to the floor limits your range of motion. It also makes balancing more challenging. But that’s what we’re working on, right?

So the movement in full is inhaling as you bring that right hand down and through your legs, with that back heel off, exhale and you return. Wobble-wobble. And to make this even better quality right from the beginning, let that other hand and arm reach out to the side to help your balance. This is a natural thing, so let it happen. Sometimes we need to be reminded to balance naturally.

Repeat this 7 times on each side.


The Setup
Standing, take your right leg and cross it over your other leg, like you had to pee. Leave a little space in between this stance. Take your right elbow and bend it down towards your right hip. You’re now leaning to the right. You’ll feel unbalanced.

The Movement
Bend both your knees so that you get into a squat-like position. Your butt is sticking out, your right elbow is in towards your hip and you’re leaning more to your right side.

Now, push everything up towards ceiling by straightening out your legs and pressing that right arm up to the ceiling. Give it a big stretch-like move.

Repeat 5-7 times each side.


The Setup
Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Have arms and hands in ready-to-go position in front of your your trunk.

The Movement
This is going to occur simultaneously. Reach your right hand/arm across your body as if you were going to push something to the side and step your right leg out to the right to do a side squat. So what you’re really doing is an oppositional move. Your right arm is going across your body (to the left), your right leg is squatting to the right. This will make your trunk have to stabilize your spine, while you go off balance a bit.

Repeat 7 times each side.

Lisa Byrne is the owner and CEO of Pilates for Sport in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She has a B.S. in Exercise Physiology, and is a Certified Pilates Instructor. Lisa has been in the Health and Fitness Industry for more than 23 years, operating her fully-equipped Pilates studio since 1999. Visitors to the movement studio span a wide range of physiques and abilities, and include average boomers looking for diversity; young people with Asperger's-Autism; hard-core athletes looking to “loosen up”; and those in need of chronic pain management through movement. Lisa’s website is MoveMoreToday.com.

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