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.)

Teaser

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.