Stability balls have been part of the fitness industry for around 20 years now – mainly because they were so heavily promoted and popularized by American celebrity fitness trainer Paul Chek. Also known as physio balls, gym balls, balance balls, exercise balls, and Swiss balls, these large, inflatable balls are very useful exercise devices.
Why Swiss balls?
The name Swiss ball is somewhat misleading because, in actuality, the original exercise balls were made in Italy by a company of toy makers. They were used for rehabbing injured soldiers and when a visiting group of physiotherapists from Switzerland spotted them in use they become known as Swiss balls. Because these exercise devices develop your stability, for the rest of this article you’ll see the term stability ball used.
The benefits of using a stability ball
Stability balls are very versatile and offer a wide range of benefits to users. Take a look at this list and see if using a stability ball will add an extra dimension to your workouts…
- Exercising on an unstable surface means your deep stabilizer muscles have to work harder than they do normally. This means that muscles like your rotator cuff and transverse abdominus are very active in most stability ball exercises
- Using a curved surface for ab exercises increases the range of movement at your spine. This means exercises such as crunches become more demanding and therefore beneficial
- Because stability balls wobble when used, they help improve your balance. Balance is your ability to keep your center of gravity over your base of support and is vital for sports and preventing falls in the elderly
- Stability balls are light and portable and ideal for home use. You can get a great workout using little more than a stability ball and as they are very reasonably priced, this makes this form of exercise very accessible
- You can use a stability ball instead of a regular bench for things like dumbbell presses. Doing so increases the balance demand of these exercises and makes exercises more challenging without requiring big weights
- There are numerous exercises that are unique to stability ball training which makes for an interesting and unusual workout – great for those who get bored of more traditional workout methods
- Stability balls are very good prehab and rehab devices as they tend to safely work muscles that need to be strengthened for injury prevention and treatment
- You can use a stability ball for many types of training including core exercises, upper body exercises, lower body exercises, balance training, flexibility training, cardio, and circuit training. They can also be combined with other training tools including resistance bands and free-weights
The drawbacks of using a stability ball
Of course, there is always a flipside to any argument and stability balls are no different. Check out this list to see if there are any reasons stability ball training might not be right for you…
- The inherent instability of the stability ball means you will not be able to lift as much weight as normal. If strength is your goal, this may be an issue
- Most stability ball exercises involve an element of core involvement so it is possible to over train these muscles if you do a lot of stability ball training or are weak in this area
- You may need a variety of different sized balls according to the exercises you are doing. While there will be one sized ball that is right for most of your workout, some exercises benefit from a larger or smaller ball
- Although light and therefore theoretically portable, stability balls are quite big and it’s not easy to deflate and then re-inflate them if you need to move them from one training venue to another. This can be a problem if you want to put your ball in your car or take it on a bus or train
- Although made of non-burst material, it is still possible to puncture a stability ball and once damaged, the ball should be discarded as it is no longer safe for use. According to the manufacturers, stability balls should not be repaired
Sizing your ball
Stability balls are available in a variety of sizes to suit all users so it’s important you get the right ball for you. If your ball is too big or too small it can make your workouts less comfortable, less effective, and even unsafe.
One way to see if your ball is the right size for you is to sit on it with your knees bent, shins vertical and feet flat on the floor. Your knees and hips should be level and your thighs parallel to the ground. If your hips are above your knees, your ball is too big and if your knees are above your hips, the ball is too small.
If you don’t have a ball to try out, you can also select the right sized ball by using this general guideline…
4’11” to 5’6″ height: 55 cm ball
5’7″ to 6’0″ height: 65 cm ball
6’1″ to 6′ 6″ height: 75 cm ball
Of course, even the right sized ball can still be wrong if it is under or over inflated. Check your ball is pumped up properly by making sure it is the right diameter. Simply put your ball against a wall and make a mark on the wall at the same height as the ball’s apex. Measure from the mark down to the floor; a 65 cm ball should be 65 cm high!
Alternatively, press down on the top of your ball with your thumb or first two fingers. You should be able to press them down an inch or two but no more.
In addition, when you sit on the ball, you should sink around six inches or so. If your ball is under or over inflated, it will not function as it should so check that your ball is properly inflated each time you use it; even the best balls will lose a little air over time.
Stability ball training is generally very safe but to further reduce your risk of injury and mishap, please consider these precautions…
- Check the surface of your ball before use for nicks and cuts. Do not use a ball if the surface is damaged
- Make sure that the area around you is clear of sharp and hard objects. Even the most advanced stability ball user falls off from time to time and it could be disastrous if you fall and hit your head
- Make haste slowly. Working out with a stability ball uses your muscles in a very unusual way and really works your core hard. These muscles support your spine and if you work them too hard or too long, you can leave your spine without adequate support which could lead to injury
- Don’t leave your ball exposed to direct sunlight as this can make the surface brittle and more prone to splitting
- Despite being readily available and sold to anyone who wants one, stability balls are serious exercise tools and should be used with care; especially by beginners or those that are unfit
Stability balls can make your workouts more fun and productive. Whether you choose to do a full stability ball workout or simply add a select few exercises into your current routine, you should see and feel the benefit of this type of training as soon as you do your first rep!