Monday, October 6, 2008

Not Quite Ready for the Stability Ball Squat

Here's an article by yours truly:

In this series, I will examine exercises that I see performed on the stability ball frequently in gyms across the country. As the newest techniques are marveled at helping you achieve faster results, what usually comes up in the exercise program is the stability ball.

We have all seen people performing them in fitness center across the country. They are recognized as the easier alternative—easier alternative to executing or easier to teach? I am talking about the ball squat. Clients across the world are instructed to perform them against the wall with low back pinned up against the stability ball. Typically, a personal trainer will ask a client to perform some sort of a squat. Upon recognizing poor form or complaints of knee pain, the trainer will insist the client perform the ball squat as a safer alternative. The mechanics of a squat are imperative to efficient body function. The triple extension action is vital to human movement. If you have ever seen a toddler learn how to walk, they tend to squat from the ground up—rather than as adult squats down to the ground. We use the squat everyday to relieve ourselves—whether it is in the forest or on a toilet. Sorry for that picture, but it’s the truth. We need to squat to maintain optimal lower body mobility. I didn’t mention anything about adding external loads—that comes later, depending on what your goal. For now, I will address the need to squat with the stability ball on our backs against the wall.

Trainers advise the stability ball for a wall squat based on 2 findings:

1.) People cannot execute a normal bodyweight squat correctly (excessive kyphotic posture, tight trunk and hamstrings/immobility of ankle joint, weak core, lack of strong thoracic extensors, or inactive glutes.


2.) People experience and complain of knee pain.

People may very well suffer from number #2. However, if you address the biomechanics deviations found in scenario #1, you may alleviate knee pain—if not resolve it. However, most trainers are not inclined on biomechanics (only memorizations), and lack “observational troubleshooting”. That’s not a bad thing. That’s why we refer out to qualified professionals—to find the answers we can’t find. So, most trainers will recommend a pseudo-squat performed with the ball.

Clients are usually advised to place most of their bodyweight against the ball and descend slowly. In some cases, you will see:

1.) Client will still display a rounded lower back—even with ball (limited hip extension)

2.)Client will hunch over (poor thoracic extensors)

3.)Client will press through the balls of the feet (not center/heel)

4.)Client “falls” into descent and then exhibits the first 3 observations (weak posterior chain)

5.)Client will only descend quarter of the way (limits motion, because any lower will expose the aforementioned observations)

Why is the stability ball squat looked at as a safer alternative?

1.) Client does not have to support bodyweight in a linear vector (with gravity)

2.)Client can maintain balance (off-setting center of gravity) with ball

3.)Client can push-up “against the ball”, (rolling up wall)

4.)Stability balls looks harmless and serves as a visual “aid” versus just using bodyweight

So what can we do if we absolutely, without-a-doubt have to teach someone to perform a stability ball squat rather than a bodyweight? Firstly, check the size of the ball. Choose a ball that fits the person’s body size. Secondly, pick a good inflated ball. Under-inflated balls simply serve as pillows for a person’s back and doesn’t aid in helping someone understand lower body triple extension.

Now to address some biomechanics:

1.) Foam roll or massage stick the calves, lateral thigh, and lats.

2.) Fire the gluts (lateral band walks, hip bridges, or kneeling glute squats)

3.)Mobilize hips (quadruped hip rocking, hip extensions, cross-over lunges, stretch adductors)

4.)Mobilize thoracic spine (T-spine rotation, stretch lats, pec minor)

5.)Teach abdominal bracing or drawing-in

During execution, focus or observe:

1.) Is the client using balls of feet to ascend? (heel activity)

2.)Can the client triple extend? (ankles/knees/hips)

3.)Can the client maintain the chest erect?

4.)Can the client maintain their bodyweight? (check the degree of pressure the client is putting on ball—is the ball really getting used a lot?)

5.)If client complains of knee pain and all else looks good, place a yoga block or small ball between knees during descent)

6.)The goal is to progress to unsupported bodyweight squats. From tine to time include a set (4-6reps) of bodyweight restricted descent) bodyweight squats. Once comfortable (mentally), descend to parallel or more (depending on flexibility/mobility)

There are a number of needs and factors that may need to be examined (injury history, obesity, age, medical conditions, etc) that go into observing faulty squat patterns and this is not the end-all, be-all of ball squat instruction.


  1. Could you explain kneeling glute-squats and quadruped hip rocking?

    Thanks for the tips - I use the stability ball squat as my tool for progressing to a bodyweight squat - you pretty much hit it all - definitely make sure that chest is up and they're on their heels/midfoot.

  2. Doug,
    Kneelig glute squats are simply kneeling on floor and squatting back so your butt touches the heels. It is a beginner's exercise to learn hwo to "squeeze" or activate the glutes during squatting motions. Hip rocking is simply moving the hips back and forth in a quadruped position (all 4's). Hope this helps.


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