Do you have a stability ball, also known as a Swiss ball, at home? If so, you might use it to do abdominal exercises. When you do ab crunches lying on an unstable surface, like a stability ball, it engages not only the rectus abdominus, the superficial abdominal muscles that run down the front of your torso but the stabilizing muscles in your core and spine as well. Exercising on an unstable surface can also improve your coordination and balance.
While we think of a stability ball as an effective tool for abdominal and core exercises, you can also use one as an unstable surface to do upper body training exercises. For example, you can sit on a stability ball while doing biceps curls, triceps extensions, overhead presses, bench press, or lateral raises, to name a few. Here’s the question. What additional benefits are you getting when you do upper body exercises on an unstable surface like a Swiss or stability ball? Let’s see what research shows.
Upper Body Resistance Training on a Swiss Ball
First, there are pros and cons to doing upper body resistance exercise on a stability ball. Because you’re operating from an unstable surface, you’re activating more stabilizing muscles than you are when you do the same exercise on a flat surface. On the other hand, you’re not activating the primary muscles, or prime movers, to the same degree as when you’re training on a stable surface. So, you’re activating MORE muscles but placing less force on the primary muscles you’re working.
In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers measured muscle activation when participants did bench presses on a stability ball. With bench press, the primary muscles you’re working are your pec muscles and your triceps. What they found was participants experienced LESS activation of the pecs and triceps when they bench pressed on a stability ball but MORE engagement of the supporting muscles like the deltoids and abdominal muscles.
Stabilizing Muscles versus Prime Movers
In another study, researchers measured a larger increase in deltoid muscle activation using a free-weight bench press versus a bench press on a machine due to the greater requirement for shoulder stabilization using free weights. Bench pressing on a stability ball is another situation where you call more shoulder muscles into play to maintain stability. Not only do your shoulder stabilizers work harder but so do muscles in your abs and core. However, the prime movers, the triceps, and pecs aren’t generating as much force as they would if you were lying on a flat bench.
What does this mean? There are advantages to activating more stabilizer muscles, especially the ones that support your spine. When you do upper body exercises on a stability ball, you’re also working the deep abdominal muscles called the transverse abdominus as well as two deep back muscles called the quadratus lumborum and multifidus that support your lower back and protect it against injury. With so much focus on working the anterior muscles, the ones that you see, the deeper, posterior muscles sometimes get neglected. When you exercise on an unstable surface you call more of these “neglected” muscles into play.
On the other hand, you may be sacrificing force production for the primary muscles you’re working when using a stability ball. That’s why you shouldn’t do ALL of your upper body resistance exercises on an unstable surface. The best option? Use a Swiss ball during some of your sessions to work your core and stabilizers more but do the rest of your sessions on a flat surface so you can maximally work the prime movers.
In some cases, a Swiss ball makes performing upper body exercises considerably more challenging. An example? Kick up your push-ups a notch by doing a “balance push-up.” To do this exercise, lie face down with your tummy on the ball. Slowly walk your hands out until your calves are resting on the ball in a decline push-up position. In this position, do as many push-ups as you can. This move is considerably more challenging because you’re in a decline position. Plus, you’re in an unstable position so you have to work harder to maintain balance. To make it even tougher, roll the ball further down your legs so it’s close to your toes. The balance challenge becomes greater the further the ball is from the center of your body.
Are Stability Ball Ab Exercises More Effective Than Mat Exercises for Abs?
You’re sacrificing some force production when you do upper body resistance exercises on a stability ball – but what about abdominal exercises? A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared muscle activation when participants did abdominal crunches lying on a flat surface or on a stability ball. The findings varied with the placement of the ball. When participants placed the ball at the level of the scapula, muscle activation in the abs and external obliques was lower relative to doing a traditional crunch on a flat surface. However, when they moved the ball to the level of the lower back and crunched, muscle activation was greater than crunches performed on a flat surface.
So, if you want more of a crunch challenge, do them on a stability ball and position your lower back around the center of the ball. To increase the difficulty, even more, extend your arms above your head when you crunch.
Here’s a tip. When you use a Swiss ball, make sure the ball you’re using is the correct height. When you sit on the ball, your legs should be at a 90-degree angle. The closer you place your feet together when sitting on the ball, the more of a balance challenge you’re creating.
The Bottom Line
You’ll gain additional benefits when you do exercises on a Swiss ball because you’re introducing a balance challenge and calling more stabilizer muscles into play, but you’re also “stealing some of the thunder” from the prime movers. So, do some, but not all of your weight training exercises on an unstable surface like a stability ball. By alternating between stable and unstable surfaces, you’ll give your stabilizing muscles more of a workout but still challenge the primary muscles you’re working.
J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):506-9.
Journal Strength Conditioning Research. 20: 745-750. 2006.
Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Apr; 7(2): 226-241.
Fitness RX. April 2007. “Muscle Activity Increases During Swiss Ball Bench Press”
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*see equipment details for each DVD to see if a stability ball is used