Should I Sit on a Swiss Ball?

Recently I was asked if sitting on a Swiss Ball at work was a good idea for the average office worker.  The theory behind this whole phenomenon is that if you sit on the ball you will be forced to maintain proper posture and it will “strengthen your core”.  Let’s explore the history of the Swiss Ball and see if this really holds any water.

In a nutshell, a woman named Joanne Poser-Mayer began to instruct physical therapists in the use of these things for rehabilitation purposes in 1989.  From the Canadian Physiotherapy web site:

The power of stability ball training and its importance to core strength cannot be underestimated. Various muscles contract to help produce movement, balance the body, stabilize the spine and hold the body in a safe, neutral position. All of these muscles working together reduce the compression that contributes to disc degeneration.

The words “cannot be underestimated” really fly out at me.  I can get into all sorts of discourse about this statement, but the underlying fact I’m illustrating is that Swiss Balls came from physiotherapy modalities.  Now thanks to athletic trainers and practitioners they have morphed into this ridiculous following where people claim that doing things on an unstable surface makes it “better” because your body has to work harder to achieve the movement on an unstable surface.  Again, from the web site:

Sitting on stability balls both within and outside a fitness environment has been found to be highly effective in engaging the core muscles. And since most of the body’s movements are initiated and supported with the core muscles, good back health is ensured. 

Well, that’s a bit of a blanket statement, isn’t it?  Good back health is ENSURED.

So here’s a simple statement I’m going to make and hopefully you understand where I’m coming from:

If your body can’t engage muscles properly while it is in a supported state (ie on a solid surface like the floor or a chair) what makes you think it’s going to be able to do it on an unstable one? 

Most people when they are at work exhibit poor posture, mostly as a function of what they have to do all day.  I’m going to sit (taking tension away from things like hamstrings and glutes), put both hands internally rotated, lean forward slightly and put my head down – all day.  This, to be blunt, sucks for your body.  We do this for 40 hours a week or more and wonder why at the end of five years our body defaults into being internally rotated, leaning forward and weak in all of the muscles that we don’t use.  Then we also wonder why, when we want to do something that is externally rotated, requires firing of your posterior chain and support from your lower back (like a LOT of stuff) the body protests.

Much of what I do especially with office workers is getting their muscles to be stronger to fight against the tug of war that we encourage with our poor work environments.  This also includes things like standing desks, moving around more during the day and even changing position entirely.  Being aware of how you’re sitting all day is important as well.  As is having a proper strength program to work on the muscles that don’t take a lot of load for many hours a week so they don’t become deconditioned.

So what’s the answer?  Well, it isn’t sitting on a Swiss Ball at work.  If you have poor posture (which is forced and a function of the equipment you need to use) sitting on a surface that has less support isn’t going to make it better, it’s just going to tire out the muscles faster that are already either overworked or weak.  Then your poor unsupported body is going to be even more tired and sore from working harder than it needs to.

By the way, this also applies to squatting, bicep curls and shoulder presses.  If you are doing this on a BOSU or sitting on a ball, stop wasting your time and learn how to do it well with both feet on the ground please.  Too many times I see poor clients being treated like circus animals by trainers who want them to “feel their core”.  News flash:  most of these trainers don’t even know what a “core” is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of core strengthening.  They’re called deadlifts.  Squats.  Pullups.  Things that require the spine to hold tension under load.  Things with spinal rotations, extension, bracing and flexion that involve more than one part of the body moving.  I’m willing to bet that if you can become strong enough to pick up your body weight then you’re not going to have a problem with your lower back.  And I’ve applied this over and over again.  Funny enough, it works.

So as you navigate this fitness world, remember that trends come and go.  Trust things that have been proven to work over time.  As always, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to reach out.

Please, please don't do this.

Please, please don’t do this.

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