Remember how much fun it was to play with a ball when you were a child? A simple sphere was an endless source of inspiration and activity. And it still is. Using an exercise ball can be a challenging way to add variety and fun to your workout.
Exercise balls -- also known as physioballs, Swiss balls, or fit balls -- are large, vinyl balls you can use to strengthen and stretch your body, improving core stability and balance.
"I named the exercise ball the one piece of essential equipment for fitness," says Jonathan Ross, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) 2006 personal trainer of the year. "Everyone should own or work with one," says Ross, who owns Aion Fitness in Bowie, Maryland. "It's incredibly versatile, it doesn't take up much space, and it's a very low investment." You can't get a better bang for your exercise-equipment buck, he says.
In addition to using the exercise ball with personal training clients, Ross teaches a ball class at his personal training studio.
"I never get bored with the exercise ball," says Ross. "It keeps me from ever having to repeat the same workout over and over. "There's no finish line when using the ball," he says. "There's always another level, always a way to make an exercise harder."
Working out with an exercise ball takes traditional strength training to a new level, says Neal Pire, MA, FACSM, director of the Parisi Speed School, in Fair Lawn, N.J., a performance-based training school for athletes 6 and up.
"It can provide a great balance training tool," says Pire.
Take a traditional bicep curl or a squat and do it on the exercise ball, says Pire, and it becomes a whole-body exercise, challenging your strength and more of your body's muscles at one time.
"We have these things called proprioceptors," says Pire, author of Plyometrics: Explosive Training for Athletes of All Ages, "and their job is to connect the body with the brain and tell the body where it is in time and space."
The proprioceptors communicate everything from the position of a joint to the tension on a muscle at any given time, says Pire. They send messages to the spinal cord and brain to control the action or movement in some way. When performing exercise ball exercises, you are stimulating those proprioceptors and challenging the body's stability and balance while you perform the exercise, he says.
You are also stimulating the muscles of the core -- the deep pelvic, abdominal, and low back muscles -- which are essential for good posture and balance and movement control, says Pire.
The ball stimulates the smaller, stability muscles, says Ross, in addition to the muscles being used in the exercise.
Try these 10 exercise ball exercises for a fun, whole-body workout: