Don’t underestimate the gym ball (AKA the Swiss ball). You’ll often see them aimlessly rolling around the gym, an underused tumbleweed used more as a giant football for kick up practice than for abs exercises. Next time you see one lying around the gym remember that gym balls can be a remarkably beneficial way of improving muscle tone and balance. They are durable, lightweight and able to support a lot of weight, 275kg in some cases. They’re a valuable tool for varying workouts and allowing you to hit different muscles in different ways. So pick up that gym ball, don’t kick it away, it could help you reach your goals quicker than you think.
Gym balls are all about instability. Using one in the gym for an exercise makes all your stabiliser muscles – those unsung heroes that play second fiddle to the pecs, biceps and triceps – work to keep your balance. Using them regularly for bodyweight moves builds functional all-over strength that will reduce the risk of sporting injury, improve your posture and help support the heavier compound lifts like squats and overhead presses, so your vital gym statistics keep climbing.
If, however, the PT in your gym commands you to stand on one to “improve your core strength”, tell him to do one. Instead, use these suitable gym ball moves to get stronger and less injury-prone without the ignominy of ending up on a Top Ten Gym Fails meme.
Most common uses
A common misconception regarding gym balls is that mainly physios and personal trainers use them but they do have their place in the gym and can be a valuable tool for individual strength training and flexibility. You’ll often find them incorporated into yoga and Pilates classes, because they’re particularly good for stretching and aiding in the performance of dynamic moves. They can also be used for basic abdominal exercises, low-impact aerobic exercise and strength training workouts.
Improving your balance and posture
It might not count as an actual exercise but simply sitting on a gym ball engages your body’s stabiliser muscles as you’re using the muscles in your back and abdominals in order to keep your balance on the ball. Training with a gym ball in the correct way is beneficial for keeping a good posture as it promotes maintaining a good spinal alignment throughout most exercises. Try to keep a slight natural curve in your back when using the gym ball. This will stop you from arching your back too much while protecting your spine from excess stress.
Strengthening the core muscles
The three muscle groups that make up your core are:
- Quadratus lumborum – The muscles found in the lower back that help to maintain pelvic and spinal balance.
- Transverse abdominus – The deep abdominal muscles.
- Tultifidus – The main back muscles that support the lumbar spine.
These muscles work in unison to help protect the spine and aid everyday activities such as throwing, running, bending and reaching, all of which require the core/stabiliser muscles, so it’s important to keep them well-conditioned. If these muscles aren’t trained well it can make such simple movements as walking and pulling more difficult.
Training with a gym ball is an efficient way of engaging these difficult to reach muscles. The rule of thumb is: the further away the ball is from the core of your body, the more difficult maintaining your balance is. For example, when doing a press-up on the ball, placing the ball underneath your lower legs makes doing the push-up a lot easier because the ball is closer to your core. If you want to increase the difficulty, all you have to do is roll the ball out to your feet so it’s further away from the centre of your body, and so maintaining your balance is more difficult.
Spine and back health
Gym ball workouts are great for those with long-standing back problems, as it’ll support your lower back throughout any exercises and stretches. There’s a reason that chiropractors and physical therapists use them for therapy.
Beginner Gym Ball Exercises
Gym ball crunch
With the ball beneath your lower back, lie back as far as you can. Curl your shoulders up, keeping lower back on the ball. Pause at the top, then lower slowly to start.
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Gym ball reverse crunch
Hold the ball between your calves and the backs of your thighs. Curl your hips off the floor and bring your knees towards your chest. Pause at the top, then lower slowly to the start.
Gym ball twist curl
With the ball beneath your lower back, lie back as far as you can. Curl your shoulders up and twist your torso to one side, then lower slowly to the start and repeat on the other side.
Intermediate Gym Ball Exercises
Gym ball plank
Rest your weight on your elbows on the ball. Hold your body in a straight line from head to heels without your hips sagging. Maintain that position for 30 seconds.
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Gym ball jackknife
Hold your body in a straight line with your feet on the ball, hands under shoulders. Draw your knees in towards your chest, then return them to the start without letting your hips sag.
Gym ball roll-out
Kneel in front of the ball and place your forearms on top of the ball. Roll the ball away from you as far as you can, holding your body steady. Return slowly, keeping your back flat at all times.
Gym ball leg scissors
Hold the ball off the floor between your feet. Rotate your lower body to one side, then to the other. Continue, alternating sides.
Gym ball lateral crunch
Lie side-on to the ball and jam your feet against a wall for support. Lift your torso sideways as far as you can. Pause at the top and lower slowly, then repeat on the other side.
Advanced Gym Ball Exercises
Gym ball side plank
Rest one elbow on the ball. Hold your body in a straight line from head to feet. Maintain that position for 30-60 seconds without letting your hips sag.
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Gym ball passing V-sit
Hold the ball between your feet, keeping your arms and legs straight. Lift your legs and arms together to pass the ball from feet and hands. Lower your arms and legs slowly, passing the ball back and forth.
Get into a press-up position with one foot on the ball. Bend the other knee and twist your body to one side. Twist your body to the other side, bringing your knee underneath you.
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