Fitball, swiss ball, birthing ball, therapy ball or stability ball (SB) – it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are all the same thing and as the various names suggest, there are many uses for them. The primary benefit for using SB’s in an exercise program is suggested to be lumbopelvic stability, working off the theory that actively causing instability in the region will heighten neuromuscular activation and therefore improve the body’s ability to stabilise the joints when performing everyday tasks because of a heightened nervous system and therefore greater muscle contraction. Once the axial skeleton is supported, the forces created through movement can be efficiently transferred from one area of the body to another.
For example when throwing a ball, a pivot at the hips can generate more power for more distance than could be achieved by the arm on its own. When performing a movement of any sort, lumbopelvic instability results in an “energy leak” where the forces generated do not get transferred for use in the limbs and overall strength is compromised, leaving opportunity for injury.
When utilised properly, the SB can be a fantastic complement to traditional strength training to resolve any joint instability, particularly in a rehabilitation setting or for a client with significant weakness. Whether you’re looking at glenohumeral, pelvic, thoracic or lumbar stability, the SB can offer industry professionals a massive range of supplement exercises. J.Carter et al (2006) performed a study on the use of a SB by sedentary people in relation to spinal stability, and it was concluded the SB could be an effective intervention tool in worksite wellness programs after very favourable results were shown after a 10 week SB training program was completed and all participants markedly improved their spinal stability.
In separate studies by Mills et al and Butcher et al it was found that athletes with the largest improvements in lumbopelvic stability via a core strengthening program also had the greatest improvements in their vertical jumps. This highlights the importance of a strong trunk region for energy transfer and the benefits of including specific core work into any program. A SB is a great way to do this as you can keep it interesting and relevant to the needs of an individual by including different planes of motion, open/closed kinetic chain exercises and any number of progressional movements. You can be as creative as you like while incorporating similar movements to those that the client may perform in a work, home or recreational setting: otherwise known as functional training.
The flip side to the SB story is knowing the right time and place to prescribe them. Some of the negative literature around SB’s is in strength training circles and perhaps rightly so. A study by Anderson et al found that adding an unstable surface to maximum lifts saw a 30% decrease in force output in most participants. Therefore it was concluded that if maximum force could not be produced then this will have negative effects on power and strength outputs which is critical in the sports industry in particular.
So, the use of stability balls is very much about knowing your clients’ needs. As fitness professionals, as a broad stroke we generally come across clients with extremely poor overall joint stability, core strength and kinaesthetic awareness and have goals for weight reduction, general strength and better well-being. This makes the SB an effective tool to combat multiple issues at once as part of a balanced program. However SB use could inhibit a client who has maximum strength based goals. As fun as they are to practice party tricks, make sure your prescription of SB exercises is in line with the desired outcomes of the individuals you are working with.
**NB** From a point of safety, it is critical that any client has mastered a movement pattern in a stable environment before introducing instability or else their risk of injury is increased dramatically.
Butcher SJ, Craven BR, Chillibeck PD, Spink KS, Grona SL, and Spriqinqs EJ. The effect of trunk stability training on vertical takeoff velocity. J Ortho Sports Phys Ther 37: 223–231, 2007.
Mills JD, Taunton JE, and Mills WA. The effect of 10-week training regime on lumbopelvic stability and athletic performance in female athletes: A randomized control trial. Phys Ther Sport 6: 60–66, 2005.
THE EFFECTS OF STABILITY BALL TRAINING ON SPINAL STABILITY IN SEDENTARY INDIVIDUALS (2006) JACQUELINE M. CARTER, WILLIAM C. BEAM, SHARI G. MCMAHAN, MICHELLE L. BARR, AND
LEE E. BROWN California State University, Fullerton, Division of Kinesiology and Health Science, Fullerton, California
Tristan Hill, Masters of Sports Coaching, author of Lifting the Bar and mentor to Personal Trainers.