Written by Pete Egoscue
Air bench. Also known as air chair and skier’s exercise. Whatever you call it, it is used almost universally as a quadriceps strengthening exercise, and it does have that effect. Runners who do it have less shaky legs in those later miles, skiers who use it can manage moguls more expertly for a longer period of time, and anyone who does it regularly will notice an increase in how long he or she can hold that air bench position.
Many trainers use the air bench as an exercise to “isolate” the quads, but there is no such thing as isolating a single muscle for any purpose, including strengthening and conditioning. The body just doesn’t work that way. It is a unit of various parts working together in a multitude of ways, and to use any one muscle for any activity, even the simplest, must necessarily involve other muscles, not to mention bones, ligaments, joints, tendons, etc.
But at Egoscue, when we use the air bench, it is not for the purpose of strengthening the quads (which, incidentally, are those big muscles in the thigh, in case you were unsure). The air bench accomplishes far more.
First, the position. People in air bench are essentially sitting against a wall, their backs pressed against the wall, their gluts and thighs resting on air, their knees bent at ninety degrees (or as close to ninety as a client is able), their feet pointing straight ahead. When you are in this position, your pelvis is in a loaded, neutral position, meaning it is being used in an aligned, symmetrical manner.
This proper loaded neutrality allows the back muscles, or paraspinals, to communicate properly with the front muscles, commonly known as the abs. In other words, they’re working together the way they were intended, equally sharing the burden and thereby establishing symmetry and proper alignment. All of this subsequently forces the hips into a proper position so that they are neither rolled forward nor pushing backward, either of which puts undue pressure on the lower vertebrae. As a result, the muscles around the hips are properly engaged, the hip flexors and psoas muscles specifically, both of which allow us to bend, sit up, walk, etc. It’s tough to overestimate the importance of those muscles around the hips.
Furthermore, when the hip flexors and psoas are properly activated, the femur, or thigh bone, is moved to a neutral position, meaning it’s working right where it’s supposed to be working. The knees being bent allows the load joints of the knees and ankles to be lined up, which subsequently compels the patella tendon, or kneecap tendon, to its proper position. The ultimate effect of this is that the feet can now support the weight of the body properly, that is, they’re not pronating (weight on inside) or supinating (weight on outside), both of which are terribly demanding on the ankles and put us at greater risk of breaking or spraining our ankles. And of course, the knees being in their proper position better enables them to carry the load of our bodies, reducing knee pain and potential knee problems. (If you’re feeling pain in your knees, do an air bench for two minutes and see what that does.)
The point is, the air bench does far more than strengthen the quads, and it certainly doesn’t strengthen those quads in isolation. The quads may be where you feel the strain in air bench, but in order for you to feel that strain, all the other joints and muscles must be in their proper place, and the way to guarantee that is to keep the lower back pushed against the wall. If it isn’t, then none of what I’ve described above will occur.
The final question, then, is “How long do I do it?” It’s a question we hear often and sometimes urgently from the reddening and sweating client sitting in it. The answer is that you should remain in the position until the isolation feeling in both quads is the same, which is usually a minimum of one minute. Then you should stay in it as long as you can, for the longer you can stay in air bench, the better for your joints, your body, it will be.
If, after one week of air benches at a minimum of one minute per time, you don’t feel a simultaneous isolation in your quads, then you have imbalance issues that will not be corrected by putting yourself in this posture. Worse, if you are imbalanced, air bench will weaken you in key certain respects, such as your ability to walk and run. If such be the case, then you need to get a more thorough program, or menu, to balance and align your body, and we happen to know some pretty good clinics where you can get precisely that.