by Mary Jo Cameron
Can adding a Balance Ball to your abs workout net you that six-pack with less sweat? A study by researchers at the Department of Kinesiology at Occidental College in Los Angeles says yes.
The study found that crunches performed on a stability ball (a.k.a. fitness ball or Balance Ball) boosted activation, or flexing, of abdominal muscles by 24 to 38 percent over crunches done without a ball. Participants in the study were fitted with electromyographic equipment that registered heightened activity in upper and lower abs as well as in obliques.
The new research may help explain why stability ball workouts continue to rank among the top 10 bestselling fitness DVDs, according to Nielsen VideoScan — and why you’d be hard pressed to find a gym that doesn’t offer them.
But there’s another way a stability ball can help you get strong, sexy abs.
“Abs workouts using a stability ball engage smaller core muscles that more traditional forms of exercise don’t,” says certified yoga and fitness ball trainer Suzanne Deason. “Those smaller muscles help you keep your balance on the ball. You’ll sculpt all the muscle groups in the abdominals — particularly the transverses for a flat stomach; they’re sometimes missed in regular sit-ups — as well as the obliques for a whittled-down, small waist; and the outermost muscle, the rectus.”
If crunches and their ilk still sound about as fun as moving a half-ton of rock with a shovel, give the ball a chance for one other reason, says Deason.
Because of the ball’s soft surface,” she points out, “you don’t feel pain on your spine as you might when doing lying-down exercises. The support gives you the sense that you’re not working as hard as you actually are; you can probably do many more sit-ups on the ball than you’d be able to do on the floor.”
Deason says yoga-based movements on a ball can also help improve digestion and help prevent back pain and injury. Pilates-style exercises use the ball as a counterbalance to help equalize the muscles of the front and back torso for better posture and poise.
Even if you only have time for a quick five- to 10-minute workout, try these three exercises to tone your abs and better define your waist.
1. Abs Crunch
This is one of the most effective ways to strengthen, flatten and tone the abs. Doing the exercise using a Balance Ball or stability ball eliminates the impact of a hard surface on the spine, which helps you perform the movement more precisely.It also helps increase lower back strength, support the spine, promote better posture and prevent lower back injury.
- Begin in Positive Seated Posture; roll out until lower back is resting comfortably on ball.
- Place feet flat on floor, shoulder-width apart.
- Position hands behind head to support its weight, elbows pointing directly out to sides.
- Raise head even with torso and gaze straight up.
- Inhale deeply; on exhale, contract lower abs.
- Hold the flex and inhale; on exhale, slowly curl torso forward, flexing middle and upper abs to raise chest up and toward pelvis. Allow head to follow chest. Do not force or pull head forward. Allow abs to do the work.
- Raise chest until you feel abs completely contracted; hold for 3 to 5 comfortable, deep breaths.
- Release slowly, allowing head and chest to drop back down to torso level. Breathe.
- Repeat 10 to 12 times. Add more repetitions as you become stronger.
2. Donkey Kicks
This exercise can appear more challenging than it really is. Designed to strengthen and tone the entire torso, this movement helps to tone the waistline, flatten the abs, and strengthen the lower back and spine to help prevent injury. This super-efficient exercise packs a lot of punch — it’s really a total-body move that also shapes and defines the muscles in the arms and legs.
- Begin by kneeling in front of ball.
- Lean forward, placing chest on ball and hands out in front of you.
- Push forward with feet and walk hands out until shins and tops of your feet rest on ball.
- Keep body in a flat position, head in line with torso. Focus gaze on floor.
- Flex abs to prevent back from sagging.
- Flex abs and slowly pull knees toward chest.
- Pull forward until hips and knees are aligned vertically. Press firmly through hands and arms for support and balance.
- Hold for 2 to 3 even breaths; release by extending legs back into starting position.
- Repeat 6 to 8 times. Add more repetitions as you gain strength in arms and abs.
Think pushups are only for arms and pecs? Think again. Using a Balance Ball or stability ball boosts this move’s abs sculpting benefits by activating the core (the abs and torso) to help you maintain balance during the movement.
- Begin by lying over ball on chest, hands on floor in front of you.
- Walk hands forward until knees are resting on top of ball.
- Keep head level; focus on floor.
- Flex abs to stabilize torso.
- Position feet together, hands shoulder-width apart.
- Inhale; on exhale, slowly lower head and chest as far as is comfortable, keeping elbows tight alongside body.
- Hold for one breath and press back up to starting position.
- As a variation, when releasing chest to floor, extend elbows out to sides. This will help work chest more deeply.