Maybe some of you have found yourself at a gym and seen the large, colorful balls sitting around, often in a corner or against the wall.
What are your thoughts? Do they not even register on your radar because you don’t know what to do with them or what they are for? Do you see them as an untapped resource that you would like to find out more about? Or, is it something that you have already been using regularly?
Regardless, let’s take a moment to consider a few things. First of all, these balls have been around for a long time (technically since the 60’s). Other gym equipment or fads come and go, but stability balls (also called physioballs or Swiss balls) have stood the test of time. No matter what gym, fitness facility, or rehab clinic you go to, there they are.
Why Are They Called “Stability Balls”?
Why are these balls so great for stability that they are actually now called “Stability Balls”? What sets them apart? And, why are they also good for a bunch of other stuff too?
First of all, stability balls can offer you positioning that you can’t get with other equipment. As an example, there’s placing the ball between your shins as you do a side crunch or lifting your legs. Then there’s the bouncy, round nature of the ball, which forces you to stabilize, balance, makes you aware of your positioning and posture, and offers you support, all at the same time!
But let’s home in on the stability issue, often referred to in the same breath as “core stability”. According to the research of Stuart McGill and many, many others, protecting your spine from INstability and injury is a matter of getting the muscles in your core (especially those that are attached to your spine) to work together. Cooperation is the name of the game here. When the muscles that support your spine are firing up, they support each other and get the job done. (Sidebar: that is why just doing ab crunches has fallen out of favor as the premier “core exercise”).
The other part is that the muscle work does not have to be spectacular. The muscles just all have to be on board, but the extent to which they are kicking in does not have to be huge. It is more about endurance than amazing feats of strength.
Think of this: as we go about our regular lives, we need to keep our spines healthy or things can get very bad indeed. That means that it’s really helpful to have the muscles in your core working no matter what we are doing, all day, every day. But, as I just said, the good news is that the muscle work does not have to be huge, it just has to be cooperative (synergistic).
How To Use a Stability Ball
Here’s where the ball comes in. First, there are a few “how to’s” that need to be addressed in order to make sure that cooperation is happening.
- If sitting on the ball, sit tall. Yes, it is still possible to slouch on the ball. Make sure you don’t. Keep your spine lengthened and with it’s regular curves (i.e., no rounding).
- Activate your abdominals and back muscles to do the above-mentioned spine lengthening. You can do this by placing one hand on your lower abdomen and the other on your low back. Gently press back with your abs and lengthen your spine. Note: this is NOT a hollowing of your abs that happens when you suck in and hold your breath. You need to be able to keep breathing and stay relaxed.
- The ball needs to be of the right diameter so that your legs form a right angle when you are sitting on it. This puts your spine in the best position.
- If you are going to use weights on the ball, they will have to be less than you have been using if you have been sitting on a bench or standing. If you have been lifting heavy barbells or dumbbells, this is not going to work because of the unstable nature of the ball, and the weight limits that it can withstand (depending on which ball you are using). Remember, part of the purpose is to let your core stabilitizers get active, and that does not require huge forces.
So here goes: Some examples that can get you started, or give you a new feel for what the ball does. Notice that alternating sides provides an additional stability challenge for your core in each exercise. You can also increase the challenge by bringing your legs close together.
- Seated alternating leg kicks. Sit TALL on the ball, with abs activated and spine lengthened. Place hands on the ball or out to the side. (If you are just starting and feel nervous, you can place the ball against a wall or in a corner for safety.) Extend one leg out to the front, return it back, and then do the other leg. Continue, alternating, 10 times each leg.
- Seated alternating shoulder press. Sit TALL on the ball, as above. Start with weights at your shoulders. Press one straight up as far as you can, return it to your shoulder, and do the other one, alternating, 10 times.
- Chest press in bridged position. From a seated upright position, roll back on the ball by walking the feet out until your head and neck are supported by the ball. Stay in a bridged position so that your spine stays neutral, not curved. Do not end up with your chin tucked into your chest. With weights at your shoulders, press one up to the ceiling as far as possible, and then return it. Do the same with the other weight. Alternate 10 times each arm.
- Bonus! Hip rolls. This one is pretty subtle for core activation, but feels great and is a good release for a tight low back and hips. Lay on your back, legs bent and placed over the ball so that the back of your thighs are also in contact with it. Keeping your upper body in place, roll your hips from one side to the other (if it were a clock, visualize going from 10 to 2). Go back and forth 10 times slowly.
These are just a few examples of what you can do on the ball. For a few more, see my blog, “Ways to Prevent Low Back Pain. Get on the Ball!” Stay tuned for more.
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