What’s the deal with those big bouncy balls taking up space around the gym? Stability balls (also called exercise balls, balance balls, Swiss balls, or fitness balls) are more than just fun to sit and bounce on—they’re a great way to improve strength, cardio endurance, and balance. By tackling basic moves (like push-ups, squats, and planks) on an unstable surface, muscles get more bang for their buck Electromyographic comparison of a stability ball crunch with a traditional crunch. Sternlicht E, Rugg S, Fujii LL, Tomomitsu KF, Seki MM. Department of Kinesiology, Occidental College, Los Angeles, California.Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2007 May; 21(2):506-9.. Stability balls are also great for getting back into shape after an injury because they can reduce muscle and spinal strain during certain movements Do exercise balls provide a training advantage for trunk extensor exercises? A biomechanical evaluation. Drake JD, Fischer SL, Brown SH, Callaghan JP. Department of Kinesiology, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2006 Jun; 29(5):354-62..
To get the most from a bouncy fitness routine, make sure to choose the correct size stability ball. (Note: some moves below use a larger or smaller than normal ball. For most exercises, though, it's best to have correctly sized equipment.) Most balls come in three diameters based on the user’s height: 55 cm for those between 4’11” and 5’4,” 65 cm for people between 5’4” and 5’7,” and 75 cm for tall drinks of water between 5’11” and 6’7.” A good rule of thumb for finding the right fit: Sit on the ball and make sure the hips and knees are at right angles with the floor.
Reps and sets will depend on fitness levels, but for most of these exercises we recommend doing 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 20 reps. After a few workouts, try bumping up the reps to really test that strength. Ready to go? These moves take the stability ball way beyond the basic crunch.
Ready to use the arms and the legs? For this one, complete a traditional squat, while holding the stability ball with the arms extended overhead. Adding weight (nope, not quite light as air) while keeping the torso in an upright position engages the shoulders and deltoid muscles. Go for 10 to 15 reps of this bad boy.
Put those quads to work with this power move. Stand about three feet from a wall with feet shoulder-width apart and the back to the wall. Place the ball between the lower back and the wall and squat down slowly until the legs form 90-degree angles at the knees. Use the ball to support the back as it rolls from the lower back to the shoulder blades. Slowly stand up again, and repeat for 10 to 15 reps.
If you embarrass easily, try this move at home. It may look funny, but it seriously works the hips, lower back, and inner thighs. Stand upright and place the ball between the legs, so the center is about even with the knees (it should not be touching the floor). Squat down until knees form 90-degree angles, squeezing the ball to stay balanced. Hold the position as long as possible, working up to 30 to 45 seconds per set. Note: For this move, consider using a ball that’s not the perfect fit. A larger ball makes this move more difficult, while a smaller ball is a little easier on the thighs. Beginners can also use a chair or wall for help with balance.
Lie on the floor with arms extended perpendicular to the torso and lower calves and heels resting on the ball. Engaging the glutes and abs, lift the hips up from the floor. Use your outstretched arms for stability—you'll feel wobbly! Exhale and slowly bring the knees in towards the hips, so the feet are resting flat on top of the ball. Pause for a few seconds in this position and then inhale, straightening legs out again. Keep those hips up the whole time to get maximum gluteus maximus benefits. Aim for 10 to 12 reps of this total-body move.
Get the blood flowing with a slow and steady squat that works your arms and abs as well as legs. Hold the ball with straight arms so it’s about level with the face. Squat down, bringing the ball all the way to the left side, just above the left foot. Hang tight in this position for three slow breaths, and then untwist the torso and return to standing before repeating on the other side. For the best results, keep that butt down in the squats and hold arms straight out in front of the torso. Try 10 to 15 reps of this twisty move to get the arms, core, and legs in tip-top shape.
Ready for the balance big leagues? While standing, place the ball behind the body and put one foot top-down on the top of the ball. Step the other foot out about six inches, and bend both knees in a deep lunge. Make sure the knee of the front foot does not go over the toes. (For the stability-challenged, a chair or railing can provide extra support.) This advanced move will test stability as well as strength, so shoot for 8 to 10 reps (or as many as you can do with proper form) on each side.
Last but certainly not least, time to work that booty! Start with your chest on the ball, with fingertips and toes resting on the floor. Roll forward so hands are under shoulders and hips are directly touching the ball. With the feet together and the core engaged, lift the legs straight from the floor until they are in line with the torso. Hold for a beat and then repeat. Try for 12 to 15 reps before heading back to solid ground.
These ain’t your mama’s push-ups! Take this basic bodyweight move to the next level with a stability ball. Lie facedown on the ball with hands and feet touching the ground and the stomach on the top of the ball. Walk the hands out until the shins are resting on the ball and the torso is in a flat push-up position. Lower the torso towards the ground until the upper arms are parallel to the ground. Return to the “up” push-up position and continue for 8 to 10 reps (or more, if you can hang).
Pump up the intensity of a standard plank with this move. Using a wobbly stability ball gives the shoulders and arms an extra-tough workout. With one leg extended behind, rest the elbows and forearms on the ball (for a really tough challenge, try this with straight arms). Step the other leg back so the feet are together. Hold the position as long as possible, working up to 30 seconds per set.
This multitasking move works the arms and and core (score!). Kneel behind the ball, with palms down on top. Slowly use the hands to push the ball forward until the triceps are resting on top of the ball and the legs are almost all the way extended with the knees on the ground. Remember: A tight core will keep the body moving straight ahead. Feeling pressure on the knees? Place a towel or yoga mat under them for a little extra TLC. Concentrate on maintaining the proper form for 10 reps straight.
You can do it, put your back into it! Start with the stomach and hips on the ball, legs extended straight behind (toes resting on the ground). Hold onto the ball with the hands for balance. If this position is difficult to maintain due to slippery shoes, try placing the feet against a wall. Raise the chest high (like a yoga “cobra”), bringing the hands to the back of the head. Hold for a beat or two, and return to a relaxed position. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps.
Get stronger tris with this adapted dip exercise. Sit on the ball with legs forming 90-degree angles and feet hip-width apart. Next, place the hands on either side of the hips on the ball and slowly scoot the hips forward so they’re a few inches in front of the ball. At this point, the heels are on the ground and the hands are on the ball supporting the rest of the body. Use the triceps to lower the arms down a few inches, and then return to the starting position. Keep the back straight and abs engaged for 10 to 15 reps.
Been there, done that? This super-advanced move will have even fitness buffs sweating. Start in push-up position (as in no. 8), but with the toes instead of shins resting on top of the ball. With straight legs, use the abdominals to pull the toes towards the chest. Done properly, the torso will be in a push-up position with the back straight (no arching or sagging) and legs angling down towards the ball. This move ain’t for the faint of heart, so give it a shot for 5 to 8 reps.
V for victory (in the killer abs department). Lie face up on the ground with ankles resting on the top of the stability ball. With arms pointing towards the feet, roll the torso up so the body forms a V with the hips on the ground. Hold for five counts (long enough for a serious case of the ab-shakes) and slowly roll back down to the ground. Repeat for 6 to 10 reps.
Get your heart pumping and release that inner child all at once! For this blood-pumping move, sit tall on the ball with abs engaged and feet firmly on the floor. Lift the knees up and down to bounce as high as possible on the ball. Try bouncing for 2 to 5 minutes to keep the heart rate up mid-workout (or try it as a fun warm-up!).
Work those abs with this tough move! Lie face up on the ground with arms and legs extended. Grab the ball overhead with both hands. In one smooth motion, lift the arms and legs in the air, transferring the ball from the hands to the feet (in between the ankles to be exact). At this point, only the hips and butt should be touching the ground. Lower arms and legs with the ball between them to the ground. Stay strong for 6 to 10 reps with correct form.
Start in push-up position with toes resting on the ball and straight arms, with hands on the ground under the shoulders. Bring the knees towards the chest until the knees are directly under the hips. Extend knees back to push-up position and repeat for 10 to 15 kick-butt reps.
Use this move to crunch those hard-to-find lower abs. Place the ball in front of a weight bench or another sturdy piece of furniture. Lie back on the ball, with the shoulders and back touching the surface. Grab the weight bench with the hands and keep the legs pressed tightly together (for a more advanced move, try a free weight). Flex the abs and bring the knees towards the chest, using the arms for stability. Bring those abs out of hiding with 10 to 15 reps.
Wondering where the obliques come in? Try this alpine-influenced move to work the sides of the abs. Sit tall on the stability ball with feet together. In one smooth motion, swing the feet to the right and the arms to the left. Don’t be afraid to get into this move—the higher the enthusiasm the better the workout! Bring arms and legs back to center and repeat for 12 to 15 reps, alternating sides.
Finish up an ab-tastic routine with a bit of a stretch. Stand with legs shoulder width apart, grasping the ball overhead with both hands. Keeping your back straight and abs engaged, bend down bring the ball to the outside of the left foot. Lift the ball again and repeat on the right side. Stay strong (and limber!) for 10 to 15 reps.
Want your very own stability ball? Here are some great exercise balls to do these moves at home!
- The Firm Slim and Stability Ball: This ridged ball comes with a workout DVD for even more stability ball exercise ideas; $30.
- GoFit Professional Sability Ball: A nubbly blue surface will keep this basic ball from getting slippery during a sweaty workout; $20.
- SPRI Elite Xercise Balance Balls: This weighted ball comes with plastic pellets that can be poured into the ball for a more challenging workout. Prying the plug off was tricky, but after we inflated it the ball was much thicker and sturdier than a regular stability ball; $40.
- TKO Fitness Ball: Made of special Anti-Burst material, so feel free to use this wherever. We have these bad boys in our office and sometimes use them as chairs; $20.
- Gaiam Eco Total Body Balance Ball Kit: This ball had the perfect amount of “give,” plus grippy bumps around the sides to prevent slipping; $25.
Originally published October 2012. Updated June 2015.