Editor’s Note: This is the second in a 4-part series about tools and techniques to develop and maintain optimum balance and stability for paddlesports at any age. We recently talked about the wobble board in our July post. This month we’re introducing the stability ball.
The stability ball, or balance ball, was invented by Aqulino Cosani, a toymaker, in the 1960s. Later, Swiss physical therapists incorporated the ball into their therapy programs, and the ball became known as the Swiss Ball. As a result of its effectiveness in patients and clients, the stability ball is now known all over the world as a premium tool to improve balance and stability.
One of the cool things about balance training is that it incorporates core muscles. The core covers the area from the nipples to the knees, including the muscles that surround the spine, abdomen, and hip. Core muscles are essential for proper load balance in the spine and pelvis. They protect the spine from excessive load and allow load transfer between the upper and lower body. They work in concert to provide spinal stability and help prevent injury by transferring the power generated by the butt and legs, redistributing that power for use in physical activity. Not only do core muscles protect the back from injury, they also protect the shoulders and knees, which often bear the burden of load and movement of a weak core. Because all movement begins in the core, a strong, stable core prevents injury and allows us to perform all physical actions smoothly, easily, and effectively.
The stability ball can be used in two ways to develop core muscles. One is to address core strength itself, and we’ve covered some of those methods in a previous post which you can check out here. In today’s article we address exercises designed specifically for balance and stability. Before you begin the exercises be sure your ball is fully inflated to its proper size and that when you sit on the ball your hips and knees are at a 90 degree angle for optimum effect.
Here’s the first drill:
1. Seated alternate arm raise
Sit on the ball with both feet flat on the floor. Check your balance to be sure you are stable. Raise one arm above your head and return it to your side. Repeat with the other arm. If this seems easy to you, try closing your eyes and repeating the movement. Do 5 to 10 repetitions per set. Do 1 to 3 sets per session.
2. Seated arm raise with weight
This is the same drill as Number One, adding weight in one hand. You can use a light dumbbell or a medicine ball, or even a can of tomatoes or something similar. The weight doesn’t have to be more than 8 ounces or so. This isn’t a strength training exercise; it’s a balance exercise, and the weight needs to be just enough to destabilize you as you sit on the ball. Holding the weight, raise one arm above your head and then lower. Then switch the weight to the other hand and repeat.
Adding difficulty: These drills may be harder than you think. If so, practice till they seem easy. If the drills seem easy at first, you can add levels of difficulty.
First, repeat Drill One with eyes closed. When the eyes are closed and there isn’t an external frame of reference to tell us where we are in space, balance becomes more challenging. We have to rely on our internal sensors, and closing the eyes develops that capacity.
Second, add different movements. For example, raise one arm out to the side to shoulder level, or to the front to shoulder level, or to the back as far as you can go comfortably. In this way, do one arm raise, return, and repeat on the other side, alternating back and forth while alternating directions.
Third, add weight to the various movements. Hold the weight in one hand. Then raise your arm above your head and return, then out to the side, or out to the front. If it’s comfortable, raise your arm behind you and return. Be sure to do the movements without shifting your posture. Then switch the weight to your other hand and repeat all movements.
Fourth, perform the drills with one heel lifted. Raising one heel so that only the toes touch the floor adds an element of instability. When you’ve done the arm raises with one heel lifted, switch heels and repeat the drills. For a real challenge you can raise one heel and close your eyes as you practice the arm raises.
Note: Seated arm raises should be done with both feet flat on the floor about hip distance apart until you’re ready for a challenge. Always use good posture, chin and chest lifted, looking straight ahead. It’s helpful to look at a spot on the wall in front of you. Keep your arms by your sides unless you’re raising one of them. Begin with the basic drill, and when that becomes easy you can close your eyes, add weight, raise one heel, or combine the challenges. Each level of difficulty you add will destabilize you a little more, so progress slowly. Breathe slowly and rhythmically throughout the movements. If movements become abrupt, or you start to wobble, slow down.
3. Seated alternate leg raise/marching
Sit on the ball with your arms by your sides and slowly raise one knee so that the foot comes off the floor a few inches, then return. Alternate sides until the drill feels easy. Be sure one foot is touching the floor completely before raising the other knee. Keep your arms by your sides and move slowly.
Adding difficulty: When this drill becomes easy you can begin to increase the speed. It will feel a little like marching. When you’re comfortable, raise the knee as high as you can while maintaining stability. Then you can combine raising one knee and raising the opposite arm. Raise the right arm overhead while raising the left knee. Repeat on the other side. Use different arm movements while raising a heel or knee. You can also close your eyes or add a weight in one hand while adding arm movement.
Note: Always start with the most basic level of the drill to see how it feels. If it’s easy, add one challenge at a time, and master the first before you move on. Posture and breath are important. Keep good posture and breathe smoothly and rhythmically while seated on the ball. If you feel wobbly or breathing and movements become rough, slow down.
4. Seated leg extension
Sit on the ball with feet flat on the floor and your arms by your sides. Slowly straighten one knee and return. Repeat on the opposite side.
Adding difficulty: Again, add levels of difficulty one at a time. Try closing your eyes. Or try raising the opposite arm, with or without a weight, as you extend one knee. You can try raising the arm on the same side as the extending knee but this can be quite challenging. Go slowly.
5. Prone alternate arm raise
Roll forward with your abdomen on the ball, walking your arms out so that your toes still touch the floor. Slowly raise one arm out to shoulder level and return. Then repeat on the other side. Do 5 to 10 repetitions on each side. Note how the core muscles engage when one hand leaves the floor.
6. Prone alternate leg raise
Roll forward with your tummy on the ball until your hands touch the floor. Keep your hands under your shoulders and slowly raise one leg at a time. Be sure that one foot has touched down before raising the other one. If you can, raise the leg all the way to hip level. The higher the leg raise, the more balance will be disturbed. Do 5 to 10 repetitions on each side.
7. Prone alternate arm and leg raise
Once the arm and leg raises are comfortable you can combine them for this drill. Slowly raise the right arm and left leg simultaneously. You may find it necessary to keep the arm and leg low until you can stabilize easily. Eventually try to get a full range of motion for both arm and leg so that the arm is at shoulder level and the leg is at hip level. Add difficulty by closing the eyes. You can also speed up the movements so that you perform the raises slowly but continuously from side to side without stopping in a kind of swimming motion.
These drills may seem simple but they are effective. Some may come easily, some not. Always start slowly, and when you can do the movement smoothly with control, add difficulty by closing the eyes, adding weight to one side, or one of the other suggested challenges. Also, it really does help to fix your gaze on one spot on the wall. You can stick a post-it on the wall at eye level to help keep your gaze fixed. By letting your gaze wander whether or not you turn your head you can lose your balance.
When looking for a stability ball, it’s important to choose the right one. Ideally, when you sit on your ball, your knees and hips will be at a 90 degree angle with your feet flat on the floor. After doing an Internet search on balance and stability balls, I can tell you there are many good products available. To help you figure out which ball and which size is right for you, here is a link to a great blog from my old buddies at Power Systems. I used to get all my fitness products for classes and personal fitness clients from Power Systems and the fact that they’re still in business after over 30 years testifies to their quality. https://blog.powersystems.com/product-spotlight/how-to-choose-the-right-stability-ball/
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