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Upgrade your Pilates equipment to give your members a workout that will give them the results they want.

While abdominal crunches have long been the staple of core muscle training, the effectiveness of Swiss balls in targeting the abdominals has made these beach ball-like pieces of equipment standard features at most gyms and health clubs. Now a study published in the Journal of Applied Research shows that the Swiss ball is once again more effective than crunches. However, a new, smaller contender, the Bender Ball-a seven-inch mini stability ball-provides a better abdominal workout than either crunches or the Swiss ball.

For clubs that want to provide their members with the most effective, results-oriented training-training that reduces the risk of injury-a mini-ball is must-have.

Mini Ball Works Abdominals Four Times Harder
The study, conducted by researches from the Departments of Physical Therapy at Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, California) and Loma Linda University (Loma Linda, California), reported that intense exercises with the mini stability ball were as much as four times the work of abdominal crunches per second of exercise. The small size of the mini stability ball offered a significant advantage over the larger diameter Swiss ball in terms of working the muscles harder and at a better range of motion.

Researchers also observed that the mini stability ball created good back support in spite of its size. Although rectus abdominis muscle activity increased dramatically when the extension of the exercise was increased from 50 to 90 degrees, there was almost no increase in back extensor activity. In fact, there was almost no back extensor activity seen. Thus, the abdominal muscles were isolated without increasing stress on the back muscles.

The Proof is in the Muscle Activity
The study was conducted using male and female subjects ranging from 18 to 35 years. All subjects were fit and free of any cardiovascular, neuromuscular or orthopedic injuries. Researchers tested three levels of core exercises using abdominal crunches, the Swiss ball and the mini stability ball. Each exercise level for the mini stability ball was progressively more difficult and included three different angles of extension.

The electromyogram (EMG) was used to assess muscle activity during exercises. EMG was recorded by two electrodes and a ground electrode placed above the active muscle.

In line with other studies, the research showed that crunches on the Swiss ball used approximately 50% more muscle work per second of exercise compared to floor crunches. With floor exercise, the floor provides stability.

According to lead researcher, Jerrold S. Petrofsky, PhD, of Loma Linda University, “the Swiss ball removes the stability that the floor provides in abdominal crunches, so stability has to be achieved through additional core muscle use.

“The Swiss ball also provides greater extension and flexion. However, the extent of the movement is limited by the diameter of the ball. The larger the diameter of the ball, the less the movement.”

Although the lightest exercise (sitting crunches with the mini-ball wedged under the back) was about half of the work per second as floor crunches, the most intense exercises with the mini-ball were as much as four times the work of abdominal crunches per second of exercise. The greatest difference in the mini stability ball exercise was seen when the degree of flexion/extension was increased from 50 to 90 degrees.

“This degree of flexion can’t be accomplished with standard floor crunches or with the Swiss ball because of its large diameter and size,” explains Petrofsky. “The small size of the mini stability ball provides a significant advantage in working the muscles harder and at a better range of motion.”

The increased instability associated with use of the mini ball also causes more muscle use in the oblique muscles compared with rectus abdominis muscles. This is demonstrated in exercises such as the forward-facing exercise. During a floor crunch, the rectus abdominis is the prime mover. With the mini ball, the oblique muscles stabilize the core while the rectus abdominis muscle contracts, increasing muscle use and total work. The smaller diameter of the ball also allows for greater range of motion during the exercise, further increasing muscle use and work.

Although not measured in the study, the mini ball’s diameter allowed for further extension than 90 degrees which could increase the exercise even more, according to Dr. Petrofsky.

The research team hopes to release findings soon from a similar studying employing the Bender Ball, which demonstrates its effectiveness in reducing back injuries.

Core Training Made Safer, More Effective
By adding the mini stability ball to their core training offerings, clubs can provide their members with a scientifically proven way to enhance their workouts. The mini stability ball can also help clubs reduce the chance of back injuries among students performing core training exercises.

Leslee is the creator of the Bender Ball, the original mini stability ball designed for core training. She is also founder of The Pilates Coach and TPC Training Systems, both which provide scientifically-based, safer Pilates and functional movement instruction for students, Pilates instructors and personal trainers. She has presented at main fitness conferences throughout the world; including IDEA, IHRSA Club Industry, Sara City, ECA, AFPA, AAAI and hundreds more. Leslee is currently nominated for New Mind Body Programming of the Year for ECA New York.

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