The use of Swiss balls as a form of therapeutic exercise is believed to have been founded in 1958 by an English physiotherapist working with children who had cerebral palsy. A Swiss therapist then introduced the use of these balls to Dr. Vogelbach who began using them with her physiotherapy students and orthopaedic-rehabilitation clients. Dr. Vogelbach subsequently published a book containing the Swiss ball exercises she developed during her years of clinical and teaching practise. What followed was the global “Swiss balls for core stability” phenomenon. Much like other fitness fads, every coach and personal trainer began using them and they were found in every commercial gym. To jump on the bandwagon of the use of an unstable surface as a training stimulus, dura-discs and Bosu balls were introduced. Nowadays, it’s rare to walk into a commercial gym without seeing some clown performing circus tricks on some sort of unstable surface. Ask them why and the answer will most likely be something to the effect of, “I’m doing it to get my core stronger.”
Research has used electromyography to quantify the activity of the various muscle groups involved when using Swiss balls. Most of this research examined the use of the balls during simple or static body-weight exercises that involve no external resistance. However, increasingly complex Swiss ball exercises were developed in the recreational gym environment. These included the use of the ball whilst performing traditional resistance exercises. The rationale for this is based on the potential for increased neuromuscular demand (greater muscle activity) required to maintain control of the body and the external resistance. However, some research a colleague and I conducted recently indicates that the use of a Swiss ball during resistance exercises is redundant and the potential benefits are far outweighed by the risks.
You’ll either need affiliation to an institute that subscribes to the journals or pay for the articles yourself, but reading the abstract should give you an idea of our findings. Put simply, our findings showed that advanced Swiss ball exercises are no more beneficial than moderately-loaded resistance exercises. In order to increase strength levels, resistance exercises need to be loaded at 80-100% of a 1-repetition maximum. Therefore, the levels of muscle activity experienced when exercising on a Swiss ball are not sufficient for strength gains. Moreover, previous research has shown that performing a resistance exercise on a Swiss ball does not increase the activity of the agonistic muscles. So whether you’re performing a body-weight or resistance exercise on a Swiss ball, you are not stimulating the muscular system sufficiently to produce increases in strength. You’re going to get good at balancing on a Swiss ball, but you’re not going to get strong. Period.
Compared to Swiss ball movements, foundational resistance exercises such as presses, deadlifts and squats are relatively basic to teach and perform. The greatest benefit of resistance exercises is the ability to alter the loads to allow for periodisation and progression of the loads over time. Do not forget these exercises require adequate balance, coordination, flexibility and agility; some of the attributes required to perform the circus-like movements of Swiss ball exercises, but you’ll be getting stronger too.