Our core is the cradle of our body’s movement—it’s simply impossible to ride at our best and happiest without a strong midsection. In fact, routinely training our core muscles is a crucial component in preventing or eliminating lower back pain, as well as hand numbness while riding. A strong core also plays a huge role in our stamina and endurance on the bike, and impacts everything from the way we climb to the way we descend to how well we corner.

A good core training program will include stability challenges, as a stable core is a key building block to balance, and better balance translates to better bike handling skills. One of the best ways to zero in on building stability: working out using an unstable surface, like you do with exercises featuring a stability ball.

The Benefits of Stability Ball Exercises for Your Core

A reason instability is beneficial in core training is that from a functional anatomy perspective, your midsection muscles are, by design, stabilizers. So when you perform moves on an unstable surface (like a stability ball a.k.a. a Swiss ball), these muscles have to work in overdrive to keep you steady.

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Research backs up the benefits of core training on an unstable surface, as one study published in the journal Gait & Posture in 2015, involving 44 participants, found that performing core work on an unstable surface can increase activity in the core musculature. Another study involving 67 collegiate athletes, published in the journal Physical Activity Review in 2021, found that Swiss ball exercises significantly enhanced core stability, even more so than traditional floor exercises.

“Using a stability ball when doing core exercises creates instability, which forces the deep core muscles to be used more. It further strengthens the core to help prevent injury and optimize other exercises that require a lot of core strength,” explains Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder and CEO of TS Fitness in New York City.

“Personally, I love using the stability ball for a multitude of reasons,” adds Victor Miranda, NASM-C.P.T., certified trainer based in Toronto, Canada. “It’s great for clients because no matter the fitness level, the ball is so versatile and can be adjusted to fit beginners and of course challenge the most elite athletes.”

A few other reasons this tool is so popular: It’s relatively inexpensive, it’s easily stashed in a closet if you work out at home, most gyms have them available, and they can even pull double-duty as a desk chair.

“Whether you’re going hard and want a great challenge or just an effective way of challenging your stability and improving core control, the stability ball is the tool,” Miranda adds.

What to Know Before You Perform Stability Ball Exercises

There’s no doubt that adding a stability ball to a core exercise will amp up the difficulty, so the basics should be mastered first. For example, you’ll want to feel confident in doing a regular plank before adding the stability ball to that particular exercise. But whether you’re using the stability ball for beginner or advanced moves really comes down to exercise selection.

“Physiotherapists use [the stability ball] to help with clients recovering from injuries and elite coaches use them for high-level athletes. So depending on the exercise, the stability ball can be used with all levels of fitness. It’s a very versatile tool,” Miranda tells Bicycling.

Form Is Crucial

There are a few form notes that are especially important when you incorporate a stability ball into your core work. Correct pelvic alignment is key, especially when doing plank variations, as it becomes more challenging to maintain a strong position, considering the center of gravity is higher from the floor and the surface is unstable, Namir tells Bicycling.

“I always make sure that [clients] stay in a slight posterior pelvic tilt position for optimal core activation. I like to tell them ‘imagine your belt buckle is pointing up to your chin’. Also, the elbows need to be in line with the top of the shoulders or you will compensate with your upper body,” he explains.

How to Buy the Right Stability Ball

Stability balls come in different industry-standard sizes. Below are the recommended size of stability ball based on your height:

  • Height: Under 4’8” - Ball size: 45 cm/18”
  • Height: 4’8 to 5’3” - Ball size: 55 cm/22”
  • Height: 5’4” to 5’10” - Ball size: 65 cm/26”
  • Height: 5’11” to 6’4” - Ball size: 75 cm/30”
  • Height: 6’4” and up - Ball size: 85 cm/34”

It’s important to keep the stability ball properly inflated, and most balls will come with a pump. A stability ball should be as inflated as a freshly blown-up beach ball. If the stability ball is too squishy, you won’t get the most out of the exercises.

5 Stability Ball Exercises to Add to Your Core Workouts

“In terms of when or how often to implement the stability ball into your core work, I would add at least one stability ball variation,” Miranda recommends.

“It’s something you can do every day [or just] a few times a week. It depends on the intensity of the exercises. Just like other muscles, the core muscles need time to recover,” Tamir adds.

How to use this list: Follow the reps and sets for each exercise listed below. You can do these stability ball exercises as a circuit (one after another), or choose your favorites and add them to your typical core workout or total-body routine.

Natascha Grief, writer and certified personal trainer, demonstrates each exercise so you can learn proper form. You will need a stability ball. An exercise mat is optional.

1. Opposite Arm and Leg Lift

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How to do it: Lay over the stability ball so that it’s supporting the center of body. Extend legs straight behind you, with both feet on the floor, toes curled under. Keep both arms straight and place hands flat on the floor. Keep shoulders down and back, elbows soft. This is your starting position. Slowly and simultaneously lift and extend the right arm and left leg. Hold this extended position for about five seconds. Return to starting position. Repeat on the other side. Continue alternating. Do 2 sets of 12 reps each side.

Trainer tip: This move is a riff on a traditional dead bug exercise, so master the fundamentals of that move first—this variation is harder than it looks! Some of the most important form checkpoints include keeping your shoulders pulled down your back and away from the ears, and your hand placement directly under your shoulders, while you focus on stabilizing with your core.

2. Side Plank

stability ball exercises
Thomas Hengge

How to do it: Sit to left of stability ball, bend right arm, and place forearm on the highest part of the ball. Pack shoulder by pulling the shoulder blade down the back and engage upper back. Extent both legs until they’re straight, stacking hips and knees. (Stack feet for more difficulty; stagger them to make it easier.) Push forearm into the ball and feet into the floor to lift hips off the floor. You should form a straight line from head to heels. Don’t let shoulders shrug or collapse, keep your chest open and breathing steady. Hold for 30 seconds.

Trainer tip: This is a challenging variation of a side plank, so make sure you practice and master a standard side plank and work your way up to this version. As with all planks, body alignment and form are key, so keep tabs on your head, shoulders, hips, and ankles and focus on keeping them lined up. If holding this move for the full 30 seconds is too challenging, start with 10 seconds, rest for 5 seconds, and repeat three times.

3. Decline Plank

stability ball exercises
Thomas Hengge

How to do it: Start in plank position with feet on stability ball. Keep knees straight but soft and align elbows under shoulders. Engage upper back by keeping shoulders pulled down and back. Breathe. Hold for 60 seconds.

Trainer Tip: This is a sneaky-hard plank variation. The instability of the stability ball will require your core to do lots of micro-adjustments. It’s crucial to make sure your low back doesn’t sag and that your pelvis stays in a neutral position. If you start to feel this exercise in your low back, come out of the move and rest. If holding this move for the full 60 seconds is too challenging, start with 10 seconds, rest for 5 seconds, and repeat this sequence until you work your way up to a 60-second hold.

4. Russian Twist

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How to do it: Lie with upper and mid-back on stability ball, head and neck supported. Place both feet flat on floor with knees bent, then lift hips up so body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders. Extend arms straight with palms together and over chest. Brace core and roll upper body over to the right as far as you can, keeping gaze focused on hands. Don’t let the hips drop and keep the glutes engaged. Return to center, then rotate to the left. Return to center. That’s one rep. Repeat for 10 reps.

Trainer tip: In addition to keeping your core engaged, it’s also important to engage your glutes during this move. Don’t let your low back arch, and pay close attention to keeping your pelvis in neutral alignment. The rotation in this move should be focused on the obliques and core, and not the low back muscles. If you feel your low back muscles start to engage and compensate, rest and reset.

5. Hip Crossover

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How to do it: Lie on back and bend knees, bringing them directly over hips. Hold the stability ball between back of calves and back of thighs, squeezing the ball and keeping feet flexed. Brace core and slowly lower legs to the right as far as you can while keeping core engaged and both shoulders on the floor. Move slowly. Return to center, then lower legs to the left. Return to center. That’s one rep. Repeat 10 reps.

Trainer tip: It’s important to do this exercise without using any momentum to move the ball; try to let your legs and hips be heavy as you recruit your obliques and hips as the main drivers of this movement. It’s extremely easy to compensate with other muscles, particularly in the low back, during this targeted move, so take your time.

Headshot of Natascha Grief
Natascha Grief

Natascha Grief got her first bike shop job before she was old enough to drink. After a six-year stint as a mechanic, earning a couple pro-mechanic certifications and her USA Cycling Race Mechanics license, she became obsessed with framebuilding and decided she wanted to do that next.  After Albert Eistentraut literally shooed her off his doorstep, admonishing that if she pursued framebuilding she will be poor forever, she landed an apprenticeship with framebuilder Brent Steelman in her hometown of Redwood City, CA. After that, she spent several years working for both large and not-so-large cycling brands. Somewhere in there she also became a certified bike fitter. Natascha then became a certified personal trainer and spent nine years honing her skills as a trainer and coach, while also teaching Spin. During the dumpster fire that was the year 2020, she opened a fitness studio and began contributing regularly to Runner’s World and Bicycling as a freelance writer. In 2022, she joined the staff of Bicycling as News Editor.