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.

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