Healthy Decisions for the Love of Health

Bigger Balls, Better Backs from New Zealand Fitness, Issue No. 22

Back pain is a common link among all human beings. Regardless of race, colour or creed, back pain is a modern theme our early ancestors never had. Ten thousand years ago humans lived just into their thirties, forced to exercise daily to constantly hunt and gather food. Furniture was unheard of. Humans simply squatted to harvest and eat and laid down to rest - both better for the spine than sitting in chairs. Today, more people work seated than standing and frequently live past 70 years of age, leaving plenty of time to suffer the ill effects of the chair. Although people think they are resting their backs when sitting, they are actually exposing their lower spine disks to 40% more pressure than when standing. Also, sitting in a chair immobilises the spine which, when coupled with the additional disc pressures, leaches the fluids out of the discs and encourages degenerative changes.

The Swiss Ball is an option that allows for a healthier spine in the seated environment. Used for years in rehabilitation from neurologoical and orthopaedic injury, these large balls are only now making it into the general exercise and workplace arenas. For years I have successfully alleviated and often eliminated my patients' back pains by having them use the Swiss Balls as a chair at work and home as well as performing specially designed exercise programs with it. Because the ball is round and has no back or legs it is unstable, unlike a chair. To sit upright on the ball requires activation of postural muscles - there is no chair back to lean on. The body must also activate its smaller joint stabiliser muscles to counteract the instability of the ball.

It is the postural muscles that help us fight the effects of gravity and the stabiliser muscles that maintain the alignment of joints, essential to their health and longevity. The postural muscles must come into play to hold the body upright against gravity, unlike chairs and couches which often have backs and soft seats that perpetuate a slouch posture. Many simple movement exercises can be performed while seated on a Swiss Ball. These exercises help in pumping fluids through the spinal discs to nourish the disc tissues. To better understand this process, think of your spinal discs like a sponge. When you apply pressure to a sponge the fluid contained is forced out. When (and only when) that pressure is released, the sponge (disc) will absorb fresh fluid.

This process cannot be performed on a chair, which is a great reason from you to get on a ball for better posture, improved balance, a healthier spine and reduced back pain! Paul Chek MSS, HHP, NMT is an international lecturer on corrective and sports perfomance exercises. He has served as a consultant to many professional teams, including the Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets and the Canberra Raiders. He is the producer of Swiss Ball Exercises for Better Abs, Buns and Backs and Swiss Ball Exercises for Athletes.


How to Choose and Use Swiss Balls Correctly


By Paul Chek, HHP, NMT
Founder, C.H.E.K. Institute

Although relatively new to the fitness industry, Swiss Balls have been used in rehabilitation for nearly 40 years. These large, inflatable balls are now being used successfully in exercise and conditioning programs for all levels, from the unconditioned novice to elite professional athletes. This is not just another fitness fad that will fade in popularity in a few months, but an excellent piece of equipment for any fitness center or personal training facility.

Why Swiss Ball training works

Swiss Ball training is very multi-functional. Using a ball will:

  • Improve balance, which in turn improves agility
  • Require a constant recruitment of the core musculature, which does not occur with machine training
  • Strengthen postural muscles, which are generally weak from an over-exposure to a seated environment and are not conditioned by most machines

(To get optimal postural reeducation and conditioning requires training in proper form when exercising with a Swiss Ball. As a pioneer in the use of Swiss Balls in athletic rehabilitation and performance conditioning, I have used my extensive clinical experience to develop a number of videos to guide you to optimal results, preventing the disappointment that can come from months of using a Swiss Ball incorrectly! For more information, see the resources section at the end of this article.)

  • Activate a myriad of motor recruitment patterns, as the ball is unstable. It never moves the same way twice in a row!

  • Enhance both spinal and peripheral joint stability, which help to prevent injury

  • Provide high levels of nervous system activation, challenge the nervous system and, therefore, affording athletes greater neurological capacity in the playing environment, reducing incidence of injury (Athletes who predominately use machine training have a difficult time transferring their strength and power to the playing environment.)

  • Improves general health by activating the body's pump systems. Improved pumping means improved fluid transfer, improving the delivery of nutrition and removal of waste from tissues (see Why Getting Pumped Makes You Feel Good!)

  • Swiss Balls are also effective stretching aids and can be used to develop strength in both open and closed chain environments. In my book, How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy!, I'll show you how to perform 20 key stretch tests and the corresponding stretches to balance your body. As you will see, many of them are best performed with a Swiss Ball

Important points to consider when buying a Swiss Ball

There are many different brands of Swiss Balls to choose from, but be sure to look for the following features:

Burst-resistant material: It is vital that a Swiss Ball will not burst if punctured, but rather slowly deflate so the user can get off the ball safely.

Some cheaper rubber and vinyl balls can pop like a balloon if they roll over a sharp object or hit the corner of a piece of equipment or furniture. This is particularly important for commercial settings, with safety and liability concerns.

Burst-resistant rating: How much dynamic weight the ball can handle before the burst-resistant properties fail? For general exercise, this should be at least two to three times your body weight. For very dynamic exercises, or those incorporating free weights, the burst-resistant rating should be at least 400kg (850 lbs.).

Don't be fooled by commonly marketed anti-burst ratings because most of these are determined by slowly pressing a flat steel plate down onto the ball until it bursts. To show you how unreliable this test is, blow up a typical party balloon, place it in a chair and slowly sit on it while supporting yourself on the arm rests. Make sure you have no sharp objects in your pockets.

You may be surprised to find that even a party balloon can take your entire party weight without popping, but would you work out on it? I doubt it! Because of the many injuries I've seen happen on cheap Swiss Balls, I've searched the world to find the best ball, the "Dura-ball," which is available through the C.H.E.K. Institute. In fact, our Dura-ball is so tough, some zoo keepers prefer it as a toy for the elephants because it's the only one that can survive their antics (see Figure 1)!

Texture of the material: Balls that are smooth and shiny can be difficult to stay on when you are sweaty. Choose a ball that has a textured finish, or one with a slightly "sticky" finish.

How to size your Swiss Ball

It is important to choose the correct size of ball and inflate it properly, depending on what purpose you will be using the ball for.

If you're using your Swiss Ball for exercise, it should be firmly inflated, so that when pressed with one finger, a slight dent is created, approximately 2 inches (5cm) across. When seated on the ball, your thigh (femur) should be parallel or slightly above parallel to the ground (see Figure 2). For those with back pain, a slightly larger ball is often better, so the thigh is above parallel.

Listed below are some optimum ball sizes based on average heights:

Sizing guidelines for exercise
Your Height Ball Size
Under 5'2" (1.57m) 45 cm
5'3"- 5'8" (1.60m-1.72m) 55 cm
5'9" - 6'2" (1.75m-1.88m) 65 cm
Above 6'3" (1.90m) 75 cm

When using the Swiss Ball as a chair, employ a larger ball than you use for exercise, but only inflated to the correct size described above. This will produce a softer, more comfortable chair. A general rule of thumb is to use a ball one size larger than shown in the above chart.

Caring for your Swiss Ball

With careful attention, a Swiss Ball can last many years. Follow these recommendations to keep your ball in tip-top shape:

  1. Store your ball in a safe, clean place, preferably off the floor and where it will not get knocked around. Many of the balls that have popped during exercise were found in laboratory analysis to have been previously damaged by hitting sharp edges. This happened so often on one professional rugby team in Australia, the coach made it a mandatory $30,000 fine for any athlete caught kicking or throwing a Swiss Ball in the gym!

  2. Check your ball for wear and foreign objects before use. Replace any ball that has any splits, nicks or worn areas on the surface

  3. Always use the ball on a clean, dry, non-slip surface. Check the floor for stones, pins, staples etc. before putting your ball down. Make sure hard floors are clean. When dusty, the ball slips out from under you like a ball bearing! A dirty gym is an unsafe gym

  4. Keep the ball away from animals and direct heat sources. Do not leave it in direct sunlight or a closed car

  5. Always make sure you have plenty of room when you are using the ball. An exercise mat is recommended

A Swiss Ball is like any other piece of exercise equipment. It can be used correctly to achieve positive results or it can be used incorrectly and thus may cause injury. Anyone wishing to incorporate a Swiss Ball into an exercise program would be well advised to seek instruction from a professional who has been trained in Swiss Ball techniques.

The C.H.E.K. Institute offers the following instructional and workout videos and courses for everyone from the novice exerciser up to the elite athlete, exercise and health care professional. There is no substitution for education!

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