Laird Hamilton: Building Core Strength Through Balance

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Photograph by Peter Bohler

Growing up, we didn't use balance boards or do stability-specific exercises – but we were always outside climbing things, wrestling, and running around with bare feet. Doing anything that challenges your equilibrium and tries to pull you off-kilter will improve your balance. I'm sure surfing developed my poise better than any exercise could have accomplished.

When we think of balance, most of us think of symmetry: If both sides of your body are even, then you'll be stable. But it's more about increasing the strength of your core – the muscles in your midsection that connect the upper and lower bodies and provide stability – and the connective tissue that extends from the tips of your toes to the tips of your fingers. That's why standup paddling is great for balance. It requires the whole body to be in sync while testing stability with every stroke of the paddle.

I put elite athletes on the paddleboard, and it's usually a real challenge, especially for big guys. Balance becomes more difficult the higher your center of gravity. At 6-foot-9, balancing on a surfboard and paddling around a swelling ocean is a daunting task. But you don't need an ocean and a standup paddleboard or a balance board or even a yoga class to achieve great equilibrium. Most gyms are equipped with lots of stability-challenging equipment, from BOSU balls to vibrating platforms that cause imbalance.

The most direct way to bring out your imbalances – and then correct them – is to first create asymmetry by standing on one leg. Here are three exercises that will challenge your balance.

Round-the-World Kettlebell Swing
Standing on one leg, swing a kettlebell around your waist by passing it from hand to hand behind your back. Reverse direction before switching legs and repeating.

One-Legged Shoulder Press
With a dumbbell in one hand, and the opposite leg lifted by bending the knee, press the dumbbell up to full extension, then lower it down to your shoulder and repeat. Keep the core engaged. Do a set of 15 to 20 reps and then switch sides.

One-Legged Row
Using the same formula as above, lift the leg opposite to the arm holding a dumbbell, bend slightly at the waist – while keeping a straight back and your core engaged – and then pull the dumbbell up to the chest and lower it down. Do a set of 15 to 20 reps and then switch sides.

Three Ways to Keep Your Balance

1. Fix Your Gaze
Vision is connected to equilibrium, so it's helpful to set your gaze on a fixed spot when your stability is challenged.

2. Use Your Breath
We have a tendency to hold our breath when we're trying to balance, but that causes tension that works against you. Breathing deeply into your abdomen is calming and more stabilizing.

3. Go Barefoot
Or at least wear shoes with flexible bottoms. The less rubber and foam between you and the floor, the better connected you'll be.

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