Gym Ball Exercises That Everyone Should Be Doing
Unstable training has fallen out of favour in recent years, but here’s why it’s worth another look
Think back to the last time you saw a gym ball (also known as a Swiss ball, although no-one seems to know why). We’d wager it was in one of two scenarios: either being used as a dust magnet in a corner of your gym; or being the best supporting actor role in a viral video where the main protagonist will, after several seconds of desperately trying to regain their composure, fall arse over tit and land flat on their face.
But there’s far more to the gym ball than cleaning or comedy purposes. In the right hands it’s one of the most versatile bits of kit in your gym and its potential uses are only limited by your imagination. What’s more, because it’s cheap and lightweight and can be quickly inflated and deflated, it’s one of the first items of home gym equipment you should buy – Argos has a decent range of gym balls (opens in new tab).
The Benefits Of Using A Gym Ball
“The gym ball is so versatile it can be used to help someone who is just starting out in the gym as well as experienced exercisers,” says Stephen MacConville, Nuffield Health (opens in new tab)’s fitness lead.
“A gym ball can be used by beginners to work on their squat technique. If they place the gym ball between the wall and their lower back, it can be used to support their back and help increase the range of movement in the squat.
“Just sitting on a gym ball is great for learning basic co-ordination and balance, and for helping people to improve their awareness of the position and movement of their own body.”
“For the more advanced gym-goer it can help by adding an extra level of instability, increasing the challenge of their workouts in a new and potentially unfamiliar way.”
That instability makes all your stabiliser muscles – those unsung heroes that normally play second fiddle to the pecs, biceps and triceps – work to keep your balance while you perform exercises. Using them regularly for bodyweight moves builds functional strength all over your body that will reduce the risk of sporting injury, improve your posture and support the muscles responsible for taking the strain of heavier compound lifts like squats and overhead presses.
Common Gym Ball Mistakes
Using an unstable surface is great at times, but if you’re looking to work certain parts of the body harder, then a gym ball isn’t always your best bet.
“Adding an unstable surface increases complexity, not intensity,” says MacConville. “Many people perform sit-ups on a gym ball, thinking that it is more challenging for the core. However, you will gain greater benefit from just performing the actual exercise because it will engage the desired muscles rather than all the surrounding muscles.”
The gym ball is also used outside of workouts as an alternative office chair, but don’t use it as a replacement because it can result in worse posture than if you’d stuck with a chair.
“People believe using the gym ball will challenge their core and help them maintain good posture,” says MacConville. “While this is true initially, when the muscles become fatigued your posture can suffer significantly, causing you to sit in a worse position than you would have in a chair.”
Beginner Gym Ball Exercises
Gym ball crunch
Lie with your mid-back on the ball, your knees bent at 90° and your feet planted firmly on the ground. Place your fingers to your temples and lean back over the ball to stretch your abs. Exhale, then contract your abs to bring your torso up. Pause at the top. This move is about the quality of muscle contraction so keep the tempo slow and controlled.
Gym ball reverse crunch
Hold the ball between your calves and the backs of your thighs. Curl your hips off the floor and bring your knees towards your chest. Pause at the top, then lower slowly to the start.
Gym ball crunch twist
Lie with your back on the ball, your feet flat on the floor and your fingers touching your temples. Contract your upper abs to raise your torso off the ball. As you come up twist to one side, pause, then twist all the way to the other side and pause. Return to the start to complete one rep.
Gym ball pec squeeze
Do this drill six days in a row, taking day seven off. Stand tall, holding a gym ball between your elbows with your upper arms parallel to the floor. Squeeze the ball, as if you were using a pec deck, for 20sec, then rest for 60sec. Do this five times. Every two days increase the squeeze time by 5sec. After three weeks you’ll be doing 60sec squeezes with a bigger and stronger chest.
Intermediate Gym Ball Exercises
Gym ball incline plank
Rest your weight on your elbows on the ball. Hold your body in a straight line from head to heels without your hips sagging. Maintain that position for 30 seconds.
Gym ball Russian Twist
Lie with your upper back supported on the gym ball with arms straight above your chest and hands together. Keeping your arms straight and together, rotate your torso to one side to lower your hands towards the ground. Pause, then twist all the way to the other side and pause. Return to the start to complete one rep.
Gym ball jackknife
Hold your body in a straight line with your feet on the ball, hands under shoulders. Draw your knees in towards your chest, then return them to the start without letting your hips sag.
Gym ball roll-out
Kneel in front of the gym ball and rest your forearms on the side of the ball closest to you. Extend your arms to roll the ball forwards, using your abs muscles to control the wobble and keep your body steady. Then roll it back again slowly to return to the start, keeping your back flat throughout.
Gym ball leg scissors
Hold the ball off the floor between your feet. Rotate your lower body to one side, then to the other. Continue, alternating sides.
Gym ball lateral crunch
Lie side-on to the ball and jam your feet against a wall for support. Lift your torso sideways as far as you can. Pause at the top and lower slowly, then repeat on the other side.
Advanced Gym Ball Exercises
Gym ball side plank
Rest one elbow on the ball. Hold your body in a straight line from head to feet. Maintain that position for 30-60 seconds without letting your hips sag.
Gym ball incline press-up
Start in a press-up position but with your palms on the gym ball, shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and bend your elbows to lower your chest to the ball. Press back up powerfully to the start.
Gym ball passing V-sit
Hold the ball between your feet, keeping your arms and legs straight. Lift your legs and arms together to pass the ball from feet and hands. Lower your arms and legs slowly, passing the ball back and forth.
Gym ball chest press
Lie holding dumbbells with your upper back on the ball and your knees bent at 90° with your feet planted on the floor. Start with arms straight and the weights above your head. Bend your elbows to lower them to your chest, then press back up to the start.
Get into a press-up position with one foot on the ball. Bend the other knee and twist your body to one side. Twist your body to the other side, bringing your knee underneath you.
Gym ball pike
Hold your body in a straight line from head to heels with your feet on the ball and your hands directly beneath your shoulders. Contract your abs to draw your feet towards your hands so your body forms an inverted V-shape. Brace your core throughout the set to stay stable, and breathe in as you raise your hips and out as you lower.
Gym Ball Circuit
To sculpt a rock-hard six-pack you need to work your abs harder than ever before. Do this six-move circuit using exercises described above in order, only resting for three minutes after the final move. Then repeat the circuit, completing it four times in total.
1 Incline press-up
It starts with a press-up variation that works your entire core thanks to the instability created by using the ball.
2 Crunch twist
This move works your upper abs as well as your obliques, or side abs. Keep each rep smooth and controlled with your abs engaged throughout.
3 Russian twist
This next exercise continues to tax your obliques hard, helping them grow so you can sculpt a strong and tight six-pack.
This move requires a full activation of your deep-lying core muscles so your upper and lower body can work as a single unit.
Roll-outs on a ball are harder than on a barbell because your entire core must work hard to prevent sideways movement of the ball as you roll it forwards and back.
6 Incline plank
The final move of the circuit is an incline plank, done for time, not reps. Keep your core tight throughout and breathe slowly and consistently.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
- Joe WarnerFormer editor of Men’s Fitness UK