Why Balls are a Revelation for Sore Muscles
Sitting takes a serious toll on our bodies. Using simple sports balls is an excellent way to offset the ill effects
Just after the birth of my daughter, I discovered that pressing a ball into sore muscles was a thing. The instructor of a post-natal yoga class presented us with a basket of tennis balls and insisted we place them against our glutes and lean up against the wall.
We each rolled one eye at this seemingly ridiculous request (the other eye being trained on our babies on the floor, of course). Yet this curious suggestion turned out to be a revelation. How could it hurt so much? Also, why did it feel so damned good?
Cut to 10 years later: I’m with a group of fun-loving women celebrating a 40th birthday. We’d made plans to go out on the town. Instead, we found ourselves at home euphorically rolling our feet over translucent hard bouncy balls – the kind I’d thieved from my daughter’s loot-bag hauls over the years. While the whole scene made us all feel a bit old, the elation of finding and releasing a pain point in our feet was enough to make us not care.
Balls, as it turns out, are more than just sports playthings. They’re excellent tools for releasing postural and emotional stress that settles in our muscles.
“Even on short-haul flights, it’s worth breaking out the ball.”
Terry Lemay, a chiropractor based in Oakville, Ontario, regularly counsels his patients to use a simple and inexpensive sports ball as part of their wellness regime to combat the effects of sedentary lifestyles.
“When you’re in a static posture your blood flow is restricted. A lack of movement or static postures is what builds up tension,” Lemay says. “If we’re not moving, we’re not stimulating blood flow. You can use a ball to offset the static posture. By applying pressure to these postural muscles that might already be under physical and emotional stress you can help reset and relax the long term effects of sitting.”
Lemay says packing a ball is especially helpful when travelling. Travel itself can negatively impact your health, he says – disrupted sleep patterns, physical strain and poorer eating habits are side effects of being on the go. Also: all that sitting. Even on short-haul flights, Lemay says it’s worth breaking out the ball.
“If you can’t get up and are stuck in your seat, [using a ball] can offset that. It’s a phenomenal tool for blood flow [and] muscle tone, and as a neurological de-stressor.”
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The beauty of using ordinary sports balls for self-care is they’re super cheap, especially compared to others specifically designed for therapy. For instance, a lacrosse ball, Lemay’s preferred ball, is $5 whereas massage balls can cost two or three times more. He also prefers a lacrosse ball to, say, a tennis ball, because it’s consistent and firm, whereas tennis balls tend to deflate over time. That said, if that’s all that’s at hand, a tennis ball is also effective.
Here, we outline how to effectively use a ball for self-massage, wherever you are.
Everyone knows what it feels like to have a knot in a muscle: that dull, persistent pain that just begs for massage. Lemay says applying direct pressure to these spots increases blood flow and helps alleviate discomfort. But using a ball can help identify trouble spots you weren’t even aware of, thus becoming both a diagnostic and treatment tool.
“Approximately 10% of the nervous system is hooked up to pain. So how you feel and how you truly are can be two different things,” says Lemay. “I guarantee you will find sore spots you weren’t even aware of [with the ball].”
So how does it work?
Take a ball and lean against a wall. Starting at the neck, gently roll the ball around until you find a sore spot, and then stop there. For hard-to-reach spots you can put a ball in an old pair of pantyhose and dangle it, fishing around your back around for sore spots.
Apply pressure by leaning back on the ball for one minute. Breathe. Lemay says it’s crucial that you don’t rest on the bone, but rather focus on the trapezius muscles in the shoulders, those along the spine, the glutes and hamstrings. Do one side and then the other, taking care to note the differences.
Adam McDowell / Billy
The benefits can exceed simple muscle release. Lemay says he’s had patients who have eliminated indigestion and heartburn by using a ball.“You go in the area between the shoulder blades and a lot of times the tension there can irritate the nerve that’s going to the digestive area.” It’s also improves recovery after exercise.
When sitting in a plane or at a desk, Lemay recommends compensating for soft seats, which can absorb the ball and make it less effective, by putting a magazine between the ball and the seat.
For more acute muscle strain, as when you pull something putting your suitcase in the bin – the ball works to offset pain.
“When you tweak your back what happens is the muscles contract,” Lemay says. “As a resistance against that, the muscle will contract even further. Sometimes it might lead to spasms, which is a protective mechanism in the body to protect further injury. The ball can offset the spasm by increasing blood flow.”
As for those suffering from forearm pain and discomfort? For the top of your arm, put the ball against the forearm and use a doorframe for resistance. For the underside of your forearm, use a table or other hard surface.
“The upsides are increased energy, better breathing capacity and relaxation.”
For feet, the approach is the same, but you use a different ball. In order to get into the smaller muscles a golf ball or hard bouncy ball is ideal. For plantar fasciitis or heel spurs, simply roll until you find a sore spot and then apply pressure.
“It’s better than any stretch,” Lemay says. “A stretch elongates the muscle but doesn’t get into the individual nodules in that muscle. This does a better job.”
Adam McDowell / Billy
Lemay says when working with a ball, it’s key to always address the postural muscles on both sides.
This allows you to identify if one side of your body is more strained than the other. “You can use it as a reference to let you know you need to do more work on the other side. If you don’t have as much pain on one side, it’s a good indicator that there’s more work to be done on the other side,” Lemay says.
The balanced approach also goes to bad postural habits like crossing your legs or shifting weight to one hip or the other. “If you do it on one side be sure to do it on the other. Just remember that.”
Don't overdo it
It can be very tempting to really work a sore muscle hard when you find it. But Lemay says in this case, more is not better. Too much stimulation can result in too much blood flow, which can lead to pain later on. So stick to one minute per pressure point.
The risk of over-stimulating muscles is why Lemay prefers a ball to other devices like rollers. “You need to lay on top of [a roller] with your body weight. The problem is if you roll over a nodule or knot it can irritate that area and excite it to the point where it might cause more pain.
“That’s why I like to use graduated pressure by leaning against the wall. The pressure is dictated by how far your legs are from the wall. You’re not pushing; you’re leaning. With pushing you’re tensing up so how can you relax? With leaning you just roll around until you find a sore spot, adjust the pressure with your legs and then just lean into it.”
As for stippled balls, you can use them but there is one cosmetic issue. Says Lemay: “You might end up with some decoration on the wall afterwards.”
How do you know when you’ve overdone it? If it feels like a bruise, it’s too much. In such cases, Lemay recommends an ice pack. When travelling, he suggests bringing a few sealable sandwich bags and asking flight attendants for some ice water for an instant DIY ice pack.
As with any self-care regime, there are instances where caution is required. Lemay says those with bleeding disorders, people on chronic steroids, or pregnant women should be careful or avoid ball therapy because of risks of excess blood flow and acupressure points that can stimulate uterine contractions.
Do it everywhere
As we hear regularly, sitting is the new smoking. Lemay says that’s because a lack of movement results in a lack of blood flow, reduced cardiovascular lung capacity and inefficient digestive elimination, all of which had have ill effects on the body. This is why he encourages his patients to bring a ball with them wherever they go.
“I always recommend three balls: one for the office, one for home, one for travel,” says Lemay. “If you get into a habit of doing this on a regular basis and you have one already in your carry on, it becomes routine.”
The upsides, he says, are increased energy, better breathing capacity and relaxation.
While breaking out a ball at home or on a long-haul flight might seem manageable, Lemay encourages those on short-haul flights to add a ball to the routine. “Whenever you’re sitting down, take advantage of it.”
As for the likely sidelong glances that manoeuvring a ball behind your back might elicit, follow Lemay’s advice: “I just say, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m having a ball.”