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Swiss Ball vs. Crunches
(Also known as Stability Balls or Fitness Balls.)

Swiss Ball Crunch Position 1
Swiss Ball Crunch 2
Sammy Levin is demonstrating the
starting position above. Below is the
positioning at the top of the crunch.

Six pack abs. If you want them, you need to concentrate on exercises that make the most impact. For the best results, when you don't have any equipment, nothing beats the crunch. The hard part is doing them right.

The University of Nebraska looked into abdominal exercises in a 2004 study. They found that the way most people do crunches doesn't work the rectus abdominis [front abdominal muscle] effectively. If you're not doing it properly, that could mean thousands of reps wasted and months of work with only minimal results. To see what worked best, Gilbert M. Willett and his colleagues monitored the muscle activity of subjects with different sets of instructions. Some were told to push their belly out. Others were told to pull it in and still others weren't given any instruction at all.

They discovered that when people sucked their abs in first, they generated twice as much muscle activity as the people who did nothing before starting a crunch.

Here's what works best.

Exhale while slowly contracting the abdominals and pulling the belly button toward the spine. Continue lifting the trunk, one vertebrae at a time, bringing the ribs toward the pelvis. Once the abdomen is fully contracted and the shoulder blades are off the ground, hold. Inhale while slowly returning to the starting position.

It's something nearly everybody can do, without any special equipment. The downside to crunches done this way is that the only resistance you're getting is from your body weight. You still have to perform large numbers of repetitions to see measurable results.

That's where some equipment comes in handy. For those of you who want something more challenging, using something called a Swiss ball can get even greater results. The Swiss ball is essentially a large inflatable ball that looks like something you could play within a pool. Unlike beach balls though, it's designed to hold someone's bodyweight while performing exercises.

At the Department of Physical Therapy at Loma Linda University, they learned that crunches on the Swiss ball used about 50% more muscle work per second of exercise than floor crunches. The main reason was because on the Swiss ball, you get a greater extension over the range of the exercise.

The key is all in the positioning. When you place the Swiss ball under the low back, you work the abdominal muscles more than when it's under the upper back. So if you're just starting out with a Swiss ball, place it under the upper back for more support as you're learning. Move it to the lower back when you're ready for something more advanced.

You should approach this exercise carefully. Because it requires a fair amount of balance, it's best saved for people who have reasonably fit spinal stabilizer muscles.

If you're going to purchase a Swiss ball, here are a few things you should look for. First, it has to be the right size. When inflated, sit on the bal,l and your thigh (femur) should run parallel or slightly above parallel to the ground. If you have back pain, look for a ball that elevates your thigh to slightly above parallel.

Here are some general size guidelines.

Height Less than 5'4" 5'4" to 5'8" 5'9" to 6' 6'1" to 6'3" Over 6'4"
Ball Size 45 cm 55 cm 65 cm 75 cm 85 cm

You also have to make sure the ball is made of burst-resistant material. You don't want it exploding like a popped balloon if it gets a hole. Instead, you want it to deflate slowly, giving you time to get off safely. For basic abdominal exercises without dynamic movements or weights, the burst rating should be 2.5 to 3 times your body weight. For dynamic exercises, or ones involving weights, the burst rating should be 4 to 5 times your body weight.

TOTAL WEIGHT: A typical stability ball has a maximum weight limit of around 300 pounds. That means you need to add your weight, PLUS the weight of any equipment you'll be using when on the ball to ensure you stay within the margin of safety. Check the instructions that came with your ball to see what the actual limit is.

Avoid balls that are really smooth or shiny. They can be difficult to stay on when you start to sweat. Look for a textured finish or one that feels a little tacky or sticky to the touch.

Now that you know how, are you going to work your abs? Start today and see results as soon as next month.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 4/24/2016