Bowling Balls for Mobility Work
Six months ago, I had an idea; …”I bet a Bowling Ball would work GREAT for foam-rolling!” And so I acquired an old bowling ball from my uncle, cleaned it up, brought it in, and started testing it out. Slowly, so did other athletes here at CrossFit West. It turns out, a bowling ball works extremely well and is perfectly suited for a wide number of applications. What started as a few athletes using it occasionally has now turned into about 60 of our regulars using it daily, before, after or during class on hamstrings, calves, glutes, quads, shoulders, lats, hip-flexors, pecs and more. There will often be several athletes waiting to use the bowling ball and we now legitimately need to acquire a couple more. A few of our members have even acquired one themselves to use at home. Some of the athletes who are now using the bowling ball regularly were quite (comically, might I add) adamantly opposed to it…until they tried it. They now use it almost every day.
For those of you who regularly foam-roll, you’ve likely realized the many benefits of doing so consistently. Though you’ve likely also realized the shortcomings of your typical foam-roller. For one, the foam-roller works in a linear fashion, only working one line of action at a time, albeit in two opposing directions. With the bowling ball, you can, as Angela G, (a.k.a.; “Ninjela!”) noted, “work it from all different angles”. Indeed, the bowling ball works exceptionally well at working a particular knot or trouble-spot from virtually any angle as you can easily change the direction of your line of action, more effectively hitting whatever area you are working.
Sometimes the foam-roller just isn’t quite enough to make a notable difference, such is often the case with the piriformis. CrossFit athletes, and athletes in general, can sometimes become very tight in the piriformis. If completely ignored and gone untreated, this can sometimes develop into Piriformis Syndrome, a condition that causes compression of the sciatic nerve resulting in pain and loss of mobility. Piriformis Syndrome is one of the numerous causes of Sciatica. Athletes who find they need to work the piriformis will often try moving from the foam-roller to the lacrosse ball in hopes of finding a more effective tool and means for which to relax it. However, as many note, the lacrosse ball can sometimes be a bit too acute to work effectively, especially if the piriformis is exceptionally tight and knotted up. For the piriformis, the bowling ball works extremely well. It excels, actually. It allows not only unlimited planes of action for which to work the area, but offers a very nice bridge between the relative ineffectiveness of the foam-roller and the sometimes too acute pain of the lacrosse ball. The surface area, rate of slope and density of your average bowling ball seem perfectly suited for this application. Our very own Morgan H, who runs our mobility classes, feels the bowling ball is “by far the best tool” she has found for effectively working the piriformis. If you find that you are very tight in this area, I highly recommend you give the bowling ball a try.
Where the foam-roller especially falls short is with the hamstrings. Let’s face it, the foam-roller just sucks for the hamstrings. It’s just not very effective here. This is where the bowling ball can work exceptionally well, especially with a bit of a partner assist, gently applying a bit of extra pressure and changing the angle of the leg slightly in or out so as to hit either the inner or outer part of the hamstrings. The bowling ball doesn’t just work great for the hamstrings, it also works very well at hitting the insertion point of the hamstring right under the glute, another area that isn’t very effectively worked by the foam roller.
As noted with the hamstrings, a place where partner assistance can be of great help is in working the calves. Unlike the piriformis, where we can easily use our own bodyweight to apply more than ample pressure to be effective, the lower part of our leg doesn’t have much weight to it. So, if you are well mobilized in the calves, the weight of your own leg might not be enough, even when putting one leg over the other for a bit more pressure. Granted, you can flex the hamstring to apply more pressure, but this sometimes undoubtedly tends to flex the calves, making your efforts less effective, if not counterproductive altogether. I say, “if you are well mobilized in the calves” because if you are very tight in the calves (as it turns out I am), the weight of your lower leg alone can be more than enough pressure for you. Turns out tight calves are very painful when pressure is applied!
The piriformis, hamstrings and calves are but a few of the places that the bowling ball shines in it’s effectiveness at rolling out our musculature. It also seems to work very well on the quads, hip-flexors, lats, pecs and more. Overall, the bowling ball is yet another great tool for helping you improve and maintain your mobility.
There is a small learning curve involved in staying on the bowling ball though. Your first exposure might leave you plopped on the ground as the bowling ball, much to your horror, rolls out into the middle of an O-Lifting class where the instructor is having everyone do synchronized empty bar work. (Yes, everyone will turn and look at you.) Once you adjust to it though, it is relatively easy to use.
If you own a CrossFit Affiliate, I’d highly recommend you pick up a couple used bowling balls for your athletes to try out. They require very little space and can be acquired at a low cost. There is no reason not to have them. While, yes, you CAN spend upwards of $500 each for some really fricken awesome looking bowling balls (they are pretty awesome, I’ve looked), for less than $20 you can find them on Craigslist, E-Bay, or at your local thrift store. It’s yet another tool that you can offer to your athletes without taking up too much valuable space. They may even love you for it.
Before you know it, Rogue Fitness will be selling the “Kelly Starrett Mobility WOD Ball” and every CrossFit athlete will have one in their giant Reebok CrossFit body-bag sized duffle-bag along with their Trigger-Point Therapy Mini Roller, VooDoo Bands, Lacrosse Balls, Mobility Bands, Supple Leopard Mobility Manual, and all the other CrossFit swag you know we all have.