The Science Behind How Balance Board Training Works for Athletes
Professional surfers have been using balance boards for decades to achieve mastery levels of balance in the harshest conditions. Now athletes are adopting the same tools to transform their athleticism and motor skills.
This post covers why balance is vital to your athletic ability, everything you need to know about balance boards, and the science behind what all goes into training your balance.
- Why Balance Training Is Important for Athletic Performance
- History of Balance Boards
- The Science Behind How Balance Board Training Works for Athletes
- The Benefits of Balance Training
- The Different Kinds of Balance Boards
- Final Thoughts on Balance Board Training
Why Balance Training Is Important for Athletic Performance
Have you ever tried to balance a broomstick on its end?
If you removed all of the biological systems within your body responsible for balance, staying upright would be about as tricky as balancing that broomstick.
When you think about it, it’s miraculous that humans can stand upright, let alone walk, run, or dive through the air while throwing a ball with remarkable precision before hitting the ground into a graceful roll.
Every athletic movement requires tremendous amounts of balance to be effective. When your body goes through the motion of kicking a soccer ball, the accuracy of your body positioning needs to be within millimeters of precision to get a goal-winning trajectory. One tiny miscalculation in balance affects your entire chain of biomechanics – sending the ball right into the crossbar.
Your brain undertakes an extraordinary amount of calculations with every movement you make to balance your body. Luckily, all of the mechanisms that come into play for balance are trainable and can be dramatically improved.
One of the best tools you can find for that training is the humble balance board.
History of Balance Boards
The origin of the modern balance board likely isn’t what you’d expect.
In 1942 during a mission for the U.S. military’s Air Transport Comand, WWII pilot Stanley Washburn Jr was grounded at the Gold Coast in Africa (now modern-day Ghana.) During that time, he saw a group of children smiling and laughing while playing, seeing who could balance the longest on a plank of wood placed over a sawed-off log.
When he returned home after the war, he remembered the kids balancing over a log in Africa and thought his own children might have just as much fun with the activity. After success in the neighborhood and a few refinements later, the first patented balance board came onto the market.
It didn’t take long for the product to explode into the world of athletics. Surfers and Skiiers immediately recognized how incredible the balance board was for improving their skill on the days they weren’t in the water or on the slopes.
The benefits of improved balance, coordination, motor control, and injury prevention quickly shifted balance board training to spread into other athletic disciplines and became a common sight in the physical therapist’s office.
The Science Behind How Balance Board Training Works for Athletes
While it may seem incredibly straightforward that a tool you balance on improves your balance, as an athlete, it’s important to understand the underlying mechanisms that devices like the balance board are training and why it improves your athleticism.
There are three central systems in your body that you’re training with a balance board. Working together, they are the foundation for your ability to properly balance and move your body throughout athletic movements:
- Visual System
- Vestibular System
- Somatosensory System
We’ll cover each of the three systems involved in maximizing balance for athletes as well as how incorporating a balance board trains each of the mechanisms.
1.) The Visual System
Your eyes are possibly the most important sensory organ in the body. More than 50% of the cortex is devoted to processing visual data from your surroundings.
Your brain has an incredible ability to make calculations based on what it sees in its environment. If you’re running through an uneven trail through the woods, your brain is keeping track of all the terrain variations and making lightning-fast calculations for every foot placement.
For both static and dynamic balance in athletes, your eyes constantly feed your body information about what’s changing in your environment. Every time you move in your sport of choice, your brain takes that new visual information and ensures each body part reacts to maintain balance.
When you’re training on a balance board, your brain takes visual cues from your eyes about what’s happening. Every slight movement in the visual field tests your brain’s ability to adjust your body’s positioning to maintain balance. When those predictions are accurate, your brain gets better at recognizing which visual cues correspond with the right movements to keep you balanced.
The more you practice and engage in activities like balance board training, it gives your body the opportunities to build the brain-body connections necessary to improve balance and stability.
2.) The Vestibular System (Inner Ear)
The vestibular system includes the organs of your inner ear and is responsible for detecting your body’s motion, head position, and spatial orientation.
Every time your head moves, the fluids running through the canals of the inner ear move around and determine your orientation in real-time. This information provides the rest of your body with the valuable data it needs to figure out what direction you’re moving and at what speed.
Training your inner ear with a balance board is a lot like using your hands to keep the bubble on a level between the lines. While you’re attempting to balance, your body uses the information from the inner ear to determine how you need to move your body to maintain your point of balance.
Over time, your brain tests different movements to determine “what’s too much and what’s too little” by referencing how the fluids in your inner ear react. Gradually, your brain gets better at knowing what decisions it needs to make to keep your body in the position it needs to be to maintain balance.
3.) The Somatosensory System
The somatosensory system is responsible for detecting touch, proprioception (your body’s position in space), pain, and temperature.
Let’s begin with touch. There are two main ways your body uses touch to maintain balance. If you close your eyes and walk down a hill, your brain does a great job using the sensations from your feet to keep you moving along without toppling over.
Your sense of touch also provides instant feedback to check your brain’s math when it’s making calculations for your movement. Like when you don’t see the last step on a flight of stairs, and your heart skips a beat, your brain miscalculated what it anticipated your foot would feel (and you’ll probably bend your knees a bit more walking down the next flight of stairs.)
By far, the most extraordinary thing the somatosensory system helps you do is proprioception. Proprioception is the “sixth sense” that allows different parts of the body to know their own position and movement though space without having to see it visually.
Here’s an easy example you can do right now to understand proprioception. Close your eyes and extend your right arm to your side. Now, move it above your head and wiggle your fingers.
Even though your eyes were closed, you could sense the exact position of your arm, its movement through space, and even the tiny movements of your fingers in surprising detail.
It is invaluable to have this “sixth sense” of being aware of your body’s position and movement through space as an athlete. Every aspect of your athleticism relies on it.
The Benefits of Balance Training:
- Improves Balance and Stability
- Trains the Visual, Vestibular, and Somatosensory Systems
- Improves Agility and Movement Reaction Time
- Strengthens Stabilizing Muscles of the Entire Body
- Reduces Risk of Injury
- Improves Posture
- Improves Brain Function and Focus
The Different Kinds of Balance Boards
There are three main kinds of balance boards: Roller Boards, Wobble Boards, and Rocker Boards.
It’s easy to recognize their differences and applications when you visually see them side by side. We’ll put a few in an Amazon grid below for you.
Also, we’ll quickly highlight the original Indo Board on this list since it will have its own dedicated article in the future (Great reason to subscribe to our newsletter!)
The Indo Board is an excellent product used and endorsed by national, world, and Olympic athletes in virtually every sport. Since you can use it as a roller board, rocker board, and wobble board when you buy the package, it’s a versatile tool built to last. Their site even says it’s made to accommodate riders from age 3-93, so you could even hand it down to your kids some day.
It also comes in a ton of designs that are way cooler than the one in the picture below. So be sure to check them out!
But balance boards aren’t the only tool you can use to improve your balance. Take a look at our full list of the top balance training tools to find new ways to master your balance and boost your athletic capability.
If you want to add a balance board to your home gym, using one of the links above will supply us with a small commission from Amazon (at no additional cost to you!) So if you appreciate the work we do and the information we provide in articles like this, your support helps us keep the lights on. Thanks for your support!
Final Thoughts on Balance Board Training:
Along with honing your balance skills, balance board training can also help in prove the fine motor skills in your joints even improving elements of your biomechanics like ankle dorsiflexion and overall mobility.
In our post about the importance of mobility training, we discuss how athleticism is your ability to precisely and effectively move your body through space and time.
If mobility is what allows you to move through a correct and full range of motion. Balance is the remaining factor that ties all five senses together (and the sixth sense of proprioception) and allows your body to move with extraordinary athleticism.
Also, if you’re looking for tools that help you take your newfound balance capability and translate it into speed and agility, you might be interested in our post on the best speed training tools available for athletes.
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