The Swiss Ball Arm Workout

Winning the Arms Race


Contrary to popular belief, the Swiss Ball is not where you take Swiss tennis star Martina Hingis after she wins the Wimbledon Championship. The Swiss Ball is actually an large, inflated, polyurethane/vinyl ball that can be an indispensable aid in training arms, legs, or any other body part for that matter.

I'm betting that the majority of readers of this book have never done a Swiss Ball workout since this is probably the first time the subject's been addressed in any detail. I'll also bet that a Swiss Ball workout will cause you extreme soreness because this tool will work your biceps differently than you've ever worked them before. The angles imposed by the ball are different than those you're accustomed to, as are the sticking points, and I'm sure you'll be thrilled at the new growth you'll experience from using the ball correctly.

I did my first Swiss Ball Workout quite by accident, while vacationing in the ski resort of Whistler, British Columbia. Even though I was on vacation, I still have every intention of working out, but the only gym I could find was a community-center type gym, which, as you might guess, wasn't very well equipped. They had an assortment of dumbbells, but not much else. Oddly enough, some physical therapist had left a Swiss Ball lying in the corner. Obviously, I couldn't get really psyched up about my workout, so I decided to just have some fun and do a little experimentation.

I rolled the Swiss Ball over to the dumbbells, and I began inventing an arm routine. The reaction of the locals was priceless. By the looks on their faces, you'd think I was exercising with a 10-gallon aquarium on my head filled with water and fish!

The next morning, I could barely move my arms. The new stimulus provided by the Swiss Ball was so severe that my arms didn't stop hurting for over 5 days.

Since that day, Swiss Ball training thanks largely to me and sports physical therapist Paul Chek has become more widespread, but by no means is it either popular or well known, yet. Give it a few months or years, though. In the meantime, you can start using this highly-evolved training method immediately and get a head start on everyone else.

One word of caution, though. With Swiss Ball training, you'll have to adjust your training poundages way down. The motor patterns will no doubt be very new to you, so your normal weight probably won't work. For instance, while doing lean-away dumbbell curls (which I'll describe later on in this chapter) for the first time, I could barely handle a pair of 40-pound dumbbells for 6 reps. But, by the fourth workout, I was handling a pair of 75-pound dumbbells, which is more in line with my normal training load on other elbow flexion exercises.

Who Makes the Darn Things?

Obviously, you can't blow up a beach ball and use it as a Swiss Ball. Hyper-inflating your kid brother's soccer ball won't work, either. True Swiss Balls are made by a variety of companies and I've tried all of them. However, I strongly recommend the ones made by a company called Sissel. The Sissel balls have at least 50% more vinyl in them than their competitors, which would even enable someone with Pavarotti's girth to train comfortably, without fear of rapid and catastrophic deflation. The Sissel balls are also less slippery. They even make an anti-burst ball that, when punctured by a sharp object, will deflate very slowly.

Not to worry, though, I've yet to see one of these incredibly tough balls deflate.

As you might guess, the Swiss Balls come in different sizes, ranging from 45 centimeters (diameter) to 75 centimeters. Personally, I recommend purchasing two of them, a 65 centimeter and a 55 centimeter ball. The 45 centimeter and 75 centimeter have more limited applications, but I still use them occasionally in my practice. If you're extremely tall, the 75-centimeter version may be your ball of choice. The important thing is to buy a ball big enough so that your dumbbells won't touch the ground during certain arm exercises.

The balls cost anywhere from 18 dollars to 45 dollars, depending on the size and quantity of the balls purchased. You can contact Sissel at (909) 438-7671 or (909)699-9958 (fax). In Canada, you can call them at (604) 820-2578.

The Care and Feeding of the Swiss Ball

Once you get your Swiss Ball, make sure you blow it up until the "skin" is taut. If your elbows cave in too much when you perform curls, you'll lose some of the effectiveness of this wonderful tool.

The balls are very durable, but keep in mind that you shouldn't leave them in your car, particularly if you live in a climate that suffers from extreme heat or extreme cold. While visiting Phoenix, I left one in the back seat of a car for an hour and a half while the outside temperature was 109 degrees, Fahrenheit. The ball ripped the very next time I used it.

Likewise, don't wear a weight lifting belt while using the ball, and body-piercing fans should remember to remove their nipple rings as they can puncture the surface of the ball and cause them to fly around the room like Robin Williams in "Flubber."

Swiss Ball Arm Exercises

Unlike many of the other chapters in this book, this section is designed not to give you a specific program or workout to train your arms, but to give you new exercises to incorporate into your workouts. That's not to say you couldn't do all of the following exercises as an arm workout, though. The only thing that would stop you from doing that is your pain threshold. Since these are probably new movements for you, they will cause your arms to hurt the next day, big time.

1) Multi-Triceps Extensions

Lie down, face-up, on a 55 cm. Swiss Ball with a loaded EZ Curl Bar. Position the bar 1 millimeter (about a hair's width, for you metrically-challenged readers) above your forehead and point your elbows at the ceiling.

The Exercise:
1) Extend the bar towards the ceiling, just as if you were doing a conventional EZ Bar triceps extension. Extend the weight until your elbows are just shy of locking out.
2) Once the bar is at arm's length, lower your hips so that your body, while once being parallel to the ground, is now at roughly a 90-degree angle to the ground.
3) Now, lower the bar as if you were doing a conventional incline EZ Bar triceps extension.
4) Raise the hips so that your body is parallel to the ground again.
5) Repeat steps 1-4 for the prescribed number of reps or until you reach concentric muscle failure.

You can handle more weight concentrically when your body is parallel to the ground than what you can when your body is at an incline. By doing the concentric portion of the movement in a "flat" position, and then switching to an incline "mid-stream," you're causing your triceps to work much harder during the eccentric portion of the movement.
For variety, this movement can also be done using dumbbells while using a semi-supinated grip.
Don't get too worried if your elbows spread outwards during the performance of this exercise. If you follow the old bodybuilding adage about religiously keeping your elbows pointed at the ceiling, you can actually injure your arm-extensor tendons over a long period. Besides, pointing your elbows at the ceiling doesn't do really help isolate the triceps muscles all that much more.

2) Lean Away Eccentric Dumbbell Curls

Sit with your back and triceps resting against the side of a 65-centimeter Swiss Ball. Reach down and grab your working set of dumbbells.

The Exercise:
1) Perform the concentric range of a seated dumbbell curl. Make sure you initiate the movement from the elbows in a smooth fashion and that the wrists are cocked down and back (this isolates and overloads the elbow flexors).
2) Once you curl the dumbbells to the top, raise your hips so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Your upper body should then be literally on top of the ball.
3) Lower the dumbbells down and away from you. At this point the brachialis anticus and the short-head of the biceps brachii will be maximally activated. Don't forget to keep your wrists cocked back while lowering the weights.
4) Lower the hips.
5) Repeat steps 1-4 for the prescribed number of reps or until concentric muscle failure is reached.

This is one of those movements where a tall athlete might wish to use a 75-centimeter ball.
If you're excessively masochistic, or completely want to trash your brachialis muscles, try this movement while using the Zottman style of curling.

3) Gagne' Triceps Extensions

Lie down on your side on a 55 centimeter Swiss Ball. Make sure your body is as parallel to the ground as possible. Hold a working set dumbbell overhead at arm's length.

The Exercise:
1) Perform the concentric range of a single-arms triceps extension.
2) Once you reach the top of the movement, lower your hips towards the floor so that your body is a perpendicular as possible.
3) Lower the dumbbell behind your head so that the triceps stretch fully.
4) Raise the hips so that they're again as parallel to the ground as possible.
5) Repeat steps 1-4 for the prescribed number of rep or until you reach concentric muscle failure.

If you're very tall, you may want to use a 65 centimeter ball.

4) Jerry Telle Triceps Trasher

Sit down with your back against a 65 centimeter Swiss Ball while holding loaded EZ Curl bar about 1 millimeter above the top of your head. Point your elbows at the ceiling.

The Exercise:
1) Perform as many reps of incline overhead triceps extensions as possible, ensuring that the triceps are fully stretched at the bottom of every rep.
2) Once you reach concentric failure for the incline overhead triceps extensions, immediately raise your hips so that they're parallel to the floor and perform as many reps as possible of lying triceps extensions.
3) Once you reach concentric failure for the lying triceps extensions movement, rep out using a California Press (a close-grip bench press movement with the EZ Bar).
4) Rest for the prescribed amount of time.
5) Repeat steps 1-4 for the prescribed number of sets.

This movement will trash every fiber in your triceps. Make sure to take a full day off from training if you incorporate this exercise into your workout.

Final Comments

I've only described four Swiss Ball arm movements, but the more creative among you will no doubt dream up scores of different movements for not only arms, but all the other body parts. Aside from adding incredible variety to your workouts, the strength developed while using the Swiss Ball has a lot of carryover to all kinds of sports. Since the ball requires you to keep your balance, a number of supportive muscle groups are called into play, thus creating a more "well-rounded" athlete, not only in muscular terms, but in functional terms, too.

This functional carry-over may not get you a date to the "Swiss Ball" with Martina Hingis, but it may qualify you to serve as her ball boy.