Using a Swiss Ball is a fantastic way to add complexity to your training program. "It challenges your core's ability to brace against compensatory movements and reduces risk of injury to the lumbar spine and lower back," says Luke Pelton, C.S.C.S., a weight training instructor and competitive powerlifting coach.
It's crucial to understand, says Pelton, that your core isn't just about your "abs." The entire core includes your obliques, muscles in your lower back, hip flexors, and even your glutes. "Nearby systems affect one another, and so by targeting some of these surrounding areas we ensure a safe, healthy, functioning core!" These moves, provided by Pelton, will challenge your entire core.
How to: In order to perform these exercises properly and safely, you must brace your spine. "To do this, we want to pack the shoulders (pull the shoulder blades back and down), brace the core (maintain rigidity around the lumbar spine), and brace the glutes (think about squeezing your butt cheeks under your hips). This will maintain proper spinal alignment during the exercises and provide the stability we need," says Pelton.
Directions: Work a few of these moves into your regular strength routines (or before you do cardio). Perform 10-15 reps of each with a light to moderate weight.
For an extra challenge: Positions held for time can be held longer for more endurance, according to Pelton. If you're already a core freak, Pelton suggests you have a partner place a weight plate on your upper back for additional core activation.
1. Overhead squat
Hold the ball as directly overhead as possible, focusing on packing the shoulders, bracing the core, and keeping the glutes squeezed under the body. Take a stance just outside shoulder-width with toes turned 10° out from straight ahead. Squat down by opening up the hips and pushing the knees out and sitting down toward your heels. Ideally, you want to be going past a parallel position (crease of the hip passing below the top of the knee) which ensures proper hip activation and thus safety of the knee joint during the movement. Return to the starting position by contracting the glutes hard and driving through the heels, making sure to keep the knees out or over the heels as you extend your hips. Focus on maintaining proper core bracing throughout the movement, and don’t forget the ball that’s overhead. Take it slowly at first to focus on keeping the ball directly overhead as you squat.
2. Overhead walking lunge
Following the same protocols as the overhead squat, hold the ball overhead and step into a lunge. At the bottom, knees should be at roughly 90° angles. Focus on maintaining core stability throughout the movement. Return to the starting position by driving through the front heel and squeezing the glutes hard.
3. Hamstring curl
Begin by laying supine on the floor with the ball under your heels. Contract the glutes to elevate the hips so that the body is in a straight line from shoulders to ankles. Bring the ball toward the hips by contracting the hamstrings and flexing at the knees. Focus on maintaining core tightness throughout so that the hips do not sag toward the ground.
4. Reverse extension
Lie on top of the ball with your hips and core on the ball and your hands on the ground to stabilize. Keeping the legs straight, raise them behind by contracting the glutes and lower back. Lower the feet back to the ground with control. Focus on not swinging the legs; stay tight and controlled throughout the movement.
5. Plank with feet on ball
Begin by laying prone (facedown) on the ground with the ball under the ankles and shins. Assume a plank position by raising the body up onto the forearms and bracing the core. Hold for up to a minute, keeping the abdominal wall, as well as the glutes, tight throughout the movement.
6. Plank with torso on ball
This plank is similar in nature to the previous exercise, but in this case the forearms will be on the ball and the feet will be in contact with the ground. This inclined position may present an opportunity for the hips to stick out; fight this urge by keeping the glutes squeezed and tucked under the torso. Hold for up to a minute.
7. DB bench press
Begin by sitting on the ball and grasping a set of dumbbells. While keeping the dumbbells at your chest, carefully lower your body down the ball until the ball is directly below your shoulder blades. Then, extend the hips so that there is a straight line from shoulders to knees, and the knees are at a 90° angle. Perform a dumbbell bench press as you normally would. Balancing on the ball will provide a unique element of instability to the movement, so use lighter weights to begin with.
8. Seated DB OHP
Begin in the same manner as the DB bench press, but remain seated on the ball for the entirety of the movement. Begin with the dumbbells at shoulder height and perform an overhead press. Focus on maintaining proper core and glute tightness. Do not compensate for a lack of core tightness by arching through the thoracic (upper) spine. Begin with a light enough weight where you can control it safely and effectively.
Assume the same starting position as the bench press, with the ball under the upper back. Hold one dumbbell directly over your collarbone with arms extended. Lower the weight to the forehead, making sure to keep the elbows tucked in line with the shoulders. Return to the starting position by contracting the triceps. Be sure to keep hips extended and the core tight throughout the movement.
10. Feet-up pushup
Begin in a similar fashion to the feet-up plank. However, instead of starting with the forearms on the ground, start with the arms extended in a pushup position. Perform a pushup. Focus on maintaining core and glute tightness throughout, but also on the angle of the arms in relation to the body. Keep the upper arms at a 45° angle to the midline of the body. This will mitigate the risk of shoulder impingement issues.
11. Hands-up pushup
Begin in a similar fashion to the plank with the torso on the ball. Extend the arms carefully so that the hands are on the ball. Perform a pushup, being sure to keep the upper arms at a 45° angle to the body. Focus on keeping the hands under the shoulders and not too far out in front.
12. Back extension
Lie face down on the ball with it underneath your hips. Begin with your body in a straight line so your torso is off the ball. Lower your torso to the ball with control while keeping your hands behind your head or crossed on your chest. When your torso makes contact with the ball, contract your glutes and lower back to raise your torso back to the starting position. Note: do not raise the torso higher than in line with the lower body, as this hyperextension puts a fair amount of stress on the lumbar spine.
Begin facedown with the ball under the toes, arms extended and hands on the ground. Contract the abs to bring the ball close to the hands, while raising the hips in the air to accommodate the movement. Lower with careful control back to the starting position. Focus on maintaining good form and core activation, then try to work the ball closer to the hands.
14. Knee tucks
Begin facedown with the ball under the shins and your hands on the ground, with arms extended. Contract the abs to bring the knees close to your midsection. Return to the starting position with control. Note: take this slowly, as having your legs up on the ball will make it very difficult to balance.
15. Hip extension
Begin face-up with your upper back on the ball and your feet out in front of you, with knees bent and hips toward the ground. Brace your core and contract your glutes to drive the hips up so that they form a straight line from shoulders to knees (as in the DB bench press). Return with control to the starting position.
Begin facedown with the ball under the hips and lower torso. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand and row them up to the midsection in a neutral grip. While keeping the elbows tucked in to the body, contract the triceps to extend the arms. Focus on not moving from the shoulder joint. Squeeze the triceps hard at the top of the movement, and then return with control to the starting position.
17. DB row
Assume the same starting position as the kickback. Row the dumbbells up to the midsection and then lower them with control. These can be done with either a neutral, overhand (pronated), or underhand (supinated) grip.
18. Wall squat
Begin by placing the ball between a wall and your body while facing away from the wall. The ball should be against your upper and mid-back. Cross the arms across your chest or hold them out in front of you. Squat down with control, focusing on maintaining a neutral, upright torso position while executing proper squat mechanics (core/glutes braced, knees out, hips down toward the heels). Return to the starting position. Note: try not to lean back into the ball, but focus on simply holding the ball between your body and wall as you squat.
Begin in a similar fashion to the plank with torso on the ball. While keeping the core braced hard, carefully allow the ball to roll out in front of you while keeping your forearms on the ball. When you feel you are almost at the “point of no return,” contract the abs to bring the ball back to the starting position. Note: many will have the tendency to allow the core to sink down as they move through the movement. Try to focus on keeping the belly button tucked up toward the spine to maintain a neutral spinal alignment.
Begin by lying face-up on the ground with the ball between your arms, with arms extended behind the head. Contract the abs to crunch up while keeping the ball overhead. While doing so, raise the legs to meet the arms above the body. Pass the ball between the hands to the feet, and lower the legs and arms back down. Perform the movement again, but now pass the ball from the feet back to the hands. Focus on maintaining smooth, controlled motions and keeping the core braced every inch of the way.