Back on the Ball

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.)

2. Quadruped

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.

4. Superman

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.

Budapest: Hungry for Pilates

This piece was written for Pilates Style following my visit to the studio in 2005. However, due to a change in editorial staff, the article was never published. Facts contained within are current as of 2005.

Little more than a decade after the fall of Communism, an enterprising trio of pioneers has broken new ground with Hungary’s first Pilates studio. After completing the Stott certification program in 2003, professional ballet dancers Zsuzsanna Bokor and Krisztián Mélykúti opened the Balance Pilates Studio in downtown Budapest, and were soon joined by Vladka Mala, a Czech-born contemporary dancer who is also certified by Stott.

Zsuzsanna’s husband, Gabor, remains equally involved with the studio. An orthopedic surgeon specializing in back problems and sports injuries, he has brought to the group a high level of technical expertise, as well as a number of patient referrals. To meet the growing demand, Balance Pilates Studio has launched an instructor training program licensed by Stott Pilates. The hope is not only to foster extra teachers for their own practice, but to encourage the growth of additional studios throughout Hungary. Instead of regarding this as potential competition, their vision is what Gabor describes as “critical mass,” the point where Pilates awareness is so broad that everyone in the field benefits from its established reputation.

So far, the studio’s main challenge has been an economical one. Although private sessions are inexpensive by American standards (they cost about US$25), many Hungarians cannot afford this luxury. In order to accommodate more equipment for semi-private sessions, the group recently relocated to a larger space. Even as the business expands, Zsuzsanna, Krisztián, and Vladka strive to create a comfortable atmosphere where clients feel like family. It is in this environment, the trio believes, that their students are most likely to succeed…and to then spread the word about Pilates. For more information, visit

Milan: Pilates in Vogue

This piece was written for Pilates Style following my visit to the studio in 2005. However, due to a change in editorial staff, the article was never published. Facts contained within are current as of 2005.

In Italy the Pilates realm belongs to just one woman: Anna Maria Cova. Since leaving her career as a professional ballet dancer, Cova has built an empire of over seventy Pilates studios, an intensive teacher training program, and a complete line of equipment.

Cova opened her first studio in Milan in 1989 after three years of training with Romana Kryzanowska in New York. Worried that the method might eventually lose its integrity, she established exclusive rights to the Pilates trademark throughout Italy. When the U.S. courts abolished the Pilates trademark in the year 2000, however, Cova decided to follow that spirit of generosity and allow other Italian studios to operate using the name Pilates. In order to distinguish her own style of training, she then launched the brand “CovaTech,” which encompasses her teaching method as well as her personally-designed reformers, cadillacs, and other apparatus.

In addition to her extensive network of studios in Italy, Cova is branching out into Europe with studios in Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and Croatia. Her instructors go through a 400-hour certification that emphasizes injury protocol and rehabilitation. Though her teaching adheres to the classical style taught by the Pilates “elders,” Cova has added a few of her own innovations, such as “Meridian Stretching” (a technique based on the meridians of Shiatsu) and a mat program called “Mat4Me.”

Despite the demands of running an international business, Cova continues to teach daily at her rainbow-colored studio in downtown Milan. There is nothing, she says, that gives her greater satisfaction than being able to help her clients achieve their goals – the way she has achieved her own. For more information, visit

Core Strength on the Ball

Core strength is vital to everything we do, from sitting at the computer to carrying a load of heavy groceries, from playing competitive sports to playing with our kids. It helps improve our posture, protects the spine from injury, and gives us a strong center from which to move.

Our core muscles are the numerous stabilizing muscles that connect the bones of the rib cage, spine, and pelvis: primarily the abdominal and back muscles, and to some degree the iliopsoas and gluteals. These muscle groups work in opposing pairs. For example, the abdominals flex the spine, while the back muscles perform extension. Similarly, the various muscles of the iliopsoas and gluteal groups work in opposition to control the movement of the pelvis, which consequently affects the curvature of the spine.

While methods such as Pilates can be an excellent way of strengthening the core, exercising on an unstable surface has proven yet even more effective. The stability ball is arguably the most versatile of props, with exercises performed in multiple positions and working every part of the body. Its benefit lies in the fact that our core muscles are crucial to maintaining balance—and even more significantly, that these muscles will automatically be called into play anytime we are balancing on the ball.

This phenomenon is accomplished through what is often dubbed the “sixth sense.” Better known as the kinesthetic sense, or proprioception—our perception of the body’s position and movement—this sensory system is directly involved in our reflexes and muscle memory. Sensory organs of the visual and vestibular (inner ear) systems, as well as pressure and joint receptors throughout the entire body, provide information to the cerebellum (hind brain). The brain then instantly processes this information and sends a message to the muscles to respond—a sort of reflex response.

For example, merely sitting on the ball forces the core muscles to remain in a constant state of contraction—a state of equilibrium but also of constant flux. As we are balancing, our weight is continuously shifting. When there is a slight imbalance in our body, such as leaning to one side, the body will attempt to correct the imbalance by making subtle adjustments in the opposite direction. The weaker muscles are thereby strengthened, and our posture will gradually improve. An ideal state of balance is achieved when the body has found perfect alignment.

Clearly, the goal is to avoid falling off the ball; therefore, through frequent practice, our body instinctively learns which muscles to activate. By stabilizing ourselves on an unstable surface, new neural pathways are formed and ingrained into our muscle memory so deeply that the core muscles respond involuntarily to any shift in balance.

It is precisely because these reflex responses bypass the conscious brain that I believe the stability ball transcends many other methods of training. Whereas a technique like Pilates demands deep awareness and concentration in order to activate the proper core muscles, the primary focus on the ball is simply to perform the movement without falling off. It is unnecessary to visualize the specific muscles we intend to use, since the feedback is immediate and automatic: if we fail to work the right muscles, we will lose our balance. Bringing a sense of mindfulness to our workouts can certainly enhance the benefits; nevertheless, the advantage, ultimately, is that stability ball training requires relatively little mental effort, increasing our core strength quickly and effectively—and perhaps providing a bit of fun along the way as well.

Abs on the Ball

Pilates has long been revered for its slimming and toning effects, particularly on the body’s core muscles. Here, we add a stability ball to some classic Pilates moves for an even more effective approach. On the ball, your core muscles are forced to activate, no matter what movement the exercise involves—this makes it all but impossible to cheat. Try these five exercises to get your abs in top shape.

Flat Back/Roll Up

1. To Start: Sit on the Ball with your arms reaching forward.

2. Movement: Tuck your pelvis under and 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 in line with your ears. From there, reach your arms forward, rounding your back again. Walk your feet in, rolling yourself back up to a sitting position. Repeat about 5 times.

Stomach Crunch

1. To Start: Sit on the Ball with your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart, and your hands behind your head. Walk your feet forward until your lower back is resting on the Ball.

2. Movement: Contracting the deep abdominals, raise and lower the upper half of your torso, keeping your spine in a C-curve. Be sure that you aren’t coming up so high that your hip flexors engage; at the same time, don’t let your back collapse over the Ball. The range of motion is very small. Repeat about 10 to 20 times. (To work the obliques, curl up on a diagonal toward one knee. Repeat alternating sides.)


1. To Start: Lie on your back with your feet on top of the Ball, your legs straight, and your arms resting on the floor above your head.

2. Movement: In one smooth motion, curl up as high as you can, reaching your arms forward on a high diagonal. (Beginners, your low back may remain on the floor; for an advanced challenge, aim to come up onto your sitting bones.) From there, raise your arms overhead in line with your ears. Roll back down to the floor, one vertebra at a time. Repeat about 5 times.

Knee Stretch

1. 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.

2. Movement: Tuck your knees in, rolling the Ball forward toward your chest. From there, straighten your legs, rolling the Ball back to the starting position. Repeat about 8 to 10 times.

Side Sit Ups

1. 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.

2. 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.

Get on the Ball at Home or Work

Too busy to hit the gym? Grab an exercise ball and squeeze in workout time in the comfort of your own home. Use the ball as a chair while at your computer desk, watching TV, or talking on the phone. Your core muscles will benefit by automatically engaging, even while just sitting still. It’s practically impossible to slouch and relax your entire body, because you would roll off! As long as you maintain good posture, your abs and back muscles will be working together to create a strong core. These five exercises are all done in a sitting position and are easy to fit into a busy day.

1. For mobility in the hips and waist, try doing pelvic circles. Without moving anything above your waist, draw circles with your hips: to the front, to the right, to the back, to the left. Then reverse the direction.



2. To work your inner thighs, straddle the ball with your feet placed in back. Squeeze the ball with your knees. This is also a nice stretch for the hip flexors. (From this same position, you can reach both arms overhead and tilt sideways for an intense stretch that also strengthens the muscles of your waist.)


3. To work your quadriceps, bounce up and down on the ball, pausing in mid-air as if doing a squat. (For best results, keep your knees aligned over your heels, dig your heels into the floor, and try not to lean forward.)



4. For balance training, sit up tall and extend one leg in front of you so that you are balancing on one foot. Repeat, alternating legs. (Extending your arms to the side will aid balance. To add difficulty, cross your arms in front of your chest.



5. To stretch your glutes (and test your balance), cross one foot over the other knee. Lean forward as far as your flexibility allows. Repeat on the other 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.