Training Superhuman Balance and Equilibrioception

By on March 17, 2023

Balance is an overlooked aspect of human performance. Yet it is integral to the ability to move powerfully and with confidence. Balance is not only crucial to ensure you remain steady on your feet, it’s also critical for generating power, traversing the environment, and moving with grace and poise. 

But how do we train balance?

Balance Training

Defining Balance Training

First, we must define it. Friend of the channel and all-round legend, J. C. Santana, uses a fantastic visual analogy to explain balance: that of an equilateral triangle. 

Place the equilateral triangle on its bottom and it will remain steady. This is stability.

But flip it over to stand it perfectly on its peak, and this perfectly represents balance.

Newsflash: you are not a triangle. So, how does this apply to you?

Balance Defined

Essentially, the less stability you have, the more balance you need. And it is considerably harder to generate power without stability. This is why squatting weight on a balance board is NOT a good way to build muscular strength.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to generate power while in an unstable position: just look at the power you can deliver from one leg with a roundhouse kick! Or, the ability of a free runner to leap great distances from a narrow beam.

Balance can, somewhat, makeup for stability when it is missing. 

So, how does the body regular balance?

The Vestibular System

Firs things first: balance is not completely explained by the vestibular system. Balance is not a sense. Not really. Rather it is a combination of senses working together.

Your vestibular system provides your ability to detect changes in the position of your head. As you likely remember from school biology lessons, this works via fluid contained within three semi-circular canals alongside the utricle and saccule in the ear. 

Vestibular System

The utricle and saccule (the otolith organs) detect gravity and linear motion; while the canals are filled with a fluid called endolymph detect rotational movements. As the head moves, the fluid follows and creates pressure against the sensory receptors of the canals (tiny hair cells located within the ampulla). Meanwhile, the otolith organs respond to the movement of tiny calcium-carbonate crystals called otoconia. 

The brain can calculate information from all these inputs to then understand the movement that is occurring. 

But the savvy among you may have already identified a problem here: rotation and forward movement of the head does not necessarily mean the whole body is moving. We therefore need to use our other sense, in order to figure out the bigger picture.



And this is where proprioception plays a big role. Proprioception being the sense of your body in space, which is in turn the result of muscle spindles, golgi-tendon organs, and Pacinian corpuscles. These detect changes in muscle length, muscular effort, and surface pressure, across the body. The fascia also plays a role here, with its own mechanoreceptions to detect tension between muscles and joints. 

A great way to train proprioception during exercise is to close your eyes. This works particularly well for hand-balancing movements such as handstands but also for other balancing exercises like pistol squats or forward reaches. 


This simply forces you to focus more on proprioception and to listen to cues from your body. This will help you to maintain balance more easily, once you add in the other senses back in. 

Another massive tip for improving proprioception and balance is to take off your shoes or to train in minimal footwear. Thick soles and large heels muffle signals that otherwise come from the feet to provide crucial information about the shape of the ground beneath. Your feet should even be able to contort and shape themselves around the ground underneath.

See Also: Proprioception Exercises – Move Like Spider-Man

Take off your shoes and feel the ground beneath you and you’ll instantly have an easier time balancing along a thin railing. But over time, you’ll also get better at integrating that information, greatly improving your balance. 

Another key area to focus on, though, is proprioception of the neck.

Train the Neck for Balance

The neck is the junction between your ears and the rest of your body. 

When you run and jump, it is the role of the neck to keep the head and even the eyes steady so they don’t move more than necessary. If you’ve ever tried running and filming without stabilization on your camera, you’ll know just how impossible it is to see what’s going on.

See also: Neck Training for Balance, Speed, and Strength

As such, when you begin moving, the brain stem will transmit impulses to the muscles that control eye movement, head and neck movement, as well as many more muscles throughout the body. The vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) sends impulses to the eyes and helps keep them entirely steady, even as the head moves around. 

neck curls training

In fact, contractions in the neck trigger involuntary eye movements! And you can even test this connection yourself by placing your hand on the back of your neck and moving your eyes left and right – you’ll feel your neck muscles contracting (thems the splenius capitis (study)). The connection works both ways.

When landing or running, stability is created in the neck through tension in order to prevent whiplash or jolting. This both protects the neck and maintains balance and awareness of an individual’s surroundings (study). 

See also: Jaw Training for an Even Tougher Neck

This is why coaches such as Mike Gittleson believe training the neck to improve athleticism (among other reasons). I recommend both training neck strength, with either isometric exercises or light work with a plate, AND using neck stretches to keep the neck limber and responsive. Morning neck stretches can actually do a world of good in a variety of ways – improving mobility throughout the entire system and helping you to maintain alignment.

I recommend Mark Wildman’s video on this topic.

Hindu Push Up

Also useful are exercises that integrate head and neck movement with larger, all-round proprioception. A fantastic example is the Hindu push up, also sometimes referred to as the dive-boomber push up. By diving toward the ground in this way, you are moving the entire spine and neck and really activating that vestibular system. 

The Role of Vision for Improving Balance

But then there’s the issue of the unstable surface! It could be that the entire body is steady, but the ground has shifted; say if you’re fighting on a boat in a storm. Which could totally happen.

Vision plays a role here. And this is why watching the horizon can be so useful to keep the body upright. 

It’s also a matter of learning what the visual feedback should be during a successful movement and then adjusting in accordance with that. When performing a flip of any kind for the first time, your brain will be confused and alarmed at the world spinning around. When performing one for the 1,000th time, it will be used to that input and thus better able to marry the information coming from the various senses.

focus eye

In this case: practice makes perfect. And learning how to spot and where to look during movements is a crucial aspect of performance.

AND the more different movements you add to your arsenal, the better you’ll become at dealing with unexpected orientations.

While not everyone is going to start tricking like Grant, what you can do is to incorporate some more variation in your movements. Most people can start learning to cartwheel. Or practicing breakfalls.

Unstable Surface Training

What’s less proven is the usefulness of training with balance boards. While this can be great for the brain in other ways, the benefit as it relates to balance is limited. This is because most of us already have sufficient proprioception in this area. While balance board training can be useful for those rehabilitating from injury, most of us won’t benefit from this to a large degree – at least according to the current body of evidence.

Juggling working memory

I still recommend unstable surface training for cognitive gains – but not so much for balance.

What has been shown to be much more effective is slacklining and barefoot running. These activities similarly train the ankles and feet but in a far more multi-dimensional manner and with a greater skill ceiling. This seems to translate to greater results that improve everything from running speed and injury prevention to, yes, balance.

See also: How to Build Stronger Ankles: Mobility, Stability, & Balance

AND it can also be beneficial to improve ankle mobility, as this will allow you to generate force from a wider range of positions.


So, then, what can we do to train and improve our balance and equilibrioception to exceptional standards?

Practice calisthenics with your eyes closed. Especially movements like the handstand or pistol squat that require a lot of proprioception.

Blindfold for Balance

Switch to barefoot shoes and try trail running to accelerate your ability to utilize that input from the feet.

Strengthen the neck and keep it limber. Utilize movements like the Hindu push up that will help you to integrate head movement with full body exercise.

And practice movements like cartwheels and breakfalls that will prepare you for more changes in orientation. 

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. JM Bell says:

    I would like to add for those interested in barefoot or minimalist shoe running is to b es careful with how to progress on that.

    I went straight into Vivobarefoot’s Primus trail II’s and got a hairline stress fracture on my left foot. Took about 7 weeks to heal, and now I am using Altra lone peak 6 with insoles from 7mm down to 3mm, and will be going down the padding amount slowly until I can run with just 3-5mm of padding, but that will take a couple of years…

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