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Balance your way to better core strength
Stability balls used to be for therapy; now they're in the fitness mainstream
All that time during our childhood when we rode atop Space Hoppers and held onto the antennas for dear life, we were getting a great workout and didn't know it.
Over the years, the simplest of children's modes of transport became an invaluable tool to physical therapists: Sitting on a big, bouncy ball and moving one's hips was a great way to rehabilitate a stiff back. Some people prefer sitting on them to desk chairs in the office.
Now there are now DVDs devoted strictly to the various exercises you can perform with a "balance ball" (also known as a stability ball). Pilates classes, grueling boot camps and personal trainers are using them not only because of their versatility, but also because nothing is as fundamentally fun as goofing around with a ball.
"You'd be amazed," said Jessika Loving, a trainer and president of Orange County Adventure Boot Camp. "When we bring out those balls, these 40-year-old women turn into 10-year-old kids."
Loving runs four-week camps that use two types of balance balls: the 55-centimeters-across green ones (recommended for someone 5-foot-5 or shorter), and the 65-centimeter yellow ones (for up to 6-foot-1). The latter has a bit of sand in it that boosts the weight to roughly 5 pounds and is particularly effective if you run with it over your head, lift it with your legs or toss it between your feet and your hands while lying on your back.
On a misty morning at an elementary school, a dozen women arrived at 5:30 and began their hourlong workout with about 20 minutes on the ball. They ran, bounced the ball to each other and did push-ups and crunches on them.
The genius of the ball is that it's inherently unstable to sit on, so it forces the body to get centered and stabilize before you begin any controlled movement, such as using dumbbells or a band, which Loving also uses. No matter what you do on it, you're working your core abdominal muscles.
"You're getting a little bit deeper into the core muscles and the back muscles than you would without the ball," Loving said.
Tammy Niemann, an Irvine-based personal trainer who runs Total Training by Tammy, said the balls are "hands-down my favorite exercise tool." One of her favorite exercises with them involves lying on the back, with the ball between the shoulder blades, and doing a chest fly with dumbbells, but just one arm at a time.
"When you're in an unstable position like that, the body will want to roll over to one side. By stabilizing, you're working your chest, upper back, biceps and triceps," she said. "It's an awesome workout."
A favorite exercise of Loving's involves putting the feet on the ball and stretching out into a pushup position. She moves back and forth, rolling the ball along her shins.
"The chest is a big muscle group, and when you're working big muscle groups, you're going to get the heart rate up," she said.
Then there's the fun factor, which helps when getting in shape turns monotonous.
"When you work out, you get into a routine and get used to doing the same things," said Mary Adams, one of Loving's campers. She has had back trouble since the second of her three children was born, 10 years ago. She started using a balance ball at the gym and finds that using one in Loving's class takes the pressure off her lumbar area.
"The problem is, my kids play with them," she said. "I have to hide them."