Stability balls are a popular tool among rehab professionals, who have long understood and appreciated the ball's therapeutic value. Fitness instructors now use balls in group fitness settings, enjoying how they challenge the core muscles while adding variety to their classes. The American Chiropractic Association praises the stability ball, claiming its use releases natural pain inhibitors, resulting in pain reduction in some patients. Ironically, the same stability ball that therapists and fitness professionals use to prevent and treat back pain can cause -- or exacerbate -- lower back pain in some instances.
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When you sit on a stability ball’s unstable surface, your core muscles are instantly challenged. The muscles of your stomach, back, pelvic floor and hips spring into action as a natural response to the sensation of instability, tightening in an effort to help you maintain balance. As a result, your core muscles -- the muscles that help you maintain proper posture and balance --get a workout. Even if you do nothing more than sit on a stability ball, you will be “actively” sitting. Your core muscles remain actively engaged as you adjust to the ball's constant shifting beneath you, which offers some core benefit.
When used consistently as part of your fitness regimen, the stability ball helps build core muscle strength. A strong core is associated with better posture and balance, which can contribute to improved sports performance and injury prevention. In a study reported in the May 2007 issue of "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research," researchers concluded that use of a ball for abdominal crunches activates the core muscles more dramatically -- and builds core strength and stability more effectively -- than traditional crunches.
Back Pain Factors
If you experience lower back pain from sitting on the ball, consider the size and firmness of your ball, your posture when sitting and the amount of time you are spending on the ball. If you are overweight, unfit or new to stability-ball use, avoid a ball that is too big, too small or too firm. You might be tensing your lower back muscles as you struggle to maintain balance on a ball that does not suit your size or has too little give. When you sit on the ball, confirm that your upper body is stacked, with your head centered over your spine and your shoulders directly over your hips. Your hips should be level with -- or slightly higher than -- your knees, your thighs should run roughly parallel to the floor and your knees should be over your ankles when you are seated on the ball. If you have determined that you and your ball are a perfect fit, yet you continue to experience lower back pain, cut back on the number of minutes you sit on the ball. Sit for only a minute or two, then gradually work your way up to 20 to 30 minutes per session, as your comfort level allows.
If you have a history of back pain, speak to your doctor or physical therapist about whether stability ball training might help -- or aggravate -- your condition. If your doctor thinks you might benefit from working with a stability ball, ask him to demonstrate its proper use and to develop a customized program that will help alleviate, rather than exacerbate, your pain. If the ball continues to cause pain, find an alternative, pain-free method for training your core.