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.

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.

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.

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.

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.