Mar 6, 2002

Swiss Ball: The Super Tool

March 6 “There is a sucker born every minute." -P.T. Barnum

How fitting I thought when my wife came home with the latest fitness tool this winter: The Swiss Ball! "Look at all the exercises I can do," she said as she showed me the pamphlet which illustrated all kinds of exercises from dumbbell bench to crunches with this big, obnoxious green ball right in the middle.

Before I go on I should say
that my wife is twice the athlete I am. An avid runner, she has finished a marathon in the mountains of Norway for crying out loud! However, like most shop-a-holics she saw a deal too good to refuse.

It is our concern that this "new & improved" strength develepment device is misleading more and more coaches who are incorporating them into their training..track coaches specifically.

A study done by George Chen, of Stanford University, set out to determine if claims made by Swiss Ball advocates were true. These claims included that:

  • "training improves nervous-system function that results in strength gains."

  • a variation in training will reduce injury "because the unstable swiss ball surface, [makes] each repetition different, potentially decreasing the risk of repetitive stress injury."

  • "the shape of the ball enables athletes to train certain muscles through greater range of motion." Specifically, the abdominals.

Chen finds, in regards to strength gains through an
"unstable enviornment, [that it] elicits changes in postural muscle activation. However, the postural muscles are distributed throughout the body and their differential recruitment is probably highly task dependent. It is possible that training these muscles directly in a non-postural task may be more effective in developing strength in these muscles. However, recruitment of these muscles in a non-postural task may not be as beneficial to athletic performance since training effects are task specific."

[Hmm.. I've heard that before...]

Chen continues,
"The support for improvements in functional strength from training on an unstable surface like the swiss ball comes primarily from motor control theory, [key word theory], and anecdotal experiences of physical therapists. The functional strength gained is most likely due to improved motor coordination in tasks which deviate from traditional weight training exercises. Therefore, it would be difficult to assess the strength gained using standard forms of strength testing."

In regards to reducing injury,
"The mechanisms of overuse injuries are poorly understood for many exercises, and the rep to rep variability provided by the swiss ball only addresses one of the many possible causes. Therefore, it is doubtful that swiss ball training can significantly reduce repetitive stress or overuse injuries in general. Training at multiple angles and through a full range of motion is important due to training-effect specificity. Some of the versatility of the swiss ball in aiding athletes to train at multiple angles and through greater ranges of motion can be derived from variety and creativity in traditional weight training exercises."

Lastly, in regards of using the swiss ball for increased range of motion for abdominal work, Chen finds,
"The swiss ball facilitates training the abdominal muscles in the stretched position. Abdominal muscle strength in the stretched position is believed to be important in many dynamic athletic movements like the tennis serve and various throwing motions. Therefore, swiss ball training can facilitate functional strength development at multiple angles and ranges of motion from it's versatility in positioning athletes in novel exercise postures. However, some of the benefits can be similarly derived from training with a variety of conventional pieces of equipment.

It is our hope that coaches, especially those who work with high school athletes, can avoid these gimmick products and stick to the task at hand...building stronger athletes.

And as for that big, lime green ball that my wife brought home last winter... when it is not sitting in the corner looking abnoxious, my daughter really enjoys bouncing on it!

Please read for yourself the entire George Chen article Swiss Ball Training.

Another Non-Olympic Team


It has been brought to our attention that Lewman Christy High School in Jackson, Michigan trains safely, productively, and efficiently. We look forward to increasing this list as we meet some of you coaches in Blaine, Minnesota March 16th.

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