Laird Hamilton: How to Boost Your Balance

 Photograph by Peter Bohler

You block off time to build strength, improve endurance, and even stretch. But when did you last work on balance? It's key to performing any dynamic movement — punching, kicking, jumping, running — and to being agile on your feet, but most of us have no idea whether we have good balance. That's because every day we use subconscious balance "cheats" that mask or even encourage instabilities: grabbing handrails to walk down stairs, leaning against walls or counters as we talk, and relying on machines or stationary exercises at the gym. Strength is not a substitute. I've seen muscle-bound guys who couldn't stand on one foot to save their lives. Try it yourself. If you can't remain stable for 30 seconds on each leg, you've got work to do. Here's how to get started.

Do One-Leg Progressions

This three-part series trains you to keep your torso stable no matter what your limbs are doing. (It also doubles as a great warm-up.) Start in a lunge with your back foot elevated on a bench, arms raised overhead. Do 10 lunges, abs tight and torso upright; repeat on the opposite leg. Next, stand on your right foot, arms still raised overhead, and slowly hinge forward for a one-legged dead lift. Your left leg should be straight behind you, arms reaching forward, so you create a straight line from toes to hands. Do 10 reps on each leg. Finish with 10 lateral bounds: Jump off your right foot to your left side and land on your left foot; reverse the movement to go back.

Try Headstands and Handstands

When upside down, you're forced to improve awareness of where your body is in space and concentrate on staying connected. Begin with headstands or handstands against a wall, keeping your glutes, abs, and thighs tight. Aim to take your feet off the wall for a few seconds. Once that's doable, try shifting your palms, then tapping your shoulders.

Add Tools

Anytime you change the surface you're standing on, you strengthen your neuromuscular system, forcing it to fire to keep you stable. A good way to do this is to perform your usual sets of stationary moves, like squats and presses, on a balance disk or BOSU ball (a rubber half-dome). Right now I'm trying to master the slackline, one of the most challenging balance tools I've tried. I strung one up over my pool, with the goal to make it all the way across by summer.