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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.