Part One – The Balance Beam
When I was 15, the televisions show called Eye on LA visited my house to do an interview with me on the martial arts for a spot they were producing on Ninjitsu. They also wanted to see my backyard as I had turned my 2000 square foot garden into a fully fledged ninja training camp. This series of articles is going to tell you what I had in my backyard so you too can create your own martial arts backyard dojo too. Since there have been a lot of developments in the arena of fitness and martial arts gear, you should be able to come up with a more modern version of a training location.
Before I begin.
If you are just beginning to place some items into your yard, garage or large room – do not worry too much about looks at first. Your first priority is performance and training. As you progress, you can focus on improving the look and feel of your workout location. This means that you can start by throwing in some used tires, old weights, or whatever you can find at the dump that can be somehow converted into a training tool. In the beginning, get very creative.
I have not put the items (or tips and ideas) in any particular order and since this is article one of many, you will need to review the other articles for the full scope of what to include.
THE NINJA BALANCE BEAM
I started training on 4×4 wood (covered in duct tape) balance beams in the martial arts as part of a warm-up. They are great for improving balance as well as working on your kicks. In my backyard, I was lucky as we already had some long wooden poles about 12 feet each. They were being used as a sort of border before the fence that led to a schoolyard. They were similar in size to a 4×4 only they had rounded edges. Because they were meant to look rough, I had to worry about getting splinters. However, they were a welcome addition to my obstacle course.
I have used everything from a fallen coconut tree to a simple block of wood (4×4) from Home Depot. Whatever you use, try to find something that you can walk across in your bare feet. You can raise the beam for more of a challenge or just leave it on the ground as it is.
Here are a few ways to use a balance beam:
Simply practice walking across the beam or beams. Then try walking faster or even running across the beams. Finally, close your eyes and try to walk from one end of the beam to the other. This is a lot harder than it sounds.
Slow motion kicks
One simple exercise we use in our camps is for students to perform slow-motion kicks (like front kicks) on the beams as they walk across the beam from one end to the other. For example:
- Step up onto one end of the beam
- Focus first on getting your balance
- Perform a front kick step-by-step in slow motion
- Take a step forward and repeat the process with the other leg
The above training is simple, but it will drastically improve your balance as well as your kicks. Good kicks to work on are:
- The low sweep kick and front kick (easiest as you do not have to pivot the foot as much).
- Side kicks and round kicks (harder as you need to move more and maintain balance)
You should be familiar with the coil position, pivot, extension and recoil parts of any kick. The main idea is to perform the kicks slow. It is much harder to throw a kick slow (breaking it into 1-second parts for example) than it is to throw a fast kick. You can also combine the training and perform one at a slow speed, another at medium speed and the final kick at a fast pace. Kicking slowly will develop the muscles and parts of the body that create the foundation for powerful kicks. Kicking fast will help you advanced balance (adjusting and regaining balance after a fast movement) and train you for the next exercise – sparring on a balance beam.
King of the beam – sparring
Another fun game with a balance beam (if you have a partner), is to play king of the balance beam and try to knock each other off of the beam. The rules are simple:
- Each person gets on one end (opposite each other) of the balance beam
- Students then salute or bow to each other officially stating that the match has begun
- They then use hands or feet to try and knock the other person off of the beam
- The loser is the first person to touch any part of their hand or foot to the ground
This is a popular and fun training drill that students of our long-term training camps. We set up basic rules and change them to offer more of a challenge. For example, only using your feet or hands or limiting contact to the face.
We often strategically place safe zones (mats) near the beam that students can jump to in order to create more strategic options and a safe landing zone for those that are able to make it to a padded area.
Also, remember that you might also land on the beam and so this exercise should only be done if you are used to falling and looking for a more challenging training game.
There are a lot of ways to make fun use of a balance beam. Just remember that safety is first and you should start off easy. If your beam is high off the ground and slippery, you could end up with a few broken bones or worse. I have yet to be injured on a beam, but the risk with anything that has a height (like riding a horse) is there. Nevertheless, there are some great ways to be safe and here is my favorite:
Puzzle mats for safety
I prefer puzzle/jigsaw style martial arts mats. These are the easiest mats to work with and provide great protection outdoors without taking up space or being too soft. If a mat is too soft, you will risk twisting your ankles etc. These mats can be used alone or together, as they are interlocking mats. You can also flip them over. Because we can just toss them where we need them, they make a great solution for the obstacle course and outdoor training. You can walk on them with shoes too. Just be sure that the ground under the mats doesn’t have any sharp rocks or sticks.
However you decide to implement a balance beam, you will have a fun and addictive training tool that will add value to any home martial arts dojo or fitness training center.