5 Exercises to Improve Your Balance

Try incorporating these moves into your weekly workouts.

Photo: Jason Innes

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Balance, along with strength and functionality, is a key component to overall fitness, and our balance actually worsens as we age. This is caused by degeneration of each of these systems: our visual acuity, our strength and the ability to use our strength effectively to control the position of our bodies in space, and the function of our inner ear. These exercises improve balance by increasing your ability to control your body in space and keep it from falling, both in static positions and as you move.

Each exercise has different levels; practice them until you feel comfortable with at least the Level 1 form of each exercise. If you feel competent with that, try Level 2. Remember, there’s no set timetable for fitness and health. Move along at your own pace, and don’t rush your progress.

Side Leg Swings

This is a balance exercise that also serves to stretch and strengthen the outer hip.

Primary Muscles: Gluteus medius
Secondary Muscles: Transverse abdominis, adductors, abductors, calf muscles (in advanced form)

side leg swing balance exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Stand straight with hands on your hips and your right leg positioned across your midline. Swing that leg out to the side as high as you can, and then swing it back across your midline like a pendulum. This constitutes 1 rep. Keep the knee of your supporting leg slightly bent in order to engage your leg muscles, and be sure to tighten your transverse abdominis.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Perform this exercise with your eyes closed. Removing visual cues challenges your brain to rely more on your strength and proprioception.

LEVEL 3: Perform this exercise while standing on the soft side of a BOSU (as shown). This challenging form of the exercise requires you to hold your supporting ankle in a stable position, in addition to maintaining your balance as your swinging leg keeps shifting your center of gravity.

Side leg swing advanced modification
Photo: Jason Innes

Leg Crossovers

This exercise engages the lateral stabilizers, improves balance, works the inner and outer leg, and challenges the rest of the body to hold the position while you perform the movement. That’s a lot of work in a single exercise!

Primary Muscles: Abductors, adductors
Secondary Muscles: Gluteus medius, rectus abdominis, hip flexors, erector spinae, lateral stabilizers, transverse abdominis

Leg crossover balance exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Lean back, with palms on the ground behind you. With pointed toes, straighten your legs and lift them up off the ground in front of you. Spread them wide and then scissor them, alternating one leg over the other (that is, cross your right leg over your left, spread out wide, cross your left leg over your right leg, and so on). The more upright you sit, the more challenging and effective the exercise. Crossing your right leg over your left and then your left leg over your right constitutes 1 rep.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Perform as described, but keep your hands off the floor, balancing entirely on your tailbone.

LEVEL 3: Perform the movement while holding one dumbbell in one hand off to the side (as shown). The dumbbell doesn’t have to be heavy. All we want is to put a little tug on one side of your body to force your core to compensate. This additional challenge will strengthen your stabilizing muscles.

Leg crossover advanced modification
Photo: Jason Innes

Stability Ball Leg Curls

The main muscle group being worked in this one is the hamstrings, but many other muscles are engaged to hold your body in position while you perform the movement, allowing the exercise to improve balance.

Primary Muscles: Hamstrings
Secondary Muscles: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, erector spinae, hip flexors, transverse abdominis

Stability ball leg curl balance exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Lie on your back with your calves on the stability ball, arms spread out to the sides to remain stable. Raise your hips until your body is straight as a board from your shoulders to your feet. Bend your knees and roll the ball in toward your body, coming as close to touching your backside as possible. Roll the ball out again to the starting position. (If necessary, bend your elbows and use your hands to prop up your backside.) This constitutes 1 rep.

Avoid raising and lowering your hips while you perform this exercise. Your upper body should stay as still as possible while your legs are moving. Note that the wider you spread your feet on the ball, the more control you have. Since we aim to destabilize the body as much as possible in order to work the core, as you grow stronger, work to keep your feet as close together as possible. And don’t let your hips sag or rock up and down.

LEVEL 1: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 2: Bring your feet close together on the stability ball. This limits your ability to triangulate between your shoulders and your feet, reducing your points of contact from three (shoulders and two separated feet) to two (shoulders and two feet together). This decrease in lateral stability makes your core work harder.

LEVEL 3: For a real challenge, lie with your shoulders and upper back on the soft side of a BOSU, with arms raised and feet on the stability ball (as shown). This will leave you without any contact with solid ground, thus forcing your transverse abdominis to work harder to keep you from tipping over.

Stability ball leg curl modification
Photo: Jason Innes

Supine Plank with Leg Raises

This exercise gauges your strength-to-weight ratio, since you have to be able to hold your body still in space and perform a difficult movement. You’ll likely find this to be one of those exercises that’s harder than it looks.

Primary Muscles: Hip flexors, quadriceps, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, erector spinae
Secondary Muscles: Deltoids, triceps

Supine plank leg raise balance exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Sit on the floor with your heels on the floor, your knees partly bent, and your palms on the floor behind you. Raise your hips up so that you are resting only on your hands and heels. Fight the urge to let your hips sink down. Hold them as high as possible, which engages your gluteus maximus and medius muscles. Raise your right leg as high as you can, keeping it as straight as you can, and lower it back down without letting it touch the floor. This constitutes 1 rep.

LEVEL 1: To decrease the difficulty, do the exercise as described, but lower yourself down on your elbows and bend your knees more.

LEVEL 2: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 3: Place the heel of the supporting leg on the center of the soft side of a BOSU (as shown).

Supine plank leg raise advanced modification
Photo: Jason Innes

Dumbbell Stability Ball Flyes

This single-joint movement directly works your chest and front shoulders, but it also challenges your stabilizing muscles. So it’s actually a balance exercise that’s disguised as a strength exercise.

Primary Muscles: Pectorals, anterior deltoids
Secondary Muscles: Transverse abdominis, erector spinae, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius

Dumbbell stability ball flys balance exercise
Photo: Jason Innes

The Movement

Lie back on a stability ball so that it is supporting your upper back, shoulders, and head. Grip a dumbbell in each hand and hold them directly overhead, slightly touching. With elbows slightly bent and pointing outward, spread your arms wide until you feel a stretch across your chest, and then bring your arms back to your starting position. This constitutes 1 rep.

Ensure the ball is positioned so that your head is supported, to avoid neck strain. Remember to keep your elbows consistently bent throughout the movement. If you bend and then straighten your elbows, you will change this from a fly exercise to a press. A press introduces the triceps to the exercise, which makes it easier, thus reducing the challenge.

LEVEL 1: Perform the exercise while lying on an exercise mat.

LEVEL 2: Perform the movement as described.

LEVEL 3: Perform the exercise by lying back on a stability ball while keeping your feet on the soft side of a BOSU (as shown). This destabilizes you further, requiring even more core stabilization. To increase the challenge, flip the BOSU so the soft side is facing down and your feet are on the hard side.

Dumbbell stability ball flys advanced modification
Photo: Jason Innes

Adapted from Ageless Strength by Jeff Horowitz with permission of VeloPress.

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