Strength, flexibility, and balance are the primary qualities that determine your athletic ability, but skipping ahead to things you’re not quite ready for won’t do you any good.
You’ve probably seen those videos of a guy doing weighted pistol squats while standing on top of a Bosu ball, and all the comments say things like, “Wow! He’s so strong! His balance is amazing!”
And yeah, that might be true, but is it necessary to risk serious injury to work on strength and balance? Absolutely not.
Part of our philosophy of training is the importance of working on simple movement patterns before moving on to more complex skills. These lay the foundation for the skills you want to build down the line (and while pistol squatting on a Bosu ball is cool, I’m guessing it’s probably not on your must-do-someday list).
In this article, I’ll share two fundamental exercises–the front scale and the back scale–that will help you build the essential attributes you need for more advanced skills.
I’ll show you how to use these exercises to assess your current levels of strength, flexibility, and balance, and how to use the basic versions of these exercises to build those same attributes. Plus, I’ll show you how they progress into more advanced skills, like single leg squats and pirouettes, when you’re ready.
When it comes to big bang-for-your-buck exercises, the scales are hard to beat.
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So you think you can stand on one leg? Try this.
I know what you’re thinking–standing on one leg is no big deal, right?
Well, yeah, if you’re not focused on what’s going on in the rest of your body, simply standing on one leg isn’t so difficult. But then you’re not really doing much other than tiring out your other leg 😉
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.
Here’s a quick demo of the front scale and back scale to show you what I’m talking about:
As you can probably tell, I’m not just standing on one leg. My whole body is engaged as I lift the leg to the front or back.
Give it a quick try, but no cheating! Move slowly with your leg locked out and your entire body engaged. Did you run into any trouble? The next section will help you use this exercise to assess what’s going on with your flexibility, strength, and balance.
Was this easy for you? Click here to make sure you got all the details down pat, and to see how the scales progress into some more advanced skills if you’re ready for them.
How Scales Will Help You Assess Your Flexibility, Strength, and Balance
Although the scales look simple–and they are–they can help you assess your current levels of strength, flexibility, and balance, and they can help you address those attributes head-on.
Depending on where your form and technique break down the most, you’ll be able to see where you have the biggest issues.
Assessment plays a big role in our training method. Without a good understanding of your starting point, you won’t really know if you’re doing the right things to help you reach your goals. And you won’t know if you’re getting any closer to them along the way.
The following assessments will give you a baseline understanding of where you need the most work.
Let’s start with flexibility.
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–indicates you need additional work on your hamstring flexibility
- Tightness in the front top of your thigh–indicates your hip flexors need additional mobility work
- Back rounding out as you move your leg–indicates you need to spend some time on 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.
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 the scales entailed, 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 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 your hips and one of your buttocks tilt downward; 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).
Last, we come down to balance problems.
If your flexibility is lacking, 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.
No problem with these balance tests? Equilibrium is probably not your primary restriction. Work on your strength and flexibility and you’ll likely see a great improvement in your ability to hold the scales.
It’s All in the Details: Scales Tutorial + Variations to Match Your Goals
So, you know what the scales look like in action, you’ve given them a try, and you’ve assessed where you’re at with your flexibility, strength, and balance–awesome!
To get the most out of this simple, yet powerful exercise, there are a lot of details to pay attention to. In the following video, I’ll share all those details, plus some advanced variations for both the front scale and the back scale.
|Front and Back Scale Variations||Key Points|
|Basic Front Scale||• Relax shoulders
• Lock out legs
• Keep back straight
• Point toes
|Advanced Front Scale||• Same points as basic front scale, but leg pulled up to 90-degrees|
|Front Scale Leg Lifts||• Lock out legs
• Pull with core
• Exhale on lift
|Basic Back Scale||• Lock out legs
• Keep chest up
• Straight line
• Point toes
|Advanced Back Scale||• Same points as basic back scale, but bend at the hips further and extend the leg further|
|Front to Back Scale Combination||• Start in front scale, exhale and transition to the back scale
• Keep the body tight throughout the movement
|Front Scale to Pistol||• Start in front scale, with toe pointed
• Slowly lower into the pistol squat
• Click here for our pistol squat tutorial
|Back Scale to One Leg Squat||• Start in a back scale
• Slowly bend your supporting leg as you keep the rest of your body in the same tight position as the back scale
• Click here for our bodyweight leg exercise tutorial
|Pirouette to Back Scale||• Perform a pirouette by kicking one leg forward and switching your feet as you land facing the opposite direction
• Land in a back scale position
• Click here for more detail on how to perform a pirouette to back scale
Use the basic front and back scale variations to work on improving your strength, flexibility, and balance. As you’re ready to advance to more complex skills, there are plenty to choose from.
Trouble in Your Assessments? Try these 3 Variations to Build Up Your Strength and Balance
If you found you needed a lot of work in your assessments, the following modifications will help you work up to the full scales by improving your strength, flexibility, and balance.
- 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.
Ready for 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–Specifically 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 maintain your position.
- Eyes Closed–Balance in motion is a lot more difficult without visual cues to keep you steady.
- Unstable Footing–You can use a foam pad, sand, slackline, etc. It’s easy to 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.
The Keys to Skill Development
The front and back scales aren’t just another exercise to add to your ever-growing list of exercises some Internet guru told you to practice. They’re a fundamental example of how we teach progressive skill development.
Any skill—physical or otherwise—has to be built through incremental progressions that directly address your areas of weakness.
Our Integral Strength program is designed to help you build skills through incremental progressions. Through that process, you’ll build a foundation upon which you’ll layer increasingly complex skills.
If you want to increase your level of skill, agility, and strength, Integral Strength is a good place to start.
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With Integral Strength, you’ll build the kind of strength that carries over into demanding physical skills and dynamic sports. All you need is a pull-up bar and a bit of floor.