Swiss Balls & Stability Training: Effective Workout or Pointless Fad?

Swiss Ball author agilefitness; morguefileOriginally created in the 1960’s in Switzerland as a physical therapy aide, the “Swiss Ball” has come into vogue over the past decade as a popular tool for fitness training. The theory goes that providing an unstable base from which to exercise increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the exercise in question. The assumption here is that the instability provided by “stability training” will translate to better gains than traditional weight training on stable seats and benches. However, a veritable mountain of recent research has called this assumption into question.

The Swiss Ball and similar knock-off exercise balls have for some time been used as a tool to develop the “core” muscles – that is, the trunk muscles of the abdomen and lower-back. A number of studies have shown the ball’s effectiveness when used in this manner [5,6,10,24].

However, in recent years entire workouts have been designed around these balls while the more traditional machines and free weights have been pushed to the side. Personal trainers looking to make their fitness instruction seem more cutting edge have likewise jumped into the fray, stretching their creativity to sometimes ludicrous degrees to incorporate the balls into fitness programs that often bear more of a resemblance to circus training.

In response to the increased hype surrounding exercise balls, numerous home videos and a plethora of other balance and core/stability-training devices have sprung up to take advantage of the sudden interest. These giant beach balls and similar hardware like Bosu’s, tilt boards, foam rolls, Dyna Discs, etc. are now a ubiquitous sight in most every gym across the country. But are they as effective and as widely useful as so many claim?

An analysis of the available research finds a number of interesting conclusions:

  1. Swiss Balls and like devices may offer some increased muscular activity for abdominal muscles, but not necessarily more or better than those found from more traditional stabilized exercises on the floor or weight benches [2,8,12,13,15,16,20,21,22,23,26,28,30,32].
  2. Research indicates mixed results from the effects of instability on stabilizing muscles of the lower back and the trunk muscles in general [4,8,14,16,17,20].
  3. Most research shows that unstable versions of resistance exercises for muscular size and strength gain (such as bench presses, shoulder presses, biceps curls, etc.) are less effective than the more traditional stabilized versions [1,11,13,22,25,28,30]. In fact, the instability actually reduces the muscular recruitment of the main driver muscles as energy and physical focus are shifted toward bodily stabilization [1,7,14,21,23]
  4. While some research on stability training shows a definite increase in core muscle activity and some stabilizing/synergistic muscles in traditional exercises (such as the deltoid muscles during a bench press) [3,21,24], much of the data is contradictory and doesn’t necessarily carry over to practical athletic benefits [18,19,25,27,30,31]. There is even some limited, but no less disturbing, data that suggests this training may be a detriment to athletic performance and may even potentially lead to injuries [9,29].

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Point number 3 above is most especially important considering the widespread belief (and practice) of using exercise balls and similar instability-producing devices as integral parts of total-body fitness. Proponents of this paradigm suggest that doing an exercise such as a bench press on an exercise ball or other unstable surface makes the exercise more dynamic.

However, while the exercise may indeed be more dynamic, it’s also far less efficient at working the target main-driver muscles. Given that the body is forced to maintain its balance while simultaneously attempting to perform a weight-lifting movement (an energy-intensive and demanding activity in its own right), the intended muscles are actually targeted less than in a more stable version.

Forcing the body to cope with instability shifts the focus to stabilizing musculature of the upper body and trunk, thereby forcing multiple energy and balancing demands upon the body while shifting those reserves away from the originally targeted muscle.

In fact, the research suggests that free weights tend to offer more efficiently targeted stabilizer training than exercise balls since the body must balance itself on the bench (or while standing) while also balancing the weight of the bar or dumbbells and holding the shoulders, hips, back, pelvis and legs steady and firm for the lift. By making the bench itself unstable, we tend to find too much of a good thing and the exercise loses its focus.

What’s worse than this loss of efficiency, however, is the potential for injury. Intuitively this makes a great deal of sense. Attempting strength movements in situations where the base is unstable means that the body and joints can shift while under stress, straining tendons, ligaments and other supporting structures in the process.

This finding is interesting, but not at all unexpected if one thinks clearly about resistance training. The most basic aspect taught to individuals new to such training is to practice “good form”. Good form, regardless of the exercise, requires the practice of proper body alignment. The alignment of bones and joints under weighted resistance provides a solid, stable platform from which to leverage force against the weight. But stability training does exactly the opposite by introducing instability into a situation that innately requires stability to function properly!

Generally speaking, in stability training the most fundamental precept of proper lifting safety is abandoned in favor of a questionable paradigm of training. Obviously, this is an invitation to injury because it requires a whole other basis for practicing proper form. This further places into question the common practice of using this training for novices. Their lack of experience in traditional stabilized weight training would be a recipe for disaster in unstable training.

In summary, if you want to train to be a circus performer, by all means train on unstable platforms, balls, balance beams, whatever. But if you’re trying to grow size or strength in a particular muscle – including core trunk stabilizers –¬†stick with the more tried and true exercises on a stable platform.

Bibliography and research specifics

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