Marta Montenegro: Think Beyond Stability Balls for Core Work

People do crunches, planks and/or chest press on stability balls.

Ask them why and they’ll say: “I’m working the core.”

From group classes and personal trainers to athletes, everyone looks to add some type of stability ball exercise to “challenge the core” while working another muscle.

Academics will say that working on stability foundation will prevent “energy leak,” which is a fancy way to refer to the inability to transfer forces effectively through the joints. When you walk, run, jump, do yoga, lift weights and/or play your favorite sports, your body is using the trunk to manage the external forces dynamically through different movement planes – without you even noticing it.

Functional gains

Having a stable lumbo-pelvic region will allow better agility, strength, power and endurance while decreasing the risk of injury.

“Unfortunately, many people limit their view to traditional core exercise only,” says Loren Landow, BS, CSCSC, USAW, Director of Sports Performance at Steadman Hawkins Orthopedic Clinic.

Best Sports Pix of the Week

Landow points out that the goal of trunk stability should be to maximize the trainee abilities to absorb force and the rate of force production while diminishing repetitive stress. However, doing exercises on stability balls may not be the best way to achieve the functionality that she advises.

For G. Gregory Haff, PhD, CSCS, ASCC, FNSCA, the emphasis that has been put on strengthening the core by using stability balls and other instable devices to perform traditional exercises is more complex. This is because, as he explains, “the beginning of this core stability workout was in the rehabilitation practices for individuals with lower back injuries and falsely assumes that the core or trunk muscles are not properly engaged in healthy individuals when doing resistance training.”

Good for whom?

There’s no debate on the argument that having a strong core will make you perform better in any move, exercise, sports that you practice and/or your daily lives activities. The debate will go around on what the best way is to train these muscles that compromise not just the abdominal, but also the pelvic and hips muscles.

Haff says that the vast majority of studies that praise this stability type of core workout are done in a population where the exercises may be effective, such as untrained weaker individuals, individuals with pre-existing injuries and/or untrained older individuals.

“But the vast majority of these studies use low loads, long tension times and isometric contractions, holding the contraction without any movement, which are not capable of developing the core stability necessary in sports performance gain in healthy athletes,” adds Haff, making mention to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2007).

Nothing to makeup

If doing planks, crunches and other moves on a stability ball won’t provide the best results in terms of performance and injury prevention for healthy people, what exercises should people do then?

Get Fit with Marta Montenegro

Several studies comparing core muscle engagement performing exercises on stability ball and other ground based traditional strength exercises, have shown:

a) Exercises such as dead-lift, squat, pulls, push-press, among others, have shown more trunk muscle activation when compared to core stability exercises.

b) Core stability exercises benefits may not be transferred to the moves, exercises or sports that you are playing. In other words, exercises to strengthen the core should resemble the move, exercise or sports that you’re trying to excel at.

Don’t be afraid: snatch!

One move that heavily demands core muscle deceleration, rate of force production and stability is the snatch.

This exercise will not just make your trunk more apt to improve your sports and/or fitness performance, but also will make you burn a good amount of calories. The snatch works the whole musculature in one powerful move.

Start in a wide-grip deadlift position with your hips back, back straight and chest up. Stand as if you are doing a high pull, pull the dumbbell all the way to chest height, keeping the bar close to body at all times. Let the momentum of the force generated from your hips snapping forwards let the weight rise overhead while simultaneously bending the knees to let catch the weight with your arms straightened. Stand straight with the weight keeping good form.

Due to its complexity, the general advice is to do the exercise as “single moves” first with no weight, transitioning to perform the exercises as whole powerful move still without weights to feel the move.

Once you’ve mastered the exercise motion, add weight. The reps should go anywhere from six to no more than 12. Keep in mind that this move is a powerful exercise which taxes strength and speed components at the same time.

You can add this exercise to either your upper or lower body workout, or just do it alone. It’ll make your muscles and your heart pump.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website,, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

Follow us on
Like us at