Marietta Mehanni

That big ball of air – The Swiss Ball

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June 29, 2021

You see some interesting trends and fads come and go when you’ve been a group fitness instructor for over 30 years. I remember when I first saw the step in 1991 and thought, ‘What’s this rubbish? You cannot make this interesting enough for a whole class.’ But here I am in 2022, still teaching step classes and absolutely loving it.

Enter The Swiss Ball

When the Swiss Ball came into clubs in the late 1990’s, I had similar misgivings. I mean, how much can you really do with an inflatable ball unless you’re bobbing about in a sunny pool on holiday? Again, I was proven wrong.

It happened again a few years ago when I first heard about group fitness instructors delivering virtual classes. ‘Who’d want to exercise like that?’ I thought… and here I am delivering daily workouts via Zoom.

At least I learnt a useful lesson from these episodes. Nowadays I try to keep my mind much more open.

But back to the Swiss Ball. What exactly is it about this big bouncy ball of air that dashed my scepticism and has kept me interested in coming up with new exercises and in delivering fresh workouts for the past couple of decades or so?

I must admit, it could be the simplicity. I do love a simple tool. Something that no one thinks you can do very much with, but which then proves them wrong (just as I was). This big ball of air is one of the most versatile pieces of fitness equipment out there. Deceptively effective, it can be used to improve strength, endurance, balance, proprioception and coordination – sometimes all at the same time!

So how did the Swiss Ball come about?

Time for a quick history lesson. It was first used by physiotherapists in 1960’s Switzerland (hence its name) in the treatment of orthopaedic and neurological disorders. In particular, it was found to be beneficial to children with cerebral palsy as it helped them to develop balance skills and maintain reflex responses.

Dr. Klein Vogelbach was the first therapist to use the ball in clinical applications, and on adult orthopaedic patients through the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was also employed extensively around this time in the treatment of spinal injuries. Physiotherapists have found that the ball’s size and mobility call on deeper layers of muscles needed for overall joint stability, balance and posture. This encourages those using it to improve their body and movement awareness.

Gradually the ball moved out of the exclusive realm of therapy circles and into sports medicine and fitness clubs. I first encountered it in 1997 when I was asked if I would be part of a demonstration for a national fitness event with the amazing Lisa Westlake. I was so flattered, of course, I said yes. Shortly afterwards, I started educating myself about how to use the ball for a variety of fitness purposes.

Cardiovascular training

One of my favourite ways to use the ball is for cardiovascular training. There’s just something about rolling it and bouncing on it that feels so good. I mean, how could anyone not like exercise that you can do sitting down?! In addition to improving balance and coordination, and increasing the heart rate, the fact that it’s a seated workout means that it’s low impact on the joints.

When it comes to strength training on the ball, you can choose the level you want to work at.

Reducing the points of contact with a surface (the floor, wall or the ball), or bringing the points of contact closer together, will increase the intensity of the exercise. Shifting where the centre of gravity is in relation to the location of the ball will change the length of lever that is moving, which also impacts the exercise intensity.

So, without even adding an external load like dumbbells or medicine balls, the body can effectively create its own resistance.

Not quite the ‘fad’

So, 24 years after discovering the Swiss Ball I’m still enjoying using it to challenge my body (and the bodies in my classes!) in ways that I just can’t do with other pieces of equipment. It’s an amazing way to challenge your nervous system, core, cardiovascular system and of course, your muscles. So, not quite the ‘fad’ I first took it for…

If you would like to learn how to use the Swiss Ball, or reignite your passion for using it in classes, join me on 29th January 2023 for a FREE Master Class in which we’ll cover all the basics and a whole lot more.

I hope you’ll join me, it’ll be a lot of fun!

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