You find them everywhere—at the gym, in the office break room, and gathering dust in the corners of people's homes. I'm talking about those big vinyl exercise balls, variously called stability balls, fitness balls, physioballs, and Swiss balls. Developed in the 1960s by a Swiss doctor for rehabilitation therapy, they are now all the rage for toning core muscles and improving balance and flexibility—and they can be handy tools for short fitness breaks at the office.
Sitting on a stability ball requires the core muscles of your abdomen and back to work together; you also recruit more muscles in your legs and butt to stabilize yourself. The balls can be incorporated into a range of exercises—from curls, crunches, and squats to bridges, planks, pushups, and more—to make those exercises more challenging. Stability balls are also good for stretching and relaxing muscles that are stiff from too much sitting.
Find the Right Stability Ball
Some trainers recommend using the ball as a chair, but a better idea is to use it for a series of short exercise breaks throughout your day, to get you up out of your chair and moving. First, choose the right size ball (both your hips and knees should be at 90 degree angles when you sit on it), and make sure it's inflated properly; it should have a little give but be fairly firm. Make sure the flooring is not too slick, and use rubber-soled shoes, or go barefoot, for better traction. The American College of Sports Medicine has a useful brochure on selecting and safely using stability balls.
Proper technique: Place your feet shoulder-width apart (a little wider for more stability) and, before you begin an exercise, draw your navel toward your spine to engage your abdominal core and squeeze your butt. Learning to sit properly before attempting exercises is important. LiveStrong has a short video on proper sitting technique. If you're new to stability balls, a good way to begin is to do controlled hip circles in both directions, making sure to engage your abdominal muscles. Next, put your hands behind your head, suck in your stomach, and roll slowly down your spine until the ball is in the small of your back, then roll up again slowly, controlling the movement all the way.
Once you're comfortable that you can control the ball, you can move on to beginner stretches and exercises. Here are a couple of easy stretches to get you warmed up:
Modified yoga flat back pose:
- Stand behind the ball with your feet a little more than hip-width apart; be sure you don't lock your knees.
- Put your hands on the ball and, keeping your knees soft, walk the ball out with your hands, bending at the waist until your hips are at 90 degrees.
- Don't let your head drop—keep your back flat and your neck and head in alignment.
- Relax into your arms and pull your butt up and back toward the wall to stretch your hamstrings.
Modified yoga child's pose:
- Kneel with the ball in front of you, your hands on top of it.
- Sit back on your heels and walk the ball away from you.
- Drop your head and relax into your arms and hips.
The "Lana Turner stretch": My first Pilates instructor got this name from one of her clients, who thought the stretch looked like a sultry pose from a 1940s movie star.
- Sit on your right hip with your legs folded under you, feet facing behind you (my instructor called this the "mermaid position") with the ball on your right.
- Rest your right armpit and ribs against the ball, and put your right hand against the side of your head. Your other arm should rest along the top of your legs, or you can put your hand on the floor, or your hip, for more stability.
- Relax onto the ball (varying your distance from the ball changes the intensity of the stretch), and then slowly roll the ball forward, looking and twisting to the right, then back, looking to the left.
- Repeat on the other side.
Disclaimer: Always check with your healthcare professional before beginning a new exercise regime, especially if you have a history of back problems. Never do anything that causes pain.
Eileen Ecklund is a San Francisco writer and editor.