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August 24, 2008 - Health and Fitness

Boyd Jason Waverley
Training with Balls!

I’m a night owl, and have spent many evenings awake in bed watching infomercials. I watch because they tend to be better than the other garbage programming at those hours, aside from all those 1-900 girls. In addition to making millions by placing ads in newspapers, buying real estate with no money down, and getting four hundred knives for twenty bucks, I’ve seen just about every ridiculous piece of exercise equipment known to man. How many times can you re-invent the treadmill? Do people really think hooking electrodes to their midsection will develop a “strong and sexy core?” Anyone who believes this crap is also probably sitting on eight hundred poorly made knives, not to mention piles of hate mail from all their poorly placed newspaper ads.

The point I’m making is you can’t get away from the basics, whether it’s making money or training. There have been few changes to original exercise equipment over the years, and as most good physicians, physical therapists and trainers will tell you, the path to improved strength and endurance hasn’t changed. It takes commitment, consistency and lifestyle improvement. Recently, however, there have been two additions to the world of fitness equipment that have quite a bit of merit. These items would be the Swiss Ball and the BOSU Balance Trainer.

First things first. These two products are not new. They’ve been around for a long time, predominantly used by physical therapists and in athletic training programs. They’ve cropped up in the past five years in fitness clubs as they provide something “new” to the general population, and as a way to generate new interest and alleviate boredom with training. But what’s the actual merit of these pieces of equipment? You don’t typically see the big guys in the gym using them, as they tend to have the perception of being for those who aren’t really serious about “muscling up.” However, when you take a closer look at the philosophy behind these products, you may change your mind.

When weight training, people typically think of traditional muscle groups: bis, tris, pecs, lats, quads, etc. What people don’t think about, however, is the many stabilizer muscles that exist in the body, which allow those larger muscle groups to work. The best example would be during bench press. Meatheads typically get off on trying to bench more than they can handle. What you’ll typically see when one of these morons attempts a lift beyond his capabilities, aside from his spotter doing an upright row, is his arms trembling during the lift. The reason for this is due to the stabilizer muscles in the arms attempting to stabilize the shoulder and elbow joints in order to move the weight. They can’t stabilize the joints because the load is too heavy, resulting in Dr. Huge not getting the lift. Typically, this is followed by the idiot stating the reason for missing the lift is due to an “old shoulder injury.” This is only one example, but whenever someone is involved in weight training, the body utilizes these stabilizer muscles to help your body execute a lift. Also known as agonist and antagonist muscles, they simultaneously flex to stabilize joints during weight training. Another example of this, although not as visual as the bench press example, would be the squat. This is a very compound movement, and relies heavily on the abdominals and lower-back muscles flexing to stabilize the spine. If you have weak abs and lower back muscles, you’ll never be able to squat much without hurting yourself. Stabilizer muscles represent the weak-links in the phrase “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, and this is where BOSU and Swiss ball trainers can play a big role.

Don’t me wrong; the meatheads have a point when they perceive these pieces of equipment as not being part of true muscle building. One shouldn’t attempt heavy military presses while standing on a BOSU Balance Trainer or try to rep out 225 lbs while lying on a Swiss ball. When trying to increase to heavier loads on bigger lifts you need to have a stable base, like a bench, from which to work. But when you want to focus on the stabilizer muscles, challenge your form to strengthen your core, or to simply provide a shock to your system, a BOSU Balance Trainer or Swiss ball is an excellent option. Here are a few examples:

Crunches: Lying face up on a Swiss ball with your lower back supported by the ball, curl your shoulders towards your hips. A good way to do this is to pick a spot on the ceiling, focus on it, and lift your shoulders towards it. This will allow the abs to move in their natural strength curve and make the range-of-motion more efficient, resembling a curl. The Swiss ball provides support for the lower back, yet because it’s not a firm base, strengthens the lower back through isometric contraction.

Push-ups: Using a BOSU Balance Trainer, assume the push up position with one hand in the middle of the ball and the other on the floor. Use a slightly wider than shoulder width hand positioning, as this will incorporate more of the pecs. Execute the range of motion a little slower than normal, as the BOSU Balance Trainer will challenge the stabilizer muscles of the shoulder and elbow. You may also want to use your knees first as the pivot point, as this exercise will be challenging at first. Alternate for an equal number of sets.

Overhead Dumbbell Press: While sitting upright on a Swiss ball, firmly plant your feet on the floor in front of you. Utilize lighter than normal dumbbells, as this exercise will again tax the stabilizer muscles of your core and shoulders. Perform the repetitions with a complete range of motion, while keeping strict posture. Your abs and lower back will strengthen through isometrics, as they won’t have the advantage of a firm base from which to work. Your shoulders and elbow joints will also work harder to maintain the strength curve throughout the range of motion.

Squats: Stand upright on a BOSU Balance Trainer with your feet no further than shoulder-width apart. Use little or no weight at all during this exercise, as more of the focus will be on form. Perform the standard squat range of motion, going a little deeper than normal since there’s little or no weight involved, and keep your bodyweight on the heels. You can keep your arms at your sides or extend them in front of you for balance. Perform the repetitions slowly at first, as you’ll be working just about all the stabilizer muscles in your body to maintain balance and push your bodyweight.

These are only four examples of basic exercises that can be performed using these two pieces of equipment. Most health clubs have classes devoted to either the Swiss ball or BOSU Balance Trainer, and can provide more variations. However, if you’re looking to add some serious muscle mass to your frame, these are not the pieces of equipment to use. They will, however, provide strength and stamina to the smaller stabilizer muscles required to push heavier loads in more conventional lifts, not to mention, provide a shock to the system if worked into a program along with heavy lifting. So if you happen to be watching television at two in the morning and you see an infomercial for either of these pieces of equipment, rest assured, there is some truth in advertising. Not like those 1-900 girls, right?

Train hard. Train smart.

Keywords: fitness, crunches, push-ups, press, squats, ball, BOSU, Swiss, balance, equipment, extensions, muscle, lifting, weights, cardio, plateau, biceps, triceps, calf, gym, stretch, abs, work out, pecs, back
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