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How to Use an Exercise Ball

By Gabrielle Kassel | June 17, 2020 | Shape

Kettlebells and resistance bands are great, but these exercise balls deserve a spot in your home gym too.

Besides maybeeee Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons, nothing screams 1970s fitness quite like the (often fluorescent) exercise ball. While less novel than the WHOOPMirror, or Peloton Bike, you shouldn't snooze on the exercise ball. Typically under 30 bucks per pop, these (usually) air-filled vinyl exercise balls are an oldie but goodie—and a great addition to any at-home or in-gym exercise routine. 

"No matter your fitness goals, your exercise routine can benefit from an exercise ball," says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. You can purpose one of these balls to boost your range of motion, increase your proprioception (translation: spacial awareness) or balance, or to support your cardiovascular capacity or strength gains, explains Rebecca Kordecki, AFAA, ACE certified personal trainer, certified spin instructor, licensed massage therapist and breath work coach. "And, you can do it all while keeping your workouts fresh, fun, and challenging," adds Kordecki.

All that said, "exercise ball" is a pretty broad category. In most cases, exercise ball, yoga ball, stability ball, fitness ball, and physio ball all refer to the same thing: inflatable spheres. However, sometimes medicine balls (balls filled with hearty foam), slam balls (balls filled with sand), and half balance balls (inflatable rubber hemispheres attached to a base) are categorized as exercise balls as well, according to experts. 

Below, your ultimate guide on how and when to use different types of exercise balls.

How to Use an Exercise Ball

There are two main ways to use an exercise ball—as a tool for your workouts and in your everyday life as a chair. Yes, really! In case you haven't heard, the exercise-ball-as-a-chair phenomenon has continued to gain traction as more and more people are working far more hours than a traditional 9 to 5, and, as a result, are seeking ways to move while at work.

The theory goes that sitting on the unstable surface forces folks to engage their core and stabilize muscles in the lower back in order to stay upright while they type/dial/email, says Wickham. In fact, one 2016 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that sitting on an exercise ball produces greater core activation compared to sitting in a chair with a back. Though, worth mentioning, the study also found that the ball produced no additional core activation in comparison to sitting on a backless chair. 

If you're intrigued and debating on swapping your office chair for an exercise ball, you'll want to keep a couple things in mind. First, make sure that the ball isn't too high or too low. "You want something that when your feet are flat on the floor, your knees are at a 90 degree angle," points out Wickham. If the ball is too high, your back will round forward, and if the ball is too low, it will put your neck in an uncomfortable and unsafe position. Second, make sure that baby is fully inflated! "If the ball is too soft, it's possible that you'll find yourself in an even more slumped position than you otherwise would be," adds Wickham.

As for how to use exercise balls for, well, exercise, start with a lighter ball and work your way up, if you need to. "With these balls, you want to aim for higher reps, less weight," says Wickham. When figuring out which ball to equip your home gym with—or use at your fitness studio—he recommends picking a weight you can do at least 10 reps with. And if the ball is inflatable, make sure it's properly inflated. A poorly inflated ball usually equals poor form. "And as always: Listen to your body. If you're experiencing any numbness, tingling, burning, or pain, odds are you've already injured yourself or about to," he adds. 

With so many different types of exercise balls on the market, it can be overwhelming when it comes time to choose. But the good news is that, according to Wickham, they're all pretty straightforward and hard to use wrong. Still, he says, "As with any piece of equipment you need to prioritize form over the weight of the ball or 'cool factor' of the exercise." Basically, please for the love of broken bones and ER visits do not try to do a pistol squat (or any other kind of squat for that matter) on one of these balls. K?

The Benefits of Using an Exercise Ball

The stability ball's main claim to fame is as a crunch enhancer—and for good reason. The crunch typically only works the rectus abdominis muscle (that's the six pack, mirror muscle). But by laying on an unstable ball while doing crunches, all the stabilizer muscles in the midline have to get recruited. In fact, research shows that done on the ball, this classic ab exercise is nearly twice (!) as effective as it usually is. 

Many exercises done with inflatable balls also help to increase activation of the midline, while helping to prevent injury to the lower back. By placing either your hands, forearms, or feet on the ball while planking or doing push-ups or mountain climbers offers the same increased midline activation, notes Wickham. Doing glute bridges or bridge holds with one or both legs on the ball also strengthens your midline, while offering greater glute activation due to increased range of motion. "Because we sit so much during the day and aren't relying on our glutes to be strong, our lower back takes over which can result in lower back pain, explains Wickham. "Doing exercises that force folks to activate and strengthen their glutes can help reduce the risk of a lower back injury." 

The half balance ball (sometimes called a Dome or Bosu Ball) offers many of the same core-strengthening perks as the classic balance ball. "The beautiful thing about the Bosu Ball is it gives you instability and also has a flat base so you can put it with the ball face down and do more lower body exercises like lunges, squats, or toe taps," says Wickham. You can also do push-ups, planks, mountain climbers, and practically a million other moves. "Just don't overload yourself while doing weighted exercises on the ball and you should be fine," he adds. 

Kordecki points out that medicine balls and slam balls, in particular, are exercise balls that can be used for strength gains. Medicine ball wall balls, medicine ball cleans, medicine ball crunch, and slam ball slams are all perfect for resistance exercises, she says. The perks of using these include better strength, increased muscle mass, and decreased body fat, and faster metabolism (to name just a few).

This article was written by Gabrielle Kassel from Shape and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

Gabrielle Kassel
Shape