Exercising with a Fitness Ball - dummies

Exercising with a Fitness Ball

By Ellie Herman

The fitness ball — basically a big, somewhat bouncy ball — was supposedly developed by a physical therapist in Europe who wanted injured patients to be able to get some aerobic conditioning. The therapist put patients on the ball and had them bounce. Eureka — the patients got a great workout without impacting their injuries.

Fitness balls are still used by physical therapists and Pilates teachers to rehabilitate back, knee, and hip injuries, but they can do a whole lot more. The big balls can really make exercise fun, and they can be a great tool to help you master core stability, balance, control, and strength.

Sitting on a ball instead of a chair is a great way to keep your spine healthy. Try to sit on a ball for at least part of your work day, if you have a desk job. When you sit on a ball, you’re forced to sit up with good posture because you have nothing to lean back on. Also, because the ball rolls around, it keeps you on your toes and keeps your body moving, which help prevent the stiffness and back pain that you can get from being too sedentary.

The ball rolls around easily, so core strength and balance are required to keep it still. The challenge of keeping the ball still makes the ball an excellent tool to teach stability and rehabilitation. The simplest movement can become a huge challenge when you do it on the ball. Using a ball can give your workout a little more variety and extra challenge. You can try these exercises after your Pilates mat work.

Fitness balls come in different sizes. The basic rule for choosing the correct size is that when you’re sitting on the ball, you should be able to easily balance with your feet on the ground. Your hips and knees should both be at right angles. The following list matches you up with the right size ball, based on your height:

  • 55 centimeters if you’re under 5 feet tall
  • 65 centimeters if you’re between 5 feet and 5 feet 7 inches tall
  • 75 centimeters if you’re between 5 feet 8 inches and 6 feet 2 inches tall
  • 85 centimeters if you’re over 6 feet 2 inches tall

A great place to buy fitness balls is The Gym Ball Store. You can also contact the store by phone at 1-800-393-7255.

After you buy your ball, blow it up so that it gives a little when it’s pushed, but not so much that it feels soggy. Try using a bicycle pump, a foot pump, or, for the fastest inflation, a gas station’s tire pump.

Upper Abdominal Curls (intermediate level)

If you want to really feel a burn in your belly, try Upper Abdominal Curls on the big ball. To stabilize on the ball, you must find your deep Abdominal Scoop! This is one of the most challenging abdominal exercises you’ll find anywhere.

The farther your pelvis is from the ball, the easier the exercise. If you need to make this exercise easier, walk your feet away from the ball so that your shoulders are making contact with the ball. Do the curls from this position.

Getting set

You should be lying back with your mid back making contact with the ball, your feet planted firmly on the floor a little more than hip distance apart, and your knees facing slightly away from each other. Squeeze your butt and pull your belly in to keep your hips at the same height as your shoulders. Make your torso as stable as possible.

Now, interlace your fingers and put your hands behind your head.

The exercise

Exhale: Make sure that your butt is squeezed and your navel is pulled in. Roll up to your Pilates Abdominal Position (Figure 1). Raise your head just high enough that your shoulder blades are off the ball. Don’t let your hips drop down as you roll your upper body up.

Don’t bounce up and down, but go slowly to really get the benefits of this exercise.

Inhale: Control the movement back down to the Bridge position.

Complete 8 repetitions slowly, and go right into your Open Back Stretch. Believe it — after this exercise, you’ll need it!

Figure 1: Upper Abdominal Curls.

Do’s and don’ts

  • Do think of pulling your belly so far in that you flatten your lower back onto the ball as you initiate the roll up. You’re not in Neutral Spine during this exercise.
  • Don’t strain your neck. Allow your hands to hold the weight of your head and keep the space of a tangerine between your chin and your neck.


To make the exercise more difficult, walk your feet in and start with your pelvis and lower back making contact with the ball. Stabilizing is more difficult when your belly is actually on top of the ball as you roll up. Think of flattening your lower back onto the ball as you initiate the roll up (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Modifying Upper Abdominal Curls by moving the feet in.

You can also modify the exercise to work your oblique abdominals (the deep abdominals that twist your torso). Instead of rolling straight up, try rolling up with a slight twist, reaching your right elbow toward your left knee and then reaching your left elbow toward your right knee, alternating sides every time.