On the Ball

Sculpt a stronger midsection with these 14 exercises.



Written by: Sherri MacMillan, MS

The Workout

  • Perform the 10 stabilization exercises on Mondays and Thursdays. Rest 30 seconds in between each exercise.
  • Perform the four movement exercises on Tuesdays and Fridays. Rest 30 seconds in between each exercise.
  • Complement these four workouts with a full-body routine that challenges your legs and upper body. 
  • Perform the "abdominal stretch over ball" after every workout. And if you sit at a desk all day, perform it several times during your workday as well, if feasible.

  • Five years or so ago, the practice of exercising with large rubber balls really got rolling in gyms across America. Today, enter any fitness facility in the country and chances are you'll see exercisers of all shapes and sizes sitting on, lying across or kneeling on an equally diverse array of brightly colored spheres. Even pro athletes now incorporate ball training in their workout regimens, usually at the urging of strength and conditioning coaches who understand the advantages afforded by these unique training tools. Simply put, exercise balls allow you to improve your balance, posture, body awareness, coordination and core (abs and low back) strength more than exercises using the floor, ground or a workout bench. Exercise balls cost a lot less than the latter, too. 

    Before diving into the exercises, however, take heed of some basic truths regarding core training, presented as answers to common questions on ab training: 

    Q: Are crunches really the best exercise for abs?
    A: Abdominal crunches have become a gold standard of sorts, but they may not be doing as much as you think they are to give you the strong torso you need to play sports, lift objects, perform daily activities or even walk. The problem arises from the nature of the movement itself. A crunch, which entails forward flexion of the spine, places you in the same hunched-forward position that you spend most of your day in, whether you're in front of a computer, meal, TV or a steering wheel. So why strengthen your body in a direction that you should be trying to move out of? Instead, you want to counteract and minimize the forces contributing to a hunched-back posture. I'm not telling you to avoid crunches, but I am suggesting that you complement crunches with more functional and appropriate movements such as those included in this program. 

    Q: Why work your back in concert with your abs?
    A: To help stabilize the spine, the ab muscles must work together with the muscles along the back of the spine. In most people, the abs don't carry their share of the load--they're in a weak, relaxed state for much of the day. This forces the back muscles to do the lion's share of spinal stabilization. No wonder 80% of us will suffer back pain at some point in our lives! The good news is that 90% of all low-back problems are preventable. The key is making a focused effort at strengthening the muscles that can help minimize muscle imbalances and promote better posture. To that end, many of the exercise ball-based exercises here train your abs and low back simultaneously. 

    Getting Started
    The typical woman's ab-training regimen might consist of two sets of crunches performed three times a week. We're talking, say, five minutes a pop, 15 minutes total. That leaves 167 hours and 45 minutes when you're not consciously training abs. In other words, if you have poor posture all day, that five minutes' worth of crunches will be overmatched. So if you want to condition your midsection and minimize the chance of developing back pain, you need to start training your abs all day long. For starters, contract them for 30 seconds. Feel like you're starting to turn blue? If so, you're making the mistake of sucking in your gut muscles as hard as you can. Doing so precludes you from holding the contraction for any length of time, when what you're after is the kind of abdominal endurance needed to sit behind a desk or stand behind a counter all day. This time, contract your abs, but only at 25% or so of your maximum effort--just enough to pull in your abdominal cavity. After 30 seconds or so, your muscles should get tired and relax, causing your abdominal cavity to pop out and protrude again. 

    Once you've mastered this type of extended contraction, do it throughout the day, whenever you think of it. Use triggers, such as sucking it in every time the phone rings or you stop at a red light. And while you should start off with 30-second contractions, gradually make them longer, until you reach one minute, and then two minutes, and then longer. Eventually, your abs will gain enough endurance to start doing their job--stabilizing the spine--all day long. The contraction of your abs will become part of your normal posture, which is what you want to achieve. Trust me, it works. 

    Think about sustaining those contractions when you're working out, too. Ab conditioning should begin as soon as you enter the gym and hop onto the treadmill, stair-stepper or bike. You should be working your abs throughout your entire fitness class, as well as on every single exercise you perform in the gym. If you approach core training this way, you won't have to do hundreds of sit-ups. And you'll be working your abs through a functional range of motion while you're upright, instead of on your back. Who needs their abs when they're on their back? 

    Spheres of Influence

  • What kind of ball should you buy? Sports and gym-equipment stores typically carry both standard vinyl balls and what are called anti-burst balls. I recommend the latter, because if an anti-burst ball is punctured by a pin, staple, rock or some other sharp object, it will deflate slowly rather than explode. Several cases have been reported of individuals exercising on a ball using heavy weights, only to have the ball burst. Not pretty. 
  • What size ball should you use? Exercise balls come in a variety of sizes, but as a general rule of thumb, when you sit on a ball, your knees should be even with or slightly below your hips.
  • How should I inflate the ball? Most balls have an adapter that accommodates a standard bicycle pump. Dedicated ball pumps are also available.

  • Can I start training on a ball immediately? Before embarking on this program, practice sitting on and getting into these start positions on the exercise ball for a few days until you're comfortable with it. 

    Workouts Step by Step
    On the Ball Workout
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