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Balance Ball Therapy: Exercises for Backs and Knees

BY: Joelle Klein
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You’ve seen how crunches on a Balance Ball exercise ball (a.k.a. stability ball or fitness ball) can tone your abs. But you might not know that Balance Ball exercises can also prevent and rehabilitate injuries and help alleviate chronic pain.

Exercise physiologist Tom Holland says a Balance Ball stability ball forces your body to use different muscles, as well as use your muscles in a different way, which can help prevent and correct muscle imbalances. “It connects your mind to your muscles,” he explains.

 

Here's some expert advice and four exercises with how-to photos to help you put that connection to work in your exercise routine.

How does a Balance Ball prevent or rehabilitate injury?

1. Improves balance by activating proprioception

A Balance Ball provides an unstable surface that activates the proprioceptive system — the system that tells the body where its limbs are within space, says exercise physiologist Rick Kaselj. “When you hurt yourself, your proprioceptive ability is decreased,” he says. So working on the ball not only improves your sense of balance but can decrease your risk of injury or re-injury. This is especially useful for older adults whose sense of balance is often compromised.

When you use a Balance Ball, you're “yelling at those muscles to work harder because the surface underneath you is unstable,” says physical therapist Chantal Donnelly, whose Strong Knees therapeutic exercise DVD from Gaiam guides a therapeutic routine to help prevent and treat knee problems.

2. Builds strength in weak or overtaxed muscles

Injuries and chronic pain are often caused by weak or overused muscles, or other muscles compensating for the weak or overused ones.

“We know that core strength can prevent everything from ankle, knee and hip injuries to back and shoulder injuries,” says Donnelly. “Without control and power radiating from the center of the body, the smaller, more peripheral muscles are overtaxed, leading to pain and injury.

 

Using a Balance Ball while exercising, she explains, forces you to challenge important core muscles.

 

If a golfer, for example, does not have strong core muscles, he may end up using only his shoulder muscles while swinging the club and, inevitably, suffer rotator cuff problems. You can also use the ball to increase strength in the gluteus maximus (butt muscles) to prevent pelvic instability, which can lead to knee, ankle or illiotibial band (IT) problems for runners.

3. Increases range of motion

After a knee or hip injury, part of the rehabilitation process is to increase the range of motion of the injured area.

 

Simply rocking back and forth on the ball can increase range of motion in your hips, says Kaselj. He also suggests doing exercises, like hamstring curls (detailed below), on the ball to strengthen the muscles around your knee and help extend range of motion.

 

Research shows that decreased range of motion in the hips can make people prone to shoulder problems, says Donnelly. “Everything is interconnected,” she points out.

 

Two ball exercises for back problems

Librarian Geoff Greenberg sits on an office chair all day, but when he gets home and needs to get on the computer, he sits on a Balance Ball. Greenberg hurt his back six years ago when he was lifting an amplifier. “It was like WHOAH!” he says. “I triggered something awful.

 

His chiropractor recommended sitting on the ball and doing sit-ups to strengthen his core muscles, and his pain subsided soon after.

 

Doing any type of exercise on the ball activates your deep stabilizing muscles, which support the lumbar spine. Just using the ball in a strength training routine, as opposed to a weight bench, will help decrease lower back pain.

 

If you have more serious pain or back injury, you may need to build up to using the Balance Ball, says Donnelly. The first step is to reduce inflammation with small movements and then move on to Balance Ball exercises to really challenge and strengthen your muscles.

1. Back Extensions

 
  • Lie with your stomach on the ball.
  • With your legs out straight behind you, curl your toes under to keep from sliding.
  • Place your hands behind your head.
  • As you exhale, draw in your abdominals and lift your chest off of the ball.
  • Repeat 10 times.

2. Exercise: Planks

 
  • Place your forearms on a mat, with your feet on the ball.
  • Draw in your abdominals and make sure that you are in a straight plank position (no sagging in the lower back).
  • Hold that position for 30 seconds.
  • Be sure to breathe.

Two ball exercises for hip and knee problems

A weak core not only leads to lower back problems, but can also be the cause of lower body injuries, says Holland.

 

Using the ball for one-legged hamstring curls or one-legged ball squats helps correct imbalances in the lower body that can lead to numerous muscle, tendon and joint issues and injuries in the knees and legs. “These simple exercises force the body to recruit muscles in a way that traditional strength machines can’t.”

 

Strengthening the muscles around the knee, says Donnelly, can take strain off the ACL, which can help rehabilitate the knee after surgery or help prevent injury altogether.

 

IT band tightness and bursitis are two common hip problems that can be fixed by strengthening your glutes in order to stop overuse of the wrong muscles.



1. Hamstring Curls

 
  • Lying on a mat, place your feet on the ball and bend your knees so that they are at a right angle.
  • As you exhale, draw in your abdominals and lift your hips up towards the ceiling.
  • Inhale at the top of the movement and exhale to return back to the mat.
  • Repeat 12 times.

2. Hip Extensions

 
  • Lie on a mat and place both feet on the ball. Your legs should be straight.
  • Exhale, draw in your abdominals and lift your hips up towards the ceiling.
  • Inhale at the top of the movement and exhale to return back to the mat.
  • Repeat 12 times.

Exercises courtesy of Chantal Donnelly.

 

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