Part 1: Gym Ball and Pilates Ring
By Rika Brixie
The suitability of Pilates for home practice - easily adjustable to suit any space or time restrictions, whilst promoting strength, flexibility and mind-body awareness - has never been more profound than now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdowns that come along with it. Pilates enthusiasts, and beginners, the world over, have turned their living spaces into make-shift Pilates studios. Whether under the watchful eye of a Pilates Instructor via Zoom, whilst watching a video workout or in a self-directed practice, people everywhere are reaping the physical and mental benefits that Pilates provides as exercise, and as part of a daily routine in these turbulent times.
Is Pilates at home effective?
Pilates mat work utilises the weight of the body against gravity to challenge muscular control. This makes Pilates at home incredibly effective in developing strength, endurance and toning the musculature. Pilates in the home is very complementary to other forms of daily outdoor exercise, such as running and cycling, and aids injury prevention. Pilates with focus on mobility of the spine, shoulders and neck can also be extremely effective to counteract discomfort related to desk posture and the long months spent working from home.
What do I need for Pilates at home?
All that is required for Pilates at home is your body and a Pilates mat. Pilates at home can be enhanced by the addition of small props, such as the gym ball, Pilates ring and more. To achieve the maximum benefits from Pilates at home, it is recommended to seek instruction from a qualified Pilates instructor, which is easier than ever before, with many studios now offering live online Pilates tuition, either in a group or one-to-one setting. If you have any injuries or conditions that require expert guidance, always consult a medical professional and discuss with your instructor prior to commencing a new exercise routine.
Find out more about online Pilates with Rika at https://www.thepilatesclinic.com
What are gym balls good for?
The gym ball (also known as the Swiss ball, yoga ball or Pezzi ball) was invented by Italian plastics engineer Aquilino Cosani in the 1960s as a tool to aid in gymnastic exercise. The gym ball is great for adding the following benefits to an at-home Pilates workout:
The body and brain have to work hard to find equilibrium in exercises based on the unsteady surface of the ball. This emphasises the element of balance required and improves efficiency in exercises (see Gym Ball Front Support), which will then be much easier when executed again on solid ground.
The instability, that the ball introduces, kicks the deep stabilising muscles into action, to create stability within the body and control the motion of the ball. Strong stabilisers are vital for maintenance of good musculoskeletal function and joint health.
Even just sitting on a gym ball subtly activates the abdominal and back muscles. Carried into a Pilates session, this means good muscle activation throughout, leading to gains in both strength and endurance for these groups and increased challenge in exercises focusing on these areas.
The large surface area of the gym ball facilitates large ranges of motion. For those working on increasing mobility, the ball can be used to “meet you where you are” (see Gym Ball Roll Down) and gradually increase flexibility. For those looking to progress further in their practice, a larger range of motion during an exercise will require more control throughout and increase difficulty (see Gym Ball Pelvic Curl).
Incorporating standing work:
Standing work helps build leg strength and improve posture (see Gym Ball Footwork), in a Pilates workout that can otherwise remain mostly on the mat. Any weight-bearing work is been proven to be very beneficial for bone health, particularly in the ageing population.
Gym ball exercises
Gym Ball Roll Down
Start: Standing, facing gym ball.
Exhale: Beginning with the head, nod the chin towards the chest and roll down through the spine.
Inhale: When the hands touch the ball, press it forwards and flatten the back.
Exhale: Begin from the base of the spine and reverse the movement, rolling the spine up until you reach an upright position.
Gym Ball Pelvic Curl (Bridge)
Start: Lying on back with both feet placed on gym ball.
Exhale: Engage abdominals and lift pelvis to bridge shape. Keep the ball still.
Exhale: Lower down to start position.
Note: Imagine moving the spine one vertebra at a time to stretch the spine.
Gym Ball Footwork (Squats)
Start: Standing with ball between back and wall, feet in parallel, at least 1m away from wall.
Inhale: Bend knees and lower pelvis, keeping torso upright.
Exhale: Straighten legs, using thighs and buttocks.
Note: Repeat 8-10 times in each position. Additional foot positions: small V shape, feet wide apart and all positions on tiptoes.
Gym Ball Front Support (Plank)
Start: On hands and knees, one leg extended to rest on gym ball.
Exhale: Engage abdominals, place second leg onto ball. Hold body in straight line.
Inhale, exhale: Hold stable position for as long as possible.
Note: Make this easier by moving the ball higher up the legs. Make it more challenging by moving the ball closer to the feet.
What is the Pilates Ring Good for?
Legend has it that Joseph Pilates, creator of the Pilates method in the 1920s, used the ring from around a beer keg to fashion the first Pilates ring. Also known as the Magic Circle or fitness ring, this went on to become one of the most popular and widely used Pilates small props. The Pilates ring is versatile, easy to store and adds power to Pilates at home in a number of ways:
The flexible steel ring inside the Pilates ring provides a low resistance, suitable for any individual, that can be squeezed against to aid muscle activation. Adding resistance to any workout increases the rate of muscle development and tone.
The Pilates ring is an easy-to-use prop. The directions for using the ring can be as basic as “squeeze and release”. This simplicity means that it is an easy piece of equipment to use to increase the level of a Pilates workout, even as a beginner.
Adding resistance to the muscle actions of difficult-to-isolate areas, such as the upper back and inner thighs (see Pilates Ring Inner Thighs) improves awareness and makes effective strengthening more accessible.
Inward pressure on the Pilates ring between the hands or feet during exercises aids connection to the centre, or mid-line of the body (see Pilates Ring Chest Lift). This increases the activity in the core muscles and improves the execution of many Pilates exercises.
The resistance supplied by the Pilates ring is perfectly suited to adding arm and shoulder work into a Pilates routine. Squeezes of the ring in a series of positions tone the upper body muscles in a balanced manner, offloading neck and shoulder pain and improving posture (see Pilates Ring Arms).
Pilates ring exercises
Start: Lying on back with knees bent, arms vertical, holding ring between hands.
Exhale: Squeeze ring with arms straight and lift upper body, directing ring towards knees.
Exhale: Lower trunk and release pressure on ring.
Pilates Ring Arms
Start: Kneeling or standing, holding ring in front of chest with elbows bent out to sides.
Exhale: Squeeze ring inwards.
Note: Repeat 8-10 times. Additional arm positions: arms straight in front, arms overhead.
Pilates Ring Inner Thighs
Start: Lying on back, knees bent, ring placed in between thighs, just above knees.
Exhale: Squeeze with inner thighs.
Note: Repeat 10 times. Try with both legs lifted into tabletop for extra challenge.
Pilates Ring Back Extension
Start: Lying on front, arms outstretched with hands holding ring, placed vertically.
Inhale: Engage abdominals, press down on ring and arch upper back away from floor.
Exhale: Lower trunk and release pressure on ring.
Note: Think of pulling chest forwards rather than lifting high. Hold wider apart on ring to accommodate tight shoulders.
Rika Brixie qualified as a Pilates instructor through Pilates Therapy and BASI Pilates CTTC. She is proud to be BASI Pilates Faculty, teaching the BASI Pilates Global Comprehensive Program, and her own BASI workshop ‘Pilates for Scoliosis’. Rika’s first and enduring passion in life is movement, which carried her through a career as a professional ballet dancer. Her personal experience of living with scoliosis has given Rika a unique insight into the deep workings of the body and ultimately lead to her specialising in scoliosis. She is based in London, where she teaches alongside the phenomenal BASI UK team at The Pilates Clinic (Wimbledon).
Photos by Saga Spjuth-Säll