• Photo for Find Your Perfect Ball: How to Choose and Use the Right Stability Ball
    Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith

Find Your Perfect Ball: How to Choose and Use the Right Stability Ball

By Billy Polson

Stability balls are among the most popular additions to gyms in recent years. And no wonder—these large balls are great for every kind of exercise. A stability ball can be used for intense pilates-style movements, but can also bring a core component to any exercise, and when used in place of a flat bench can help to develop correct form in resistance exercises. Sadly, a lack of education around proper use of stability balls has led to concerns about their safety. Lately there has been a lot of news coverage surrounding the use of stability balls in gyms and the danger of their exploding while in use by clients. And I hate to say it, but this is not all just media hype. These balls can be extremely dangerous if some simple guidelines are not followed. Today, I'm going to tell you how to choose a stability ball, how to care for the one you use, and some safe exercises you can do on the ball. It's a stability ball crash-course—minus the crash part.

Stability balls are large objects, and so most of us prefer to use the ones at the gym. But you might want to rethink that plan. Sadly, the vast majority of training gyms worldwide tend to take very poor care of their stability balls. They are almost always under-inflated, worn out, and not burst-proor or even burst-resistant. For this reason, I recommend a couple of options. First, you can purchase your own stability ball using the links and info below and do all of your stability ball work in your own home. No place to store the ball? You can think about replacing your desk chair with the stability ball—for many people they can be very comfortable and ergonomically correct chairs. But if you really can't bear the idea of a giant ball in your home, try showing this article (complete with the links I will give you below) to the fitness director at your gym this article and see if they would help you out in finding safer alternatives to their existing stability balls. In the end, a change such as this would only be a huge benefit to them in terms of protecting their clients and their liability. In my opinion, the Duraball Pro Stability Balls are a great, safe option.

Know Your Balls
Here are a few tips on choosing a ball, whether you are buying one of your own or just using the ones at the gym. This is going to involve taking the time to really examine any ball you use, but once you know what to look for you can make this second-nature.

  1. Go burst-proof when possible: Always make sure that you only use burst-proof stability balls, especially when you are using dumbbells or any other kind of weights while you are on the ball. If you were to stab a burst-proof ball with a knife, it would slowly deflate rather than pop. As you can imagine, this makes a big difference to your experience if you are sitting on the ball when it is punctured or for some other reason gives way. Any burst-proof ball will be labeled as such, including the weight limit to which they are effective. So, always check the labels on the balls in your gym to make sure they say Burst-Proof. If they do not say this then you can assume that they definitely are not.
  2. Go burst-resistant when not: If burst-proof balls are not available at your training center, then I recommend at least using burst-resistant balls. Again, check that the balls are marked as burst-resistant to a certain weight level. Although these balls are not as safe as burst-proof, as long as the balls are new and in good condition, you should be safe to perform body-weight work on them. I would not recommend using dumbbellss or any other additional weight while only on a burst-resistant ball.
  3. Take a look: Before you use any ball, always examine it for nicks, pulls, small tears, or holes. If a ball looks ragged or worn then I would definitely not recommend using it for any type of activity, including body-weight exercises.
  4. Hard is good: I know how this is going to sound, but seriously—balls should be firm when you are using them. You want the ball to maintain its curve and round, unstable factor while you are lying on it, leaning on it, etc. Despite their name, what these balls give you is instability—so that you are forced to find the stability in yourself. That is the advantage of using a ball. If the ball is so loose that it flattens out when you lie down on it, you may as well be using a flat bench or the floor.
Know Your Size
With the wrong size of stability ball, you not only reduce your gains, you can also put yourself at risk of injury. Not surprisingly, the small balls are for small people, and the big balls are for big people. But there are four sizes of ball, and choices to make. The ball's size, measured in centimeters, is printed on the ball. Here is a chart breaking down the different ball sizes by the height of their intended user:

Height of User Size of Ball
Under 5'2" 45 cm
5'2" - 5''7" 55 cm
5'8" - 6'2" 65 cm
Over 6'2" 75cm

Now you've got the right ball in the right size, you need the right workout. With a stability ball, you can take many of your standard exercises and give them a core component through the instability of the ball, as mentioned above. As you try to keep your body steady on the wobbling ball while doing your chest presses, for instance, your core is forced to make many tiny adjustments. This gives you functional core strength, that helps improve your posture and prevent injury. So for starters, think of replacing the flat bench with the stability ball for weight training, or of incorporating the ball into your core strength work. Here are suggestions for some modifications you can start with:
  1. Dumbbell chest work lying on top of ball: Start out lying back with the ball under your shoulders and your core keeping your hips level with your back. Take your feet wide at first for greater stability. Do your dumbbell presses and flys in this position until you get the feel, then make your feet more narrow for greater difficulty. Next, alternate arms with your dumbell presses and flys for a tougher balance challenge. Finally, progress to doing an entire set on one arm (a unilateral exercise) for the toughest core and hip work. At all times, maintain a straight line from shoulders to knees throughout the movements—do not let your butt sag, and keep your belly button in and abs on so your lower back doesn't arch up.
  2. Shoulder and bicep work seated on ball: Sitting on the stability ball with feet flat on the floor, perform shoulder presses, bicep curls, and lateral raises. As with the chest work, start with your feet wide, then feet closer. Finally, balance with a single leg. Maintain perfect spine posture throughout movements.
  3. Push-ups on stability ball with hands on ball: Do standard push-ups, but with your hands on the ball rather than the floor. Start with legs wide, then feet side by side, then one foot on the floor, then finally raise your feet up onto a flat bench for the toughest challenge. Again, maintain a straight spine throughout.
  4. Push-ups with feet on stability ball: Now you can reverse the previous version of push-ups and make things even more difficult by placing your feet on the ball and your hands on the floor for your push-up work. For this version,´start with two feet on the ball, then progress to a single foot. As always, maintain a straight spine.
  5. Stability ball crunches:
  6. It is possible to do crunches using the ball instead of the floor. In addition to the instability of the ball, this allows double the range of spine motion—this exercise is worlds better than floor crunches.. Place the ball under your middle back, with feet on the floor and hands behind your head. Do a set of crunches either to the center or, if you turn onto your side with your upper body, sideways for your obliques. laying on side for obliques.
  7. Plank position core work on ball: Your basic plank position is a core workout in itself: simply holding the push-up pose, with hands on the floor and feet on the ball, or with forearms on the ball and feet on the floor, is a stability challenge. But you can make this a dynamic exercise by, with hands on the floor and toes on the ball, bringing your knees toward your chest and rolling the ball under you in a knee tuck. Keep a straight spine without letting your hips come up high.
Good luck and safe workouts ahead!

About Billy Polson: Billy Polson is the founder and co-owner of DIAKADI Body , which was voted the best personal training gym in San Francisco by CitySearch in 2006 and 2007. A competitive swimmer and triathlete in his own right, Polson has over 15 years of experience working as a coach and trainer. He was recently named by Men's Journal (December 2005) as one of the Top 100 Trainers in America.