It is a most interesting time to be involved in the fields of strength and conditioning and orthopedic rehabilitation. Today, we can virtually drown in the vast sea of information available on any specialty of conditioning or healthcare or on any single body part for that matter!
When prescribing exercises for our clients, be they injured patients in a professional rehabilitation setting or those after general, work or sport specific conditioning, we must draw on our knowledge of functional anatomy, the nervous system and motor learning. Unfortunately, many universities today have departments teaching each of these sub-disciplines, yet there seems to be a severe lack of knowledge transfer between departments and their graduates! This is easily evidenced by the many professional sports teams, rehabilitation centers and exercise facilities staffed with personnel possessing B.S. and/or Masters degrees in the fields of anatomy, motor learning, kinesiology, biomechanics, physical therapy, chiropractic, osteopathy and sports science who continue to exercise people on machines as a primary form of exercise.
You only have to consider these examples to realize that somewhere our sense of logic has gone wrong.
- A football/rugby player changing directions at full speed, off one leg, while under the influence of extrinsic force.
- A down hill skier negotiating corners as they descend from flight at over 100 km per hour to land on one ski.
- A wind surfer working to control his sailboard in inclement seas with 50 kph winds buffeting the sail.
- A hockey player bouncing off body and board while contacting the ice with a mere 1/8 inch of steel.
Fixed axis training, or machine training in general, is suitable only for two groups of human beings: body builders and the near dead. In this article, I would like to highlight some of the principles that led me to develop my approach to Swiss Ball weight training and to develop patients and athletes who are "strong 'n' stable."
Although the topic is potentially very large, I will focus on the following key points:
- Range of motion – freedom and control
- Balance between prime movers and stabilizers
- Control of torsion and your center of gravity
- Utilization and development of ones righting and tilting reflexes
WHY RESISTANCE TRAINING ON A SWISS BALL?
Increased Range of Motion
Because the ball is round, exercising on the ball allows more range of motion (ROM) in several instances common to the weight room. Some examples of how the Swiss Ball can be effectively used to increase ROM with resistance training are:
- Increased spinal extension with abdominal crunches or standing cable-pulling exercises (where the ball is placed between the cable column and your body). This is a critical concept when you consider the very important functions of the abdominal wall in power generation and controlling trunk motion behind the mid-frontal plane. For example, consider the trunk position of a javelin thrower in the late cocking phase, the high-jumper as he/she extends over the bar, or even the stock clerk who must reach overhead to put a box away.
- During a bench press exercise the round surface of the Swiss Ball allows your scapulii to move more freely, which increases the free range of motion of the shoulder complex in the plane of horizontal abduction. Clinically, I have measured horizontal abduction of my patients and athletes with and without shoulder pain during the bench press and found that the restriction in ROM imparted to the scapulae from compression into a flat bench ranges between three and 10 degrees. This is significant because for many, performing the bench press on a Swiss Ball was the difference between being in pain and out of pain!
- When performing prone extension exercises on the Swiss Ball, you can begin extension from a position of flexion, which practically doubles the working range of motion when compared to extension exercises from the floor.
Range of Motion Control
There are many instances in the gym environment where exercisers are unexpectedly forced into situation where their working joints are over stretched. This is most commonly a problem for the shoulder joint complex. Having the greatest ROM of most joints in the body and comparatively less stability, the presence of faulty training technique or use of poorly engineered exercise equipment often contributes to orthopedic injury. For example, how many of you have been practically dismembered by a pec-deck machine when fatigued at the end of a set?
The Swiss Ball can be very useful to control ROM in such cases as the bench press, pec flys, abdominal and back exercises. A classic example of effective use of the Swiss Ball to control ROM is seen during the bench press.
- Use a Swiss Ball one size larger than the client generally uses for exercise, but deflated to the point that when the exerciser is on the ball with weights in hand, the ball swells around the shoulder creating a natural blockage to motion as the arms are lowered. The more deflated the ball is, the less horizontal abduction the shoulder can achieve, protecting the shoulder joint capsule from excessive stretch.
- NOTE: For those with anterior instability of the shoulder joint, eccentric motion must be slow and controlled. Bouncing off the Swiss Ball will only serve to mobilize the very portion of the joint capsule you are trying to protect from overstretch!
3D Freedom of Motion
Although free weight training with dumbbells, Olympic bars and cables is generally considered to be 3D training, there is a preponderance of resistance exercises being used in gyms today that limit body motion to only one dimension of freedom. Examples are:
Any machine with a fixed axis of motion
Leg Press and Hack Squat machines
Although these machines are often referred to as 2D training modalities, they actually only allow freedom of motion in one plane (usually sagittal). Any additional motion will be compensatory and may aggravate the working joints. For example, performing a triceps extension on a typical machine (see Figure 1 below) only allows freedom of motion in the sagittal plane. As the exerciser fatigues his motor system will naturally attempt to induce motion in the frontal and transverse planes in search of fresh motor pathways; this will induce torque in the working joints that can not be compensated for when holding a fixed handle and/or applying force to an object traveling on a fixed axis or pathway. This is nonphysiological training!
Another problem with traditional methods of resistance training is the inclusion of benches, which are very stable and relatively fixed to the ground. Such benches serve to increase the exerciser’s base of support, as well as to isolate the work to specific regions of the body. This is fine if you are training for a bodybuilding competition, but is NOT FUNCTIONAL! To highlight my point, refer to the introduction to this article and try to find a work or sports environment that provides an increased base of support for you as your neuromuscular system fatigues! I contend that if your base of support is increasing in most sports, your are losing!
Situations in life that require isolated body movements, particularly isolated body movements under load are few and far between. When lifting weights on a Swiss Ball, you have a significantly reduced and highly mobile base of support; therefore, your body is free to move in all planes of motion. During any exercise, even a bench press exercise, your lower and upper body are always engaged together. This provides a training environment that is much more realistic to the real world and therefore has greater carryover to functional activities (for specific instructions with regard to exercises and form, see reference 1.)
Conditioning of Prime Movers and Stabilizers
When exercising on machines or benches, the need for stabilization is minimized. In an exercise such as a seated triceps extension (see Figure 1), the entire body is stabilized and the resistance guided. This allows isolated development of prime movers (in this case the elbow extensors) in absence of stabilizers (stabilization is provided by the machine). Should such training continue without adequate integration (functional) training, an imbalance develops between the larger (often multi-joint) prime movers and the smaller stabilizer muscles. In the example seen here, the triceps will become stronger at a rate in excess of the rotator cuff musculature and there will not be concomitant engram programming or conditioning of the rotator cuff with this movement. This means that the increased strength developed in the triceps as elbow extensors, will be of limited value because the capacity to generate force at the elbow is limited by the stability of all joints proximal and distal in any functional situation.
When performing an exercise such as the single arm dumbbell press on the Swiss Ball (see Figure 2 above), prime movers cannot become over developed because the body is heavily dependent upon the stabilizer system to control the load.
Should the stabilizer system be loaded beyond the exerciser’s capacity, they will either not be able to stay on the ball or they will not be able to lift a big load since the stress in the passive stabilizer system caused by joint sheer will produce inhibition of the prime movers crossing the working joints. With that in mind, it could be safely stated that if you can lift a large load on a Swiss Ball, you are functionally strong from an orthopedic perspective!
Control Torsion and Your Center of Gravity
As you can see by the smiling face shown on the pictures of Femke Koene squatting (see Figure 3) and Shane McDermott (see Figure 4) performing a single arm military press on the Swiss Ball, your center of gravity (CG) is happy to move outside your body! When ever your center of gravity is outside your body there is frequently increased compression and torsion on almost all the working joints. If compression and torsion are not checked by your stabilizer system, loss of optimal instantaneous axis of rotation results and joint injury is common!
Optimal Instantaneous Axis of Rotation
The axis or rotation in any joint complex is the point in space about which movement takes place. When the axis of rotation in any joint complex is optimal, the joint will remain healthy. Loss of the optimal instantaneous axis of rotation (as in degenerative disc disease or shoulder instability) leads to derangement of the joint complex.
When you perform weight training exercises on the Swiss Ball and hold a weight in your hand, as the hand moves further from your body, as the weight gets bigger, and as the weight gets higher, your CG moves upward and lateral relative to your body’s natural CG. This is much harder to stabilize against on a Swiss Ball than on your feet and far harder than when on a bench or a machine, which means as you get better at it and stronger, you become more stable.
This concept is critical when considering that many work and sport tasks demand that you are able to stabilize your body adequately to control your own CG relative to your base of support, which is often constantly changing location. This is particularly the case in combative sports where you must control competitors, or in work situations where you must handle tools, particularly power tools which not only have mass, but often engines that generate inertial energy which you must stabilize!
Development of Righting and Tilting Reflexes
Righting reflexes are used to keep the body upright any time you move across a stable object, such as a balance beam, street curb or even when walking across the ground.
Tilting reflexes (also called equilibrium reflexes) are used to keep your body upright when atop a moving surface. A classic example of a situation requiring the use of tilting reflexes is stepping onto the moving sidewalk in the airport.
Most gym exercises require the use of righting reflexes. For example, if you were performing a squat and someone walked by and bumped into your bar, you would have to use righting reflexes to keep your body upright.
There are very few situations in traditional gym training environments that afford development of tilting reflexes, although there are many sports and work situations that require the use of tilting reflexes. A few common examples are:
- Working on a fishing boat or any sea-going vessel
- Riding a horse
- Riding a motorcycle
- Water skiing
If you want to improve performance in any activity or sport requiring tilting reflexes, it is logical that exercises requiring activation of tilting reflexes should be included in the conditioning program. To activate tilting reflexes, you can either toss the ball to a client who is sitting or kneeling on a Swiss Ball (see Figure 5 below) or you can move the ball under them enough to perturb their balance. Because most people’s balance and tilting reflexes are not too developed, just trying to sit on a Swiss Ball, kneel, or stand on it will be a significant challenge and will develop their tilting reflexes.
Development of righting reflexes on the Swiss Ball only requires that you move across the ball, with the ball being relatively stable. Examples of Swiss Ball exercises that develop righting reflexes are the Swiss Ball crunch with the feet anchored, a back extension with the feet anchored or a reverse hyperextension with the hands anchored. Anchoring the arms or legs stabilizes the body and the ball enough to ensure that you move across the ball, much like moving across a stable balance beam; it still requires balance, just a different kind.
Strong ‘n’ stable exercises can be performed by anyone from the child to the elderly or the worker and athlete. Unlike machine exercises, you, the practitioner must know how to prescribe, progress and teach the exercises for maximum results! Just as when prescribing any exercise, the practitioner must be aware of proper progressions. The Swiss Ball may be effectively combined with numerous modalities to effectively improve any client’s specific biomotor profile and as part of an exercise program.
By effectively combining Swiss Ball training with free weights and other modalities and using proper progression and periodization, you can achieve highly specific adaptation. The innumerable combinations of exercises, variables and client needs are the essence of what rehabilitation and strength and conditioning are all about; a fine mix of art and science!
I am confident that if you study the principles of human movement, motor learning and functional anatomy and apply them to the Swiss Ball and your general practice, you will get better results than you or clients ever thought possible.