Stability Ball Exercises for Core Strength

Stability ball exercises are often central to a program designed to improve core stability. In recent years, health and fitness practitioners have given greater and greater emphasis to core stability training for injury prevention, rehabilitation and performance enhancement.

The concept of developing strong muscles in the trunk is believed to reduce the risk of both acute and chronic injury and weak core muscles have been associated with low back pain (1,2). Core stability can also improve athletic performance as rapid and controlled limb movement is directly related to the ability of the core muscles to stabilize the spine (3,4)

Stability ball exercises also known as Swiss ball exercises, are believed to activate the trunk musculature to a greater extent than more traditional resistance exercises. The unstable surface of the ball is thought to provide a greater challenge to the core muscles than a solid bench or standing on a stable surface. But is this the case?

Is there any evidence to suggest stability ball exercises activate the trunk muscles any more than traditional resistance exercises?

Research to suggest that this is the case is sparse. One study found that during biceps curls the activity in the rectus abdominis and external obliques increased (5). Another study concluded that 5 weeks of Swiss ball core stability and balance exercises increased torso balance and EMG activity compared to conventional floor exercises in women (6).

Other studies have established that only some of the core muscles (i.e. the rectus abdominis) are activated to a greater extent during stability ball exercises (7) and that not all stability ball exercises induce this increased muscle activation (8). Additionally, researchers have questioned the value of any increased activation of the rectus abdominis, as core stability training aims to minimize its activation in favor of other surrounding muscle groups (8).

Several studies have shown that while stability ball exercises may improve core stability they are not necessarily any superior to conventional exercises (9,10,11).

Of importance to athletes is that stability ball exercises may reduce maximum force production (10,12). The decreased balance associated with resistance training on an unstable surface may force the limbs (and not the core) to play a greater role in joint stability. It would be unwise for athletes to replace all resistance training on stable surfaces with stability ball exercises.

In conclusion then, there is little scientific support to suggest that stability ball exercises are superior to conventional strength training when it comes to core stability. However they do seem to improve core strength and they offer some decided advantages over traditional free weights.


Sample Stability Ball Programs

Regardless of whether stability ball exercises are superior to other forms of resistance training or not, there is no doubt that they are extremely versatile. Stability balls lend themselves very well to home exercise programs where they can replace more cumbersome, space-consuming benches and racks. In fact with just a single stability ball, a small set of dumbbells and / or resistance bands, hundreds of very effective training programs can be completed at home.

The following stability ball exercises cover the major muscle groups of the body. They are not designed to be used with very heavy weights but with strict form and when performed with a slow, even tempo, overload can be achieved within 15-20 repetitions. They can be completed in order, for two to three sessions per week.

Athletes may benefit from stability ball exercises during off season training. The priority during the off season or transition phase is recovery and regeneration. However, the emphasis should be on active recovery rather than complete rest. Developing good core stability during this time will prepare the body for more intense resistance training later on.


Sample Stability Ball Exercises

Incline Dumbbell Chest Press 

  1. Lie on the ball so that the ball is under your upper back. Drop your hips so that they are only a couple of inches off the floor.

  2. Start with the dumbbells at shoulder level and proceed to press them straight up toward the ceiling.

  3. Remember to keep your hands directly above your elbows during the press phase. The dumbbells should end up directly above your chest.

  4. Return to the starting position and repeat.

  5. Complete 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions.
Stability ball chest press

Squat and Press with Stability Ball

  1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent.

  2. Start position: Position medicine ball to ear level.

  3. Go into a full squat. Immediately extend legs and stand up and at the same time press hands up above head keeping wrists over the elbows and arms moving parallel to body at all times.

  4. Return to start position and repeat.

  5. Complete 2 sets of 20 repetitions.
stability ball squats

Stability Ball Crunch

  1. Sit in upright position on stability ball with feet flat on floor.

  2. Walk feet forward allowing stability ball to roll underneath body until it is positioned on lower to mid-back region. Raise hips slightly to create a "table top" position parallel to floor.

  3. Place hands across your chest. Head should be in a neutral position with a space between chin and chest.

  4. Leading with the chin and chest towards the ceiling, contract the abdominal and raise shoulders up.

  5. Return to start position.

  6. Remember to keep head and back in a neutral position. Hyperextension or flexion of either may cause injury.

  7. Complete 3 sets of 20 repetitions.


Stability ball crunches

Dumbbell Bent Over Row with Stability Ball

  1. Stand with feet hip width and knees slightly bent.

  2. Start position: Bend at hips with back straight and knees bent . Take one hand and place on ball that is approximately waist height to support upper body. Hold DB in other hand with a neutral grip and let arm hang straight down (perpendicular to floor). 

  3. Keeping elbows close to body, pull DB up to body and squeeze shoulder blades together at top of movement.

  4. Return to start position.

  5. Remember to keep back and head straight - hyperextension, flexion, or trunk rotation may cause injury.

  6. Complete 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions.
Stability ball rows

Shoulder Press

  1. Sit in upright position on a ball.

  2. Start position: Position DB's to ear level with an overhand grip (palms facing forward).

  3. Press hands up above head keeping wrists over the elbows and arms moving parallel to body at all times.

  4. Return to start position.

  5. Remember to keep back and head straight in a neutral position - hyperextension or excessive flexion may cause injury.

  6. Complete 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions.


Stability ball shoulder press

Low Back Extension

  1. Lie face down on stability ball with knees and feet on floor.

  2. Stability ball placement should be at abdominal to lower chest region.

  3. With hands on chest, raise trunk 4-8 inches.

  4. Lower to start position.

  5. To increase intensity, position ball down towards hips, feet wide with knees off floor. Hands may be placed behind head and overhead to further increase resistance. To increase stability, place feet against wall or stationary object.

  6. Complete 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions.

Stability ball back extensions

References for stability ball exercises

1) Hodges PW, Richardson CA. Inefficient muscular stabilization of the lumbar spine associated with low back pain. A motor control evaluation of transversus abdominis. Spine. 1996 Nov 15;21(22):2640-50

2) Hodges PW, Richardson CA. Altered trunk muscle recruitment in people with low back pain with upper limb movement at different speeds. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1999 Sep;80(9):1005-12

3) Hodges PW, Richardson CA. Contraction of the abdominal muscles associated with movement of the lower limb. Phys Ther. 1997 Feb;77(2):132-42; discussion 142-4

4) Hodges PW, Richardson CA. Relationship between limb movement speed and associated contraction of the trunk muscles. Ergonomics. 1997 Nov;40(11):1220-30

5) Vera-Garcia FJ, Grenier SG, McGill SM. Abdominal muscle response during curl-ups on both stable and labile surfaces. Physical Therapy. 2000;80:564-96)

6) Cosio-Lima LM, Reynolds KL, Winter C, Paolone V, Jones MT. Effects of physioball and conventional floor exercises on early phase adaptations in back and abdominal core stability and balance in women. J Strength Cond Res. 2003;17:721-5

7) Lehman GJ, Hoda W, Oliver S. Trunk muscle activity during bridging exercises on and off a Swiss ball. Chiropr Osteopat. 2005 Jul 30;13:14

8) Marshall PW, Murphy BA. Core stability exercises on and off a Swiss ball. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2005 Feb;86(2):242-9

9) Stanton R, Reaburn PR, Humphries B. The effect of short-term Swiss ball training on core stability and running economy. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Aug;18(3):522-8

10) Anderson KG, Behm DG. Maintenance of EMG activity and loss of force output with instability. J Strength Cond Res. 2004;18:637-40

11) Lehman GJ, Gordon T, Langley J, Pemrose P, Tregaskis S. Replacing a Swiss ball for an exercise bench causes variable changes in trunk muscle activity during upper limb strength exercises. Dyn Med. 2005 Jun 3;4:6

12)Behm DG, Anderson K, Curnew RS. Muscle force and activation under stable and unstable conditions. J Strength Cond Res. 2002;16:416-22