It’s hard to find a gym now that doesn’t have a selection of Stability balls or Swiss balls rolling around on the gym floor. Although all gyms seem to offer them I’m often surprised to find very few people using them. Throughout this article I’m going to help you get familiar with these exercise balls. Hopefully, by the end of this article you will feel confident enough to start exercising with an exercise ball and enjoy the benefits that this great tool can offer.
What is a Stability Ball?
Stability Balls are basically large inflatable balls that are used to provide an unstable platform for exercises. There are lots of manufacturers of these exercise balls but they basically fall into 3 categories based on their overall inflated size:
The 3 Stability Ball Sizes:
1. Small 55cm / 22″: Recommended Users Height between 5’0 – 5’5″
2. Medium 65cm / 26″: Recommended Users Height between 5’6″ – 5’11”
3. Large 75cm / 30″: Recommended Users Height between 6’0″ – 6’3″
You will also find that many manufacturers produce Anti-Burst Balls now too. The trend of producing these Anti-Burst type balls began when people started lying on the balls and holding heavy dumbbells. My advice would be to purchase an anti-burst ball if you can afford the extra expense.
If you are a Personal Trainer or intend to use your exercise ball at home then I would also recommend that you purchase a Swiss Ball Pump. These excellent devices will enable you to inflate your ball very quickly and some have a special valve that enables you to inflate both on the push and pull of the handle.
What are the Stability Ball Benefits?
There are many benefits to using an exercise ball but these 2 are my favourites:
Performing exercises on top of an inflated ball seriously challenges your balance. This doesn’t mean you have to stand on the ball, more often than not you are lying on top of the ball either facing upwards or lying face down. As the ball tries to move underneath you the smaller stabilising muscles of the body have to work hard to maintain your position. It is these small stabilising muscles that are often neglected in modern day training because most people concentrate on the large (look good) muscles.
Ignoring the stabilising muscles is a big mistake because child development shows us that as we grow it’s the stabilising muscles that develop first and the larger muscles second. Without stabilisation muscles we cannot maintain correct joint alignment or provide a safe platform for the larger more powerful muscles to operate off. In simple terms, the stabilisation muscles are part of the muscular foundation. The better the stabilisation muscles the less prone to injury you become and ultimately the more power you can generate.
Provides Natural Range of Movement
Performing exercises on top of the Swiss Ball allows for a full range of forward flexion and back extension. As you lie over the ball backwards you will notice that the ball beautifully fills the arch of your back. When you exercise on the floor back extension is limited, the ground prevents you from bending too far backwards. The spine is developed to bend backwards just as it bends forwards and so exercising on top of the ball allows for full movement in both directions.
A perfect example of this is evident when you look at Swiss Ball Crunches that involve performing crunches while lying on top of the ball. If you were to perform this exercise on the floor your crunch would be limited to only half the movement by the floor. Using a ball for this exercise enables you to get full back extension along with full abdominal flexion.
Warming Up Preparation and Mobility
Before we dive into the exercises it’s a good idea to get used to the exercise ball and warm up the hips because the hips spend some much time sitting statically.
Begin by just sitting on the ball, your thighs should be parallel with the floor. If your thighs are not level with the ground then you need to change the size of ball you are using. If your thighs slope forwards then the ball is too large and if they slope backwards then it’s too small. Next start to get used to the movement of the ball beneath your buttocks. Try these mobility movements to really get your hips moving and your back warmed up:
-Sit up straight with a Tall Spine
-Rock your hips left and right, feel the ball move beneath you
-Rock your hips forwards and backwards
-Rotate your hips in a circular motion, clockwise and anti-clockwise
-Rotate your hips in a figure of 8 movement, practice both directions
Following this hip mobility routine you should have a better feeling as to how the ball moves beneath you. You will have fired up your small stabilisation muscles and also given your hips the movement they desperately need from spending so much time sitting still.
OK, so you have your Swiss Ball or you have grabbed hold of one down your local gym, what now? Here is a list of some of the exercises you can try:
Exercise 1 – Stability Ball Squats
I’ve included this exercise first because it’s probably one of the easiest exercises and excellent for helping people to Squat properly if they lack core stability.
Basically you place the ball behind your back and up against a wall, so the ball is sandwiched between you and the wall. You then lean into the ball as you perform a full Squat. I’ve used this method for teaching the Squat with clients that want to practice by themselves but require the ball for extra confidence. It works very well and is an excellent start to using the ball.
Exercise 2 – Stability Ball Plank
The regular floor plank is an excellent exercise for activating the core muscles that prevent back extension. However, when you add a Swiss ball into the mix it become a far more challenging exercise.
Here’s a quick guide to how it’s done:
-Keep feet together and place elbows on the ball
-Ensure the elbows are at 90 degree or more to the ball
-Keep the hips up and don’t let the back sag
-Breathe normally, don’t hold your breath
You will find when you try this exercise that the ball will try to move underneath your elbows. It is this constant movement that increases the demands on your core activation. If you start to feel it in your lower back then it’s time to stop, your core has given up!
Here’s a Video of the Stability Ball Plank (advanced version – Stir the Pot):
Exercise 3 – Swiss Ball Leg Curl
Although the Swiss ball is often associated with core exercises it is also a great tool for working hip extension and the Hamstrings. Again the instability of the ball puts a much larger demand on the stabilising muscles and causing the muscle to work harder to achieve the exercise.
To perform the exercise:
-Lie on your back, heels on the Ball
-Push your Hips in the air to full hip extension
-Next, curl the heels in towards your buttocks
-Pause and then push out again
-Maintain high hips at all times
Hip extension and the Hamstrings are often neglected in many peoples workouts but they are vital for a balanced body. Not only are the hamstrings the body’s natural brakes but hip extension is vital to counteract all the sitting we do these days.
Here’s a Video of the Swiss Ball Leg Curl:
Exercise 4 – Swiss Ball Jackknife
The Jackknife is a great exercise for working the core muscles for all angles. It is a more advanced exercise so if you struggle with the Swiss Ball Plank then this is going to be too much for you at this stage.
Here’s how its done:
-Lie in a Push Up Position with your feet on the ball
-Maintain a straight line from shoulder to ankle
-Pull your knees in towards your chest maintaining alignment
-Pause and return your feet slowly
During the whole exercise it is vital that you do not let your hips drop. Keep your core tight and maintain good alignment. The ball will want to move underneath you so a greater emphasis is placed on the core during this exercise. For the more advanced you can try this exercise with just one leg rather than 2.
Here’s a Video of the Swiss Ball Jackknife:
Exercise 5 – Swiss Ball Push Ups
Another excellent way you can use an exercise ball is to improve your Push Up Stability. Simply by performing a push up either with your hands on the ball or your feet on the ball you can challenge your stabilisation and core muscles even more. The push up with your feet on the ball is an excellent progression on from the regular raised feet push up, so the progression would look like this:
-Regular Push Up
-Raised Feet on Bench Push Up
-Feet on Stability Ball Push Up
-Hands on Stability Ball Push Up
Performing push ups with your feet on the ball seriously challenges your core stability at the ball tries to move underneath you. If you perform the Push up with your hands on the ball then you challenge not only your core stability but your shoulder stability too. I personally love this exercise.
Here’s a Video of the Swiss Ball Push Up (hands on ball):
Putting Together Stability Ball Workouts
Now you have a basic understanding of the exercises you can start to put them together into a workout. Remember that this type of training is very demanding so you don’t want to include too many of the same exercises into each workout.
Here are a few effective circuits that you could try:
-Stability Ball Squat x 8-20 reps
-Regular Push Ups x 8-20 reps
-Stability Ball Leg Curls x 8-20 reps
-Rest 1-3 minute then Repeat 1-3 times
-Regular Lunge x 8-20 reps
-Stability Ball Plank x 20-40 secs
-Stability Ball Leg Curls x 8-20 reps
-Rest 1-3 minute then Repeat 1-3 times
-Stability Ball Push Up x 8-20 reps
-Stability Ball Leg Curls x 8-20 reps
-Stability Ball Jackknife x 8-20 reps
-Rest 1-2 minute then Repeat 2-4 times
-Stretching and Cooling Down
Once you have finished your workout it’s time to cool down. Cooling down enables the heart rate to return back to normal and the body temperature to reduce.
Many people advocate stretching straight after a workout but I’m NOT one of these people. Following exercise, your nervous system is too Sympathetic, meaning that you are still in a ‘Stressed Out’ state, stretching is simply not effective in this state. To get any benefits from stretching your nervous system needs to be Para-sympathetic, this means you need to be relaxed. To maximise stretching you should aim for times when you are relaxed, like the evenings before bedtime.
I do recommend that you return to the hip mobility routine that I outlined earlier to assist the cool down process. Run through the list of hip movements for 5-10 minutes and concentrate on your breathing.
One Great Relaxation Stretch You Can Try
One Stretch that most people can benefit from at any time of the day is too simply lie backwards over the ball. Place the ball in the mid back and slowly let the ball fill your backs natural curves. This position is highly relaxing and helps to lengthen the full ‘fascial backline’. You will also find that it releases a lot of the back’s residual tension.
People with low blood pressure should be careful because your may feel light headed during this movement.
There you have it!
I hope you enjoyed this article on Stability Ball Training. Just like any other piece of exercise equipment it is only as good as the person using it, so start out steady. Take your time and get used to the unstable surface that the ball offers.
Swiss Balls are not for everyone but if you feel that you are ready to take the next step then they can offer you a multitude of options and some great results in return for your efforts.
Take care and enjoy the workouts!
Visit www.gbpersonaltraining.com for more.