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Get On the Ball

Strengthen your core muscles with these simple exercises, and improve your posture, balance and stability.

If you are still doing traditional sit-ups, it's time you get out of the '80s and fast-forward to the year 2011. Stop doing traditional sit-ups and start strengthening your core the correct way—with a stability ball.

Traditional sit-ups are ineffective, because they tend to focus only on the muscles closer to the skin, such as the rectus abdominus (6-pack), and not the deep core muscles, which consist of the transversus abdominus, the multifidus and the internal/external oblique muscles.

Regular sit-ups also emphasize sitting-up rather than merely pulling your sternum down to meet your pelvis. When doing a traditional sit-up, you engage the psoas muscles, which run from the lower back to the front of the thighs. The purpose of this muscle action is to pull the thighs closer to the torso and is the major component of sitting up. When you do sit-ups in the traditional manner, your psoas muscles are the primary muscles engaged and not your abdominal muscles.  

Core muscles are the powerhouse of the body and provide a foundation for posture, balance and coordinated movement. With the following exercises, you will engage your deep core muscles, not just the ones on the surface.

These exercises can be done anywhere. Do them at home or create a whole body workout by taking a stability ball to a local park and adding on a 30-minute walk or run to this core routine.

Public parks in Santa Cruz are open from sunrise to sunset, so take your stability ball to a local park and enjoy exercise in the outdoors. Lighthouse State Park on the west side of Santa Cruz has a nice grassy field, as does Frederick Street Park by the upper harbor.

Practice these exercises three times a week, and you will be on your way to a strong core.

1. Abdominal ball raise: Lie on your back and place your legs on top of the ball with your legs about hip-width apart. Tighten your abdominal muscles and squeeze your legs together while you raise the ball off the floor. To protect your lower back, focus on pulling your bellybutton in toward your spine and keeping your abdominal muscles contracted. Release and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-15 reps.

2. Crunch on the ball: Lie with your middle back on the exercise ball, feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart, and hands behind your head. Lift your upper body up, using your abdominal muscles and not your neck. Do not interlace your fingers. Your head should be resting lightly in your hands. Release and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-15 reps.

3. Russian twist on the ball: Start by sitting on the ball, and walk your feet forward until your head and upper back are supported on the ball. Place your hands together, pointing toward the ceiling. While keeping your hips relatively stationary, rotate your body to one side so that one shoulder lifts off the ball. Rotate from side to side and focus on rotating your trunk, not just your arms. Release and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-15 reps.

4. Back extension on the ball: Begin very close to a wall, facing away from it with the ball under your hips. Keep your toes firmly on the ground and the soles of your feet flat on the wall behind you. Your weight should be evenly distributed between your feet and the ball. Place your hands behind your ears, and extend from your hips while bringing your torso upward toward the wall as high as possible. Release and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-15 reps.

5. Plank on the ball: Place the ball under your belly and walk your hands out so that your body rolls along the top of the ball. Center the ball under the middle of your thighs while arms support your upper body. Hold for 15-60 seconds. Release and repeat for 1-3 sets.

It’s extremely important to keep your core muscles tightly engaged with your tummy tucked in toward your spine while performing these exercises. Don’t forget to check with your doctor before starting an exercise routine.

Stability balls, also known as physio balls, swiss balls or fit balls, range from $10-$20 and can be found at , and, believe it or not, Marshalls of Santa Cruz.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and choose the right-sized ball for your height.

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