Stability Ball Exercises Can
Add Fun to Fitness Training

Stability balls are fairly recent additions to gyms and health clubs in the United States. But they’ve been used in Europe since 1963, after being developed by Aquilino Cosani, an Italian plastics manufacturer.

In Europe, ball techniques became part of adult treatment for orthopedic or medical problems. They became known as "Swiss Balls" when American physical therapists started using them after seeing their benefits in Switzerland.

Today, they go by a number of different names: stability ball, Swiss ball, fitness ball, yoga ball, and others. They are made of elastic soft PVC and look like giant beach balls that vary in diameter from 14 to 34 inches.

Originally used for physical therapy in clinical settings, ball exercises are now found in athletic departments or as part of general fitness training.

Advocates of ball exercises for strength and fitness say a primary benefit is that your body must respond to the instability of the ball to remain balanced. This in turn engages more muscles than would normally be involved doing the same movements on a flat surface. Usually, the core muscles — those of the abdominal and back — are the focus of exercise ball programs.

I have used fitness balls for abdominal and back exercises and found them to be a good option and a break from the more standard sit-up type movements and back extensions. I have also watched a highly fit woman do almost an entire full-body workout on a ball, moving gracefully and nonstop from one position to the next. I was impressed.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen personal trainers having clients use the balls as benches for supine dumbbell pressing. Supposedly, high quality stability balls are "burst proof" and can handle substantial weight. That may be true most of the time. Yet not long ago I read a news report of a man breaking both arms when his exercise ball burst while he was supine pressing a heavy set of dumbbells. I would not use a ball for support while holding heavy weights above my body, even one that is label ed as "burst resistant."

I’ve also seen trainers having clients lift weights while balancing on Bosu balls (a Bosu ball looks kind of like an exercise ball that has been cut in half). The theory is that this training recruits stabilizer muscles while improving your sense of balance.

I think seniors trying to balance on unstable objects while lifting weights is not the smartest way to train. If your goal is to simply improve your balance, I think yoga, Tai Chi, or Pilates are better options.

If you are developing a home gym, I recommend a quality stability ball for core training options. I would look for the "burst resistant" and/or the "slow to deflate" feature. Still, even with those features, I would never use it for doing exercises while holding heavy weights above my body, in either a supine or a standing position.

What size ball should you have? It should be firm when inflated and when you are seated on it your thighs should be about parallel with the floor. Follow the manufacturer's recommended height-to-size guidelines and you will be fine.

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