In Part 3 of this series on balance we focus at three key strategies the body uses to maintain balance. Read part 1 and 2 of this series by clicking here.
Balance Strategies: The Ankle, Hip and Stepping Strategies.
Based on the sensory feedback described in the previous article, maintaining balance can be achieved through three main strategies which are known as the ankle, hip and stepping strategies. Understanding more about each strategy should help you select appropriate training tasks and prevent you from wasting time developing the type of balance that does not transfer to injury prevention or performance in your sport.
The ankle strategy restores balance through movement primarily created at the ankle joint. This strategy has a primary role in recovering stability in static conditions however under dynamic conditions its main function is to recover antero-posterior stability because of the limited medio-lateral movement possible at this joint. The ankle strategy is most commonly used in situations where the disturbance to balance is small and the support surface is firm and stable.
The hip strategy restores balance by movement primarily created at the hip complex. This strategy is commonly used in both medio-lateral and antero-posterior instability when the disturbance to balance is large and fast or if the surface is unstable or smaller than the base of support. Because of the limited ability of the ankle and knee to move medio-laterally the hip becomes the primary lower limb joint used when recovering balance in situations where larger corrections are required such as during high intensity jump landings and perturbations. The trunk is also involved in medio-lateral stability and when large balance corrections are required the trunk may need to work with the hips to correct balance.
The stepping strategy can be used in the form of a step or a hop and is used when the ankle and hip strategies cannot maintain balance in static conditions. It has been proposed that the stepping strategy is often used by untrained individuals when it would have been possible to recover balance by means of the ankle and hip strategies. In fact several studies have found that giving the specific instruction of ‘keep feet in place’ was sufficient to decrease the frequency of those individuals who successfully maintained balance without the step strategy.
The stepping strategy is also the primary strategy that is used in sport since almost all sports require athletes to move around the field of play by taking steps as they run or jump. As a result training balance in the stepping strategy should be the number one priority for training balance in athletes as opposed to training the ankle or hip strategies in static balance tasks.
What this means practically is that athletes should be taught how to align their centre of mass and base of support as they make steps so as to maximise balance under the particular constraints of the task. It follows that this skill should be trained at different loads, velocities, and with forces acting in different directions in line with what is required for a particular sport or skill. These constraints can all be manipulated in exercises like loaded carries, sprint drills and change of direction tasks where there is an explicit or implicit focus on how the athlete's centre of mass and base of support are aligned.
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