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Why You Need an Exercise Ball

An exercise ball can be used for more than just a funky desk chair. Find out why you should have one in your fitness life. 

By
Brock Armstrong
6-minute read
Episode #517
The Quick And Dirty
  • Choosing the right size ball is important.
  • Make sure you buy a ball that is anti-burst and anti-slip.
  • The ball can be used as a platform for exercising on or as part of the movement itself.
  • You can use a ball for strength workouts, stretching, or even as a chair.

Think back on all the fitness doodads and gizmos that have come and gone in the last few decades. Due to a fitness craze that mostly began in the 1980s, you can likely think of a lot! While the Thigh Master and the Shake Weight have come and gone, one fitness fad has stuck around—the exercise ball, also known as a gym ball, Swiss ball, physioball, or stability ball. (I'll use "exercise ball" and "stability ball" interchangeably here.)

Why the staying power? Because unlike other fads, the exercise ball actually makes sense. This big rubber inflatable sphere is truly a versatile piece of workout equipment. And not just for serious bodybuilding or high athletic achieving individuals, either—the exercise ball is great for all levels of fitness. It can function as both a form of resistance in your workout or it can work as a bench or platform for exercising on.

Sports docs and physiotherapists have been using stability balls for years to help improve their patients’ core strength and overall functionality. More recently many gyms and studios have incorporated them. And to be honest, along with a pull-up bar, I think everyone should have a stability ball in their home.

What is an exercise ball good for?

Weight training

A properly inflated stability ball is an inexpensive and useful alternative to a weight bench. Plus, when you lie down on or otherwise use a ball while you lift weights, you activate some muscles aside from the ones you're focusing on. These muscles work to keep you stabilized and safely atop the ball.

Core training

Using an exercise ball in your core training can help in two ways. Doing core training atop a ball can help you increase the range of motion you're moving through. Using the ball as a resistance tool or weight also allows you to get more out of your core exercises.

A fancy chair

Most of us sit on a chair for many hours every day, which can lead to rounding the back, dropping the shoulders and a generally slouchy posture. But if you sit on a ball, you will naturally and almost automatically engage your core muscles, which allows you to maintain a nice upright posture while giving you a passive workout.

For a more on-purpose workout, try lifting a foot up off the ground while balancing on the ball.

Also, replacing your office chair with a ball can be a great antidote to the misguided ergonomics of our modern workstations. Instead of encouraging our bodies to stay in the same position for hours on end, sitting on a stability ball encourages your body to switch positions, wiggle around and—best of all—stand up and move more often!

Stretching

A ball can also be a great tool for stretching and elongating the tight muscles in your body. In fact, if you are into doing yoga or Pilates, you may have already incorporated a ball into your practice to add new challenging elements to your workout. So why not add it at home or in your office, too?

What size stability ball is best?

Let’s get it out of the way: When it comes to balls, size matters.

And now that we've let our inner 12-year-olds have their moment, let's talk a little more seriously about the size of your stability ball and why it's important.

If you're tall and you use a ball that's too small, you may be too much for the ball. And if you're shorter and use too large of a ball, then your feet may not touch the ground while lying or sitting on it. Neither of these situations is ideal.

A good way to choose the right ball is to base its size on your height.

Your height Exersise ball size
under 5'0" 45 cm
5’1” to 5'8" 55 cm
5’9” to 6'2" 65 cm
over 6’3” 75 cm

Also, keep in mind that the smaller the ball, the bigger the challenge. You can scale up or down depending on your fitness level and also on how you plan to use the ball in your fitness program. For example, a smaller stability ball makes core exercises more challenging while a bigger one can be more stable if you intend to use it as a workout bench. We'll get into this in more detail in a bit. 

Essentially, it comes down to this: When you perform movements on an unstable surface, you must engage more muscles, which makes the exercise harder. For example, in a study that compared a stability ball crunch with a traditional crunch, doing crunches on a stability ball involves more of your core muscles than doing them on a flat surface.

What is a stability ball made of?

The vast majority of exercise balls are made of what is referred to as anti-burst PVC plastic. This type of plastic has been designed for a combination of pliability and safety under normal sitting and workout conditions. The PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) helps make the ball expandable, resilient, and bouncy enough to perform the way it should. If you like, you can also seek out manufacturers who are committed to designing and developing products made with eco-friendly materials.

Important features in an exercise ball

I would encourage you to look at the weight limit before you buy a stability ball. For most stability balls, the limit is 250 lbs. (about 113 kg), although models capable of supporting much heavier weights are not uncommon.

Also, look for a ball that is burst-resistance or anti-burst. This means that if the ball is accidentally punctured, it won't burst and disappear terrifyingly from under you. Instead, the air will slowly leak out so you're less likely to hurt yourself.

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Recommended by Get-Fit Guy

The ball I have is the Devebor Exercise Ball. I like that it's anti-burst, slip-resistant, and claims to support over 2000 lbs. That's what I call a well-rounded exercise ball!

Effectively using an exercise ball for workout activities requires careful selection of the proper exercise ball. Because personal consultations are not always possible, physiotherapists, exercise trainers, and ball manufacturers have come up with several guidelines to use when selecting the proper exercise ball size.

When you are sitting on an exercise ball:

  • Your feet should be flat on the floor with even weight distribution

  • Your knees should be level to or slightly lower than your pelvis creating at least a 90-degree angle at the hips and knees

  • Your pelvis, shoulders, and ears should be directly stacked one directly above the other

  • Your body should not be leaning in any direction as a counterbalance

Bouncing up and down lightly will usually produce this alignment ... and it's pretty fun!

It is important to note that height alone is not the only factor in determining ball size. Because the exercise balls are flexible and offer resistance, body weight is also a factor.

If your bodyweight to height is larger than average, when you sit on the exercise ball you'll compress it more. If this is the case, try using the next larger exercise ball size so you can come closer to maintaining the 90-degree rule I just mentioned.

Another factor to keep in mind is that, because they're inflatable, ball sizes have some adjustability to them. If the angles of your hips and knees are nowhere near 90 degrees, release or add some air to compensate.

Exercise balls do lose pressure during regular use. They also stretch a bit over time. So, as your ball ages, it will require more inflation. But beware, adding too much air to the ball will increase the difficulty of balancing and stabilizing, so be ready not only with the pump but also the air release nozzle.

Releasing air from the exercise ball will make it more stable due to the larger amount of contact area to the floor and your body. This means that stabilizing and balancing exercises will become easier.

Are exercise balls dangerous?

In the 20 years or so that I've been using exercise balls, I've only ever seen one pop. (It was both alarming and funny!) But, as with any piece of exercise equipment, safety first, kids!

A punctured, torn, or damaged ball should be replaced. Because the ball is designed to be safely used only as designed, the manufacturers do not recommend attempting to repair a damaged ball.

Beware that lifting weights while sitting on a ball will not increase core stability or cause your core to work harder. The sitting position is more likely to increase spinal compression, especially if you sit with a slightly extended or flexed spine. Lie down on the ball with your feet flat on the floor or lie on your stomach to lift weights instead.

6 fun stability ball exercises

Now that you know everything you need to know about stability balls, here's a great workout you can try on your ball.

The 6 fun exercises in this video are:

  1. Jack Knifes
  2. Dead Bugs
  3. Pikes
  4. Torso Rotations
  5. Leg Raises
  6. Push-ups

Do you have a favorite stability ball workout or a funny story about a ball gone awry? Feel free to share it with me on Facebook or Twitter or send me an email at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.