What is a slackline and slacklining? What’s the point? And does it even have one? Who is using these things and why? And where did this all begin? Well I’m going to attempt to bring you a brief history of slacklining and how and why I now incorporate it into mine and my athlete’s/client’s sessions as well as answer a few random questions I think are important along the way.
Slacklining has a long and exciting history that is difficult to trace back to a specific time and place of its inception. I think the truth is that slacklining is an ongoing innovation to the already popular practices of balancing and proprioception training. Everything from gymnastic balance beams, tightrope and highline walking to suspension training have all been a part of the athletic community for as long as I can remember for its direct effect on the athletes ability to control the body's position, either during movement or stationary.
Recently though, slacklining as a sport and as an athletic conditioning and therapy tool has exploded in popularity as more and more people are trying it and experimenting with it’s potential capabilities. So how exactly did this activity emerge, and what spawned the incredible growth in the recent years? Let’s go back to the beginning.
If you were to try and pinpoint a time in history that could most be accredited to the start up of slacklining, the general consensus is the climbing community of camp 4 in Yosemite National park sometime in the 70’s. As these climbers were exploring new heights on their climbs and pushing the boundaries of their sport in their new playground during the day, their downtime was spent creating new ways of having fun. Balancing on hand rails and parking lot chains, even on ropes strung up between trees became the name of the game and it organically began to grow. Not only was this new hobby a heap of fun but also due to the rope being loose, not rigid like a circus tightrope, it seemed to be having a direct, positive effect on the climber’s balance, strength and co-ordination. Soon the shift from walking climbing ropes to flat webbing began and gave us the sport of slacklining that it is today. Apparently, some of the most influential slackliners today learnt their skills of the trade at Camp 4, Yosemite National Park way back then. (1)
Today, it’s an internationally recognized sport and lifestyle that is growing exponentially larger day by day. Gibbon Slacklines are leading that charge with their huge array of different kinds slacklines & sets and also started the first WorldCup in 2010. Competitors would be paired up against one other and would take alternating turns at performing different tricks on the line until they fall. Judged by the level of difficulty and ingenuity of their tricks, the winner would carry on to the next round while the loser was eliminated. Pretty simple, right. But what this did was open the flood gates to creative design and the boundaries of what was now possible on a line had been shattered as a new culture began to emerge.
I was introduced to Slacklining while at an Industry conference in Southampton, UK, by an energetic, passionate & very dedicated bloke who drew my attention in by how much fun he looked like he was having while playing on his line any spare chance he could. As usual, my curiosity got the best of me and I had to try it. I was given a very brief run-through of how to approach walking on this thing, grabbed his shoulder with my right hand and threw my left one in the air, put my right foot on the line and as I began to put my weight on to my right leg and attempt to stand up, my foot began to shake uncontrollably from side to side underneath me. Not only couldn’t I figure out what was going wrong but was extremely embarrassed by it too. ‘Don’t worry dude,’ I was told, ‘that’s normal for everyone the first time they try slacklining. It has to do with your brain being able to deal with the information that is being relayed to it through your foot. Your brain will adapt over time and learn how to manage this kind of input. Walking the line will eventually become second nature for you!’ I was now very intrigued and a little excited but left with lingering questions I needed to find answers for. This started me off on an interesting and still ongoing journey…
During my flights home I had started considering the potential use for a slackline in a therapy/rehab setting so began scouring journals and contacting those within the industry who I respect and are much smarter than me to began my research into the science behind the sport. This turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had first anticipated and left me with more questions that I was having trouble finding answers to. I had found some pretty wild claims about the potential benefits of slacklining but I wasn’t interested in someone’s opinion or belief, I wanted some solid scientific data. Unfortunately, very little studies have been done on the topic, but there were a couple of papers I found. In 2010, the International Journal of Sports Medicine published a paper (Granacher et. al, 2010) investigating the effect of slackline training for balance and strength promotion. As the risk of sustaining a sport injury is high in adults, deficits in postural and pelvis control (muscle strength) represent a factor important to prevention (2). While there was no direct evidence to suggest that slacklining made strength training more effective, it did find that it increased the development rate of a muscular contraction. That means that the participants were able to perform the strength tasks at a faster repetition speed than those who didn’t slackline.
Next up, in 2011, a published study (Hüfner et. al, 2011) by a German University looked at the structural and functional plasticity of the hippocampal formation in professional dancers and slackliners. The hippocampus belongs to the limbic system and has it’s role in memory and spatial navigation. The study showed an increase in the structural and functional plasticity of the hippocampus (3). With the large amount of research being done in the last decade on the functions of the brain, a link between balance and cognitive disorders has also been observed. One of the major problems with cognitive disorders like ADD, ADHD & Dyslexia is the brains lack of ability to communicate effectively between both sides, which makes processing the information it is receiving very difficult. The cerebellum (also known as the little brain) sits right at the back and base of the brain and is responsible for gross motor skills, it is believed that by stimulating it and giving it a ‘workout’ you strengthen the neuro pathways between both hemispheres of the brain. Theoretically, this could be an extremely effective treatment that aligns with the outcomes of numerous other studies that show complex movements, balance training (proprioceptors) and exercise has extensive benefits for your brain health. (4)
There was still one thing I was missing though, a question one would think to be quite obvious but I’ve rarely, if ever, heard it asked. What is balance? One study describes balance as “a function of joint stability with the ankle joint regulating the balance.”(5) Proprioception then, is the neuromuscular adaptation to the input being received to give greater neuromuscular control. Knowing all this how do we transfer that over into application for our athletes. Well, another study has that “..if strength or stability workouts are examined solely or integrated into training not in a qualitative matter only injury-preventive effects are achieved. This, as a basis, influences training indirectly by enabling the athlete to train more volume and intensively with lowering the risk of injury, so that this form should be at least included. But if integrated in a smart way with qualitative consideration stability and strength training for core and lower extremities can help to improve performance within the sport.”(6) So that means if we implement balance training with direction, planning & purpose specific to the athletes sport we can see greater performance and less injuries. Pretty cool, huh?!
So that now leaves me at why I use a slackline in my studio with my clients and athletes. I guess I have always been interested in training tools that bring an air of fun to the arena and are always open for creative use and application. Basically that means I’m not restricted by a tool’s marketed use and can use it with my own thought process to achieve my desired movement. Proprioception training is an integral part of any client or athletes programing and/or rehabilitation, but is a slackline more beneficial than any other tool used for the same purpose? I don’t think so. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it’s just a tool, it really comes down to a coach or trainers ability to truly utilize that tool as effectively as possible. However, I personally do see it to be a much more versatile, fun, exciting and challenging tool than anything else out there I could use in it’s place. Its ability to be a sport and a tool for rehab, conditioning, and performance has made me a huge fan of this 2-inch wide strap. Plus, I have a heap of fun playing on it!
(2) U. Granacher, et. al, Slackline training for balance and strength promotion, International Journal of Sports Medicine, August 2010