Exercise balls, or Swiss balls as they're also known, are found in almost every gym, for a good reason. They are a fantastic piece of kit for core-strength, balance, posture and even injury rehabilitation. They're also perfect for home gyms, as they are versatile, lightweight and easy to move around, plus they can be deflated for compact storage. Exercise balls are a large hollow ball, made from an anti-burst skin material, filled with air which is pumped in through a valve. This allows the user to tune the pressure to their preference. They normally come in three sizes (55 cm; 65 cm and 75 cm) to suit different user heights. So let's have a look in more detail at the benefits of using an exercise ball:
A strong core is essential to all sports, exercise and general health. It's no wonder that so many personal trainers and exercise programs have a strong focus on core-strength. Some also consider some of the hip and leg muscles part of the core, but for this article we'll list the main core muscles of the chest and back.
Your core is composed of:
Rectus abdominis – The “six pack” muscles on your belly, these muscles flex your trunk.
External obliques – These flank the rectus abdominis and extend from the lower half of the ribs around and down to the pelvis; they enable you to twist your torso.
Internal obliques – They sit deeper, underneath the external obliques and allow you to twist your trunk as well as stabilising the spine.
Transverse abdominis – Is even deeper than the obliques, its main function is to stabilise the lower back and pelvis.
Quadratus lumborum – Is the deepest abdominal muscle and generally referred to as a back muscle it stabilises the spine and pelvis.
Erector spinae – This group of muscles connect each of the vertebrae, stabilising them, it helps to straighten the back and allows side-to-side rotation.
Multifidus – Is located deep in the back, and it's very important in stabilising the joints within the spine.
Semispinalis – Is a group of long back muscles which are important for maintaining posture, movement of the head and the vertebral column.
Latissimus dorsi – Are the large muscles under the arms, that look like wings on some body builders. They stabilise the trunk as well as create adduction of the arms.
Whilst that may seem like a lot of muscles to think about training, luckily most of them can be trained at the same time using an exercise ball. Your core muscles help protect your spine and keep you upright, they also allow you to perform a wide range of movements from your torso, such as twisting, leaning, lifting, throwing, reaching. In fact pretty much any movement you make with your body involves your core to some extent. Therefore it's easy to understand how important they are for your overall health and sports performance.
A conditioned core is also key for avoiding injury and allowing you to perform dynamic movements more effectively.
There are many exercises you can do to strengthen your core with an exercise ball. As a general rule, the further your centre of gravity is from the ball, the harder the exercise will be. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Swissball Sit-up - This is similar to a standard sit-up, except you are laying on the ball, with the ball supporting your lower back and your feet on the ground. You'll need to engage your core fully and focus on your balance to get the most out of this exercise.
Swissball Twists - This is an excellent exercise for the lateral core muscles. Sit on the exercise ball holding a weight plate with both hands at arm's length. Keeping your arms parallel with the ground and fully extended, slowly twist at your truck so you are moving the plate from your left to right side in a full arc.
Knee Tucks - You'll want to use a smaller exercise ball than you'd use for most exercises for this one. Hold a push-up position, with your feet on the ball, rather than the ground. Tuck your knees to your chest, by rolling the ball towards you.
Table Top - This is an excellent first-time gym ball exercise. Start with your shoulders on the ball and your feet on the ground so that your knees are at 90 degrees. Thrust your hips upwards and lower under control.
Swiss balls are inherently unstable, so they can be used to train your balance to a high level. Even the simple act of sitting on an exercise ball, you can feel your balance having to work to keep you from falling off the ball. Balance is important for skilled sports, which require dynamic fine movements, it also helps a lot with co-ordination, so if you play racket sports, martial arts, do extreme sports or gymnastics then balance is crucial.
You can use an exercise ball to improve your balance, however it's not for beginners. A better piece of equipment for beginners is a balance board or bosu trainer, these are far more forgiving for people new to balance training and they allow for progressive improvement. A swiss ball is great if you already have a great foundation of balance and want to try some advanced exercises. Here's a few ideas for balance exercises:
Swiss Ball Sit
This is probably the easiest exercise ball balance exercise you can try. You simply sit on the ball, with your feet elevated off the ground and without touching the ball with your hands. A harder version is to try and sit cross-legged on the ball!
Swiss Ball Kneel
As the name suggests, this is simply a case of kneeling on the ball. It's harder than the sit, as your centre of gravity is higher and your point of contact is smaller.
Swiss Ball Squat
This is a very advanced exercise and caution is recommended when starting it, we'd advise having a partner to assist you, the first few times. It can also be difficult to get onto the ball, so starting on a plyobox or chair above the ball can help. With a wide stance try to perform an air squat on the ball.
Single leg squat on ball
To perform this exercise requires extremely well developed balance and mastery of the exercise ball balance exercises. It's a simple, but extremely difficult exercise that few can dream of attempting!
Most people have poor posture due to both habitual activities, but also due to natural muscle and skeletal imbalances. Poor posture can contribute to injuries. Weak core and anterior to posterior chain imbalances can both be improved with an exercise ball, which is why they're used by so many health care professionals and personal trainers. By replacing your office chair with a swiss ball, you can actually improve your posture. Your body will be forced to work actively on maintaining balance and a correct seating position, your core will be engaged more throughout the day and your posture will improve over time.
There are a wide range of stretches that can be performed with the help of an exercise ball. As the ball is soft enough to conform to the body, but firm enough to be stable, it can be used to assist with stretches.
Here's a few stretches that an exercise ball can really help with:
Back Extension - In this stretch you simply lay face-up on the ball, so it supports your thoracic (mid-back) part of your spine and reach your arms to the ground behind your head, whilst keeping your feet on the ground. An excellent stretch for your abdominal muscles.
Pectoral - This is a very comfortable stretch. Again laying on the ball as in the above stretch, you stretch your arms out to your sides.
Seated Glute & Back - Sit on the exercise ball with your feet wide apart. Slowly lean forward you can rest your elbows on your knees or, if you are flexible enough, place your hands on the floor. Gently roll the ball back and keep your chest up to increase the stretch in your thighs and buttocks.
Latissimus Dorsi - Kneel on the floor with the ball in front of you. Put your hands on top of the ball. Let your back sag into the stretch. Sit back on your heels and roll the ball forward until you feel the stretch.
So that's the four main benefits of using an exercise ball. This awesome piece of kit is inexpensive, lightweight and ideal for a home gym. If you're interested in discovering any of these benefits for yourself, here's one of our most popular gym balls: