Marietta Mehanni explains how to put the fun back into your fitness instruction with a joyful style of cardiovascular conditioning that has the power to encourage participation and increase exercise adherence.
The Swiss ball has long been used by fitness professionals for a range of exercises and activities, including muscle strengthening, core stability, balance training, Pilates training, pregnancy programming and sports conditioning.
What has probably been its best kept secret is the way a Swiss ball can be used for cardiovascular conditioning. Bouncing on the ball can:
- elevate heart rate levels with reduced impact through joints
- develop dynamic core stability
- encourage pelvic floor activation
- challenge and improve balance
- improve proprioception and coordination
- develop lower body strength and endurance.
Bouncing on the ball also has a big element of fun, stemming from fond childhood memories of bouncing on space hoppers! In many ways, fitness has become very serious, so it’s refreshing to instruct a joyful style of cardiovascular conditioning that has the power to encourage participation and increase exercise adherence.
Another advantage of bouncing is its ability to stimulate the nervous system in a way that enables participants to achieve considerable gains in skill, as well as in fitness, over short periods of time. Initially, it is a new and unfamiliar experience, but successive workouts soon display participants’ ability to gain confidence and progress quickly through the levels of challenge.
Lift off and bounce
Seated cardiovascular exercises on the ball are divided into two categories: ‘lift off’ and ‘bounce’. Lift off is when the body momentarily lifts off the ball, before being lowered back down to bounce on the ball.
The movement requires two sets of muscle contractions:
- Quadriceps and hip extensors to stand up and momentarily hold a semi squat. This, at first, will be the most fatiguing component of lift off exercises, but participants will quickly develop the required endurance. Initially, participants may lack the confidence to let themselves drop down and lift off the ball, and will have a tendency to control the downward eccentric phase, which places more demands on the muscles of the lower body.
- Core stabilisation as the body impacts the ball. Generally, this will be an automatic anatomical response that will occur when participants first start bouncing on the ball. The body will rapidly learn how to become more efficient, and will find a way of requiring less recruitment of the core muscles while performing the exercise. At this point, it is important to frequently remind participants to gently activate their transverse abdominus and maintain neutral spinal alignment so that they develop more conscious control of the core muscles.
Selecting appropriate ball size
For successful execution of lift off and bounce exercises, participants need to use an appropriately-sized ball. The ball size will greatly impact the intensity of the workout, and it is generally recommended that beginners start with a bigger ball. To select the correct ball, several considerations need to be taken into account.
Ensure the ball is inflated to the point that it does not feel soft when sat on. When the ball is soft, it is difficult to perform the exercises at the appropriate speed to achieve the desired physiological responses. When the ball is inadequately inflated, the quadriceps have to work much harder to lift the body and the neutral lumbar curve flattens as the body impacts the ball. Often, the head and neck muscles are used in a strong ‘flicking’ action to assist with lifting the body off the ball. This results in fatigue in the muscles around the neck and upper back, making the exercise an unpleasant experience.
When seated on the ball, check that the hip joint is higher than the knee. The reason for this is that during lift off and bounce the hips will sink into the ball before returning the body to an upright position. If the knees are flexed at 90° when the participant is seated on the ball, they may experience fatigue and discomfort around the knee joint as the hips drop lower into the ball. The right-sized ball will enable correct positioning.
If the ball is too small, it is difficult to keep the fingers on the ball to stop it from moving during lift off exercises (an essential safety requirement). Instead, the participant will lean from side-to-side to try to keep the fingertips on the ball, which defeats the purpose of maintaining optimum posture during this cardiovascular activity.
Simply looking at the ball is not an effective way to determine if it is the appropriate size. Inflation and the weight of the individual, as well as the proportion of the individual’s torso in relation to the length of the lower limbs, all need to be taken into consideration. Two individuals may be the same height, but if one has a shorter torso and longer legs they may require a larger ball. The best way to find out if it is the right ‘fit’ is simply for the participant to sit on the ball.
It is safe to assume that taller people need bigger Swiss balls. The average size for most people is 65cm, but this will also depend on the manufacturer of the ball – not all ball sizes are equal! As well as having a tendency to stretch and become larger over time, cheaper balls can lose their shape and leak air, so they require regular pumping up. Poorer quality balls are also not ‘burst resistant’, which means that if they burst during lift off or bounce, the individual will hit the floor very quickly. Anti-burst balls can burst, but the air is released much more slowly, reducing the impact on the floor in case of accident.
Lift off is, essentially, a series of bodyweight supported low squats, and even though the ball carries most of the load, this range of motion can aggravate those with knee pathology. Sitting higher will increase the angle of the knee and reduce the range of motion, thus providing an effective non-impact cardiovascular workout that will not put any further stress or load on the knees.
Participants with kyphosis (over-curvature of the upper back) will struggle to maintain a neutral spine when sitting on the ball. The belief that sitting on a Swiss ball will automatically correct poor posture is a common misconception. In fact, the ball can make poor sitting posture even worse. For participants with this issue, a larger ball encourages the muscles around the spine to activate and force them to sit more upright.
Lift off is challenging to perform and master, so it is important to provide the opportunity for participants to rest, as their lower body will fatigue quickly.
The basic lift off
The fundamental lift off exercise, this can be used to successfully demonstrate correct alignment with the knees, hips and shoulders. There are three main points to consider when performing this exercise.
- Safety. Make sure that there is always at least one hand still holding the ball in place between each lift off action. Both hands can be used, but this will limit what upper body actions can be performed. The potential for a participant to come crashing down onto the floor makes this a very important safety precaution!
- Sitting position. When bouncing on and off the ball, sit at 11 o’clock rather than 12 o’clock as this allows the feet to be placed further away from the ball. This will help with keeping the feet in front of the body, where they need to be in order to feel comfortable when standing and sitting repetitively. In the standing position, ensure body weight is evenly distributed from toe to heel.
- Alignment. The purpose of adding arm and leg actions is to challenge the body’s ability to stay in alignment. The square that is created by the shoulders and hips is required to maintain symmetry with each lift off. This is not easy when feet are lifting off the floor and arms are reaching forward and upwards.
Arm actions that can be executed in this position are:
- forward raise
- shoulder flexion (photo 1)
- backstroke arm circles
- shoulder press
- punch forward (photo 2).
- Shoulders lifting towards ear as arm action is performed. The arm should literally feel like it is floating up to the required position.
- Reaching down with one arm towards ball as body is lifted upwards. It is important that shoulders and hips stay level. Explain to participants that knees do not fully extend and ‘stand up’.
- Feet too close to the ball, which makes the body move forward rather than upward. Encourage participants to keep their feet approximately 30 to 40cm away from the base of the ball.
- Knees collapsing inwards as the hips impact the ball. Encourage participants to look at their knees initially to check that they stay the same distance apart as their feet.
Teaching lift off is great fun and suitable for many different client groups. Fears of ‘falling off’ or ‘bursting the ball’ are quite common, even though it is a rare occurrence, so it is important to address this issue when introducing the lift off and bounce concept.
Lift off can be introduced as a warm up, cardiovascular section or even as the core component of the workout. Regardless, it is a wonderful way of adding a workout element that will put a smile on participants’ faces.
Marietta is an award winning presenter and Australian Fitness Network Ambassador with over 20 years of teaching and presenting experience in both land- and water-based group exercise. Co-creator of ‘Tricks, tools and trades of Program Coordinating’ and mentor for over 70 instructors and presenters, Marietta is passionate about inspiring others to lead and share their skills and talents to create a better fitness experience for all. For more information visit www.mariettamehanni.com