Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a four-part series on balance and stability. The first article in this series addresses the wobble board, a useful tool to improve and maintain good balance. In the second article we cover the stability ball, another useful tool. Since good balance depends on strong core muscles, also check out our post on Core Strength and Stability . This article introduces the foam roller.
Foam rollers are generally used for self-massage. They come in a variety of sizes, textures, and colors. They’re great for myofascial release and they’re nice to lie on and relax, supporting the spine, opening the chest and the front of the shoulders after a long day at a desk. They’re also used in Pilates mat classes. Foam rollers are good tools to improve and maintain balance. The drills below look deceptively easy, but don’t be fooled; they’re effective and may be more difficult than they seem.
You can do many balance drills using a foam roller. Here we cover four of those drills, starting with the roll down and the roll up as used in Pilates mat classes.
First, sit on one end of the roller, feet hip distance apart. Raise both arms to shoulder level, palms turned inward, fingers together. Inhale deeply, then exhale slowly as you tuck your chin and look toward your navel, pulling it into your spine, curving your back and rolling down one vertebra at a time until you are lying on the foam roller with your head supported. Pause for a breath or two, then inhale deeply and exhale slowly as you roll back up, tucking your chin and looking down until you are sitting upright. It helps to press both feet firmly and evenly into the floor. Be sure to pause for a breath or two before you roll down and before you roll up. When rolling, make the movement continuous with the breath, so you roll down with one long, slow exhale, pause, inhale, then roll up on another exhale.
Here are some tips for successful rolling:
- Do the drills on a carpeted floor.
- Support yourself with both hands lightly touching the floor if you wobble a lot.
- Separate your feet a little wider than your hips for greater stability.
- Place your feet hip distance apart and bring the hands to shoulder level when you feel stable.
- Hold a small stability ball or a Pilates ring between your palms. Squeeze the ball gently but firmly.
- Hold a medicine ball for both stability and challenge.
- Note that your back may adjust as you roll down.
- If at first the drill is too difficult, put a prop between your knees and hold it in place with firm, inward pressure. Adduction (squeezing toward the midline) activates core muscles required for good stability. Eventually your body learns to cue the muscles and you can leave the props aside.
The next drill is called marching. First, sit on the end of the foam roller and roll down. Make sure both your hips and head are supported on the roller and the center of the roller is in line with your spine. Let your arms rest on the floor on each side of the roller. Your feet should be flat on the floor about hip distance apart. Notice the space under your low back. Pull your belly button into your spine and press that space gently but firmly into the roller. You may still have some space between the roller and your back but this action helps you stabilize.
Slowly raise the right heel while the toes still touch the floor. Then set the heel down softly and repeat the action raising the other heel. Notice how each movement destabilizes your body to some extent, and the roller moves. Keep your body and the roller still while the feet move.
Inhale, then exhale as you raise each heel and inhale as you lower it. When those actions are comfortable and you can move keeping the body and the roller quiet, lift the whole foot from the floor just a bit, pause, then set it down again. Pause, take a breath, and switch sides. Once you can do this without much movement in the roller, start marching, raising the feet one at a time while keeping the raised foot close to the floor. Slowly develop a quicker rhythm, raising and lowering one foot on an inhale and the other on the exhale.
Tips for marching well:
- Support yourself with both hands on the floor.
- When you can march without a lot of extra movement, raise your arms straight up over your shoulders, fingertips pointing toward the ceiling and palms facing inward, shoulder width apart.
- Hold a small balance ball or a Pilates ring between your palms, squeezing gently and firmly.
- Keep the feet close to the floor to start, then make the movements larger.
- Synch the breath with the movements.
- When you’re ready, raise each foot until the raised knee is over the hip and the calf is parallel to the floor.
- Notice the low back. As you lower your leg from the high position, the back wants to arch. Prevent this by gently pressing that area into the roller.
The fourth drill adds arm movement. It’s the same as the third drill except you raise the arms to your sides, palms turned in toward the body, fingers together. As you raise your heel or foot, raise the opposite arm till the hand is over the shoulder, then lower the foot and arm together. Move slowly and deliberately with the breath. Repeat on the other side. Practice till you can move smoothly from side to side, similar to walking.
More tips for smooth and effective marching:
- Begin by raising one heel as you raise the opposite arm.
- When lifting the heel becomes comfortable, raise one foot, keeping it close to the floor while you lift the opposite arm.
- When lifting one foot becomes comfortable, raise the foot higher till the knee is over the hip and the calf is parallel to the floor.
- Establish a slow, even rhythm. Coordinate the breath with the movement. When each drill becomes easy you can speed up a bit, as though you were leisurely walking.
- Ideally the arm should reach vertical at the same time the foot reaches its highest point. This requires a some timing. Foot and leg, arm and breath work together while everything else stays still.
It’s important to do these drills in increments. Start with the basic version, then add on levels of challenge. The good news is that you are close to the floor. The worst that can happen is that you roll off the roller if you lose balance altogether. Start by doing each drill 3 to 5 times and then rest.
Closing the eyes while balancing is always an added challenge, so you can do this if the drills seem easy. If you’re having difficulty and you don’t have a ball or a ring, a thick pillow or two will work as well to hold between the hands or knees. Just be sure that the knees don’t come too close together. Ideally the knees are hip distance apart during all these exercises.
A little goes a long way. Using a foam roller requires more focus and consequently more effort than many other balance drills. The movements must be slow, deliberate, and in synch with the breath to be really effective. Pull the navel into the spine and press the low back gently but firmly against the roller when marching, and observe what happens as you move the feet and legs back and forth. When rolling up or down, press the feet firmly into the floor. Do not let your feet pop up.
Using a prop between the palms and/or knees increases stability because it engages core muscles. Eventually you won’t need aids and can float your arms and legs up and down without much physical effort; however, mental focus is always needed or you’ll find yourself wobbling again.
Balance is one of the first things people lose as they age, but developing the ability to balance well under a variety of circumstances is one of the best things you can do for yourself regardless of age or fitness level. For paddle sports, good balance is crucial. You can find the props used in this article by clicking the following links.
Find foam rollers at https://www.power-systems.com/shop/product/premium-eva-foam-roller?variantid=6382 The roller needs to be long enough for you to lie comfortably on. The roller in this article is 36″ long.
Find Pilates rings at https://www.power-systems.com/shop/product/pilates-ring
You can also find stability balls and medicine balls in various sizes on the Power Systems website. When I was maintaining my personal fitness training studio, I used Power Systems almost exclusively and the equipment I bought from them was reliable, reasonably priced, and has stood the test of time. However, you can search the internet for all these products, learn more ways to use them, and find the items that are most suitable for you.
Questions? Comments? Try these drills and let us know how it goes. And don’t be surprised if you find your abs a bit sore after the first few times! Thanks for reading!
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