Put simply, the stability-ball is one of my favorite training tools because it’s cheap to purchase, takes up very little space and offers a wide variety of effective exercise applications that can be used for general fitness, physique and performance training. Unfortunately, many strength coaches and personal trainers see the misguided people out there using the stability-ball for all kinds of ridiculousness and have made it out to be guilty by association, which is just as ridiculous.
Just because there are people out there abusing a certain tool (the stability-ball) in no way means we should throw it out of our training toolbox all together as if the tool can’t be used for exercise applications that actually have value. Heck, if that were the case we wouldn’t use any equipment at all judging by some of questionable things I’ve seen done with barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, etc.
The reality is the stability-ball is like any other training tool: How well it’s used is determined by the trainer or coach. And, like every other training tool, the ways it gets used (i.e., the exercise applications that involve the stability-ball) generally fall into one of three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly.
In this post I’m covering all three categories. In the first category (The Good) I’m sharing my top stability-ball exercises (that don’t suck). In the second category (The Bad) I’m covering the misapplications of the stability-ball, which I commonly see coming from confused trainers. Finally, in the third category (The Ugly) I’m discussing an incident where a pro athlete suffered a major injury while using a stability-ball that should serve as an important exercise programming lesson to all trainers, coaches and exercise enthusiasts.
Stability-Ball Exercises: The Good
The following is a list of my top stability-ball exercise applications. These are exercise applications I’ve regularly used for years with clients and athletes of varying fitness levels and training goals.
Stability Ball One-Arm Plank
This exercise is one of the toughest plank varations you’ll ever try! So, it’s at the top of the plank progression food chain.
Stability-Ball Pike Rollout
A 2010 study compared core muscle activation during Swiss ball and traditional ab exercises and found that the stability-ball rollout and the Stability-ball pike were the most effective in activating the upper and lower abs and external and internal obliques. (1)
This exercise combines the two to make what I’ve nick-named the “single best ab exercise.” It’s called the stability-ball pike rollout.
Of course, a comprehensive abdominal training program should include several different exercise applications to ensure your workouts are well rounded and hit the abs from all angles. That said, if you were only going to do one abs-focused exercise, I’d say the Pike Rollout is the one to do.
Stability-Ball Abs Triple Threat
This protocol incorporates three stability-ball exercises: Weighted ball crunches, Stability-Ball Pikes, and Stability-ball Stir the Pot. I’ve used each of these three stability-ball moves separately, as well as combined in this protocol (demonstrated in the video).
Loaded trunk (spine) flexion work, as is utilized in this protocol, is a controversial subject for many coaches and trainers. I don’t subscribe to the “no loaded flexion” exercises mantra… for a lack of sufficient scientific evidence that I should, which is why I’m okay with using loaded spinal flexion abdominal-focused exercises for certain individuals when I feel appropriate.
Still, if you’re not comfortable with using loaded spinal flexion, just substitute any core/abs (anti-trunk movement) exercise that you wish.
Weighted ball crunches use the abs from the top down (upper to lower). We also like the ball because it allows an eccentric lengthening of the abdominals on each rep. You won’t force a muscle to become “shortened” if you’re always using it through its full range of motion.
The pike is like the opposite of the crunches, contracting the abs from the bottom up.
The final exercise, stir the pot, covers the static stability aspect of the abdominals. We like to place the isometric at the end as isometrics are, well, boring. But if you go into them with the abs already fatigued from the first two actions, it takes less time to create a training effect.
Stability-Ball Hamstring Hatrick
Like the Abs Triple Threat protocol, this protocol also incorporates three stability-ball exercises: Stability-Ball Leg Curls, Stability-Ball Hip Bridges and Stability-Ball Straight-leg Hip Lifts. And, just like the exercises involved in the the Abs Triple Threat protocol, I’ve used each of these three stability-ball moves separately, as well as combined in this protocol (demonstrated in the video).
The first movement, leg curls, is the toughest and most dynamic, so it’s usually placed first in the sequence.
The second movement, hip bridges, creates an isometric contraction of the hamstrings to hold the ball in place, while the glutes work primarily to raise and lower the hips.
The third movement, straight-leg hip lifts, require the shortest range of motion, which is why they’re placed last. Since the straight leg position actually lengthens the lever arm, an argument could be made that this movement should be placed second, before the bent-leg hip bridges.
I’ve tried it both ways and found either way works well. We often allow our clients to decide the order they’d like to perform the second and third moves.
Any of the three exercises involved in this protocol can be progressed to performing them on a single-leg. And, this entire protocol can be performed on a single leg, which is very challenging for even the most advanced athletes and exercise enthusiasts.
Stability-Ball Neck Series
Since grappling/MMA and football are impact sports that demand the use of your neck, I’ve often prescribed specific neck strengthening exercises like three exercises below, which I’ve named the stability-ball neck series.
Neck training exercises like the ones featured below are another controversial subject for many coaches and trainers. I’ve heard all the arguments and I don’t feel these exercises are any more risky than any other resistance training exercises as long one follows the general resistance training principle of avoiding extreme end-rages of movement and avoid using them with folks who have a medical history that may make them contraindicated.
That said, each of the exercises below can be performed isometrically from a neutral neck position (i.e., anti-neck movement) for those who may prefer that approach.
Stability-Ball Push-Up Pike Combo
By combining the push-up with the pike movement, you’re hitting your chest, shoulders and triceps with a double whammy. Not only do you have to perform a push-up in a manner that requires a lot of stability, you also have to hold your torso up as it shifts from a horizontal position to a more vertical position. Your abs also require lateral stability to keep you from rolling off of the ball, and they have to contract hard to pull your hips up into your chest and to resist the pull of gravity as it drives your belly toward the ground.
Stability-Ball Reverse Hip Extension
Many people call this move “stability-ball reverse hyper-extensions.” However, I feel these types of exercises are poorly named since good technique does not involve any “hyper-extension” of your spine.
On exercises like this I’m looking for you to be extending from your hips without excessive extension at your lumbar spine. Hence why I call them stability-ball reverse hip extensions.
Since this exercise is limited to lifting the weight of your legs (or light ankle weights added), most people have to go for high-reps in order to create a training effect. With that said, I like to use the stability-ball reverse hip extension exercise for burnout sets at the end of a comprehensive lower-body training workout, or at the end of other non-lower-body focused workouts in order to get in some extra glue-training volume.
Stability-Ball Squeeze Push-Up (Hands on Ball)
When training for hypertrophy, we want high volume and constant muscle tension. This unique push-up variation delivers big on that because the addition of the ball squeeze creates a tremendous amount of tension on the pectorals, shoulders and triceps.
Turning your hands outward so your fingers are pointed down toward the floor not only makes this exercise more wrist-friendly, but it also places your hands in a position that’s conducive for be able to strongly squeezing on the ball.
Stability-Ball Exercises: The Bad
A universal principle of training is the principle of overload. Essentially, if you want to gain strength and improve your power, you must create sufficient overload on the body to stimulate such adaptations. However, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, “The diminished force output suggests that the overload stresses required for strength training necessitate the inclusion of resistance training on stable surfaces.” (2)
In short, lifting weights while standing or kneeling on a stability-ball is a poor application of the stability-ball because the environment created when doing so is not nearly as effective as being on a stable surface for stimulating gains in strength and power.
Now, some may claim that they’re not using exercises that involve standing or kneeling of stability-ball to increase strength, but instead claim they’re doing this to improve (functional) performance. However, this idea ignores another universal training principle: the principle of specificity, which essentially states the adaptations to training will be specific to the demands the training puts on the body.
Put simply, applying the principle of specificity involves working on improving specific force generation or neuromuscular coordination patterns, which transfer into target movements that commonly occur in one’s sport or target activity.
Here’s the problem: If your goal is to improve (functional) performance, unless you’re a Cirque du Soleil performer who’s act involves balancing on a big ball, the ground you’re living, practicing and playing on is stable. Also, don’t confuse a slippery surface (like playing in the rain) with an unstable surface.
Since functional training is about transfer, it’s more “functional” for field, court and combat athletes to train on the same stable surface they play and practice on. And, this goes along with what the author of this 2004 paper published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal stated:
“The performance of resistance exercises on unstable equipment has increased in popularity, despite the lack of research supporting their effectiveness. Resistance exercise performed on unstable equipment may not be effective in developing the type of balance, proprioception, and core stability required for successful sports performance. Free weight exercises performed while standing on a stable surface have been proven most effective for enhancing sports related skills.”
It’s important to understand that standing on a stability-ball is a learned skill that’s no different than learning the skill of riding a bike. You get good at performing the skill of riding a bike by practice just as happens when you practice standing on a stability-ball.
No one expects having the ability to balance on a bike to ride it will offer much transfer into improved (functional) performance in non-bike riding activities, so it doesn’t make sense to think standing on a stability-ball will be any different, as neither come close to replicating the force production and neuromuscular coordination patterns of running, jumping, punching, throwing, etc. Although this may seem logical to us, we still have trainers preaching that becoming a trained seal on a stability-ball by standing it on it while performing deferent resistance exercises will somehow transfer into improved (functional) performance in any athletic endeavor.
Stability-Ball Exercises: The Ugly
Let’s go beyond training principles and scientific evidence. Lifting weights while standing and lying on your back while on a Swiss Ball can be down right dangerous. In 2009, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings found this out the hard way when starting forward Francisco Garcia, whose contract was worth $29.6 million over 5 years, missed a huge chunk of that season after an exercise ball accident broke his right wrist. Garcia, who weighed 195 pounds, was lying on his back on an exercise ball, lifting 90-pound weights in each hand (doing a chest press), when the ball burst.
Even if you choose to deny the scientific evidence along with ignoring the universal training principles while making up your own, common sense tells us that the risks involved every time a client is placed on a Swiss ball on their back while holding free weights, or is standing on top of one, far out-weight any supposed benefits.
Even back in the late 90s when doing every exercise you could think of on a stability-ball was the hot thing to do in the fitness field – I’m guilty of riding this bandwagon myself for a short time back then, as a young and impressionable trainer – exercises that involved standing or kneeling on the ball, along with other forms of unstable surface training for non-injured individuals, still didn’t have much practical validity or scientific efficacy, despite the fact that I thought I was “ahead of the research.” Sound familiar?
Aside from thinking the universal principles of training cease to apply in their presence, along with the blatant scientific denialism, the problem with the trainers who currently preach things like standing on the stability-ball as “functional training,” isn’t that they’re stuck in the past or within their own delusional world; it’s that they want the rest of us to join them there to keep them company.
That said, sure some confused individuals promote performing circus acts on the stability-ball mistakenly thinking that doing so automatically makes an exercise “functional training.” However, the stability-ball can be used well or misused depending on who’s hands it in.
I hope this post helps to clear the air on stability-ball exercises and highlights why it’s a mistake to completely avoid using the stability-ball in fitness, physique or performance training programs simply because there are misapplications of the tool out there.
As I’ve shown above, the stability-ball provides a variety of safe and effective exercise options that add value to a comprehensive training & conditioning program by serving as a great compliment to the foundational lifts. Therefore, it’s my position that the stability ball absolutely does have a place in the tool-box of the personal trainer, strength coach and exercise enthusiast.
1. Escamilla, R.F, et al. Core muscle activation during Swiss ball and traditional abdominal exercises. J Orthop Sports Physical Ther, 40: 265-276, 2010.
2. Anderson KG, Behm DG. Maintenance of EMG activity and loss of force output with instability. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Aug;18(3):637-40.