The exercise ball — or stability ball or balance ball or Swiss ball — has undergone an odd evolution. At first, it was the hottest thing on the gym scene, with entire racks devoted to it. Then the fad waned amid an uproar fanned by strength purists who claimed that balls had no practical value for those looking to build strength or size because they forced you to focus more on balance than the weight being lifted. When the kerfuffle settled and cooler heads prevailed, exercise balls were understood for what they really were: just another tool that could (and should) be used in the pursuit of a better, more athletic physique. Throw your existing routine off-balance today by trying some of these ball-based moves.
1. BALL-BASED ABS
Exercise balls are great for abdominal work because all the micro-corrections required to stabilize your body mean more total core musculature is required for each rep. But if you’re looking for a real challenge, try reverse crunches on the ball. Lie back on a ball with your hands grasping a stable object (like a pole or one of the struts of a rack) for support. Carefully raise your feet from the floor to the traditional reverse-crunch starting position and perform reps as normal. To make it even harder, perform straight-leg raises from the same start position.
2. HAMSTRING CURLS
Want to find a way to torch your hammies away from the leg curl? Lie flat on your back with the ball at your feet. Place your heels up on the ball and elevate your hips so that your body is in a straight line. Bending only at your knees, “curl” the ball toward your glutes, hold for a count and slowly roll the ball back out to the starting position. For a greater challenge, try these using only one leg.
3. ROLL OUT!
Few exercises are more effective at generating deep, north-to-south abdominal soreness like ab-wheel rollouts. You can mimic the effect by using a ball. From your knees, place your forearms on top of a ball and roll forward as far as you can before reversing the motion. You can crank up the intensity by starting from a kneeling position on a bench or by simply using a smaller exercise ball.
We cringe when we see a trainer walking someone through load-bearing squats on the ball. Not only is this dangerous, but the client’s squat is about as likely to see improvement as Nicolas Cage is to win another Oscar. That’s not to say that the ball is without potential for strength gains. To really target your upper chest, you can do decline push-ups with your feet elevated on a ball. The bigger the ball, the greater the angle, the greater the benefit.
5. BULGARIAN SQUAT
The Bulgarian squat — basically a stationary lunge with your rear foot elevated on a bench — is a proven strength builder that targets your entire thigh, with a heavy emphasis on the glutes. But going heavy can be tough, and for most people, Bulgarian squats will never replace regular old squats. If you want to get the best of both worlds, perform Bulgarian squats with lighter (not light) dumbbells after your primary strength moves on leg day. Simply place your rear foot flat on top of a ball — strategically placed about two feet behind you — and start knocking out reps. Newbies may want to place the ball against a wall the first time they try this. As you develop balance and familiarity with the move, you can move the ball out into open space.