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Can Stability Balls Be Part of a Safe and Effective Fitness Program?
A stability ball is an unstable platform used to increase the benefits of certain exercises. The theory behind the method is that training on unstable surfaces such as Swiss balls, Bosu balls, or balance cushions forces muscles to stabilize the body while performing the exercise, which requires additional muscle activation. Few studies actually support this theory. Muscle activation when training on unstable surfaces, as measured by electromyography, is less effective than traditional training for building strength in either prime movers the principal muscle groups responsible for a movement or trunk-stabilizing muscle groups.
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While instability training (as it is called) may not be as effective as once believed, the stability balls do add variety and challenge to a workout. Stability ball exercises activate muscle and nerve groups that might not otherwise get involved in the exercise. Depending on the specific exercises being done, instability training can enhance the stability of supporting joints throughout the body. Because instability exercises require balance, they are particularly useful for older adults.
There are many ways to incorporate a stability ball into a typical workout. For example, you can perform crunches or curl-ups while lying on a ball instead of on the floor. Lying facedown across a ball provides different leverage points for pushups. A variety of resistance training exercises can be performed on a stability ball, but experts recommend using dumbbells rather than barbells when lifting weights on a ball.
Although stability balls are good workout tools, they have drawbacks. For example, if you lift weights while resting on a ball instead of on a stable bench, much of your muscles’ effort is devoted to keeping your body stable, reducing the muscles’ ability to exert force. This effort can enhance your overall stability, but it can also slow your gains in strength. Research has shown that some exercises (such as curl-ups) can be more stressful to certain joints and muscles when performed on a ball, which might promote back pain or shoulder pain in susceptible people. Further, there is always a risk of falling off an unstable surface; this can cause serious injury, especially if you are holding weights in your hands. In sum, instability training can add variety to a training program, but it should not be the primary emphasis of the program. Electromyographic activity and 6RM strength in bench press on stable and unstable surfaces. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27(4): 1101-1107; Behm,
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