Scales Are the Challenging Bodyweight Balance Exercise You'll Want to Master
This gymnastics-inspired move is going to be a huge wake-up call for your core.
Scales. Maybe you weigh yourself on them. Maybe you weigh your food on them. Fish are covered in them. And so are your heels and elbows in the winter (ugh). But unless you're Simone Biles and Aly Raisman (read: a gymnast) you probably didn't know "scales" are also a bodyweight exercise.
Recently, however, CrossFit took a page from the gymnastics handbook and added scales to a workout of the day (WOD). But what the heck are they, and what are their exercise benefits?
What Is a Scale?
Turns out, there are two main variations of the movement: The front scale and the back scale. Both movements involve balancing on one leg and lifting the opposing leg out in front (front scale) or back behind you (back scale) while keeping your core engaged and arms in a "T" out to the side.
While it may look simple, it's not. "They're a challenge," says Stacie Tovar, co-owner and coach at CrossFit Omaha. You're not just standing on one leg willy-nilly. Rather, your whole body is engaged. "They're the perfect skill to practice and improve in the areas of flexibility, strength, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy," she says.
Plus, "both are simple bodyweight movements that can be done anywhere with no equipment," says Emily Breeze Ross Watson, a two-time Crossfit Games team athlete. Whether you're a gymnast, CrossFit athlete, or neither, you can implement scales into your workout routine to boost your fitness. Learn everything you need to know below.
How to Do a Front Scale
A. Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Straighten arms out to the side in a "T" so they're at or above shoulder height.
B. Find a point straight ahead and focus on it to keep neck and head in a neutral position. Draw shoulders back and down to engage lats and draw belly button to spine to activate the core.
C. Shift weight into the right leg. ("Grab the ground with every surface of your foot, toes and heels included," says Tovar.) Then, squeezing glutes and quads, slowly lift your left leg up straight in front of you while keeping it straight.
D. Raise the leg as high it will go, then, hold that position while keeping back straight, chest up, arms extended, and shoulders engaged. Hold as long as you can, aiming for 30 to 60 seconds at a time. Then, switch legs and repeat.
Front Scale Form Tips
-Think about tucking the rib cage under to properly engage the core. Keep chest tall and shoulders back to avoid rounding spine forward.
-Only lift as high as you can without chest sinking, base-leg bends, or arms twist.
-"If your knee starts to bend or your chest dips forward, lower your leg until you can hold perfect posture and alignment," says Breeze
How to Do a Back Scale
A. Start standing with feet hip-width apart, arms in a "T" at shoulder height. Start engaging quads and arms here, says Tovar.
B. Shift weight into the right leg and grip the floor with the whole foot. Slowly pull the left leg straight back and keep head as upright as possible, says Tovar. While lifting the leg, hinge at the hips to slowly torso.
C. Continue lifting the back leg and lowering torso until ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder are in a straight line, parallel to the floor or until trunk or limbs starts to twist to side-to-side or right leg begins to wobble—whichever comes first, says Tovar.
D. Squeeze glutes and quads, draw fingers out to the sides and pull shoulders back and away from ears to activate lats. Hold with control as long as possible, aiming for 30 to 60 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
Back Scale Form Tips
-Stare at a point about six feet in front of you to help balance.
-Squeeze your quads and glutes when you start to feel yourself lose balance.
-Don't allow your torso to dip lower than your back leg.
-Only lift back leg as high as you can without twisting your torso or arms to the side.
How to Scale It Down
...No pun intended. Can't bring your leg parallel to the floor in good form? Don't worry: "Even if it's just a few inches off the ground, if you can stand on one leg and lift the other either in front or behind you...congrats! You are doing a scale!" says Tovar.
Rather than lifting your leg so that it's 90 degrees in front or behind you, you can just practice lifting a few inches off the ground in each direction, she says. "You can also hold onto a wall, countertop, etc. to help you balance."
The Benefits of Scales
What makes scales so great, exactly?
Strengthen your core and improve balance: To start, they can help you improve your core strength, balance, and stability, says Breeze. (Related: Runners, Here's Why You Need Stability and Balance Training). The core is the balance epicenter of the body, so when you throw off your body's center of gravity—by lifting a leg in front or behind you—the core activates to keep you from toppling over. (See more: All the Benefits of Having a Strong Core That Go Way Beyond a Six Pack.)
Improve ankle mobility: Scales are also a low-impact way to improve ankle mobility and strengthen the muscles around the ankle. "Ankle mobility is so important for doing squat movements correctly and efficiently," says Breeze. If you have tight and/or weak ankles, when you do any squat variation, as you lower towards the ground, there's a good chance your ankles pop up which, over time, can cause a chain reaction of pain in the knees and hips. "Ankle mobility is even important for daily functional movements we all do, like walking, running, and taking the stairs," she says. (Related: How Weak Ankles and Poor Ankle Mobility Affect the Rest of Your Body).
Improve your posture: "When performed properly, scales can help you develop postural awareness," says Tovar says. Scales will teach you where your limbs are in relation to your midline—which is super important for improving your posture, and improving compound, complex movements like the squat clean, squat snatch, and overhead squat. (Did you know texting is probably harming your posture?)
Assess muscular imbalances: Because scales are a unilateral exercise—meaning that you're using only one leg at a time—they're also an opportunity to spot any muscle asymmetries and mobility imbalances. For instances, if you have a much easier time do a scale on your right leg than left, you know your left leg is weaker. Or, if during a back scale, you can bring your right leg closer to parallel with the ground than your left, your left hip flexor and hamstring are probably tighter than the right side. Doing more unilateral exercises, like pistol squats, forward lunges, reverse lunges, side lunges, and, yep, scales (!) is one great way to remedy these muscular imbalances.
How to Add Scales to Your Workout
Scales are considered a skill-based exercise, which means that, while they require movement precision, they won't tire you out cardiovascularly. That's why Breeze recommends incorporating scales into either your warm-up "to prepare for a workout with a lot of squats" or as "skill-work after your main workout to practice balance, core strength, and ankle stability." (BTW, here's how to do a barbell backsquat, in case you haven't before).
Once your front and back scales are solid, you can experiment with different, harder variations of the exercise like side scales, front-to-back scales, back-to-front scales, scale holds, weighted scales, or even scales on a balance beam. Because these are more challenging, you might even add these as an exercise into a circuit or EMOM-style workout.