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.
I thought I’d share this story as a way to show people what real dedication can get you. I’ve had the privilege over he past eight months to work with a woman who had the ultimate motivation towards getting healthy and losing weight and wanted to see if it might inspire others like it inspired me.
Now, before I begin I realize that motivation is often a struggle for a lot of people. I often cite the scene in the movie Fight Club where a man holds a gun to another man’s head and tells him to go follow his dream or he’s going to shoot him. Motivation is the ultimate struggle for many of us when it comes to changing your lifestyle, but when you have no choice but to do something then it is pretty hard not to. This is where my client Nadia comes in.
Nadia’s mother had liver disease and needed a new liver because hers was failing. Unfortunately a transplant from someone else wasn’t likely to happen any time soon, so Nadia decided to get checked and found out she was a match. The only problem was that she was 60 pounds overweight and also had a fatty liver. So in order to save her mothers’ life, she had to lose a significant amount of weight and also get extremely healthy. The problem was that it basically needed to happen as soon as possible. Her mother’s life was at stake.
So Nadia got to work. She got my name through a referral from one of my successful clients. When she contacted me I was honestly a bit overwhelmed only because she had a very short timeline and a very big goal to reach. I was also very honored to have the chance to help her. We got to work immediately and she flew into changing her lifestyles completely. She was in the gym dedicated 5 days a week following a strict program and completely overhauled her eating habits. We put her on a carbohydrate cycling protocol, something I wouldn’t normally do with a client because it is aggressive, but this was ordinary circumstances. And the pounds and inches started to come off.
In terms of exercise, part of the problem was her losing weight and inches, but also maintaining strength for a potential surgery. We worked through a couple of phases of training from introductory strength and moving into heavier lifting, then changing into higher intensity once her joints had the strength and integrity to handle it. Her nutrition stayed spot on and the pounds came off steadily.
To make a long story short, within eight months Nadia was down 60 pounds and many many inches. In fact, the first time I did her waist measurements I was astounded only because it was down over 10 inches just in that one area alone.
Nadia busted her ass – literally. She worked incredibly hard and suffered through a lot of stress. In short, she was a complete rock star and did exactly what it took in order to get to where she needed to be. She had setbacks and pushed through them, even doing her last six weeks on bariatric shakes totaling 900 calories a day because her liver fat needed to come down faster in order to be healthy. In my fifteen years I have rarely seen this type of dedication towards a goal, and the result was obvious.
Nadia and her mother had their surgery (successfully) a couple of weeks ago and she is now recovering. She will be out of commission for a couple of months and then is looking forward to getting into maintaining her new body and hopefully doing some really cool things that she might not have been able to previously. We’re going to work on maintaining her strength and then setting new goals for her new body. She has told me that she never wants to go back to the way she was before and the good thing is, she doesn’t have to. Nobody does as long as they stay consistent.
So I’m not writing this as a big pat on the back for myself. On the contrary, Nadia did 96% of the work on her own. She planned her meals, she did the workouts (which I designed), she went through all of the ups and downs she needed to (with the occasional support email needed). In fact, she only saw me about once every few weeks to make changes and adjustments to her programs. Only towards the end when things needed to become more supervised did she see me even once a week. You don’t need to spend a lot of time with a trainer if you’re willing to put in the work on your own, as I have said many times before.
My true point with this article is about motivation. So many people get into exercise and health without having a really clear picture of what they want. Having that picture and really, really wanting to do anything that you need to in order to make it happen virtually guarantees success. Nadia had that. So ask yourself this: if it was your mother, if it was another family member or if a doctor told you that you had to make changes, would you do it? I hope that the answer is yes. Think about that the next time that you want to skip a workout, or stop what you started, or eat another really crappy meal. What if you didn’t have the choice to give up because someone else was relying on you? Well, I can tell you that someone probably is. You.
Life always comes down to choices. You can choose to do what it takes or keep on cycling through what you have always done. All you have to do is find the motivation that Nadia and countless others have found in order to completely change how you feel, look and perform on a daily basis – not only now, but years from now.
I’m very honored to have been a part of this transformation, and I’m also hoping that by writing this it inspires more of you to get up, get going and find that part of you that will never give up. Good luck with whatever fitness journey you are undertaking and if you are ever looking for help feel free to contact me.