Physioball Training

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By Josh Staph

Along with the rest of the training world, Mike Boyle, owner and founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, has experimented with physioballs. "We started using the balls about eight years ago," he says. "Like a lot of people, we rode the physioball wave. At first we didn't use them, then we used them too much. Now we are more balanced about how we fit them into the larger scheme."

Boyle's balanced approach centers around safety. "We used to have guys bench press on the ball with a 90-pound dumbbell in each hand. If something were to happen to that ball, things could go drastically wrong," he says. "At that point, the risk outweighed the reward."

Boyle's athletes stopped lifting weights on the balls three years ago. So now, if a ball bursts mid-exercise, the athlete only has to deal with his bodyweight. Although physioballs are guaranteed against bursting, Boyle promotes diligent ball maintenance because they do get nicked from being around a gym and they wear quickly.

Seconding Boyle on the moderate use of physioballs is Lorne Goldenberg, president and director of conditioning at the Athletic Conditioning Center in Ottawa. The former NHL strength and conditioning coach says, "The important thing about physioball training is that it's not to be used on its own. It's a tool that coaches integrate into functional programs to help athletes become more effective with movement patterns." Goldenberg acknowledges that physioball training is one of the better tools available, but he emphasizes others as well—including Olympic-style lifts and ground-based strength training.

So what do these balls do? Boyle likens them to free weights in relation to machines. "The balls introduce an instability factor into a workout, which causes stabilizing muscles to work," Boyle says. Reinforcing this idea, Goldenberg says, "To train balance, you have to be off balance. A physioball provides a platform to train that characteristic."

Each expert provides his top three physioball exercises to help you improve strength, balance and stability.

Physioball Push-up

• Assume push-up position with hands on sides of physioball and feet on ground
• Lower with control until chest barely touches ball
• Push up on ball until arms are straight

Sets/Reps: 3 x 8-10
More Difficult: Elevate feet (up to 24")
Advanced: Add resistance with weight vest (up to 30 lbs.)
Benefits: "This is one of the best physioball exercises for football players—especially linemen. You have the correct hand position; you're forced to stabilize with your core; and you have to apply force into something that doesn't just sit there for you. Equal and opposite force from each shoulder is required, and your core has to stabilize to keep the ball in place."

The Big Picture: "We use this exercise as a secondary upper-body movement. We bench on Day 2 of the week and do some sort of alternate press on Day 4, which is where this fits in. I have changed from a heavy day/light day breakdown to a stable day/unstable day format. The thing didn't like about the heavy/light format is that had to enforce light weight. I'd see guys doing the same weight on the second day that they did on the first. They didn't comprehend the benefits of benching light on the second day and that going heavy defeated the purpose. This exercise challenges the same muscle group, but eliminates the need to enforce the weight."

Physioball Stretching


• Place physioball against wall
• Lie with lower back on ball and both legs up the wall
• Keeping lower back on ball, bend at hips until you feel tension in hamstrings and hold


• Place physioball against wall
• Lie with lower back on ball and legs up the wall spread in a V
• Keeping lower back on ball, bend at hips until you feel tension in hamstrings and groin and hold

Sets/Reps: 2 x 30 seconds
Benefits: "If you came to one of our facilities, you'd notice that we use physioballs for passive stretching more than anything else. The biggest problem people have when they stretch is that they move too much with their backs and not enough with their hips. When your lower back is on the ball, it preserves the natural curve of your spine. Stretching with your back in this position gives you a significantly better stretch."

The Big Picture: "We use these stretches before workouts to lengthen muscles. We begin with foam rollers, followed by these stretches and a dynamic warm-up. Using these post-workout also helps restore muscle length."

Physioball Shoulder Stability Circuit (Y, T, W, L)


• Lie with stomach on physioball
• With thumbs up and arms straight, raise arms in front so body and arms form a Y


• With thumbs up and arms straight, raise arms out to side so body and arms form a T


• With thumbs up, arms bent and elbows tight to ribcage, squeeze shoulder blades and rotate hands as far back as possible so arms form a W


• With arms hanging toward floor, raise elbows and bend arms so upper arms are parallel to floor and elbows form 90-degree angle
• Externally rotate upper arms so the backs of hands rotate toward ceiling

Sets/Reps: Begin with 32 total reps (8 each exercise) and work up to 72 total reps (18 each exercise).
Benefits: "This progression is great for improving shoulder stabilization, because it strengthens the rotator cuffs and scapular and thoracic muscles. It ultimately works as a prehab routine that prevents shoulder joint injuries."

The Big Picture: "We perform this progression at the end of a pulling session, like chin-ups, which trains larger muscles. We don't use any weight with these exercises."

Physioball Split-Leg Squat

• Assume split-leg stance with top of rear foot on physioball
• Squat until top of front thigh is parallel to floor. Keep knee behind toes and maintain good posture with shoulder blades squeezed together
• Drive up into start position

Sets/Reps: 3-6 sets of 5-8 reps, each leg
Beginner: Bodyweight
Advanced: Dumbbells in hands at sides or bar on back
Benefits: "Strengthens the glutes and quadriceps of the front leg and stretches the hip flexor and adductor of the rear leg. As you descend, the stretch increases throughout the range of motion. As the glute and quad fire in the front leg, the other side is being stretched, which is when hip stabilization comes into play."

The Big Picture: "We use this exercise in the strength and power phase of our training. It is a ground-based, multi-joint movement, so it can be used as a primary exercise for the lower body."

Physioball Wall Squat

• Place physioball between lower back and wall
• Begin in stance slightly wider than shoulder width
• Lower with control until tops of thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep knees behind toes
• Drive up into start position

Sets/Reps: 3 x 10-12 reps
Benefits: "Squats are one of the most beneficial exercises for a younger athlete, but I see them performed incorrectly so often. This exercise has all the benefits of a squat—strengthening the glutes, quads, hips and upper hamstrings—while teaching the athlete how to sit back, drop his hips and keep his shoulders up and back, without forcing him to support a load across his back."

The Big Picture: "This is a great way to introduce an athlete to squatting. Perform it early in the training cycle. If you start an athlete with a bar on his back, his shoulders and core might not be strong enough. A young athlete's early experiences greatly affect how hard he'll work in the future. If his first experience is painful, he won't want to keep at it."

Physioball Prone Balance

• Begin with elbows on physioball and feet on ground
• Form straight line from your shoulders to knees by activating core and drawing in stomach

Sets/Reps: Begin with 3-5 30-second holds and work up to 2 minutes
Advanced: Add a dynamic element:move the ball in Figure 8s, I's or T's throughout duration of hold
Benefits: "This is great for working the lower abdominals—the muscles that control the pelvic area during explosive movements, which is important for sprinters and athletes who have to change direction."

The Big Picture: "Perform this exercise toward the end of a training session during core work."

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock