Swiss Ball Use and Swiss Ball Abuse!
by Rick Steel

How much is too much?

The swiss ball has become a coveted tool amongst the sports conditioning and rehab crowd. It is used in countless ways. Everything from a flat dumbbell press to various proprioception protocols can be performed using this simple, oversized rubber ball. It's hard to completely slam on a training device that versatile, but when does it become too much of a good thing? Nearly everything has a point of diminishing returns and the swiss ball is no exception. When I see trainers spending the entire hour with a swiss ball surgically fused to their client's ass, it's definitely time to take a second look at the swiss ball's intended purpose.

Swiss Origins

The swiss ball is actually not new at all, though you'd think so based on the sensationalism it's received in recent times. It's origins are clinically based and was used initially in treating and rehabilitating various injuries. Somewhere along the line strength coaches began to recognize it's value as useful training tool. A plethora of exercises were developed around this "new" training device and before we knew what hit us, it was about as popular as Christine Aguilera in a crowd of hormonally-charged high school boys.

The Intended Purpose

It's primary strength is its ability to create a less stable environment for the trainee, thereby increasing recruitment of peripheral stabilizer muscles in most exercises. This is an excellent way to work through a plateau in movements where stabilization is the limiting factor. However, due to the limitations of loads being used in these movements to accommodate stabilizing muscles, the primary movers eventually begin to suffer.

For example, let's say you are using 100lb dumbbells on flat dumbbell presses and failing at eight reps due to the stabilizers giving out before the chest. A swiss ball could be very helpful in this scenario. By reducing the load slightly, and overloading the stabilizers to a greater extent, they will eventually adapt and no longer be the limiting factor when you go back to traditional dumbbell presses.

However, if this is the way you are training all the time, I promise you are cheating your primary movers out of reaching their full potential. This is simply because you cannot handle the same potential loads on a swiss ball as you can on a flat bench. I say "potential" loads because in actuality, many swiss-heads may be able to use comparable loads on a swiss ball vs. a flat bench simply because they have mastered swiss ball balance but have not developed their primary movers enough to move any more weight on a flat bench. Train these same people for 2-3 weeks with emphasis on the primary movers and wham! All of the sudden,their strength is in a whole new league.

Keeping it Real

So how do we decipher when it is appropriate and beneficial to include swiss ball training and when to leave it alone? I believe the swiss ball will offer a distinct advantage on certain movements, that we can benefit from nearly all the time. For instance, abdominal crunches on the floor are only marginally effective compared to weighted crunches on a swiss ball. It truly takes the movement to a whole new level.

The easiest way to tell if a swiss ball will benefit you in a movement is to first test that particular movement in a more stable environment. If the stabilizer muscles are the limiting factor in that movement then you could probably stand to focus on some extra swiss ball work for a few weeks. However, if your stabilizers are as solid as a brick wall, but you're still somehow lifting lower poundages than your eight year old, female counterparts, then chances are you've already been focusing to much of your energy on swiss ball movements. It's time to get back to the grindstone and focus on the basics. The swiss ball is an excellent training tool, but be sure to use, not abuse.