Here you thought you were going to a serious core workout, and your instructor hands you a child-sized, squishy ball that seems appropriate only for a game of catch. Don't be fooled. A Pilates mini ball, which measures 7 to 9 inches in diameter and inflates with air, can amp up your routine by making you acutely aware of muscle activation and form. If you thought your mat class was tough before, add the ball to create an even greater burn and tone every muscle.
Not That Kind of Ball
You may have seen the big inflatable balls at the gym, called stability or Swiss balls, on which you can lie, sit or bounce to create greater core strength. Pilates mini balls are shrunken versions of these balls that you place between your thighs or underneath your back, foot, leg or neck to better engage certain muscles or to provide support so you can do exercises with ideal form.
Research Says It Works
A study published in a 2007 issue of the "Journal of Applied Research" compared core exercises performed on the floor with those done with a stability ball and a mini Pilates ball. The Loma Linda University researchers found that the mini ball afforded greater range of motion and thus more muscle activation during certain abdominal exercises. Where you place the ball during crunch-like movements varies the angle of the back and, consequently, the intensity of the exercise, making it of value to a wide range of fitness abilities -- including beginners, poorly conditioned folk and the highly fit.
What to Do With It?
So, you're convinced and you purchase one for home use. Now what? Most mini balls come with straw that you use to inflate it. You want the ball to be moderately squishy -- much like a slightly deflated soccer ball.
Your first uses of the ball can be to augment basic Pilates exercises. For example, if you struggle with the roll-up, which calls for you to start in a reclined position on the floor with straight legs or bent knees and peel your torso up and down out of the mat, use the mini ball to build initial strength. Sit on the mat and position the ball behind you. Extend your arms in front of you, inhale and roll down over the mini ball slowly. Return to the upright position -- keeping your body in a C-curve as you roll up. You can also place the mini ball between your knees for bridging, in which you lie on your back with bent knees, feet in the floor, and lift the hips up and down with control. Squeezing the ball between your thighs also keeps your legs in alignment during the double straight-leg stretch, rolling like a ball and the corkscrew.
Outside the Studio
Work with the ball outside the Pilates studio to tone your entire body. Do squats with the ball between your legs to provide greater activation of those jiggly inner thighs. You can also perform single-leg squats with one heel on the ball to hone balance. Place the ball in the groove behind your knee and squeeze with your calf and thigh to strengthen your hamstrings. The side plank and pushups become a new challenge when you position the ball under one hand.
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.