How To Use Exercise Balls

Exercise balls in the gym

Exercise Balls (or Swiss Balls) have been used by physical therapists since the 1960s and have become more popular throughout the fitness industry over the last 5-10 years.  Now they are so popular that they can be found at most large discount retailers.  With the constant onslaught of advertising for the next great piece of exercise equipment, it can be difficult to determine what is worth buying and what will be added to your collection of unused equipment.  Even though exercise balls are one of the most inexpensive pieces of equipment (typically around $15 to $30), I can confidently tell you that exercise balls are among the most useful pieces of exercise equipment you can buy.  Exercise balls are so versatile that there is no way to cover all the ways they can be used in one article.  As a result, I will focus on the basics: the benefits of exercise balls, how to buy an exercise ball and some different ways to use them.

The Benefits of Using Exercise Balls

It is important to realize that an exercise ball should not be the only type of equipment used in an exercise program, but they do make a great addition to any program.  These are a few of the notable benefits:

  1. Balance: Training on unstable surfaces (such as an exercise ball) causes the body to make small muscular contractions to correct balance.  With continual training, balance improves along with your awareness of body movements and spatial orientation.
  2. Improving Posture and Muscle Imbalances: When performing exercises on a ball, the muscles that stabilize you will be forced to activate to prevent you from rolling around.  If you keep force evenly distributed on both sides of your body (as you should), muscles on your weaker side will have to work proportionately harder to keep your body correctly positioned.  This will help muscle imbalances to diminish over time.
  3. Core/Abdominal Training: This is what exercise balls are really known for.  Many exercises performed on the ball will cause your core muscles (the muscles around your spine) to activate.  This results in better strength, endurance and injury prevention for the center of the body.
  4. Variety: Exercise balls are a great way to add variety and prevent boredom in any program.  They can also provide a significant challenge for people of all ability levels.

How to Buy an Exercise Ball

Many people do not even think about what ball to buy, because they do not realize there are differences.  Exercise balls come in different sizes, levels of durability, surfaces and even with varying accessories.  Here are the important things to consider:

  1. Exercise Ball Size: The size of the exercise ball will be influenced by your height.  Different companies recommend different sizes, but the following are general guidelines.
    • People shorter than 5'6" should use a 55cm ball.
    • People between 5'6" and 6'1" should use a 65cm ball.
    • People whose height is 6'1" and higher should use a 75cm ball. 

    The size indicates the diameter of the ball when it is fully inflated.  Smaller and larger balls are available, but they are not as common.  The important thing is that when you are sitting on a ball, your hips should be slightly higher or even with your knees.  When your hips are lower, you put unnecessary stress on the knees.

  2. Durability:  Exercise balls can vary widely and most companies will put the weight limit of the ball on the package. Weight limits can range from 250 to over 1000 pounds. If you are using the ball just for bodyweight exercises and are under 250 pounds, just about any ball should suffice.  Higher durability exercise balls are recommended for people lifting heavy weights on the ball.  Lower durability balls are generally thinner and create more of a challenge in terms of balance.
  3. Burst Resistance: Any ball you purchase should have burst resistant properties.  This means that if the ball is punctured the air will slowly leak out and not just pop underneath you.  Fortunately this feature is found on the majority of exercise balls made today.
  4. Surface/Shape: Most balls are totally spherical and smooth, but there are some variations. The standard ball with a smooth surface is most versatile and should be used by most people.  One variation is having rubber knobs around the surface, so the ball can be used to massage your muscles.  You can also purchase exercise balls that resemble cylinders.  As opposed to a regular ball that can roll in any direction, these will roll in only one plane of motion.  These balls are useful for people with poor balance who are not ready to use a standard exercise ball.
  5. Accessories: Many exercise balls come with accessories, such as pumps, an exercise sheet or a DVD.  If the ball has a tiny pump, you will probably want to use a different pump because you will otherwise take a long time to inflate the ball.  Any pump with a nozzle that fits securely in the exercise ball can be used.  Inflation Tip: The firmer you pump up an exercise ball, the easier it will be to maintain your balance during most exercises.  If you are new to using exercise balls, the best accessory is probably a DVD, because it will show you correct exercise technique.  There are many quality exercise ball DVDs that can be purchased separately in stores on online.  Find one that deals with the type of training that interests you.

Different Ways to Use Exercise Balls

Regardless of what type of exercise you perform, there is probably some way to use exercise balls to enhance your workouts.  The number of ways exercise balls can be used is only limited by your creativity.  This section should give you different ideas about how to utilize them in your own program.

  1. The Ball as a Bench: Any exercise that you perform on a bench can be performed on a ball, although some will be more difficult than others.  If using weights, start with weights that are much lighter than the weights you use on a bench.  Think of the difference between using a bar and using dumbbells.  Dumbbells are more difficult to control, because you have to control their movement in all directions.  Using the ball instead of the bench causes you to have to control the movement of your whole body.  Exercise examples:
    • Bench Press: When you perform a bench press on a ball, try to keep your body as straight as possible from your shoulders to your knees.  Keep your head and shoulders on the ball and your feet flat on the ground.  Start with the weight at chest level and press towards the ceiling until your arms are straight.  Your core and lower body muscles will work to keep your hips up and prevent your body from moving back and forth.  This results in improved stabilization, muscular endurance and balance, while still providing a good chest and shoulder workout.
    • Seated Overhead Press: Sit on the ball with correct posture (stomach tight, shoulders back, head up, back straight, and hips directly beneath you) and push a weight from shoulder level to above your head.  Your back should stay flat during the movement and if you have to significantly increase the curve in your low back, you are using too much weight.  The benefit of using an exercise ball is that your abdominals and back muscles will activate to keep the spine in a neutral position while the lower body muscles work to keep your hips stationary. All of these muscle activations will strengthen your core muscles.
  2. Bodyweight/Floor Training: Many exercises performed on the floor using your bodyweight as resistance transition nicely to the ball.  This is a good way to increase the difficulty of exercises that have become too easy or change the muscles that are emphasized during the movement.  Exercise examples:
    • Bridge: The bridge is a basic movement where you lay on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground and then raise your hips off the ground until your body forms a straight line from shoulder to knee.  There are multiple variations that can be performed on the ball.
      1. Bridge with the ball under your head and shoulders: With this variation, the legs will work to keep you from moving back and forth while your glutes (butt muscles) contract to raise your hips.
      2. Bridge with head and shoulders on the floor and feet flat on the ball: This is more difficult and the focus will shift from the glutes to the hamstrings (back of the upper leg muscles). Balance is also difficult, because your legs must push off of an unstable surface.  Keeping your hands out to the side will give you some leverage and help prevent your body from moving sideways.
  3. Balance: There are many exercises designed to primarily challenge your balance instead of targeting specific muscles.  These exercises are good for improving the endurance of postural muscles and spatial awareness. Exercise examples:
    • Sitting on the ball: Sit on the ball with your feet flat on the floor and be sure to maintain correct posture.  Most people have weak mid/upper back muscles and this activity is a great way to improve endurance in these postural muscles.  If you start slouching, stop and give your muscles a rest.
    • Advanced version: From a seated position, lift one leg off the floor while still bent or extend it out in front of your body for added difficulty.  Then repeat with the other leg.  The key is to keep your hips from moving.  If your hips move to the side when you lift your leg, your body is compensating for weak postural muscles.  This will improve with practice.
  1. Stretching: Exercise balls can be great stretching tools, although some stretches may seem a little awkward at first.  The benefit to using the ball is that you can easily make minor adjustments that create variations in the stretch.  Stretch examples:
    • Chest stretch: A common chest stretch is the doorway/wall stretch where you put forearm on the wall and turn you body away from the wall to stretch the chest muscles.  To use the ball, start in a kneeling position with one hand on the floor and the other hand/forearm on the ball, which should be to the side of your head.  Push your shoulder of the arm on the ball towards the floor to create a stretch.  By moving your arm (on the ball) slowly in different directions you can alter the stretch to find the spots where your muscles are tightest.
    • Abdominals: One of the best and easiest abdominal stretches is simply to lay on the ball with the top of the ball in the curve of your lower back.  Then relax and reach your arms over your head so they hang towards the ground.  Just be careful not to lose your balance and fall off the ball.
  2. Abdominal Exercises: Many people purchase exercise balls specifically to help train their abdominals.  While the majority of exercises performed on exercises balls will use the abdominals to varying degrees, these are a couple of popular ones:
    • Ball crunch: Sit on the ball and walk your feet foreword until you are lying down with the ball under the small of your back.  If this requires too much balance, have the ball under your hips.  Activate your abdominals to raise your head and shoulders off the ball.  Concentrate on your abdominal muscles, and breathe out while rising off the ball.  Slowly lower your shoulders back on the ball and repeat. Use slow motions-do not use momentum or your shoulders to push yourself off the ball.  Your hands can be crossed over your chest for lower difficulty or kept behind your head for increased difficulty.  Never use your hands to pull your head or neck during any crunch exercises.
    • Ball knee-ins: This is a more challenging exercise that starts with you in a push-up position, except your shins will be on the ball.  From this position, use your abdominal muscles to bend your knees and roll the ball closer to your hips.  If the curve in your low back increases at any point during this exercise (if you can't keep your back straight), you should stop because your abdominal muscles are not supporting the spine correctly.  Also try to prevent your body/hips from turning sideways.

Although this article just scratches the surface of things you can do with an exercise ball, hopefully it gives you some ideas that you can use in your training program.  It is a good idea to start with exercises that re already familiar to you.  For example, if you are comfortable with push-ups, try them with your feet on a ball.  Have fun and be creative, but always think about your safety first.  If you cannot perform an exercise while maintaining correct posture and following proper exercise technique, you should not do the exercise.  It is also a good idea to exercise away from any objects with sharp points or corners that could hurt you or puncture the ball.


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