Balance training is an essential component of a well-balanced fitness regimen. Several products claiming to create a unique and effective balance challenge have hit the market recently, but are they worth the added cost? ACE exercise physiologist Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., recently evaluated two popular new training tools—Step360TM Pro and BeamfitTM—to determine if these new products are costly gimmicks or could be valuable additions to your training repertoire.
Comprised of a flat, stable platform that sits atop two independently inflated, adjustable air chambers, the Step360 Pro allows users to modify the device’s height and, therefore, the degree of exercise difficulty. It features a non-slip base that provides safety during jumping, landing and bounding activities, while the platform tubing anchors accommodate muscle-strengthening exercises performed on an unstable surface. Also included are the Step360 Training Wall Chart, a hand pump, extra air chamber plugs, and an Instructor DVD featuring two 18-minute Step360 Pro training programs and instructor bonus sections.
Step360 Pro ($149.98 + S/H): www.spri.com
The Step360 Pro is a very versatile training tool that facilitates training the many individual parameters of physical fitness (balance, endurance, strength, power, agility, flexibility, cardio, etc.) using one device. The product comes fully assembled, requires only a little air in each chamber (with the hand pump), is easily portable considering its weight and size, and storable, given its flat surfaces both on top and bottom.
Perhaps the most important benefit to this device is the flat platform over an unstable base. This allows neutral foot positioning, which mimics the position we should maintain while standing on the ground, yet allows the user to challenge his or her core effectively during static exercises (non-moving base of support or feet/foot). Other air-chambered balance-training devices often require or result in a more unnatural, offset foot position that alters joint alignment, loading forces and neural stimulation patterns, diminishing the training application and adaptation to real-world activities.
This device functions effectively as a tool for jumping and landing activities due to its design. The ground generally can be very unforgiving when landing; hence, the necessity of instructing proper landing mechanics at all segments of the body, particularly when working with females who are prone to knee injuries. The Step360 Pro will absorb some of the impact forces of landing, yet allow the user to execute proper landing mechanics to absorb force. With other air-filled chambers, the impacting forces placed directly under the jumper generate elastic recoils that do not effectively prepare the user to handle true ground-landing impact forces. Additionally, the user has an option of deflating one of the two air chambers, thereby reducing step-height clearance, which may be more appropriate for older adults and those who are obese or have balance issues.
Another positive feature is the six anchor points on the platform, which securely accommodate elastic tubing for a variety of resistance exercises that can be performed in almost any position (standing, kneeling, half-kneeling, sitting, press-position, etc.).
The Step360 Pro units are stackable, which saves on storage-space needs for group activities. Additionally, during a workout, smaller pieces of equipment that are not being used can be neatly stored under the device, which may reduce possible fall hazards.
When one considers the breadth of applications of this device, the accompanying resources with the Step360 Pro (DVD and wall chart) are surprisingly limited. A product with this degree of versatility merits more creative training ideas than are offered in the two 18-minute workouts and bonus sessions of the accompanying DVD.
What We Liked
- Promotes proper body mechanics with correct instruction
- Safe and effective
- Adjustable height
- Aesthetically appealing
- Anchor attachments
What We Did Not Like
- Limited exercise options on the DVD
Beamfit is a whole-body training program (device and programming) performed barefoot (ideally) to increases kinesthetic awareness throughout the kinetic chain through a variety of balance exercises and movement patterns. This training device focuses on movement patterns performed over a narrow base of support that challenge the visual, vestibular and somatosensory receptors in standing, sitting and kneeling positions.
The Beamfit features a heavy-duty, washable vinyl exterior enclosing a high-density foam core that offers both comfort and rigidity. The product resembles a balance beam, but tapered in design with a 10-inch non-skid base that narrows to a 6-inch exercise surface. It is 5 feet in length, 2 inches in height and weighs approximately 2 pounds, and is designed to accommodate standing, seated and kneeling exercises. Two instructional DVDs (60 minutes each) are available for purchase by fitness professionals for $24.95 each: Foundational Beaming and Beam-lates Basework.
Beamfit ($124.95 + S/H): www.beamfit.com and www.spri.com
On first impressions, the Beamfit appears to simply be another balance-training device that targets the core; however, with a little imagination and common sense, one may discover a variety of additional training benefits (flexibility, power, coordination, agility). Research in balance training has identified the need to appropriately progress the balance challenge by manipulating a variety of variables (e.g., base of support, points of contact, sensory input) while at the same time transitioning from a static environment to a dynamic environment.
Barefoot training is an added bonus as many of us neglect the full spectrum of somatosensory input the feet should contribute to our awareness of posture, body position and quality of movement. The comfortable, yet rigid surface of the Beamfit accommodates barefoot training and will heighten one’s sensory awareness of position and how weight is loaded through the feet. Whether training statically or dynamically, the Beamfit demonstrates versatility as it can be used for movements and exercises along its length or breadth in multiple body orientations (standing, sitting, kneeling, pressing). The narrow 6-inch training surface, which stands 2 inches off the floor, proves challenging when used with a split-stance position.
Using this device necessitates careful attention to movement quality, which distinguishes it from the less-than-stellar training-movement quantity focus that has become the norm in many programs. With a little creativity and common sense, however, a multitude of safe and effective drills could be created using one or several Beamfit devices to train for quickness and reactivity.
Although simple in appearance, the Beamfit is technical in its training application. It should be noted that jump-landing on the device is forgiving on the joints given the high-density foam, but certainly requires precision given the reduced landing area. Commensurate with that level of technicality, is the need for all instructors using the device to fully understand the mechanics of the human body throughout the kinetic chain. Attention to foot, knee, hip and lumbo-pelvic mechanics becomes critical to restoring or building a solid stability-mobility relationship within the body.
What We Liked
- Very practical and functional
- Portable and easily stored
- Effective training tool to improve balance and overall kinesthetic awareness; while this is important to all populations, it is critical to specific population groups.
- Good application in both personal-training and group-fitness setting
What We Did Not Like
- Unfortunately, as with many non-traditional pieces of equipment aimed at training specific skill-related parameters, Beamfit may lack universal appeal amongst exercisers, and may be perceived as more of a group-fitness device.
- It would be helpful if Beamfit offered an expanded DVD library demonstrating a larger variety of workouts and exercises (e.g., cardio, whole-body toning, sports), and progressions to keep users actively engaged with the product. This would also generate more universal appeal.
- Given the technicality of the training and benefits to this modality of training, more attention should be given to the biomechanics of efficient movement.
Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., is an exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, and an adjunct professor at San Diego State University (SDSU) and the University of California San Diego (UCSD), teaching courses in exercise science and nutrition. He holds two master’s degrees, one in exercise physiology and one in nutrition, as well as certifications through ACE, ACSM, NSCA and ISSN.