By Shane McLean
Odds are you haven’t given much thought to this system when you’re crushing your fifth set of biceps curls while making faces in the mirror. (Because curls don’t count unless they’re done in front of a mirror.)
However, without it, lifting weights and staying upright is a problem. We’re talking about the Vestibular system.
The Vestibular system is located in the inner ear and it’s about the size of a pencil eraser. The point of it is to send information about the position of the head to the brain’s movement control center, the cerebellum.
This system also ties into the visual system to stop objects blurring when the head moves, but perhaps more importantly for our purposes, it also helps you maintain awareness of positioning when, for example, you’re lifting weights. If it isn’t working at its best, it can affect your balance and body awareness, which of course affects the majority of your lifts, particularly big compound movements.
Not much thought is given to your sense of balance when you’re young but as you get older, it becomes a big deal. Because good balance and a healthy vestibular system go hand in hand.
Let these facts from the CDC show why a healthy vestibular system is essential:
- Twenty percent of all falls among people over 65 cause a serious injury, such as broken bones or a head injury.
- Three million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries every year.
- The most common cause of traumatic brain injuries is falling.
Rather than being a statistic, start incorporating strength training exercises that stop this from happening and build a foundation for better health and function in old age.
Exercises to Optimize Your Vestibular System
The following exercises emphasize good posture and balance, especially the position of your head and upper back which keeps your vestibular system at the top of its game.
Front racked kettlebell Bulgarian split squat
Form considerations: Perform a bodyweight elevated split squat and notice where your big toe is, and then place weight plate in front of it. This will give you a reference point and shorten your set up time between sets. Keep a nice tall chest and your wrists in neutral during this entire movement.
Programming considerations: Pairing this exercise with a single arm row variation is a real upper back whammy that you’re sure to enjoy. For example:
1A. Front racked kettle bell elevated split squat – 12 reps on each leg
1B. 3 point dumbbell row – 12 reps on each arm
It’s best done as an accessory movement after doing your squats or deadlifts.
[Learn more: Barbell row vs dumbbell row, which is best for strength?]
Suitcase carries strengthen grip imbalances between hands which can be a limiting factor when pulling heavy from the floor or opening a pickle jar. Furthermore, a lot us favor one side over the other when carrying bags over one shoulder or one hand. This can result in tilting of our body over to one side to compensate. Over time this may cause problems, and carrying a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell unilaterally can help iron out those strength and posture imbalances.
Form considerations: Cues like “shoulders down and back” or “chest up” work well here. Checking your form in a mirror will help if you’re having trouble knowing if you’re tilting over to one side or not. Suitcase carries, moreso than farmer’s carries, shouldn’t be crazy heavy — lift enough to feel tension but not so much that your body leans sideways while you’re walking.
Programming considerations: You’re only limited by your imagination on inserting suitcase carries into your programming. However, when performing supersets, pairing them with an exercise that doesn’t require a lot of grip strength works best.
1A. Bench press variation
1B. Suitcase carry, 20 steps one hand then 20 steps in the opposite hand. 50 percent of bodyweight is a good goal to work toward, but remember those form considerations above.
1A. Squat or hip thrust
1B. Suitcase carry, 20 steps one hand then 20 steps in the opposite hand.
[Learn the finer points of form and programming in our complete guide to loaded carries.]
Pullover with dead bug
The pullover with dead bug will counter lumbar extension (when reaching overhead) plus help stretch the lats while preventing the dreaded rounded-shoulder look. All this makes it a great exercise for posture.
Furthermore, it doubles as a killer core stability drill, essential for moving big weights safely.
Form considerations: Keep your lower ribs down, avoid lumbar hyperextension and perform at a controlled tempo. Keep your chin tucked to maintain a neutral spine. Breathe out as you lower weight and leg towards the floor and breathe in to your belly as you reverse the movement.
Programming considerations: Pairing this exercise in a superset when neutral spine and core stability is essential. For example:
1A. Overhead, back, front, or goblet squat.
1B. Pullover with dead bug (12 reps, 6 per leg)
Or if it’s chest and arms day, pairing this exercise with any bench or any overhead press variation works as well. For example:
1A. Dumbbell bench press or Push press
1B. Pullover with dead bug (12 reps, 6 per leg)
Training is not all about looking good, it’s about stay healthy also. And rather than waiting until it’s too late, start incorporating exercises that encourage good balance and posture. This will keep you at the top of your game for longer and carry over into maintaining health and balance as you age.