Martial Arts: Martial Arts Teaching and Learning
Balance Beam Training
By George Donahue
An improvised balance beam.
One of the best devices for helping a student progress from beginner to advanced and beyond is a balance beam. Because we don’t want or need a fancy gymnast’s beam, this is also one of the cheapest pieces of equipment available. You don’t need fancy wood. Any old 4X4 lumber will do. If there is no scrap 4X4 around, you can glue, nail, or screw a couple of 2X4s together. You can use three of them for a more stable and wider surface, for starters. All you need to do is sand off any splinters. Rough spots are okay and will actually help you keep your grip better. You don’t even need a permanent setup—when I want to do some balance work, I just grab one of the well-aged landscape timbers or discarded fence posts I keep in the garden to edge the mulch and plant beds.
Unlike a gymnastic balance beam, which has to be perfectly straight, for martial arts practice warped is good. (That goes for minds, too.) The more warp the better, as you have more opportunity to develop greater control. And unlike a gym beam, you can lay this one directly on the ground or floor.* If you don’t have a flat enough surface to lay it on, then you can lay a couple of cross pieces at the ends for a measure of stability. If the warp causes it to rock too much, you can chock it up with a rag towel. That’s all it takes to have a balance beam at your disposal.
Now you can use it. Here are some sample exercises, numbered in order of difficulty. You can mix these up once you’ve tried them. You can improvise many more, to suit your needs.
1. The first exercise to try is just walking along the beam, from one end to the other, with your eyes closed.** When you get to the end, without opening your eyes, walk backward to the start. Once you can do this smoothly, then practice turning at the ends, still walking with eyes closed.
2. To exercise 1, add a front snap or thrust kick with every step; eyes still closed.
3. To exercise 2, add a side kick and a rear kick with every step. That’s three kicks per step; eyes still closed.
4. Do the same routine with punches, backfists, and other hand techniques.
5. Do all of the above in all of the various stances within your system. Your stances will have to be narrowed a bit, and that will help you develop speed as well as balance.
6. Increase the speed of all of the above.
7. Practice kata, first in slow motion, then at half speed, then full tilt. You can open your eyes for this, but keeping them closed some of the time is good, too. If your system doesn’t have a straight lateral kata such as Naihanchi or Tekki, then you’ll have to adapt one.
When these exercises have gotten too easy, raise the balance beam by placing the ends on the seats of sturdy chairs. Even though nothing changes at all in the way you have to move and control your body, the added height will make everything more difficult. You might want to start off with the eyes open, but as soon as you’re comfortable it’s eyes shut again. After a bit, you can increase the height again by resting the beam ends on the tops of very sturdy chair backs. You’ll need to have your training partners sit of the chairs to keep everything from toppling.
An interesting variation, once all of this has become too easy, is to set the beam up at an incline. The angle doesn’t have to be much. One end can be on the ground while the other is on a step, a board, a block, or a stack of boards. Another variation is to shut only one eye. This makes a surprising difference in your balance.
When several people are training at this together, you can follow up with some light sparring, starting at half speed and going to full speed once you’re used to it. Loser is the one who gets knocked off the beam first. This is a lot of fun, and kids particularly enjoy it.
About The Author:
George Donahue has been on the board of FightingArts.com since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor; and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently, he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung fu.