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The Multiple Applications of Swiss Balls

by Paul Chek(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 123 - May 2006

Swiss balls are a familiar sight in many gyms now, but unless the average gym-goer is doing crunches, the Swiss ball is one lonely piece of gym equipment. What most folks in the gym don't know is that crunches represent just a small fraction of the fantastic exercises that can be performed on a Swiss ball! In general, the benefit of Swiss ball training is that it is very multi-functional. One advantage that Swiss ball exercises possess over more traditional exercises is that they allow movement in all three planes: the sagittal, transverse and frontal. Think of the many exercises that are found in typical training programmes – bench press, shoulder press, lat. pull down, low row, leg press, hamstring curl, etc. These are all sagittal-plane dominant, yet how many sports or daily chores are performed without twisting, side bending or rotation? None! In addition, Swiss ball exercises require a constant recruitment of the core musculature, which does not occur with machine training. Using a ball also improves balance, which in turn improves agility. Moreover, these exercises enhance both spinal and peripheral joint stability, which helps to prevent injury. Swiss ball training strengthens postural muscles, which are generally weak from an over-exposure to a seated environment and are not conditioned by most machines. Finally, Swiss ball exercises provide high levels of nervous system activation, challenging the nervous system, and therefore, allow athletes to better transfer their strength and power to the playing environment. In sum, the addition of a Swiss ball to your exercise can yield wonderful improvements in your health and athletic performance.

In this article, I'll show you how to combine five or six Swiss ball exercises into a mini-circuit that can make for a fantastic complete body workout that you can do in the comfort of your own home. Before I begin, here are some tips for safe, effective Swiss ball workouts. First, always check your ball and workout area and clear away any stray debris, such as grit, staples, tacks, thorns, etc. Your workout will be a deflating experience if one of these punctures your ball! Second, take care that the ball does not slide out from underneath you. Use a mat if the floor is slippery. Finally, it is important to warm-up correctly. The best way is to perform the particular activity you will be doing at a reduced intensity, e.g. one set of each exercise at a perceived 60% of training intensity, or what you would consider easy. You will know your body is ready for exercise when you begin to sweat. After your warm-up, take a short rest of approximately 60 seconds and begin your workout.

Add a Ball

Here are some familiar exercises with a Swiss ball twist that really challenge the nervous system.

Push-ups (Figure 1a and 1b)

A push-up can be made easier or harder than a regular floor push-up by using a Swiss ball. To make the exercise easier, lie face down with your hips supported by the ball. Increase the level of difficulty by walking forward on your hands and letting the ball roll towards your feet. A more advanced version of the exercise is to perform each push-up with only one leg on the ball. When performing the Swiss ball push-up, keep your body in good alignment throughout each rep. There should be no sagging or bending in the middle and your head should be in-line with the rest of the spine – do not let it hang down nor lift up. Look straight down at the floor. To start, take a deep breath and draw the umbilicus inward as if you are zipping up a tight pair of jeans. Lower yourself until your nose is just off the ground. Be sure to maintain the spinal alignment I describe above. Exhale through pursed lips as you push back to the starting position.

Figure 1a
Figure 1a

Alternating Superman (Figure 2a and 2b)

This is a great exercise for balance training. To begin, lie face down over a Swiss ball, balancing on toes and fingertips. Pick up one leg and the opposite arm and hold them parallel to the ground. The arm should be positioned at a 45° (angle to the spine and the thumb should be pointing upward, as if hitch-hiking. This will improve the activation of the shoulder stabilizers. The butt muscle should also be activated. Hold this position for three to ten seconds. Lower the arm and leg at the same time as lifting the opposite arm and leg into the same position. Do not let the back hyperextend (excessively arch), nor the head lose its axial alignment with the spine (do not let if drop or lift it up). If this exercise proves to be too easy, you can increase the difficulty by performing the Superman without letting your arms or legs touch the ground for up to one minute.

Whole Body Ball Exercises

These exercises work multiple muscles groups and joints at one time. This is great functional training!

Forward Ball Roll (Figure 3a and 3b)

Begin by kneeling behind the ball while placing your forearms on the ball. Inhale and draw your umbilicus inward. Roll forward with simultaneous motion at the hip and shoulder joints. Only go as far as you can while holding perfect spinal alignment. At no time should you feel any pressure in your low back nor should your head drop down. Hold for the prescribed number of seconds and then roll backward, breathing out through pursed lips as you come back. For a more advanced challenge, try shifting your weight to one leg as you roll forward, changing from one leg to the other with each repetition.

(Figure 4a and 4b)

 
To start the exercise, lie on the floor with your calves on the ball, arms out to your sides with your palms face up. Extend up from the hips until you reach a straight line, feet-hips-shoulders. Keeping the hips lifted, draw the ball towards you by bending your knees. The hips should remain in line with the shoulders and knees. Slowly straighten the legs, then lower the hips to the staring position. I recommend that before you begin this exercise start first with a warm-up by simply performing the hip extension without the knee flexion. If you find this exercise overly challenging, you can decrease the difficulty by moving the ball closer to your feet. For an extra challenge try one leg at a time or folding your arms across your body.

Figure 4a
Figure 4a

Supine Lateral Ball Roll (Figure 5a and 5b)

This exercise may not seem to be too difficult, but appearances can be deceiving! To begin, lie with your head, shoulders and upper back supported by the ball. Hold your arms straight out from your shoulders, palms up, parallel to the floor. Keep the hips lifted, so your body forms a table-top position. Taking little steps sideways roll to one side of the ball, maintaining the flat table-top position with your body and the arms parallel to the floor. Do not let your body tip or twist. Hold for a count of one. Return to centre and repeat on the other side. If you move far enough to the side your head will come off the ball. Make sure that it remains in the same position relative to the body and put your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind the front teeth, to help support your neck.

Your Swiss Ball Circuit

Now that you know how to perform each of these exercises, here is a short, but challenging programme for you to follow. See Table on previous page.

This programme is organized as a circuit. So after completing the first exercise, go immediately to the next, as indicated by the down arrows. After completing the circuit of five exercises in the order shown, rest for 90 seconds for the first two or three weeks of training. Once you are able to complete four circuits with good form, you may reduce the rest period to 60 seconds, again challenging the body.

On your first workout set, you should stop the set when you feel as though you could complete an additional two repetitions. If you go harder than that, your form will deteriorate before you complete the workout! You can alter your form to ensure that the load or intensity of the exercise is sufficiently difficult by altering the angle of your lever arm and the positioning of your body on the ball. On the next circuits you can stop when you feel you could do one more rep.

In the programme above, I refer to tempo. This is the speed at which you perform the exercise. A moderate tempo (mod) is a 1-2 up count and 1-2 down count. A slow tempo is a 1-2-3 up count and 1-2-3 down count. Finally, 333 is a 1-2-3 up count, holding at the top of the movement for a count of 3, and then returning to the starting position on a count of 1-2-3.

I think if you try these exercises, you'll see that the Swiss ball is useful for more than crunching away your gym time. Enjoy!

Further Information

For more information on Paul's popular You Are What You Eat audio/workbook programme, or for any of his other health/exercise courses, programmes and books, call Tel: +44 (0)1273 856 860 or visit www.paulchekseminarsuk.com

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About Paul Chek

Paul Chek, Holistic Health Practitioner and certified Neuromuscular Therapist, is the founder of the CHEK Institute in California. He is also a sought-after speaker and consultant, and his services have benefited numerous professional sports teams, athletes and individuals seeking optimal health worldwide. Paul has produced numerous videos, DVDs, books, audio programmes, articles and professional training courses. In addition, he has just released his mentoring programme, P-P-S Success Mastery. To learn more about Paul and his new mentoring programme you can visit www.paulchek.com.

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