The Bender Ball: What It Is
The Bender Ball, as seen on many a late-night infomercial, is a 9-inch inflatable plastic exercise ball used to perform a variety of abdominal and Pilates-type exercises. The ball is part of the Bender Method fitness system, developed by trainer Leslee Bender.
According to the Bender Ball web site, by giving you a greater range of motion during exercise, the ball provides an abdominal workout that’s up to 408% more effective than ordinary crunches. The web site also says the soft, flexible Bender ball produces a higher intensity workout than you can get with large exercise balls.
You can order the ball from the Bender Ball web site for $12.98 (plus $7.93 shipping). The price includes the Bender Ball, Bender Method Manual, and a DVD/video featuring two Bender Method workouts: The Bender Method of Core Training and Buns & Thighs.
But be aware that when you place an order, you're also agreeing to buy two additional workout DVD/videos every month for a monthly fee of $19.99 plus $6.99 shipping. This could come as a surprise when you see additional monthly charges on your credit card bill. If you don't want the additional workouts, you have to call customer service to cancel that part of the order.
It took about five weeks for the ball we ordered to arrive. In the interim, we had to make several calls to try to straighten out the order.
The Bender Ball: How to Use It
The DVD that comes with the ball includes instruction on ball inflation, exercise technique, ball placement, and breathing. To use the Bender Ball, the exerciser places it behind the lower back, under the hips, or between the knees, depending on the exercise.
The DVD is essentially a tutorial on how to do basic exercises with the ball, as opposed to a workout video you would follow every day. No information is provided about frequency, intensity, or duration of exercise.
On the core training portion, Leslee Bender demonstrates three levels of workouts. In Level 1, which lasts approximately 3 minutes, she demonstrates basic crunches with the ball. Level 2 (about 6 minutes) includes additional ab exercises. In Level 3 (about 6 minutes), Bender adds several Pilates exercises. With each level, the exercises become more intense.
The 23-minute buns and thighs portion of the video includes an intro, warm-up, and exercises for glutes, hamstrings, and inner and outer thighs. The video concludes with stretching exercises.
Throughout, Bender provides excellent instruction and demonstrations on how to perform each exercise.
The Bender Ball: What We Found
The Bender Ball web site does not explain how it came up with the information that the Bender Ball workout is 408% more effective than regular crunches. We conducted a review of the literature and found the study, cited in Journal of Applied Research: in Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics.
The researchers compared core muscle activity during abdominal exercises using a 7-inch mini stability ball, the larger Swiss ball, and traditional floor crunches. The study showed that range of motion during exercise made a big difference in ab activity.
It found that regular floor crunches required only about 2/3 as much muscle work as exercises on the Swiss ball. With the mini ball, the exercisers' muscle activity varied from 1/2 as much to 4 times more than floor crunches - depending on the range of motion they used. The key to increasing ab muscle activity was to increase the range of motion from 50 to 90 degrees, the study found.
At the Human Performance Laboratory at Auburn University-Montgomery, we did our own comparison of abdominal muscle activity with the Bender Ball and other types of ab exercise. Electrodes were placed on subjects' ab muscles to measure muscle activation. The exercisers then did ab crunches using the Bender Ball, a standard floor crunch, the bicycle exercise, crunches on a large exercise ball, crunches on a round, 4-inch diameter piece of foam rubber, and crunches using a standard 9-inch playground ball.
While all the devices gave a better abs workout than the standard floor crunch or bicycle exercise, we saw little difference in abdominal muscle activity between the Bender Ball and the large ball, playground ball, or foam roller.
Our results did not find the ball provided a workout that’s up to 408% more effective than ordinary crunches. In fact, the muscle activity was very similar between each of the devices. However, the various balls and the foam roller increased muscle activity to about twice that found with standard crunches.
Marketing materials for the Bender Ball also say users will get results quickly, but provide no documentation as to what results you might expect. Only personal testimonials are used to substantiate these claims.
The Bender Ball: The Bottom Line
We found the ball to be easy to use and appropriate for most people, though we did not test it with obese people or those with physical limitations.
While the Bender Ball can be an effective device for abdominal training, it is no more effective than exercising with foam roller, a large exercise ball, or a small playground ball. Also, for a total-body workout, you would need to add other exercises. You can't expect major changes in weight or appearance with a 3- to 6- minute ab workout.
The videos, however, are a good instructional tool. If you order the Bender Ball online, make sure you're familiar with pricing, billing, and customer service issues. If not careful you could end up with additional charges on your credit card.
If you want more information on how to select an exercise ball, the American College of Sports Medicine web site (ascm.org) offers a brochure called Selecting and Effectively Using a Stability Ball.
Mike Esco, PhD, CSCS, HFI, and Michele Scharff Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, contributed to this article.
Henry N. Williford, EdD, FACSM, is director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Auburn Montgomery. Mike Esco, PhD, CSCS, HFI, and Michele Scharff Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, are researchers at the facility and faculty members at Auburn Montgomery. Their opinions and conclusions are their own.