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.
Years ago I had a client who had torn his rotator cuff during a simple movement. The funny thing was, he didn’t even know it until he got an MRI on the area. He had come to me with some shoulder pain and I did what I do and strengthened the area, thinking he had simple tendonitis and it resolved in a few months and he went back to regular lifting.
The “holy crap” moment came when he got the results of his MRI, and his orthopedic surgeon said that he actually had a full tear in part of his rotator cuff. What the surgeon also said was that his shoulder was so perfectly strengthened to within millimeters of the tear that his shoulder could function without a problem even though he had an injury that should have required surgery.
Over the years I’ve had many examples of this type of thing within my practice. Hip replacement? Golfing within four months. Achilles tendonitis? Took four weeks. Massive spinal trauma due to getting hit by a truck twenty years prior? Resolved issues and can perform at work and home without issue. Four herniated discs? Skating and lifting things again within six months. Powerlifter with a chronic hip issue that wouldn’t allow her past parallel? Competed in provincials several months later. I had a woman come in with a diagnosed tennis elbow she had for over a year and resolved that in 40 minutes by popping it back into place. She’s still good months later. Bodybuilders who have shoulder issues? Retrained and fine after a couple of weeks.
I actually got an email a few months ago from a client with two knees that were essentially destroyed due to lack of cartilage I worked with three years ago – who said she is still walking 20 miles a week and her knees are totally fine.
Here’s the funny thing – sometimes I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I know a lot about the body and how it responds to force and how to strengthen things really effectively. This is simply a confidence issue stemming from years of bullying and neglect at home where I had to fight to prove that I was good at anything and even then got ignored so gave up a lot.
Recently though I’ve had a bit of a mind shift. I’ve taken a look at the success I have had over the years with clients of many shapes, sizes and ability levels and realized that while sometimes I keep putting myself down, I have actually affected and helped a ton of people in a very positive way when it comes to “fixing” injuries and getting people moving without a problem again. I’ve also encountered some incredibly rare conditions that I have had the luck to be able to work on and gain experience with. My brain just seems to work in line with movement and force so that I can make logical sense of things and actually get to the root of the issue.
So what’s the point of this? I guess it is a simple statement that I’ve realized that I can embrace this skill. It is something that I was meant to do. Something I’m really good at and can help people with.
Last year in a course they asked us to generate something called a “sankalpa” which is a yoga word for a simple statement that you use to focus yourself and discover your inner being. The first thing that popped into my head after thinking about it was “I am a healer”. My other inner voice pushes that away and tells me I’m not good enough, but recently I’ve been able to shift into another way of thinking finally.
So there is is: I am a healer.
The exciting thing about it is that there are still many avenues I can explore, directions I can take and methodologies I can learn in order to increase the level of skill I already have. I’ve gone down a couple of those paths, but now it is time to make it a direct focus and really get into the practice (not that I wasn’t already). It feels good to have that type of mind shift, even though it has taken a long time.
We are all on the Earth for a reason, and as much as I tried to push it away and ignore it, this is simply my calling. I’ve known it for many years but now I’m just declaring that it is time to stop that and embrace it instead. Expect to see some changes to the practice in the near future.
Got a problem? Injury? Strange condition that you want to improve? Come at me bro. Want to feel better, move better? Tried everything and nothing seems to work? Try this. And the great thing is that it can be applied to many communities from heavy lifters who tweak something to the elderly who have been living with problems for years.
With the support of my amazing family and community and clients I know that I can make some changes that will only enhance my ability to help people and make them well physically again. And with any luck help more people that recently thought that there was no help for them. Wish me luck and of course, if you know of anyone that might need help please just let me know.