The Health and Fitness Benefits of Slacklining

Improve Your Balance and Enjoy a Few Laughs

slacklining
Laura Williams

Slacklining: It's a growing sport that's very much like walking a tightrope. But instead of a taut cord or rope, you're balancing atop a one- to two-inch wide strip of webbing that offers extra bounce, a bit like a trampoline.

Expert slackliners don't just try to walk across the line, they perform tricks— jumping, twisting and flipping themselves in the air, only to land again on top of the line. The resulting sport ends up looking like a mash-up of tightrope walking, trampolining and a balance beam routine, all rolled into one.

 

In other words, it's pretty incredible to watch, and even more fun to try. Not to mention, slacklining counts as exercise, so it's a great way to cross-train when you need a break from the gym. 

The Fitness and Health Benefits of Slacklining

It should come as no surprise that standing on a two-inch line of webbing suspended off the ground requires balance. What you may not realize is that balance is one of the most important health-related components of fitness, particularly as you age. The ability to right yourself after getting bumped or being thrown off-balance after picking up something heavy off the floor can reduce your risk of falls and fall-related injuries. Slacklining is excellent at helping improve balance and proprioception (your inherent understanding of where your body is in space and how it relates to other bodies and forces), but it has other benefits, too: 

  • Enhanced Quadriceps Activation. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that the use of slacklining in rehabilitation provided significant increases in the activation and recruitment of the quadriceps muscles, but with a low level of perceived exertion. This could pay off big-time during lower extremity rehabilitation, particularly for outpatients who need to engage their legs to enhance recovery, but who struggle with programs that feel more difficult or painful. 
  • Improved Balance and Coordination. Just in case you need proof, there's scientific evidence to support the balance-related benefits of slacklining. A 2011 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport found that when participants performed repeated training sessions on a slackline, they were able to significantly reduce the uncontrollable side-to-side sway of the line often seen in newbies. Their study found slacklining suppressed the H-reflexes of the spinal reflex circuitry, which may have reduced the uncontrollable reflex-mediated joint oscillations that caused the line's shaking. In other words, the brain learned to help prevent reflexes from taking place in the ankles, knees, and hips that contributed to the uncontrollable shaking of the line. The result was that trained subjects could all stand on the line for 20 seconds or more, while untrained subjects saw no improvement in balance. 
  • Lower-Limb Cross-Training for Sport. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that female basketball players who trained on a slackline saw improvement in a countermovement jump test (a vertical jump test for power where the time in the air is calculated) and a center of pressure test (that helps measures balance). Together, these indicate slacklining can be a good option for cross-training for sport, particularly in sports where power and agility are required. 
  • Social Interaction. Slacklining is an inherently social activity. While it can certainly be done alone, and athletes compete as individuals, wherever a slackline is set up, you're almost guaranteed to see a gathering of people around. This is in part due to its novel nature, but it's also due to the activity's accessibility to people of all ages and ability levels. Everyone who tries slacklining for the first time will be terrible at it. I know I was. This starts everyone on a level playing field and opens up opportunities for laughter and fun. 

How to Get Started

The best way to get started is to get started! Find a facility that has a slackline (many rock climbing gyms and obstacle course gyms have them), or buy your own.

As long as you have the line and access to a couple trees, you can get set up and started in just a few minutes. 

Beginner Tips

  1. Go barefoot or use minimalist shoes. When you feel close contact with the line, you'll be in better control of your movements and changes in the position of the line. 
  2. Stand before you walk. Before you ever even try to take a step, practice gaining your balance on one leg, then the other. When you stand up on the line, you always start with one leg, and you'll be immediately tempted to place your other foot on the line as well. Resist the temptation! Instead, simply step up on the supporting foot and focus on balancing in place. 
  1. Keep breathing and loosen up your upper body. Take a few breaths before you step onto the line and do your best to keep breathing slow, meditative breaths. By loosening up your upper body—holding your arms up in the air, your elbows bent and your shoulders low—your torso can move more freely as you try to maintain your center of balance.
  2. Look forward. As tempting as it is to look down at the slackline, resist the temptation. Instead, look straight ahead, or at least 15 feet in front of you on the line. 
  3. Keep your knees bent. By bending your knees, you're lowering your center of gravity, getting it closer to the line. This will help you maintain your balance, and it places you in a more athletic stance to move with the sway of the line. 
  4. Fight the fall. You will fall off the line. This is normal. And don't worry, you probably won't actually fall hard on the ground—you'll end up stepping off and catching yourself on your feet. But when you start to fall, try to fight it—try your hardest to regain your balance. This helps teach your body to make adjustments on the fly so that you'll get better, faster. 
  5. Take small steps with your feet pointed straight ahead. When you're ready to start stepping, keep your feet aligned and straight on the line as you take small, heel-to-toe steps. You'll probably try turning your toes out, but this actually makes walking more difficult. Slow and steady wins the race, so be patient and keep at it. If you need help, ask a friend to walk alongside you and lightly hold your hand. 

Sources: 

Gabel CR., Osborne J, Burkett B. "The influence of ‘Slacklining’on quadriceps rehabilitation, activation and intensity." Journal of science and medicine in sport,  18http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1440244013005082 . (1), 62-66. 2015.

Keller M, Pfusterschmied J, Buchecker M, Müller E, Taube W. "Improved postural control after slackline training is accompanied by reduced H‐reflexes." Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01268.x/full 22(4), 471-477. 2012.

Santos L, Fernández-Río J, Fernández-García B, Jakobsen MD, González-Gómez L. Suman OE. "Effects of slackline training on postural control, jump performance, and myoelectrical activity in female basketball players." ​The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,  http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Citation/2016/03000/Effects_of_Slackline_Training_on_Postural_Control,.8.aspx​30(3), 653-664. 2016.

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