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Exercising with a BOSU Ball

by Jeanine Barone  

The American figure skater Adam Rippon made headlines during the Winter Olympics in South Korea this past February—not just for his skating prowess, the medal he won, and his prolific social media presence, but also for his ripped abs. At the start of the competition, an article in the New York Times—complete with photos of his “gold-medal physique”—detailed his near-daily grueling workout routine, which includes a BOSU balance trainer (often referred to as a BOSU “ball”). This piece of exercise equipment has an inflated vinyl half-ball on one side and a rigid flat platform on the other.

BOSU what?

BOSU stands for “BOth Sides Up” or “BOth Sides Utilized.” The unstable surface helps improve balance, whether you stand on the domed surface or on the flat platform with the dome facing down. It can also be used for strength training, aerobic fitness, plyometrics (jumping activities), and stretching.

Not just young athletes like Rippon can benefit: In a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2013, 44 generally healthy but inactive older people were assigned to either a twice-weekly exercise class that used both a BOSU ball and Swiss ball (a traditional round exercise ball) or to a control group (no exercise intervention). After 12 weeks, the exercise group showed significant improvements in balance, both while standing still and while walking, compared to no changes in the control group. The BOSU exercises included standing on the ball and stepping up and down on it (with the use of parallel bars for support, if needed).

Getting started

Don’t expect to get Rippon’s physique, but you can use the BOSU ball as a way to add some challenge and variety to your regular workout. You can find them at gyms or buy one from a sporting goods store or online (for about $100 and up, available in different sizes and types). They are also used in many physical therapists’ offices as part of rehab programs. Other companies make similar balance trainers.

If you’ve never used a BOSU ball before, it’s a good idea to take a class at a gym or work with a personal trainer or physical therapist. You can also watch videos online. Pretty much any exercise you do on the floor or on a balance board can be done on a BOSU ball.

When doing balance exercises—at least initially—position the ball close to a railing, high table, or something else you can grab if you start to fall. Or have someone spot you. This is especially important if you have balance problems. You should see pretty rapid improvements in your ability to balance on it, but if you still feel shaky, do only exercises that are low to the ground, and always have someone nearby.

A BOSU exercise sampler

Here are six BOSU exercises that require varying levels of fitness. With the exception of the push-up, all involve using the ball with the dome side up. For each exercise (except planks), aim for two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions. If you have a previous injury or condition that might be exacerbated by activity, speak with your doctor or physical therapist before doing any of these exercises.

1. Push-ups. Place the BOSU ball with its dome side down. Grip the sides of the platform, one hand on each side, and do push-ups, holding your body in a straight line (for a full push-up) or bending at the knees (for modified push-up). Make sure your middle doesn't sag.

2. Plank. Rest both forearms on the dome side of the BOSU ball and go into a plank position with your body straight from head to heels, keeping your shoulders in line with your elbows, contracting your abdominal muscles, and squeezing your glutes. Don’t let your middle sag or your buttocks lift up. Hold initially for 10 to 20 seconds; over time, work up to one minute or more.

3. Squats. Before doing a squat on the BOSU ball, be sure that you are able to balance well atop the dome side. When you’re steady, sink into a quarter (45-degree) squat, keeping your feet flat on the ball and making sure your knees don’t extend beyond your toes.

4. Dual hip rotations (commonly called "trunk rotations," though that is a misonmer). Sit with your hips centered on the top of the dome. Place your hands, palm side down, on the dome beside your hips. Your knees should be bent and your feet on the floor in front of you. Lean back slightly, contracting your abs, and then lift both feet off the floor so you are in a V-shape. Your lower back should be in a neutral position, so it maintains the natural lumbar curve. (If you can’t manage this, keep both feet on the floor or lift only one foot.) Rotate your legs slowly to one side, and then to the other, making sure not to twist your torso.

5. Lunges. Put your right foot in the center of the dome, extending your left leg back. Bend both knees, making sure the right knee is in line with your toes and the left knee is slightly bent, with the left heel lifted. Repeat with other leg.

6. Straddle jumps. Stand on the dome and then jump down onto the floor with one foot on each side of the BOSU ball. Then jump back to the center of the dome, making sure both feet are flat when you land and that you are stable. You can combine this exercise with a burpee, as shown here. Both exercises require a fair amount of fitness.

Also see Are You Fit to Do CrossFit?