Get Some Balls!
by Marilyn DeMartini for Men’s Fitness Magazine, August, 2000
What’s the Buzz About Balls?
Swiss, physio, stability, balance, duro—they are all just about the same equipment—all big balls that offer the perfect compliment to an existing weight training workout regime. “You have to challenge the muscle to perform better, to meet the muscular requirements of every day life, ” says Dr. Anthony Abbott, principle instructor for Fitness Institute International in Boca Raton, Florida. A former Green Beret, who has trained military personnel and designed fitness programs for NASA astronauts, Abbott has been one of the leaders of the national movement toward functional training. “We adapt as we train, and we have to go beyond the fundamental exercises that are done in the gym—they are not the activities we do in every day life,” he explains.

“Working out with stability balls enables you to use the strength you have,” explains Juan Carlos Santana, a coach, Certified Health Fitness Instructor and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). “Your performance is limited by your core strength,” he says, “Your core shouldn’t be the weak link—it’s like having super tires and wheels with a tiny engine. If the thing that drives the machine is weak, you’re in deep trouble,” he adds.

Invented in 1960 by an Italian toy maker, stability balls were used for therapy to help patients establish or restore balance. Sports trainers took them from the clinic to the gym, as trainers with athletic backgrounds, like Paul Chek, in Encinitas, California, found that stability ball training enhanced the performance of athletes. Now, used as desk chairs to promote “active sitting” to involve muscles throughout the body, or as equipment in most every gym, stability balls offer a way to build useful, not just absolute strength.

Why Balls Balance Your Work Out
Though there are virtually no scientific studies on why stability ball training works, trainers vouch for it efficacy in enhancing performance. While the deep segmental muscles of the spine and trunk which stabilize the body, are difficult to train with weights or other exercises, they respond to ball training. Development of those muscles, as well as the deep abdominals and stabilizers of joints involved in movement, give the body increased efficiency, joint integrity and also decrease the potential for injury. Having a strong core enables the rest of the body to perform with power and utilize force. As Chek describes, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.”

In his guide to the “Essence of Stability Ball,” training video, (see sidebar for availability) Santana calls the program Stabilization Limited Training because the force produced is limited by the strength and balance of the stability structures—the core, shoulders and hips, where movement originates—not the extremities which carry out movement. For example, he explains that a person who can perform eight reps, bench pressing 45 pound dumbbells, can only do a fraction of that on a stability ball. The body’s additional demands to maintain stability, give it less to deliver in arm strength. As joint integrity and balance increase, and the deficit in force production is reduced, performance is enhanced, enabling the body to produce more effectively, in challenging sports and physical environments.

Tips for Keeping On the Ball
from Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS
(Could be a side bar)
1. Maintaining a neutral spine and preventing the lower abdominals from disengaging and causing hyperextension of the lumbar spine are key elements in ball training.

2. The head and neck should also be kept in neutral position and not hyper-flexed or extended.

3. Strive for straight body alignment from head to toe, maintaining a pelvic tilt. (Test abdominal strength by seeing if you can maintain your lower back flat to the ground when lifting first one knee and foot, then both, off the ground. If the abs are not strong enough to maintain a posterior pelvic tilt, work on that segment before attempting more advanced exercises.)

4. When the arms support the weight of the body, as in a push up, the shoulder girdle needs to be strong enough to maintain a stabilized scapula—not collapsed and weak as the shoulder blades “cave in” under pressure.

5. The more body that rests on the ball, the easier the exercise. As you progress in difficulty, you can increase the distance of contact with the ball (ex. resting only your feet, instead of legs on the ball). Likewise, you can start with a wide stance or arm position, then progress to narrower stance to increase the demands of the exercise.

6. Different ball sizes require different movements. Experiment with different sizes for various exercises, or choose smaller balls to start, progressing to larger balls that require more flexibility. Rule of thumb—choose a ball that enables you to sit on it, with thighs nearly parallel to the floor.

The Stability Ball Workout
The following workout from Juan Carlos Santana, provides an overall program that can be used as a warm up/cool down, as a build up, increasing the load number of reps, or to unload, using the stability ball training after a hard workout, to allow fatigued muscles to recover on a light day. The neurological demand of stability ball exercise still maintains a high level of intensity, even though it is not “heavy” work. “This program is field-tested,” says Santana, “It feels right, makes sense is ‘doable’ and fun.”

Legs – Single Leg Squat – Placing the instep of one foot on the ball behind you while balancing on the other leg, intensifies the squat. Bend the stationery knee, going down as far as you can while keeping the torso straight. Don’t lift the heel. You can start by holding onto a support for balance or by using a smaller ball. Progress to a larger ball which will increase the amount of hip flexor flexibility needed.

Single Leg Squat with mobility – For additional challenge, add mobility. Slide the back leg over the ball, moving from the ankle to the knee, while keeping the back upright and stable, and the knee fully flexed. Again, start with a smaller ball, progressing to a larger ball, then add forward arm reaches to further work the hip extensors of the squatting leg.

Supine Leg Curl – Lay on back with heels on the ball, raise onto shoulders, using arms for limited support . Roll the ball towards you, then away. Start with two legs, then progress to one at a time, the other leg extended. Toes up position enhances activation of the gastroc muscles in calf; toes pointed will emphasize the hamstrings.

Core/Back – Rollouts – There are several variations on this exercise, starting on the knees, moving to the feet, and keeping the arms either together or apart. All work the prime movers involved in shoulder extension.

1. Start on knees, with arms together, hands clasped. Roll forward from the wrist toward elbows, keeping the back straight. Progress to a rollout with the hands separated, requiring additional strength and stabilization. Increase the range of movement as permitted by core stability.

2. Once rollouts from the elbows have been mastered, attempt straight arm rollouts with longer range of motion. Lower abdominal strength becomes increasingly important to protect the lower back as you roll away with straight arms extended, increasing the intensity of the exercise.

3. Now, balance the lower body on the feet, instead of the knees, creating a longer support phase at the hips and shoulder, further increasing the core stabilization and upper body strength requirements. Start with the hands clasped, then progress to separated hand position as above.

Dumbbell Rows – Place chest on ball with lower body balanced on knees or balls of the feet. Raise two dumbbells, with both arms in a row position, emphasizing the posterior of the shoulder and back. Progress to doing the same exercise only raising one dumbbell at a time, increasing the need for core stability.

Chest – Push Ups – This exercise also progresses from a starting position with hands on the ball and pushing up from the knees, to full extension with the feet on the floor. From a kneeling position, with both hands on the ball, and perfect alignment from knee to head, push up with hands slightly turned out. Slowly lower body back toward ball until the chest touches, then press and lockout. Progress to extending the feet behind you, with both hands on the ball, maintaining balance while pushing up. If that is too difficult, start by retracting the scapula with a partial pushup, working up to full push up. Further progressions include elevating feet on a small stool or step, putting more weight on the arms and increasing the stability and core strength demands. If you’re feeling really hardcore, go for one arm push ups! Maintain alignment throughout.

Dumbbell Flat Bench – The ball can also be used instead of a flat bench for dumbbell presses. With shoulders and upper back on the ball, and feet supporting and balancing, press up with two arms. The closer the legs, the more difficult the exercise will be—a wider stance provides more balance. Progress to alternating presses, one arm at a time, which changes the center of gravity, and increases the difficulty.

Big Ball Push Up – Balance legs on the ball between ankles and knees, the closer to the feet you place the ball, the more difficult the exercise will be. Elevating the feet places more weight on the arms, increasing the intensity.

Shoulders – Knee Tuck Press – Starting in a tucked position, with feet on top of the ball and hands under shoulders, press up, extending arms in an overhead press. This position minimizes body weight and is easiest on a smaller ball, with progression to a larger ball.

Pike Press – Repeat the overhead press with legs extended in a pike position, toes balanced on top of ball. The tighter the tuck, the more weight is placed on the shoulders and arms, requiring more shoulder and core strength, and more hamstring flexibility. For a higher progression, balance one leg on top of the ball, with the other leg extended straight above the shoulder. The vertical leg adds additional weight, balance and stability requirements.

Arms – Most arm exercises can be performed using a stability ball instead of a bench. Dumbbell curls or hammer curls for biceps require active sitting on the ball to keep posture and core strong. The ball can be used for support while doing triceps extensions or French presses, which require additional stabilizers to come into play while working arms.

Ball Basics from Paul Chek, NMT

1. Always make sure the floor and ball are clean to avoid slipping.

2. Stay well away from furniture, sharp or hard objects.

3. Wear a shirt to avoid slipping off the ball while sweating.

4. Maintain perfect form—good form is more important than training to failure with stability exercises.

5. Follow a Dura-Ball workout with a light day of cardio or a rest day for the first month of training to allow your stabilizer system time to adapt. Training with heavy weights or performing a sport the day after fatiguing stabilizers may open the door to injury.

6. Have fun!

Where to Get Balls
Perform Better 800-556-7464

Stability Ball Plus by Gymnic, 55, 65 and 75 cm (22″, 26″, 30″ diameter, pending height from 5’6″, 5’6″-6′, or over 6′, $26.95, $29.95, $34.95 respectively.) Will hold 600 lbs. Without bursting. If punctured, the ball deflates slowly to prevent injury.

Also available, The Essence of Stability Ball Training videos by Juan Carlos Santana. Vol. I, Legs & Core, Vol. II, Upper Body. $44.95, 55 min. each, $79.95 for set.

Paul Chek 800-552-8789

Dura-Balls 45 (for under 5’2″), 55, 65, and 75 cm (for 6’3″+) $30, $35, $40, $45. University tested to 1,000 lbs. A firm, anti-burst ball, designed to be safe as a chair or for use with weights. To use as a chair, deflate slightly for comfort.

Also available Strong ‘n Stable Swiss Ball Weight Training Video Series: Vol. I, Chest, Shoulders, Back, 54 min.; Vol. II, Arms, Core, Legs, 60 min.; Vol. III, Work Outs Levels 1-3,

24 min. Set of 3, $79.95, $10 discount when ordered with Dura-Ball.

SPRI Products 800-22-7774

Resist-A-Ball package comes with a 55 cm ball, pump and 60 minute video for $29.95.

Marilyn DeMartini is a freelance writer and certified fitness instructor from Ft. Lauderdale who enjoys being on the ball as much as being on a roll.