Will Exercise Balls Make a Workout More Effective?

An overview, plus 5 easy exercises to do on your stability ball

Exercise balls, also known as stability balls, physioballs and Swiss balls, are large vinyl spheres filled with air that you can sit on, lie on or otherwise straddle while working out. They're great for developing core strength (building abdominal and back muscles), as well as improving balance and flexibility. This simple product is one of the best exercise tools available — and at minimal cost.

How the exercise ball works

When you first sit or lie on an exercise ball, your body will feel unstable. This forces your legs and abs to work to keep you balanced. Using more muscles increases the intensity of each exercise and amplifies the results. As you get stronger, you'll find that repositioning the exercise ball can make a workout more rigorous. Once your core is really developed, try adding weights or resistance bands to your routine.

Customized to you

To get the most out of exercise ball workouts, choose the right product. Besides being portable and affordable, your ball needs to be the right size. Sitting on the ball, your hips should be level with, or slightly higher than, your knees. Half-balls like the BOSU Sport Balance Trainer offer more exercise options than the traditional stability ball. Heavier people might want to buy a burst-resistant model.

Fitness ball exercises

The following exercise ball workouts are listed from easiest to most difficult. As you master each exercise, increase the number of reps in each set. Move up to a harder exercise when your workout feels too easy.

  • Sitting (works the quads): Simply sitting on an exercise ball helps tone muscles and improve posture. Sit on the ball when watching TV or using a computer. Once you can sit easily, add simple exercises such as lifting one leg and leaning to the side, alternating legs.

  • Knee Bridge (works the gluteus): Lie on your back on the floor with your legs raised and heels resting on the top of the exercise ball. Arms flat at your sides, lift your bottom off the floor. Flex the gluteus (the muscles in the butt) while pushing the hips up. Hold for three seconds before returning to the starting position. Start with sets of 20.

  • Leg Extensions (works quads, hamstrings, hip adductors): Lie with the exercise ball under the middle of your back, both knees bent at a 45-degree angle, feet on the floor. Lift one leg, extending it straight out for at least five seconds, then return to starting position. Repeat with other leg, then alternate. If you're having trouble balancing, do the exercise close to a wall, pushing against it with your hand, but try not to rely on the wall for support.

  • Crunches (works the abs): Place the exercise ball under your lower back, your knees bent at a 45-degree angle, your feet flat on the floor. From knees to head, keep your body parallel to the floor. Using your abs — not your back or neck muscles — raise your shoulders and upper back, then lower them. Start with sets of 15.

  • Push-Ups (works biceps, triceps, pecs): Get into the push-up position with your hands flat on the floor and the exercise ball under your shins (so your feet are off the floor). Lower your upper body within inches of the floor, then push back up. Keep your back as straight as possible to avoid injury. Place your hands closer together to increase difficulty. Start with sets of 10.

Medicine balls

Another kind of fitness ball is the medicine ball, but be careful not to confuse the two as they have very different functions. Usually about the size of a basketball and weighing between two and 25 pounds, medicine balls are used primarily for strength training and rehabilitation exercises. The most common medicine ball exercises involve throwing it to another person, which builds upper body strength, and holding it against the chest to increase resistance while doing sit-ups or crunches.

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