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Improved Riding Through Balance Training

by Dr. Dale McDonald BA, DC, CSCS, CCSS(C) Resident


Balance training does not have to incorporate circus acts to be effective. Here, Darryn Duhram stands on an Indo Board while tossing a ball against the wall.

Photo: Courtesy Johnny Louch and the Rockwell Training Facility

Nothing beats time in the saddle, but how many of us can ride all year long? The confines of winter or the rigors of day-to-day life often conspire to keep us off the bike and in the gym (or house or office). Thankfully there are a multitude of things that we can do to keep sharp for that seemingly rare occasion when we actually do get to ride.

Balance training for performance enhancement and injury prevention is enjoying a surge in research in recent years. Our brain derives information regarding balance from three sources: our eyes, inner ears and our balance receptors (proprioceptors). These proprioceptors are found in particularly high concentrations within the muscles, tendons and joints of the upper neck and ankle regions. This is a wonderfully efficient design as it allows our body the opportunity to send simultaneous information to our brain about what the two opposite ends of our body are doing. Motocross racers are uniquely positioned to benefit from a comprehensive balance training program.

Riding can put an extravagant amount of chronic strain on the muscles and joints of the upper neck, causing the proprioceptors in this region to send less accurate information to your brain regarding the position of your head relative to the rest of your body. While the average person can get by on two out of three available sources of balance information, motocrossers are by no means average! Imagine riding with your eyes closed and you’ll immediately understand what I mean. Choosing the correct line on the track requires fine motor control and lightning quick movements. Such swift, controlled movement can be enhanced by the judicious use of proprioceptive/balance aids.

Trainer Aldon Baker incorporates balance training with his riders Adam Cianciarulo and Ryan Villopoto. An Indo Board and balance ball is all that's needed!

Balance aids come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Wobble Boards and Bongo Boards are two examples that make great choices for riders looking to improve their balance. When using a Wobble Board, Bongo Board or other proprioceptive apparatus, aim to reproduce your riding position. For motocross racers, this is akin to an "attack position" where your knees, hips and back are flexed as they would be while negotiating a technical section of the track or trail. Proprioceptive training in this manner has been shown to have a positive influence on sense of position of the ankle joint and on balance, in addition to increasing muscle tone.

Increased muscle tone is one of the best side-effects of balance training. Time spent "out of the saddle" demands that racers have excellent hip strength in all planes of movement. Far more than just strong hip flexors and gluteal muscles, standing while controlling the lateral motion of the bike require great strength in the abductor/adductor (side to side) muscle groups. These side to side muscles are used as stabilizers when going through a whoop section, and are also very active when trying to control the lateral movement of the bike. Using an SRF board (available through FitterFirst) is an excellent way to strengthen the adductor and abductor muscle groups. An SRF board or ProFitter can also help with improving the strength and position sense of the ankle dorsiflexors (the muscles on the front of your shin). Used in pedaling and balance control, this muscle, like the other muscles in the ankle, is loaded with proprioceptors.

Check out this great deal we have over on the Virtual Trainer store. Get an Indo Board and Virtual Trainer Push-up bar in one convenient package. We call it the Virtual Trainer Pro Pack.



Motocross racers tend to be a tough bunch in terms of pain tolerance. A recent study concluded that human ankle proprioception is quite resistant to muscle pain. Adequate muscular strength can help to prevent injury in the first place, but take solace in knowing that your proprioception is not going to suffer too badly from banging up against a rock even if the rest of your ankle does! In the event that you do suffer a more serious ankle injury, balance training can expedite your return to riding. One of the leading causes of chronic ankle instability is believed to be a combination of diminished proprioception and lateral ankle muscle weakness. Balance training has been proven very effective in reducing the frequency of ankle sprains in people with chronic ankle instability. Studies show that 80% are functionally stable after completing a well-designed program.

Balance training can help enhance your riding experience from performance enhancement to injury prevention to post-injury rehabilitation. Anything that can do all these things should be a staple in your year-round training. Too bad a wobble board won’t fit in a tool pouch!

About the Author: Dr. Dale Macdonald is a post-doctoral sport specialist in Calgary and director of Elite Sport Performance and The Knee Clinic - the only private knee clinic in Alberta. He is not only a former intermediate/local pro motocross racer, he is also a chiropractor and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Check out Dr. Macdonald's website here. Follow on Twitter and become a Fan on FaceBook.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins February 27, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I'm not sure why people have the belief that balance training on unstable surfaces has such a high transfer to the sport skill of riding/racing?...Balance training needs to be left in the rehab setting to help rehab injuries..

  2. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer February 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    So are you saying that the only time balance training should be used is in a rehab setting? If so, I cannot say I agree with that. That is the whole premise of the article. Certainly I do not encourage balance training while squatting and all that craziness (I've been crystal clear on that point for years on this site), but balance training in the manner depicted above is certainly beneficial as stated in the article.

  3. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins February 27, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    I was saying I feel balance training is often misplaced in training especially in Moto training...In my opinion it serves very little transfer to actual sport performance...I think everyone just assumes it has this big carry over because everyone else is doing it. I used to assume the same until I actually put thought into and realized we were getting better balancing on objects instead of improving performance on a bike...Nobody has proven it's so effective in building a better athlete..Just my opinion and who knows maybe I change my mind in the future and think it's more valuable to the healthy athlete than I do now.

  4. Gravatar
    John Thomas Alcock February 27, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    @Joel. Just to use a random example. If you train a muscle it gets stronger. If you train balance sensors in you physical make up, why won't that increase your ability to balance, which in turn will be transfered into MX, if that is something you do? Personally, I think it will.
    I think balance training is very important. One is simply training the sensors to act correctly, like a kid learning to walk. He won't ever get walking unless he practices. His brain needs to understand what messages to send the muscles in order to get the job done. Only training and trial and error can accomplish that. Just sitting there and thinking about it won't help.

  5. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins February 27, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Yes I agree, the brain is everything...However, I don't believe you need an indo board or bosu ball to learn how to ride a bike better...It's 2 different skills...How do you get the kid to walk, he does it. How do you teach someone to ride a bicycle? They practice it, not stand on balance boards and things like that...Do I think those tools are pointless all together, no but I do not think they improve balance on a dirtbike... I have never had a racer come to me and say they need more balance when they ride....Riding is a skill and it's about the ability to ride the bike and to be good enough to react to each situation..

  6. Gravatar
    Jake February 27, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Joel, a big point in balance training is to build a strong core which we all know is very important while riding, but a strong core also helps in preventing injury, so those rehab sessions can hopefully be avoided. Granted, there are other ways to improve core strength, but I'm sure these trainers and riders are well aware of that..

  7. Gravatar
    Ricardo February 27, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Well I guess thats why Villopoto, Roczen and Ciancarulo can't seem to finish up front at any of the races, all the balance training from Aldon is throwing them off. Someone should probably get him on the phone and say something because his athletes are obviously being trained the wrong way which is extremely apparent from their lackluster results as of late.

  8. Gravatar
    D Hirtle, P.T. February 27, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Re-read the article. Nobody's saying that balance training improves your balance on a motorcycle, the author makes the valid point that utilizing these types of tools is a way to enhance coordination, stability and muscle co-contraction during dry-land exercise programs. The same way cycling enhances your ability to function well right at or somewhat over your anaerobic threshold. Neither supplants time on the bike.

    But if you really think it's a waste of time be sure and tell Aldon, and RV, and AC and Roczen.

  9. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins February 27, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    Haha easy guys...All I am trying to do is bring in another training philosophy here...Doesn't mean I'm right and I have all the answers...RV, AC, and KR are amazing racers and would still be winning races weather they do "balance training" or not because they are outliers in this sport. My point is just maybe we don't have to train with unstable surfaces because it is not as optimal as some may think.

    In my opinion I think the reality is it's a misplaced parameter to trying to improve sport skill...I know most ppl in the industry are on the band wagon of it so I wanted to bring a different perspective...

  10. Gravatar
    John Wakefield February 27, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    I agree to both views here but Joel makes a strong point in saying its a misplaced parameter to improve optimal performance due to training on a un balanced surface. You can get the same adaptation from non stable surfaces with specific exercises to improve balance.

    You see so many videos and pictures of riders training on indo boards, stability balls doing strength training yet training on these types of surfaces does not provide enough stimulus to increase strength or hypertrophy and often form is incorrect when doing these routines which has has a negative effect instead of a positive.

    Yes it has a place, no doubt in a athletes training, but not 24/7 for each session they perform as you often see or are lead to believe.

    Good article though, a lot of info int here to use.

  11. Gravatar
    John Wakefield February 27, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Ricardo: That post was none called for, those riders will be winning and getting the results they are regardless.

  12. Gravatar
    D Hirtle, P.T. February 28, 2014 at 7:49 am

    I agree that there is not 100% carryover for this type of training in all sports. I know of an Olympic bronze medal winning distance swimmer who lost his chance to repeat in the next Olympics when he fell off a 24" platform while doing plyometric drills, breaking both arms. In retrospect not a good choice. But in this realm, where the goal is to perform at a high level with a specific skillset while not falling off of a moving object the correlation is more clear. Working on unstable surfaces brings your brain's lower centers into play, almost a reflexive response to the potential of falling. In the rehab setting we use this as a backdoor way to disinhibit muscles that are weakened through trauma, pain, disuse. But the function (talking recruitment speed/ patterns not hypertrophy here) of these same muscle groups can be enhanced by repeated drills during training. It is correct that technique needs to be monitored but that is true with any exercise. Bottom line, when you get sideways going through a set of whoops, your extremities and trunk are going to respond quickly enough to keep your center of gravity in a position where you can avoid a crash, or they aren't. The only way to train for that on the bike is to "almost" fall off repeatedly.

  13. Gravatar
    TOM Z February 28, 2014 at 8:43 am

    I think something that is missed in these comments is the benefit in balance training for the vet riders/racers. As you age (I am 51) there is no question that balance diminishes. Balance training can extend the time that a vet rider can compete and make that time safer.

    I have practiced balance training for years and believe it has allowed me to remain competitive in a variety of sports against some youngsters that I really have no right to be competitive with.

    So all you vet guys pratice that balance stuff and show some of the kids that old age and treachery(+balance) will overcome youth and exuberance !!

  14. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer February 28, 2014 at 10:49 am

    First off, GREAT discussion guys. You see.... there is a way to talk intelligently without insulting people to get your point across. :)

    I think one very important thing to remember is that the way top rider's train and the way the rest of us train is vastly different. Top riders get the vast majority of their cardio conditioning by riding the motorcycle. What they do in the gym is used to enhance what they are developing on the bike. That is why I think it is silly when I see/hear top riders doing crazy/high intensity work in the gym. Top riders don't need MORE high intensity training they actually need LESS. The emphasis off the bike should be on lower and longer cardio sessions along with strength training. Top riders never ride the motorcycle in lower heart rate zones so this is an area that never gets trained therefore the importance of doing this off the bike.

    When it comes to the rest of us, the only way we can we can improve our cardio on the bike is by doing a fair amount of high intensity cardio in the gym. That is why I think Crossfit type workouts are very beneficial for motocross. But I still stand firm that circus act strength training on balance boards and bosu balls is dumb. Strength training should be done on a stable surface...period!

    I guarantee you (because I've asked) Aldon is NOT incorporating balance training with his riders to improve balance on the bike per say. He incorporates balance via Indo Boards and balance balls to force the rider to engage his core for stabilization. Increased core strength enhances the rider's ability on the bike.

    I am 46 and I definitely agree that balance training in the gym is beneficial. When I do a fair amount of Indo Board and Pogo Sticking over the winter months, I see and feel a HUGE difference in the spring time when I get back on the bike. I notice it even more when I get behind the boat on the wakeboard.

    I think it is also important to recognize the difference between balance training and unstable training. The majority of the time what I try to do is introduce an imbalance that forces me to engage the core. An example is pushups on the Indo Board. The imbalance forces an isometric contraction of the core other wise you fall over. It's also important to note that these imbalances are never used during months of max strength training.

  15. Gravatar
    Dr. Dale Macdonald March 01, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Hi guys;

    Great to see a lively debate on the article, and some good points have been brought up. Proprioceptive training is a cornerstone of all high-level fitness programs, and need not be sport specific in order to improve ones sense of balance and indeed core strength. I was telling Tim Cryster yesterday about a time when I was at Gary Bailey's motocross school back in the early 1990's. They had one of David Bailey's Honda's (without wheels or suspension) welded to a giant spring dug into the yard. You would hop on this thing and try to keep it balanced as long as you could....not an easy task, yet a perfect example of sport specific balance training.

    The research and basic science clearly point to the use of proprioceptive balance training as a building block for ones overall athleticism. By using a wobble board, indo board or any manner of other tool, you increase the accuracy with which the proprioceptors send information to your brain regarding the position of that body part relative to the ground and the rest of your body. Interestingly, proprioceptors are found in very high concentrations within the muscles, tendons and connective tissues of your ankles as well as the base of your skull, hence the importance of doing these balance drills in bare-feet and with your head up (not looking down toward the ground).

    Lastly, there was a point made about balance deteriorating as we age. While this is often the case, it's not for the reasons commonly believed. Studies demonstrate that even seniors can improve their proprioception by the same amount as young adults when they practice. The current theory is that people lose their sense of balance as they age simply because they don't stimulate it as greatly as they did earlier in life. Use it or lose it!

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