by Faye Rapoport
Jean-Paul Des Pres, MSW, Cert. PT., is a personal trainer who works with clients in the Boston area. He is certified by the American Council on Exercise, and is an award winning duo-athlete and official qualifier for the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon.
One of the latest trends in fitness is balance/functional training, and Des Pres specializes in applying the principles of this type of training to his clients’ workouts. His practice also focuses on weight control and lifestyle counseling. .
Des Pres recently spoke with Foot.com about the concepts behind balance/functional training, including exercises that help prevent injury and strengthen the lower legs and feet.
Foot.com:Jean-Paul, can you explain what “balance training” is?
Des Pres: Sure, balance training is any type of exercise or training routine that is performed in an unstable environment. The idea is to not only challenge and develop the muscles (“prime movers”) involved in performing a given exercise, but also to challenge and develop a person’s ability to access (recruit) the muscles that are used to assist the prime movers (stabilizer muscles) .
Most non-athletes, “weekend warriors,” and older exercisers lack the neurological efficiency needed to safely support sports-related movement, or perhaps even their activities of daily living. Balance training develops a person’s nervous system, not just their muscles.
A beginning example would be doing standing bicep curls on one foot instead of two. An advanced example would be hopping from foot to foot while doing lunges. The idea in both cases is to perform the exercise as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Of course, try to avoid falling, ha ha.
Foot.com:Is what you are describing the same as “core stability training?”
Des Pres: Not quite. “Core stability training” is a type of training that aims very specifically to strengthen the abdominal and back muscles located between the pelvic girdle and the rib cage. The idea here is to strengthen these muscles in a way that ensures that they work together to allow for movement, in general. These muscles, working together, provide the leverage needed for every movement through space that we make.
Core stability training can be categorized as a type of balance training. In fact, core stability training exercises performed in an unstable environment, i.e. crunches performed on a Swiss ball, will yield much better results than crunches done on the “ab machine”.
Foot.com:What types of equipment are used to do balance training?
Des Pres: The beauty of balance training is that you don’t need a lot of equipment. Generally speaking, stay away from machines! Remember, the idea behind balance training is to destabilize your exercise environment. Machines do the work of balancing for you, and ultimately will make you less coordinated. For balance training, the only specialized equipment you need is a Swiss ball (sometimes called a stability ball, or resista ball), and maybe a balance board.
Good balance training is about getting creative with your choice of exercises. Don’t be afraid to consult a good personal trainer, ha ha.
Foot.com:Does this kind of training target the legs specifically, or the whole body?
Des Pres: It targets the whole body.
Foot.com:Are there specific exercises you can describe that would benefit the lower legs and/or feet?
Des Pres: Sure, like I said before, do lunges hopping from foot to foot, instead of walking lunges. Lunges that involve twisting and untwisting your torso during movement are also good. One-legged squats, and/or squats performed on a balance board are great.
For someone who needs to develop a bit more strength before doing hopping lunges or one- legged squats, try a traditional body weight squat or lunge with your eyes closed. It’s harder than you think.
Remember, all lower body exercises begin with your feet, so any type of lower body balance training is going to have benefits for the muscles of the calf and foot, and for ankle stability.
Foot.com:Could this kind of training actually help you prevent a lower leg or foot injury, such as an ankle injury?
Des Pres: Absolutely! Every time you sprain your ankle, you short circuit the neurological communication between your brain and the muscles that stabilize the ankle. This communication can become virtually non-existent over time, which is why once you’ve sprained your ankle a few times it becomes easier and easier to sprain it. The same goes for the type of twists and shocks that lead to meniscus and ACL injuries. Balance training helps not only to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the ankle and knee, but also to restore and maintain the neural communication necessary for proper movement and injury prevention.
Foot.com:Are there particular sports where the athletes benefit most from balance training?
Des Pres: Let’s see, how many sports are there where injury prevention and not falling on your butt are important? Tennis anyone? The list goes on forever.
Foot.com:How often should the average fitness enthusiast do balance training exercises?
Des Pres: Since balance training emphasizes form and stability over absolute strength, balance training exercises don’t necessarily put a lot of stress on prime movers. Recovery time is short. What this means is that you could, and should, incorporate balance training into your overall training routine at every exercise session.
For example, on a day that you exercise your chest, do 4 or 5 sets of traditional bench presses using heavy weight and low repetitions. Follow this with three sets of dumb bell presses while lying on the Swiss ball. Holding yourself in the proper position will activate and develop abdominal and back muscles in ways that traditional bench presses will not.
Foot.com:Where can someone learn more about this type of fitness activity?
Des Pres: Uhh, from me? Seriously, the American council on exercise is a wonderful resource, as is the National Academy of Sports Medicine. There is a company called “Perform Better” that specializes in a type of balance training known as functional training. They’re a great resource, too.
Foot.com: Thank you for your time, Jean-Paul!
Des Pres: Any time.
Jean-Paul Des Pres, MSW, Cert. PT. specializes in balance/functional training, weight control, and lifestyle counseling. He can be reached at: 617-787-9258 or 781-696-4902.