Harnessing the power of a stability ball
Published Monday, March 7, 2016 6:00AM EST
Last Updated Monday, March 7, 2016 8:42AM EST
Stability balls are a great example of tools that started in rehabilitation and moved into mainstream fitness. They are functional, versatile and inexpensive so are a great option for home workouts.
Often, stability balls get purchased with the best of intentions but end up gathering dust, deflating or tucked away somewhere out of sight and mind. Time to inflate and refresh that ball to start or step up your workout!
First developed for rehabilitation exercises in Switzerland, it is often referred to as a "Swiss Ball". Because the stability ball is unstable, it effectively engages and works your core muscles which include your abdominals but also back, hip flexors, glutes and hamstrings.
Stability balls are great for core but can also be combined with external resistance tools to overload muscles to target a variety of goals and be modified for all fitness levels.
1. Getting started with a stability ball
Stability balls are very common but often we overlook the basics. It's important to get the right size of stability ball to ensure you are optimizing muscle recruitment (making muscles work) and minimizing orthopedic risk.
Recommendations for ball size vary slightly, but most fall within the following ranges:
- under 4'10" tall - 45 cm ball
- 4'11'' to 5'4" tall - 55 cm ball
- 5'4" to 5'11" tall - 65 cm ball
- 5'11" to 6'7" tall - 75 cm ball
- Anti-burst: This is worth paying a bit more. It notes that the quality of the product has been tested.
- Inflation: Check on a regular basis and keep a manual pump handy.
- Clean it! Often this is overlooked at home or at the gym!
Getting on the ball:
Just sitting on a stability ball can be tougher than it looks! It requires a lot muscles working together along with confidence. Here are some tips that may help you progress to that stage.
- Add a cushion of support: When you're starting out, put a pillow or rolled up towel behind the ball. It will stabilize the ball a bit until you get used to it.
- Brace yourself: Place stools or chairs by your stability ball or position yourself beside a wall. Gradually move away from these.
- Start wide: You can easily modify stability for yourself for any exercise. Wider feet will be more stable while narrow requires YOU to stabilize more.
2. Making the most of your stability ball
Commonly used for crunches a stability ball can be used in so many ways for so many fitness goals. Here's just a sample of options and exercises.
- Standing: Using the ball against the wall or on the floor offers support and progression for flexibility. For example, posture stretches against the wall, Downward Dog or hip flexor stretches.
- Seated: It can be more comfortable on the ball instead of on the floor for the following. For example, hamstring stretch, a glute pretzel or twist.
- Supine: Lying facing up, the ball can help open postural muscles or be used for mild massage. For example, a chest or back stretch or rolling back and forth to massage the upper back.
- Prone: Lying facing down on the ball can be more comfortable than the floor and offer more options for stretching adding range of motion. For example, opening the chest, an Upward Dog or hip flexors.
For abs and core
- Flexion: This is a forward bending movement and includes conventional crunches. On a stability ball, this can be done with lumbar support which reduces strain and risk with the back and neck doing crunches.
- Extension: This is bending back and an important exercise to balance core muscles as we often focus only on the front. On the ball, this is a comfortable exercise that can be done progressively.
- Lateral flexion: This is a side movement. It can be tough to work on the floor and can be effectively one on the ball.
- Rotation: This is a twisting movement which is often a challenge to execute properly. The ball can add lumbar support making this movement safer and more effective.
- As a bench: Seated or lying in a bridge, a ball can be used all muscle groups. For example, lying chest press, seated shoulder press, lying triceps extensions and more.
- Standing: A ball can be used to add support to exercises or to reduce stability and add challenge. For example, doing squats against a wall or using one leg on the ball to execute a single leg squat.
- To change lever length and angles: Stability balls offer a great way to modify intensity and progress. For example, push-ups placing the thigh on the ball is a shorter lever and easier than moving further out to the toe.
3. Technique tips
Often they get used for crunches, but a stability ball is so versatile. Here's just a sample of options and exercises:
- Keep a curve: Maintain the natural lumbar curve in the small of your back.
- Control: For best results and to avoid injury, do exercises with control. Avoid ballistic movements or overextending. More is NOT always better!
- Quality vs. quantity: This really applies to all exercise, but particularly with exercises requiring stability and balance. Focus on form to get the most from your exercises.
- Progress for success: The internet if full of creative, extreme and often crazy exercises. It may entertaining, always choose exercises that are appropriate for your goals. Unless joining Cirque du Soleil is on that list, you likely don't ever have to stand or jump on a stability ball!
For under $40, a stability ball can be a multi-purpose home equipment tool that can be used by the entire family and adapted to any fitness level. We'll be posting stability ball workouts and links on www.libbynorris.com. When choosing your exercises, use "comfortable but challenging" as your guide to ensure it fits for your needs and goals.
If you have a specific question we'd love to hear from you at www.libbynorris.com. We also have a quick survey to find out your biggest challenges to help plan workouts and support for our new online challenge to be announced soon!.