There isn’t a shortage of tools to train the core. They range from the great — TRX, ab wheel, resistance bands, kettlebells — to the ab crunch machine. Some lifters argue compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and carries are all that’s needed to train the core. But most lifters need some direct core work to strengthen and develop their core fully. Training hard and heavy is great core training, but there are times when you need to give your body a break from heavy lifting.
Direct core work can help strengthen imbalances that may exist and have a positive overall effect on your big three lifts. An underrated tool for core training is the stability ball — a tool invented in 1963 by Italian plastics manufacturer Aquilino Cosani — which challenges the body through instability, not loading, for a joint-friendly ab session.
4 Stability Ball Core Exercises
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The instability of the ball takes the side plank to a new level. Your hips are more involved, particularly the adductors — the prime movers that help get you out of the bottom of the squat, so it pays to strengthen them. The best part is, you don’t have to sink into heavy squats to do it. You can strengthen your adductors without your body having to pay such a steep recovery toll.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Side Plank
- Directly train anti-lateral flexion, which will help stabilize your deadlift lockout and make your squat more efficient.
- Improve your shoulder stability by adding an unfixed element to your training.
- Increase your adductor strength without working under a heavy load.
How to Do Stability Ball Side Plank
Actively press the ball with your legs and push your elbow into the ground. Start with 15 seconds on each side and work into the 30-second range when you get more proficient. Seeing you’re already on the ground, treat yourself to this core exercise pair: stability ball side planks for 15-30 seconds and six reps of dead bugs.
This exercise has you perform a standard plank, but with your forearms resting on the ball so you can make small circles with your arms. It’s a minor tweak that creates major instability in the core to train your core stabilizers. It’s okay if it takes some trial and error to get your angle right. You’ll want to make your circles big enough to matter but small enough to keep your form intact. Maintaining as much core tension as you can throughout the move will maximize the effectiveness.
Benefits of Stir the Pot
- You’ll train your core in anti-extension and anti-rotation all in one fell swoop.
- To maintain plank position, you’ll squeeze your glutes throughout the movement, leading to more glute strength.
- You’ll challenge your shoulder stability, without which your pot will collapse.
How to Stir the Pot
Dig your elbows into the stability ball the entire time. Wider circles, while your feet are closer together, make this more difficult. Conversely, using a wider foot stance with smaller circles makes this exercise easier. Pair this with another stability ball exercise like the hip extension hamstring curl to train the posterior core. For example, stir the pot for eight circles in each direction, then perform 12 to 15 reps of stability ball hip extension hamstring curls.
This is similar to the ab wheel, as it trains spinal anti-extension. However, the starting position is higher, and the unstable ball makes it a bit more interesting. It may look easier than the ab wheel equivalent, but don’t be fooled. A softer, higher base adds an extra layer of instability and muscle activation.
Benefits of Stability Ball Fallout
- Train for spinal anti-extension, which will make for more efficient energy transfers during all of your big lifts.
- Strengthen your glutes by performing each rep without overcompensation and low back hyperextension.
- Improve your full-body coordination, balance, and kinesthetic awareness.
How to Do Stability Ball Fallout
Start in a tall kneeling position. Use your forearms — braced on the stability ball — to roll out up and over your head. Keep your body in a solid plank position throughout the movement. Having something soft underneath your knees helps. It’s really easy for the spine to slip into extension, so make sure to squeeze your glutes the entire time to prevent this. Pair this with a stability ball side plank to give your core a double whammy. Try eight reps of stability ball fallouts followed by 15-30 second side planks.
You might already incorporate inchworms with pushups into your dynamic warmup routines. This will up the ante and target your core as a full-on exercise all its own. The stability ball will challenge your core and shoulder stability while ‘walking.’ The moment you’re slightly off-track ‘walking’ there or back, you’ll meet the floor. The push-up is the cherry on top.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Walkout With Push-Up
- Improve full-body coordination and kinesthetic awareness by treating your body as a single unit in motion.
- Increase your glute strength as you maintain your balance and resist spinal extension.
- Strengthen your chest, triceps, and shoulders with the added challenge of instability in your pushup.
How to Do the Stability Ball Walkout With Push-Up
Start in a prone position with the ball roughly under your stomach. Take small steps forward with your hands until your feet touch the back of the ball. When you’ve reached maximum extension, keep your glutes squeezed to avoid hyperextending your back. With the tops of your feet on the ball, perform your pushup. Then step backward with your hands until the ball is under your belly again. Try not to touch your feet to the ground until you’ve finished your set. Pairing this with a chin-up or row variation will threaten to give your upper body more than it can handle. Try six stability ball walkout with push-up reps followed by six chin-ups.
The Benefits of Core Stability Ball Training
No need to reinvent the (ab) wheel during your core training — and yes, you should be specifically training your core. Stability balls might be one of the most basic staples in every gym. But they’re there with good reason. Training your core with stability balls will boost your kinesthetic awareness, target your core stabilizers, and reduce injury risk. (1) Put all this together, and it carries over into some pretty heavy-duty lifting numbers.
Increase Muscle Recruitment (Without Increasing Load)
Whenever you’re looking to add accessories to your training, you need to think about recovery. How can you most effectively challenge your muscles without jeopardizing your main lifts? With stability balls, you can do just that.
The ball adds major instability to bodyweight moves, which increases overall muscle recruitment, especially core stabilizers. In effect, you’re increasing the challenge but without increasing the strain on your central nervous system and muscles. (2) This type of training allows you to put in the accessory work you need to strengthen your core. But you don’t have to take away from our overall recovery to do it. That’s a real win-win for your major lifts.
Improve Full-Body Coordination And Kinesthetic Awareness
Don’t be afraid to look a little ridiculous before you look cool while using a stability ball. It’s okay — everyone has overbalanced on them more than once. Plus, it’ll do you a lot of good. Especially when you’ve been lifting for a while, it’s easy to take your relationship with your body for granted.
Adding stability balls to your training literally shakes up that relationship. You’ll need to relearn — or learn for the first time — how different parts of your body relate to each other. To complete your reps, stability ball work will force you to focus on balance and full-body coordination. Your level of kinesthetic awareness will increase, which translates into cleaner lifts when you’re working with a loaded barbell.
Reduce Risk Of Injury
In part, this one is tied to the idea that you’ll be activating more muscles with less load. The reduced amount of weight obviously puts less of a strain on your central nervous system and your muscles. So, you can recover faster and easier. It’s also about the fact that working on a stability ball increases core stabilizer activation, which in general leads to safer lifting. (3)
The stronger your core stabilizers, the more stable your body is. That stability is definitely something you want when you’re pushing yourself to the limit on the deadlift platform.
More Core Training Tips
The stability ball is one of the most unassuming but humbling pieces of equipment in your gym. Once they’ve inspired you to give your core the focus it deserves, check out these core training articles for more.
- The 6 Best Rotational Strength Exercises Worth Adding to Your Workout
- Abide By These 5 Rules of Core Training for Stronger Abs
- Core Training for Weightlifters and Functional Fitness Athletes
- Build Ridiculous Core Strength With The Toes to Bar
- Calatayud J, Borreani S, Colado JC, et al. Muscle Activation during Push-Ups with Different Suspension Training Systems. J Sports Sci Med. 2014;13(3):502-510. Published 2014 Sep 1.
Silva FHO, Arantes FJ, Gregorio FC, Santos FRA, Fidale TM, Bérzin F, Bigaton DR, Lizardo FB. Comparison of the Electromyographic Activity of the Trunk and Rectus Femoris Muscles During Traditional Crunch and Exercise Using the 5-Minute Shaper Device. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jan;34(1):1-10. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003250. PMID: 31373978.
Vera-Garcia FJ, Grenier SG, McGill SM. Abdominal muscle response during curl-ups on both stable and labile surfaces. Phys Ther. 2000 Jun;80(6):564-9. PMID: 10842409.
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