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:
No. 1: Squats With an Exercise Ball
- Stand with the exercise ball propped between your lower (lumbar) spine and a wall, pressing slightly into the ball. With hands at your sides or on hips, check that your feet are hip-width apart and slightly in front of you.
- Bending at your knees and hips, slowly move into a sitting position with your knees over your ankles. Keep the ball in contact with your back as you move.
- Return to standing position, keeping the ball in contact with your back as you move.
Repeat 8-15 times.
Challenge: Lift one foot 1 or 2 inches off the floor and try doing the exercise with one leg at a time. Switch and repeat with the other leg.
No. 2: Birddogs With an Exercise Ball
- Get on your hands and knees with the exercise ball under your abdomen.
- Lift and extend your opposite arm and leg off the floor at the same time.
- Reach away from the center of your body while balancing on the ball and keeping your hips stable.
Repeat 8 times on each side.
Challenge: Hold the position longer.
No. 3: Supine Bridges With an Exercise Ball
- Sit on the exercise ball with your hands on your hips or crossed on your chest.
- Walk forward, gradually rolling the ball out until it supports your head and shoulders, instead of your buttocks. As you roll out, be sure to keep your weight on top of the ball.
- Form a flat "tabletop" with your hips, shoulders, and knees aligned -- and your feet flat on the floor, directly under your knees.
- Without moving the ball, lower and lift your hips, tightening muscles in your buttocks and backs of your thighs.
- Repeat 8-15 times.
Challenge: Lie on your back with the ball under your feet and your arms on the floor, palms down. Gradually lift your back off the floor, then return to the floor with control.
Advanced challenge: Repeat the challenge, but with your arms off the floor.
No. 4: Push-ups With an Exercise Ball
- Lie face down with the exercise ball underneath your belly and your palms flat on the floor.
- Use your hands to walk out to a plank position, resting the ball anywhere from your hips to your ankles. (This should be a position that provides for a challenging push-up, but allows your spine to stay aligned - with ears, shoulders, and hips in a line.)
- Bend your elbows to lower your upper body toward the floor, keeping your shoulders away from your ears and your abdominal muscles engaged.
- Repeat 8-10 times.
Challenge: Move the ball closer to your ankles.
Advanced challenge: Perform the push-ups with your hands on the ball and toes on the floor.
No. 5: Abdominal Tucks With an Exercise Ball
- Get into a push-up position with the exercise ball under your knees and your palms flat on the floor.
- Tuck your knees in toward your chest as the ball rolls toward your ankles.
- Return to the starting position, staying balanced on the ball.
- Repeat 8-10 times.
Note: Use caution if you have high blood pressure or if this exercise causes wrist pain.
Challenge: Alternate rotating your hips right and left as you tuck.
Advanced challenge: Keeping your legs straight, move your hips toward the ceiling until the ball is at your ankles.
No. 6: Hamstring Curls With an Exercise Ball
- Lie on your back with the exercise ball under your heels and your palms flat on the floor.
- Lift hips slightly and bend your knees to draw the ball toward your buttocks, without moving your hips.
- Repeat 8-15 times.
Challenge: Raise your hips higher as you pull the ball toward you.
Advanced challenge: Keeping it straight, lift one leg toward the ceiling, and try single leg curls. Keep your hips stable throughout.
No. 7: Crunches With an Exercise Ball
- Lie with your middle back on the exercise ball, feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart, and hands behind your head.
- Lift your upper body up, using your abdominal muscles, not your neck. Do not pull with your hands.
- Repeat 8-15 times.
Challenge: Begin with the ball lower on your back, which puts more body weight into your abdominals.
Advanced challenge: Lift one foot off the ground and try the crunches. Switch and repeat with the opposite foot off the ground.
No. 8: Walk-outs With an Exercise Ball
- Rest your belly on the exercise ball and hands and toes on the floor.
- Walk out your hands to a plank position with the ball under your ankles.
- Then walk back, trying to keep the ball under your body.
Repeat 6-8 times.
Challenge: Hold the plank position for a few breaths before returning
No 9: Balance With an Exercise Ball
- Sit on the exercise ball, with your hands on your hips.
- Lengthen your spine as you imagine a string pulling the top of your head up.
- Plant your feet together on the ground in front of the ball.
- Lift one foot off the floor and hold for 3 to 5 seconds. Switch legs.
- Repeat 8 times with each leg.
Challenge: Position toes on the ground and heels up. Slowly lift the toes on one foot off the ground. Repeat with the other foot.
Advanced challenge: Lift both feet off the floor. Sit with only the ball touching the floor.
No. 10: T, Y, I With an Exercise Ball
- Get on your hands and knees with the exercise ball pressing into your hips and thighs.
- Keep toes down and knees bent, but lift your knees slightly off the floor. Tightening your abdominal muscles, try to lift your arms out to the sides of your body (into a T position).
- Then slowly move your arms forward (into a Y position) and then straight out overhead (into an I position). Maintain a neutral spine with strong abdominals and shoulders out of the ears.
- Repeat 4 times in each T, Y, and I position.
Challenge: Repeat the exercise with one leg lifted up.
Advanced challenge: Repeat the exercise with both legs lifted up or use hand weights.
Published February 2007.