Back pain affects an estimated 80% of the population at some point in their lives. I know I’ve had my share of aches and pains: pushing my body to its limit during my days as a contemporary dancer, struggling as a new mom to hoist my young son plus stroller onto the city bus, and over the years spending far too many hours sitting at the computer. But worst of all was a sacro-iliac joint sprain when I was a Pilates instructor. This injury dragged on for several years and was excruciatingly painful to even walk. Once I finally figured out the cause of the pain, I was able to target certain muscle groups to stretch and strengthen. There were a few Pilates exercises that felt especially good—shoulder bridge and side kicks come to mind—but it was the stability ball that played the greatest role in my recovery.
While both Pilates and stability ball training are effective methods for increasing strength and flexibility, I give the Ball an edge up for its “fun factor.” Plus, it can address back pain in ways that other techniques are lacking.
- The Ball’s main advantage is that it is an unstable surface. During any exercise, it automatically forces the body’s core muscles—the abdominal and back muscles that support the spine—to work in order to maintain balance.
- Both slouching and overarching can lead to increased pain by placing added stress on the back’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, discs, and joint structures. Used as a chair, the Ball can help you find perfect posture, or “neutral spine,” which is the alignment of the spine that maintains its natural, healthy curves.
- Sore muscles need gentle stretching. Since the Ball allows for fluid motion rather than static positioning, the body is able to roll into the precise spot that will provide the optimal stretch.
To help ease the aches and pains in your own back, try the following six Ball exercises. (Please note that the Superman is a tad more advanced and should not be done if you have an acute back injury. It is, however, a great exercise for strengthening back muscles as part of your recovery.)
1. Shoulder Bridge
Lie on your back, resting your legs on top of the Ball with your knees bent. Rolling through your spine, one vertebra at a time, slowly press your hips up toward the ceiling. From there, roll your spine back down to the floor. (For more challenge, place your feet on top of the Ball, with your legs straight. Or try performing the exercise with your arms raised off the floor.)
Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands and feet on the floor. Raise your opposite arm and leg into a horizontal position. Hold your balance for 5–10 seconds (or longer). Repeat on the other side.
3. Flat Back
Sit on the Ball. Slowly walk your feet forward until your shoulders and head are resting on top of the Ball. Press your hips up in line with your knees and shoulders, reaching your arms overhead. From there, reach your arms forward and walk your feet in, bringing yourself back to a sitting position.
Lie with your stomach on the Ball and your feet supported against the base of a wall. Keep your legs bent just slightly to avoid locking the knees. With your hands behind your head, raise and lower your torso. (Do not raise higher than the point where you are in a straight line head to toe.)
5. Back Stretch
Sit on the Ball. Slowly walk your feet forward until your lower back is resting on the Ball. Straighten your legs, allowing your body to lie back and drape over the Ball. Reach your arms overhead, or else place your hands behind your head to support your neck.
6. Side Stretch
Lie sideways on the Ball with your legs straight, your top leg in back, and your top arm overhead. Repeat on the other side. (Try rolling into the Back Stretch position as you transition from one side to the other.)
My book Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates contains these exercises plus many more, including variations on the exercises and tips for proper form and alignment.
If you suffer from an injury or other health condition, or have any questions regarding the suitability of stability ball training, please consult your doctor before attempting these exercises.