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.

The Long, Lean Pilates Body

When I first became certified as an instructor in 1995, Pilates was not the household word that it is today. My clients were puzzled, intimidated, even frightened by the strange machines sitting in our studio. Most of these people were used to working out on the standard gym equipment—weight machines and free weights—so the one question I heard on a daily basis was, Why is Pilates better than what I’m already doing? My answer: Pilates is not necessarily better—just different.

One of those differences involves the way in which Pilates strengthens muscles. Traditional weight training typically uses a high amount of resistance, with the goal being to train “until failure,” the point at which a repetition fails due to inadequate strength. This approach will create strong, often bulky muscles, but with the downside of limited flexibility.

For those clients who have physical limitations or are wary of “bulking up,” many trainers offer another technique: using low resistance while performing a higher number of repetitions, usually stopping before the muscle reaches that point of total fatigue. While this approach is somewhat similar to Pilates in its use of low resistance, Pilates differs in that it traditionally entails relatively few repetitions, emphasizing quality over quantity. There are also several other components that set Pilates apart—most notably its dual emphasis on core muscles and flexibility.

Several of the Pilates apparatus—the Reformer, Cadillac (a.k.a. Trapeze Table), and “Wunda” Chair—use springs to provide resistance. These springs come in different levels of strength, but the catch is that a higher resistance does not always make an exercise more difficult. Because you are often working against your own body weight, many exercises become exponentially more challenging on a lower spring setting. No matter the movement, all Pilates exercises target the body’s core muscles, including those smaller muscles used to stabilize joints and fine-tune movement. This has the effect of creating strength without the bulk.

In addition, Pilates emphasizes fluid, lengthening movements rather than short contractions, often working a muscle through its full range of motion. By combining both stretching and strengthening of a muscle within the same exercise, more muscle fibers are given a chance to contract—without sacrificing flexibility. The end result: a fit Pilates body with long, lean, toned muscles.

Photo: Zsuzsanna Bokor, Balance Pilates Studio, Budapest, Hungary

Improve Your Balance on the Ball

There is no better way to improve your balance than by balancing on an unstable surface. With a stability ball—arguably one of the most versatile props—your core muscles are forced to activate, no matter what movement the exercise involves. Here are five of my favorites that can be practiced in the comfort of your own home. In addition to strengthening your core abdominals, these exercises also target muscles in the upper body, lower back, and legs.

One Arm Balance

To Start: Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward until your hips are resting on top of the Ball. Extend both legs behind you, keeping your body in a long, straight line from head to toe.

Movement: Lift one hand off the floor and extend your arm straight forward. Try to hold your balance for at least 10 seconds. Repeat about 10 times, alternating sides.

Skier

To Start: Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward until your mid-thighs or knees are resting on the Ball. You should be in a long, straight line from head to toe.

Movement: Tuck your knees toward one shoulder, rolling the Ball forward on a diagonal. Keep your shoulders still and let your torso twist at the waist. From there, straighten your legs, rolling the Ball back to the starting position. Repeat about 10 times, alternating sides.

Twist

To Start: Lie with your stomach on the Ball and both hands on the floor. Walk your hands forward until your mid-thighs or knees are resting on the Ball. You should be in a long, straight line from head to toe.

Movement: Twist your body at the waist, so that your hips are square to the side. Keep your shoulders still and your legs straight. From there, roll back to the starting position. Repeat about 10 times, alternating sides.

Side Leg Lifts

To Start: Lie sideways over the Ball with your legs together, so that only your feet and one hand are on the floor. Place your other hand on the Ball to help keep it still.

Movement: Keeping both legs straight and in a parallel position, lift and lower your top leg. Repeat, about 10 reps per side.

Side Sit-Ups

To Start: Lie sideways over the Ball with your feet supported against the base of a wall. Only the side of your hip should be resting on the Ball, not your ribcage. Keep your knees and inner thighs together, with the bottom leg straight and the top leg bent (the top foot will be behind the bottom one). With your hands behind your head, lean out so that you are in a straight, diagonal line from head to feet.

Movement: Bend at your waist to raise your torso up to a vertical position, then lower back to the diagonal. Keep your hips still, so that the hinge happens at the waist. Repeat, about 10 reps per side.

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.