Survival of the Fittest
Story & Photos by Jeff & Martha Ellis
In the spirit of exploring creative and inexpensive ways to strength train, we’d like to expand on the usefulness of a very simple but versatile piece of equipment: the exercise ball. So many exercises have been created or adapted for use with the ball that whole books have been devoted to the subject.
Why the Ball?
Once you’re in the squat position, hold it for as long as you can, then roll back up to a standing position.
The object of the plank exercise is to keep your body posture as straight and rigid as possible.
This glute exercise will work more than just your bum. You should also feel it in your lower back and abductors.
While performing this exercise, tighten your glutes and raise your legs until they’re in line with the rest of your body.
When working the lower abs during this exercise, brace yourself with your hands by placing them against the wall. You can also have a friend hold the ball for you as you gain your sense of balance.
Originally used for physical therapy and rehabilitation, the exercise ball is coming into its own as a stand-alone piece of fitness equipment.
It can provide endless opportunities to strengthen both active muscle groups and the often-neglected stabilizing muscles.
You can incorporate the ball into just about any exercise: chest or shoulder presses, lunges, wall squats, curls, push-ups, sit-ups, stretching and so on. The ball can also enhance the usefulness of your current equipment, as well as many standing exercises. Adapt the old favorites or try one of the countless creative and effective exercises created specifically for the ball.
No matter which exercise you perform, its effectiveness will increase through an added degree of instability provided by the exercise ball, which will enhance coordination and proprioceptor development.
You can use the ball for static or dynamic exercises. Two good static exercises include static wall squats and “the plank.” When doing the wall squat, place the ball between your back and the wall. Make sure your feet are far enough away from the wall that when you’re in a squat with your thighs parallel to the floor, your knees don’t extend past your ankles. Once you’re in the squat position, hold it for as long as you can, then roll back up to a standing position.
To perform the plank, place the ball on the floor, then place your forearms on top of the ball while keeping your feet on the floor. The object is to keep your body posture as straight and rigid as possible from head to toe, so try to avoid arching or bowing your body. Once you can hold this position without wavering, try lifting one leg at a time and holding that position.
The two dynamic exercises we’re going to cover work the glutes and abdominals. (The glute exercise will work more than just your bum. You should also feel it in your lower back and abductors.)
To perform the glute exercise, lay over the ball on your stomach, with your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor on one side and your feet on the other side. Tighten your glutes and raise your legs until they’re in line with the rest of your body. While doing this, you’ll need to roll slightly forward and bend your arms to maintain your balance on the ball. Squeeze a small ball or cushion between your ankles to help maintain the tension level.
You can move in and out of this position for a more dynamic exercise or just hold the end position as you would a static exercise. Remember:
Keep your legs straight, and keep your ankles together throughout this exercise.
When doing abdominal exercises with the ball, you can choose to work your upper or lower abs. To work the lower abs, first find a wall or some other stationary object. Lie across the ball on your back with your head toward the stationary object. You can brace yourself with your hands by placing them against the wall, or if there’s something to actually hold onto, that would provide even more stability. You can also have a friend hold the ball for you as you gain your sense of balance.
Using your abs, raise your legs to a 90-degree angle off the ball, then slowly lower your legs to a point of comfort. The slower you go, the more you work your abs. The ball support behind your lower back will allow for a greater range of motion than if you were performing leg raises on the ground.
Lower abdominal exercises are pretty straightforward: Hook your feet under a stationary object, lay over the ball and proceed to do crunches. Securing your feet will provide more stability and may be a good place to start. If you’re feeling stable and want to challenge yourself further, place your feet up on an object or against a wall. This will really challenge your balance.
As you get more comfortable on the ball, move your feet up the wall, until your legs are at a 90-degree angle to your upper body. From there, you can draw up into a standard crunch position or work the oblique abdominals by adding a slight twist on the way up. The trick will be finding your balance and making adjustments in your body position on the ball to keep from falling off.
The nice thing about doing abdominal work on an exercise ball is the amount of back support you get. The ball allows you to concentrate the effort made by your abdominals without putting undue stress on your lower back.
When shopping for an exercise ball, there are a couple guidelines to remember. First, when sitting on the inflated ball, your hips should be slightly higher than your knees so it looks like your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor. Second, make sure your exercise ball fits your height. Check the information below before you make your purchase.
When working out on the ball, it’s important to remember that all the same rules apply as when you’re working out without a ball: Always maintain proper form through the entire range of motion; don’t let your knees move past your feet when lunging; don’t arch your back when working from a plank position; and don’t drop your butt if working with your back against the ball.
Do Some Searching
We encourage you to search the Internet for all the diverse and useful exercises that can be performed with a ball. As we said earlier, there are entire books written on the many ways you can use an exercise ball to enhance your workout, so there’s a lot of information at your disposal.
Adding the exercise ball to your fitness equipment inventory will not only increase the depth of your muscle strengthening, it will also increase your coordination and balance development, and broaden the usefulness of all your strength-training equipment.
Division Chief Martha Ellis has been a firefighter with the Salt Lake City Fire Department (SLCFD) for more than 14 years, serving as a firefighter, an engineer, a media technician, an ARFF training officer, an airport fire marshal and currently the fire marshal for Salt Lake City. She has won the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge Women’s Division five times, and held the world record for 8 consecutive years. She also works as a certified fitness coordinator for the SLCFD.
Captain Jeff Ellis of the Murray (Utah) Fire Department (MFD) has served for more than 23 years as a firefighter, an engineer, a hazmat technician and a shift training captain. He’s been a certified fitness coordinator for the department since 1996. As a competitor in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge, he has won two overall world championships, three Over 40 world championships and helped MFD take the team trophy. He has been active in teaching all aspects of firefighting, including swiftwater rescue and fitness and nutrition in the fire service.
E-mail your fitness-related questions or comments to Jeff and Martha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE