Strength, flexibility, and balance are the primary qualities determining your athletic ability. We are all working to improve these aspects in ourselves as much as possible, and there aren’t many exercises that can enhance all three.
In this post, I’ll share two exercises that do just that.
The Front and Back Scales, which essentially involve lifting one leg straight behind or in front of you, look deceptively easy, but within that simple action you can gain tremendous information about what may be lacking in terms of your strength, flexibility, and balance control.
I originally learned the scale exercises when I was a child in gymnastics training.
Scales are a class of basic gymnastic balance exercises in which the body remains straight while pivoting on a single leg. They get their name from the old-time weight measurement balance scales, where one side goes down as the other rises.
As you’ll probably guess, the basic scales are lifting one leg to the front, side or back, and they are named as such. Today I’ll talk primarily about the front and back scales and how they can help you determine what your limitations are, and address issues you may have with strength, flexibility, and balance.
So You Think You Can Stand On One Leg? Try This
In this tutorial video I’ll demonstrate the basic Front and Back Scales, along with some variations to try.
Here are the key points to keep in mind when you perform these exercises:
- Keep your back straight and tall in the Front Scale.
- Both legs should be locked out straight, with your toes pointed, throughout the exercise.
- Don’t lean back in the Front Scale.
- Hinge forward at the hips, rather than in the back, for the Back Scale.
- Keep your core tight throughout.
- Relax your shoulders, keeping them pulled back and down.
Addressing Limitations in Your Flexibility, Strength, and Balance
So now that you understand the technique, let’s take a look at how to use the front and back scales to figure out what specific issues you may have with flexibility, strength, and balance. Based on where your form and technique break down the most, you’ll be able to see where you have the biggest issues.
Assessing and Addressing Limitation #1 – Flexibility
Let’s start with flexibility.
Of course, your hamstrings need to be able to lengthen appropriately to perform the scales to full extension, but some people with extremely tight hip flexors may feel those are limiting as well. Also, to keep your chest and upper body tall and upright, you may need to work on your mid-back spinal extension.
So, the flexibility signs to look out for are:
- Tightness in the back of the legs – Hamstrings
- Tightness in the front top of your thigh – Hip Flexors
- Back rounding out as you move – Spinal Extension
Use these cues to not only assess your flexibility limitations, and see what you need to work on, but also to work on your form in the front and back scales. When practicing the scales as a flexibility, strength, and balance exercise, don’t push yourself into bad form. Only go as far as you can maintain perfect form.
Assessing and Addressing Limitation #2 – Strength
Strength may not seem to be too much of a factor with the scales – after all, you’re just lifting your leg up, right? That might be the case if that’s all you were doing, but when you perform the scales correctly, this exercise requires strength that you may not have developed in your previous training.
First, keeping both knees locked out straight throughout the entire movement uses the quadriceps muscle in that fully extended position. If you haven’t practiced this, it can be quite an intense contraction and it’s easy to relax it a bit as you lift the leg.
Next, when we lift the leg, we are also keeping the hips level. Don’t let a buttock drop down and your hips tilt; if this happens, it indicates a weakness in the glutes of the standing leg.
Finally, if you have trouble keeping your upper body tall and upright, you’re likely to have strength deficits in your core and spinal muscles. Your anterior and posterior core muscles are needed to keep a stable “base,” and your mid and upper back spinal muscles keep you from hunching forward (this may also be combined with decreased flexibility in the spine).
Assessing and Addressing Limitation #3 – Balance
Last, we come down to balance problems.
I discussed flexibility and strength first because, often, issues with these can be mistaken for “poor balance.” If your flexibility is lacking then you’ll have to fight harder to stay in position, which can throw off your stability, and if you have weaknesses, you’ll simply be unable to hold the position you need and will fall out of it easily.
Both of these can make it look like you have balance issues, when that’s not necessarily the case.
Balance as whole, then, is a combination of strength, flexibility, and equilibrium in certain positions. “Pure” balance issues may be coming from the vestibular system (inner ear) or other such central processes – distinct from extremity concerns.
So how can you test a pure balance problem from the other factors? There are some different medical assessments that are beyond the scope of this article, but the following is a good place to start.
- Start by standing with your feet an equal distance apart and close your eyes. If you feel swaying or can’t maintain your position here, with both feet firmly planted, then it’s definitely a balance issue, more than strength or flexibility.
- Next, stand on one leg and tilt your neck back so that you are looking at the ceiling. Point your nose right up at the ceiling. Don’t try a front scale yet, just lift a foot off the ground a bit so that all your weight is on one leg. It’s interesting how much of our balance perception is based on our sight of a level horizon. Look upwards and you won’t have that cueing and may find yourself quickly falling over.
- The final progression is closing your eyes while standing on one leg. Again, don’t worry about lifting your leg up high, just stand on one leg. Here, since we don’t have any visual cues, we are relying on our internal body position sense and this is a good challenge for your balance.
If you find trouble with any of these tests then you can simply perform them as exercises on their own. Set a timer for a minute and do a few sets. You should progress relatively quickly, and if not, you may need to seek professional advice.
If you can do these balance tests without any problem, then it’s likely that equilibrium is not your primary restriction if you can’t hold the front or back scale. Work on your strength and flexibility and you’ll likely see a great improvement in your ability to hold the scales.
Variations and Modifications to Help You Build Up Your Physical Abilities
Along with the variations I share in the video above, you may need to make some modifications based on your restrictions in flexibility, strength, and/or balance. While you may not be able to do the full exercises as shown, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them at all. You’ll just need to start somewhere and work up to the full movements when you can.
Any of the following modifications can be used if you notice limitations in your strength, flexibility, or balance. You can still perform your scales this way while you work on improving those attributes.
- Seated Scales – Obviously this modification is only possible for the front scale, but it can be a great way to get used to raising your leg while keeping the knee locked out and toes pointed.
- Hand Hold Support – If you feel like you’re falling over when balancing on one foot, you can lightly hold on to something while you perform the exercise.
- Leaning with Side or Back Against the Wall – This modification is very helpful if you need more support than a hand hold, and if you have significant problems with holding an upright posture.
Want a Bigger Challenge? Here’s How to Step Up the Scales
If you find the scale movements to be too easy, then first of all, congratulations on having a decent level of strength, flexibility, and balance. Most people don’t have that. But if you’re one of the few who can perform the scales with ease and you want a bit more of a challenge, you can work on these more advanced variations. I demonstrated some of these in the video above.
- Front Scale Pistol – If you can do a pistol and a front scale then try this out! You may need to bend your upper body a bit more forward to keep your balance, but work on keeping the chest up high and the leg locked straight.
- Back Scale One Leg Squat – This is a nice variation on a single leg squat and requires quite a bit of glute strength in both legs to keep your positioning correct.
- Pirouette to Back Scale – Putting the scales in motion, the pirouette is a great test of coordination and body control.
- Faster leg lifts, but work on being able to stop immediately at any point in the motion – This is another great demonstration of control, if you can stop your motion on a dime and keep your position.
- Eyes closed – Balance in motion is a lot more difficult without visual cues to keep you steady.
- Unstable footing (foam pad, sand, slackline, etc.) – You can get pretty crazy with this, but remember the goal isn’t to do “tricks” but to work on having great form and stability in these movements. A little unstable footing can help with that.
Be sure to adjust your practice of the front and back scales based on your current level of performance. Pay attention to your form, first and foremost, and only move on to more advanced variations when you’ve worked hard on the basic front and back scales.
How the Scales Can Help You Reach Your Primary Athletic Goals
The Front and Back Scale movements are a great addition to your warmup in your regular routine. Just add 3 sets of a minute total on each leg, and you’ll get some good practice in without a lot of extra time added to your workout.
Set a timer for one minute and work on the Front Scale hold. You don’t have to hold it for the entire minute, but do it for as long as you are able and then shake it out and try again until the timer goes off. You can alternate legs for the sets or rest a bit in between and do them all on the same side. Do the same for back scales and that will be a great warmup!
You can also perform leg lift repetitions, or Front to Back Scale combinations. Set a timer for a minute and work the moves with the best form possible.
These Scale exercises are a great example of how relatively simple exercises can add a lot to your training. They are an easy addition to your exercise routine and don’t require a lot of extra time.
Plus, the focus on form and correct technique can reveal some strength, flexibility, and balance deficiencies you may not have been aware of.
Give these movements a shot and see what they reveal about your current level of strength, flexibility, and balance. Address those limitations, and you’ll be well on your way toward better mobility, power, and body control.
Our Floor One program is a great example of how scales fit into a full training program. If you’re looking to build body control with hand balancing skills, tumbling exercises, jumps, and more, F1 is designed to help you do just that.
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