Pilates on the Ball
Inner IDEA: Beginner, intermediate and advanced Pilates exercises using the stability ball.
From its earliest beginnings, the Pilates Method used a rich variety of equipment—the reformer, the wunda or stability chair, the trap table or cadillac, and so on. Joseph Pilates himself was known as an innovator, and his approach to movement was quite playful; he gave exercises names like cat, monkey, elephant, swan, grasshopper and flying eagle. One would think he would gladly have added a big, air-filled ball to his Pilates toy box.
However, the stability ball was not even a thought in Joseph Pilates’ lifetime. Designed by Italian toy maker Aquilino Cosani, the ball dates back to the early 1960s, when it was used (primarily in Europe) as a physical therapy tool. Today there are good reasons why a marriage between Pilates and the stability ball makes sense.
The key Pilates principles—centering, concentration, control, precision, breath and flow—are much the same as those called for in stability ball work. Like Pilates, the ball has proved very successful in the areas of core development and balance training. In athletic training, personal training and group exercise alike, the two methods complement one another quite well.
If you are looking for new programming to roll out in your Pilates mat-based classes, the exercises below will provide some fun new challenges for all levels of clientele.
In the following Pilates series, the ball is sometimes used to support the body; at other times it increases the balance challenge or adds additional resistance by increasing the weight of a lever length. The ball is also very useful in facilitating neuromuscular feedback or stimulus to the client, greatly enhancing movement performance and coordination.
Each exercise is categorized into three skill levels:
- The Essential level is the simplest, as the body weight is supported. Exercises at this level help clients adapt anatomically to the ball’s instability.
- The Intermediate level is more intensified owing to one or more of the following: the base of support is de- creased, the balance challenge and/or lever weight may be increased and the moves may be executed in an open kinetic chain requiring more stability.
- The Advanced level presents multiple challenges at one time, requiring increased coordination and multiple-joint dynamic stability and strength.
The three levels are meant to be taught in a progression. Give yourself and your clients time to progress through the levels. Start off with the essential movements, and once they have demonstrated that they have adequate strength, endurance and control, progress them to the intermediate and advanced levels. Progressing clients will promote success and a sense of satisfaction. The movements can be used in a group or private setting.
Start Position for All Levels. Lie supine, spine neutral, both knees bent with one foot on ball and one on mat.
Essential. Inhale to prepare. Exhale: extend hips up off mat. Inhale: stay. Exhale: lower back down. Repeat 5 times each side. Cuing: Use breath to contract abdominals, and lift pelvis up with neutral spine by pressing foot into ball. Keep weight very light with foot on floor.
Intermediate. While hips are up, inhale to stay, as above. Exhale: lift foot off mat and bring leg to tabletop. Inhale: lower foot back to mat. Repeat 5 times each side. Cuing: Same as for Essential, only press all body weight into foot on ball and keep shoulder girdle stable; avoid rounding shoulders forward.
Advanced. While hips are up and leg is in tabletop, inhale to stay. Exhale: extend both knees, rolling ball out. Inhale: flex both knees, rolling ball back in. Repeat 5 times each side. Cuing: Reach free leg (gesture leg) energetically up while pressing other leg dynamically into ball.
Start Position for All Levels. Lie supine on mat, holding ball between ankles, with imprinted pelvis.
Essential. Inhale to prepare. Exhale: roll through lumbar spine and lift hips slightly up off mat. Inhale: roll back down. Cuing: Roll up just a small amount, initiating with abdominals.
Intermediate. Inhale: rotate legs, scissoring them one way. Exhale: roll lumbar spine, lifting hips just slightly off mat. Inhale: roll back down. Exhale: rotate legs back to center. Repeat, rotating other leg and rolling through spine. Repeat 3 full sets. Cuing: Keep inner thighs engaged when rotating legs, to avoid dropping ball.
Advanced. Perform same pattern as for Intermediate, with increased roll through spine; avoid rolling onto neck. Repeat 3 full sets. Cuing: Keep collarbone wide and arms long by sides to prevent shoulders rolling up.
Start Position for All Levels. Lie on side, with top leg laterally rotated and resting on top side of ball, bottom leg laterally rotated and resting on mat in front of ball, and bottom elbow flexed with forearm resting on mat.
Essential. Inhale to prepare. Exhale: medially rotate top leg to parallel, and lift body off mat to elbow plank position; top arm lifts toward ceiling or rests on hip. Repeat 3–5 times each side. Cuing: Initiate exercise by medially rotating top leg, then pressing from under arm to activate latissimus dorsi.
Intermediate. When up in elbow plank, inhale to stay. Exhale: rotate upper body toward mat, threading hand across midline of body. Inhale: rotate back to center. Exhale: lower back down. Repeat 3–5 times each side. Cuing: Keep inner thighs engaged while rotating to help stabilize pelvis.
Advanced. After rotating body back to center (on inhalation), exhale as you rotate body away from center, extending spine. Inhale: rotate back to center. Exhale: lower back down. Repeat 3 times each side. Cuing: Keep underside of body strongly lifted while rotating body away from center, and keep hips facing forward like headlights.
Start Position for All Levels. Begin in four-point kneeling, one knee on mat, toes of that foot curled under, other leg extended long with knee resting on top of ball.
Essential. Inhale to prepare. Exhale: Lift knee one inch off mat, keeping foot down. Inhale: lower back down again. Repeat 3–5 times each side. Cuing: Use breath to activate abdominals before lifting knee.
Intermediate. Inhale to prepare. Exhale: lift knee and foot off mat, bringing knees level with one another at ball height. Repeat 3–5 times each side. Cuing: Activate inner thighs; even though they don’t necessarily touch, this will keep core engaged.
Advanced. Once up, inhale to prepare. Exhale: bend ball leg, bringing knees close together. Inhale: lengthen. Exhale: bend ball leg. Repeat 3–5 times each side. Cuing: Be sure knee is on ball so that when you bend ball leg, it has support.
Start Position. Depending on level, stand with either knee or ball of one foot resting on top of ball.
Essential. Stand with one knee on ball. Inhale: bend standing leg and roll ball out to side. Exhale: return to start position. Repeat 5 times each side. Cuing: This movement is small. Keep body weight primarily on standing leg.
Intermediate. Stand with ball of one foot on ball, with knee bent. Exhale: bend standing leg and extend ball leg out to side. Inhale: return to start position. Repeat 5 times each side. Cuing: Extend both knees simultaneously, to avoid hiking hip on ball-leg side.
Advanced. Start in same position as Intermediate. Exhale: lower body down to touch floor with hands, keeping spine neutral. Repeat 5 times each side. Cuing: Bring hands to floor only if spine can maintain its neutral curves, and use abdominals for balance to return to upright position.
Start Position for All Levels. Kneel on mat in hinge position with back of body resting on ball, one foot flat on mat with knee bent, other leg bent with toes of foot curled under.
Essential. Inhale: press body into ball and extend spine back over ball. Exhale: circle arms out to sides and return to start position. Repeat 3 times each side. Cuing: Use ball as support for weight of body, and relax over ball.
Intermediate. Inhale: extend front knee and push back over ball. Repeat 3 times each side. Cuing: Keep good pressure through foot on floor to maintain balance.
Advanced. Inhale: add full extension of body over ball. Repeat 3 times each side. Cuing: Keep abdominals engaged while body extends over ball. Be careful not to drop head back. Keep neck in line with thoracic spine.
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