About Elisabeth Antoine Crawford

A former contemporary dancer and Pilates instructor, Elisabeth Antoine Crawford is the author of "Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy" and "Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates." She lives in San Francisco, California, and is also a freelance writer and photographer.

How To Find Correct Alignment (Part 2)

Now that we’ve learned why good posture is so important, this post will explain precisely what correct alignment entails. Finding neutral spine, engaging the shoulder blades, squaring the torso, rotating the leg from the hip joint, and scooping the stomach are all key concepts in the Pilates method but may be applied to any exercise, including those in Balance on the Ball.

Spine: As I explained in my previous post, neutral spine involves maintaining the natural curves in your spine, finding a balance halfway between rounding and arching your back. I have found the best way to teach neutral spine is while lying down, when we don’t have to fight against the forces of gravity.

To find neutral alignment of the spine, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Try to feel that your spine is as elongated as possible yet very heavy and weighted into the floor. The areas you should feel touching the floor are the back of your pelvis, the back of your rib cage and shoulder blades, and the back of your head. This should create a natural curve in your neck and lower back. Your hip bones should be level with your pubic bone and your head in line with the rest of your body. If you have trouble with this, try following these cues:

  • To maximize the space between your vertebrae, visualize lengthening from the top of your head to your tailbone.
  • For proper alignment of your head and neck, increase the space between your ears and shoulders. Your chin may be lower than you think it should be, in order to really elongate the cervical portion of your spine. (When sitting, a good cue for this is to imagine that you are wearing long earrings.)
  • Imagine a triangle on top of your pelvis between your pubic bone and two hip bones. Place your hands flat on this area and alternate between a posterior and anterior tilt as shown in the illustration. Now bring this triangle into a level plane, trying to increase the distance between the sides of your rib cage and your hip bones.

Shoulder Blades: Engage the shoulder blades by squeezing them together and pulling them downward. This will open out your chest, but be careful not to arch your back while doing so.

 

 

 

Ribcage and Pelvis: Keep your hips and shoulders square, with the space between your hip bones and rib cage equal on both sides. Unless directed, do not twist or let one side drop lower than the other.

 

 

 

 

 

Hip and Ankle Joints: Turn out your leg from the hip joint only, not from the knee or ankle. Make sure that your toes always stay in line with your ankle and knee.

 

 

 

 

 

Abdominals and Back: Your abs and back are used in all exercises for stability, so keep your stomach “scooped,” or hollowed out and contracted. Imagine that all your abdominal and back muscles are wrapped around your torso like a corset, while pulling your navel in toward your spine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My final post in this series will give you some specific exercises to practice that will help strengthen the muscles needed for good posture.

The Importance of Correct Alignment (Part 1)

While good posture naturally projects an image of confidence and health, attractiveness and power (barring the current U.S. president, can you think of many celebrities or politicians who slouch?), perhaps a more crucial benefit is injury prevention. When proper alignment of the spine is not maintained, stress increases on the body’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint structures. Aside from those injuries caused by traumatic accidents, a large proportion of lower back pain is due to poor posture, which over time causes repetitive damage and strain. Learning how to find correct posture and strengthening the muscles which support the trunk can help alleviate and prevent lower back soreness or injury by reducing compression on the spinal column and decreasing strain on the back muscles.

The key to good posture is finding your “neutral spine.” This is not to say that you must hold the spine in this static position all the time. The body is healthiest when it can remain in motion, keeping the joints mobile and muscles flexible. It is in those moments, however, when we are sitting or standing for long periods that the stress on our spine can build up. Learning to maintain neutral spine at these times will prevent much of the damage that continuous slouching or hunching over will cause.

What exactly is neutral spine? Most simply stated, it is the natural existing curvature of your spine, the position that creates the least stress on the intervertebral discs and the surrounding musculature. Maintaining the natural curves in your spine—a balance halfway between rounding and arching your back—may actually produce a measurable increase in height as the spine shifts from a compressed position into an elongated one.

In addition, strong, stable torso muscles encourage increased mobility in the hip and shoulder joints. For example, if the muscles connecting your pelvis to the rest of your trunk are strong enough to maintain stability while moving your legs, you will then be able to isolate the hip joint and increase its range of motion most effectively.

My next post will explain how to find neutral spine and offer cues to bring your body into correct alignment while performing any exercise, not just those in Balance on the Ball.

How Does Stability Ball Training Compare with Pilates?

Many of the exercises in Balance on the Ball have been inspired by specific mat or apparatus exercises developed by Joseph Pilates. The Ball exercises, however, are not necessarily more effective than traditional Pilates exercises. Each technique has one basic benefit that the other cannot provide. Much of the Pilates Method uses equipment with springs that provide resistance. Just as with other forms of resistance training—weights, bands and tubing—this will increase your muscle mass faster and to a greater degree than will non-resistive training, especially in the major muscles of your arms and legs. The Ball, on the other hand, provides the element of instability which increases the potential for strengthening the abdominals and other core muscles.

Despite these two significant differences, there are many similar benefits:

  1. Stretching and strengthening are often combined within the same exercise.
  2. Stabilization of the spine is important in improving posture and alignment as well as preventing injury.
  3. The body is strengthened from the inside out, working the muscles closest to the core of the body, then progressing to the larger muscle groups of the extremities.
  4. Whole body movement is used, often working in more than one range of motion at a time. This is more functional than isolating separate muscle groups.
  5. Balance is an essential concept. All major muscle groups are strengthened and stretched equally so that there is a sense of symmetry throughout the entire body.

These photos illustrate how a Pilates exercise—in this case, the Pull Up performed on the Wunda Chair—can be adapted to the Ball.

Photo (left): Krisztián Mélykúti and Zsuzsanna Bokor, Balance Pilates Studio, Budapest, Hungary

Seven Benefits of Exercising on the Ball

  1. Increases flexibility, perhaps to a greater degree than performing similar stretches on a stable surface. The Ball allows you to find subtle nuances in every stretch, because by rolling it back and forth, you may stretch different fibers of the same muscle. In addition, many exercises combine both stretching and strengthening of the same muscle, which has been proven to be more effective than plain static stretching.
  1. Increases muscle strength. This includes muscle tone and definition as well as endurance. Your body weight will provide the resistance in most exercises as you work against gravity, although there are a few exercises where the Ball itself supplies the resistance.
  1. Improves balance and coordination on a neuromuscular level. The Ball is a unique exercise tool in that it is not a stable surface. To perform any strengthening or stretching exercise, you must not only use the muscles required to execute the movement, but another set of stabilizing muscles in your torso just to maintain balance. Because balancing on the Ball is a reflex response, it can help you to bypass habitual patterns that interfere with normal functioning. For example, if your body tends to lean to the right, merely sitting on the Ball will require your body to make adjustments to the left. This automatically strengthens the specific muscles necessary to correct the imbalance.
  1. Improves posture through strengthening the stabilizing muscles in your torso. As your core muscles become stronger, they will be better able to support your spine in an upright position. This may help to prevent or relieve back pain, because as your spine becomes more elongated, the stress is taken off both your back muscles and the intervertebral discs.
  1. Helps develop body awareness. As the exercises become more familiar, your focus will shift from an external intellectual process to an internal kinesthetic awareness. Your muscle memory will improve, and you will develop an intuitive sense of alignment and form. You will feel your body moving as a complete, interconnected mechanism.
  1. Evokes playfulness and allows you to connect with your inner child. The Ball has the unusual advantage of being fun as well as challenging, which stimulates laughter and creativity and will give you a greater sense of well-being.
  1. Provides limited cardiovascular conditioning. The Bouncing exercises may provide some degree of aerobic activity, but only if performed for an extended period of time (a minimum of 20 minutes is usually necessary to reach aerobic capacity). Depending on your current level of fitness, your heart rate may not reach your target heart rate zone* during this activity alone. Therefore, in most cases, Bouncing should be used as a warm-up and not as a substitute for cardiovascular activity. It is recommended that, in addition to the exercises in Balance on the Ball, you do some form of aerobic exercise such as walking, biking or jogging, for 20-60 minutes three times a week.

* To find your target heart rate zone, subtract your age from the number 220. Then, multiply that number by both 60% and 90% to find the range of beats per minute that you should stay within during any aerobic activity.

Six Principles of the Pilates Method

The principles developed by Joseph Pilates are integral to your work on the Ball. They impart a sense of mindfulness to every movement, an awareness of being inside your body instead of acting as an observer. There is a strong focus on the quality of each movement, rather than on the number of repetitions or the speed with which they are performed. This keeps your energy in the present and gives you a sense of your body moving as a whole instead of in separate, disconnected parts.

The following six concepts are basic principles in all Pilates-based training. You will find that, although each one has its own identifiable quality, they are all intrinsically intertwined. Keep these principles in mind as you practice the exercises in Balance on the Ball, but also learn to be aware of them as you move throughout your daily life.

Breathing

Before even beginning a workout, take the time to be still and find your breath. Feel your chest rise and fall, and listen to the sound the air makes as it escapes from your lungs. This will clear your mind and bring your focus into the present moment. You are reminded that your body is alive and your energy level will increase. Be sure to breathe deeply so that your ribcage expands to its fullest as you inhale; then force all the air out as you exhale. As you begin to feel comfortable performing the exercises, allow your breath to coordinate with your movements. Breathing in this manner will provide you with power and momentum, so that your movement can flow more naturally.

Concentration

Stay completely focused on each movement, and try not to let your mind wander. Whenever you notice stray thoughts entering your mind, just let them dissolve, returning your focus to your body and your breathing.

Centering

Once you have found your concentration, center it on a place deep inside the core of your body. This is the place from which all movement grows. Imagine your limbs branching off from your trunk, expanding out into space. Feel a sense of balance in your body between all opposing parts – head and feet, right and left sides, front and back.

Precision

Be precise in the placement of your body, maintaining constant awareness of your alignment and form. There should be no extraneous movements. If you begin to lose this feeling of precision, slow down and bring your focus back to your center.

Control

This is one of the greatest challenges in working on an unstable surface. The Ball sometimes seems to have a mind of its own, but it is inevitable with consistent practice that your movements will become smoother and more controlled. It takes time to build this neuromuscular control, so if you are unable to keep the Ball steady, try an easier variation of the exercise or just continue to practice.

Movement Flow/Rhythm

Every exercise has its own intrinsic rhythm, and this may be different for each individual. Learn to find a comfortable pace that works for your body. You should move carefully so that you can maintain proper form and alignment, but try to give each movement a sense of fluidity and grace.

History of the Pilates Method

Pilates is a method of exercise and body conditioning that has been practiced since the early 1920s. It was developed by German-born Joseph Pilates who, while working as a nurse in England during World War I, experimented with attaching a system of springs to the hospital beds as a way for patients to begin rehabilitation while still bedridden. This new concept produced dramatic results. Combining his experience as a diver, boxer and gymnast with his studies of yoga, Zen and other Eastern techniques, he eventually evolved this practice into his unique method of physical and mental conditioning.

In 1926, Joseph Pilates emigrated to New York where he began teaching his method to members of the dance world, including the companies of George Balanchine and Martha Graham. His method became the conditioning and rehabilitation method of choice for the dance community and remains so today, due in large part to its emphasis on balance and its treatment of the body as a whole. Until the 1990s, the method had been used almost exclusively by dancers and other artists, but with an explosion of media attention, Pilates became more accessible to the general public, with classes popping up in fitness centers around the country. Today, Pilates studios may be found in all corners of the globe.

Photo: CovaTech Pilates Studio, Milan, Italy

Choosing the Right Size Ball

When sitting on the Ball, your knees should be at a 90º angle or just slightly lower than the level of your hips. Following are some general guidelines based on your height; however, you may wish to choose a different size Ball depending on the proportion of your legs to your torso (i.e. longer legs may necessitate a larger Ball). If in doubt, choose a larger size Ball so that you may under-inflate it.

 

 

5’ to 5’6”                     55 cm

5’7” to 6’2”                 65 cm

over 6’2”                     75 cm

Note:  You may find it desirable to under-inflate your Ball in the beginning when it is the most firm. Over time your Ball will likely gain elasticity and become softer. When this happens, you may need to add more air to reach the preferred height while seated.