Exercise Ball Safety Alert – Top Calgary Personal Trainer speaks

I’m writing this article because of an extremely dangerous situation that I feel is not being addressed in the health and fitness industry.  If you own or use an exercise ball, the information in this article could literally save your life!

It’s been over a decade since the Sacramento Kings basketball team sued exercise ball makers Ball Dynamics and M-F Athletic who make and distribute the Gymnic brand of exercise ball.  The $4 million lawsuit was filed by the team when star player Francisco Garcia broke his wrist while exercising on a ball.

The particular ball was the Gymnic Plus “Burst Resistant” Stability Ball.  The ball burst during a workout, breaking his wrist and forcing him to miss 57 league games. This came at a substantial cost to the team and to Francisco’s career opportunities. While you may not be an NBA superstar, it’s worth thinking about your safety risk.

The liability and risk of poor quality exercise balls

In 2012, the team finally settled the lawsuit and was awarded a sizeable settlement. They never released the actual settlement amount, but it was significant. Roger Dryer, a legal representative for the team said that “We are very pleased with the outcome”. He then stated they “look forward to a stringent policy informing consumers of the potential danger of utilizing weights when working out with the Gymnic fit ball.”

The bad part is, it blows me away that there aren’t MORE of these injuries every day. There is a massive lack of knowledge and regulation surrounding exercise balls.  I guarantee that the majority of people using balls each day are putting themselves at unnecessary and preventable risk. This is due to using low-quality and poorly cared-for exercise balls.  Just because you train at an expensive health club, don’t think you are immune to the danger!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE fan of exercise balls and have been using them religiously for over 20 years.  In fact, I continually promote their benefits in health, fitness, strength training, and rehabilitation.

Not all exercise balls are created equal

The problem is that NOT ALL EXERCISE BALLS ARE CREATED EQUAL. It’s critical to know the QUALITY of the ball you are using, its specifications, and what YOU plan on doing with it.  There are a MASSIVE range of options out there, but only a few that I would trust when training myself and my clients

In the Sacramento Kings lawsuit, “It was apparent through the course of the litigation that distributors of this product were aware of the failures of these balls when used with weights, yet the distributors, M-F Athletics and Ball Dynamics, had repeatedly failed to provide notice to any of its customers of these prior problems,” Dreyer said.

Sadly, this is happens regularly with many brands.  While warning labels have improved (slightly) since that time, few consumers take the time to consider the safety implications of their purchase decision.

To help you stay safe and get the best results during your workouts, I have provided an important list of the ESSENTIAL THINGS YOU need to know when purchasing, caring for AND using an exercise ball.

Tim_SkiFitterFitBallStandWhy should you care what I have to say about exercise balls?

To help you understand where I’m coming from and why this issue hits a nerve with me, a bit of background is necessary.  Over the past 30 years as a Personal Trainer and international presenter, I’ve been fortunate to experience the leading edge of exercise balls in fitness and have amassed detailed knowledge from both the training and product sides of the industry.

Over three decades, I’ve done almost every conceivable stunt, trick and exercise (never quite made it to Cirque du Soleil though), met with manufacturers and distributors around the world and even had several balls burst on me during my own workouts (more about that later).

Fortunately, I was never seriously injured and EVERY one of these ball failures was due to a specific and preventable reason.  That and almost daily use of these tools for two decades provides me a bit of perspective on the issue.

The increasing popularity of exercise balls

I’ve seen these balls grow from a curious oddity that migrated slowly out of the Physiotherapy clinic (where they have been used successfully since the 1960s), to being a staple in virtually every fitness center and home gym on the planet!  Yet, despite their prominence in the fitness industry, very few people (many trainers included) understand the key training and safety elements of these great tools.

It’s good that accidents such as Francisco Garcia’s (mentioned above) and a few other prominent lawsuits are changing the attitude towards exercise balls and their safety.  However, often this change of perception has been negative.  Attention to the causes of such incidents is extremely important, but I believe that the focus is often poorly directed at the balls themselves.

Let’s stop blaming the tool! Instead, focus on greater education and better awareness of these excellent tools. Learn the risks, benefits, styles and proper technique for using them.

There are always numerous product choices within any market segment with some being higher quality and others being lower quality.  Plus, some marketers will inevitably try to pass off half-truths, dubious claims and spiffy sales copy to sell more of their product.  With that being said, an educated and informed public will be able to ask the right questions and make safe and effective purchase decisions.

On a positive note, there are also a number of great companies out there who pride themselves on ethical business practices, quality products, practical education, and exceptional service to their customer.  Once you start asking the right questions, these companies will be easy to find, and you will be able to successfully navigate the minefield of misinformation that most people get sucked into. So, without further ado…

Here are the ESSENTIAL THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW about buying, owning and using an exercise ball

Speak the language

Marketers throw out all kinds of terms when talking about exercise balls.  While the lingo may vary slightly,  if you understand these important concepts,  you will at least be able to ask the right questions when making your purchase.  By the way, if the person/store you are talking to can’t answer the questions, RUN FOR THE HILLS!

I wouldn’t trust the pimply teenager at the local big-box grocery store with my personal safety, nor would I trust that the company is looking after my health and fitness needs by providing cheap knock-off crap from China. (nothing against China, it’s just cheaper to produce things there and many manufacturers looking to cut corners will outsource to there.  There are also some good quality balls produced there too, so check the stats on your ball)!

Purchase your ball from a reputable dealer that SPECIALIZES in fitness equipment or at least someone who is qualified to speak to the use and specifications of the ball (such as a KNOWLEDGEABLE and EXPERIENCED trainer).

Load Rating

This term relates to the MAXIMUM STATIC LOAD that the ball can handle before bursting.  Essentially, this means they inflate a ball and put it in a hydraulic press until it pops.  They measure the pressure and voila, you have the load rating!  This is a good number to know, but it isn’t the MOST important number (we will talk about that in a second).

Notice how I said the ball POPS.  That’s right, your ball is essentially a big balloon, and the cheap ones are not too far off the balloons you would buy for your kid’s birthday party.  If you spend $5 on a ball at a bargain store, you may as well write happy birthday on it (and take out a good insurance policy) before using it in your workout.  Inflate one and push on it.  You will understand what I mean when you compare it to a top-quality ball.  It shouldn’t even be in the same category!

Every ball has a load rating, it’s just that most manufacturers haven’t really tested it (or don’t advertise it, because it’s so low it would cut into sales and discourage people from buying the ball).

Burst Rating (Dynamic Load Rating)

This is the Granddaddy of exercise ball numbers because it’s the one that has the biggest impact on your safety.  It’s also the thing that sets top-quality balls apart from the “cheap crap” that is out there.

Dynamic load rating (DLR) means that UP TO the posted DLR, your ball is guaranteed (within proper care and inflation guidelines), to NOT pop like a balloon.  This is an IMPORTANT thing to know because your safety is on the line!  However, only a small percentage of manufacturers even test for this and fewer advertise the rating details.

If you are still cloudy on the issue, imagine it this way.  Say the LOAD rating on the ball is 1000 pounds and the BURST rating (DLR) is 200lb. The ball will be able to sustain approximately 1000lb before popping like a balloon. Between 200 – 1000lb, the ball can handle the pressure, but will still pop like a balloon if the integrity is breached. For example, it may get punctured by a thumbtack, staple or other sharp object.  However, UNDER 200lb of load, the ball will deflate slowly (and safer) if punctured.

What is it worth for you to avoid injury?

I can speak to first-hand experience on the benefits of burst rating. Over the years I’ve had several balls pop. Some were over and others under the burst rating (DLR).  The results are exceptionally different and can literally save you from catastrophic injury.  Paying a few dollars extra for a top-quality ball is WELL WORTH THE INVESTMENT!

It’s tempting to get excited and run out to buy a burst rated ball. Before you do that, please check the LEVEL of this rating!

Many balls will have a high load rating, but a relatively low burst rating.  For example, the 1000/200 example that I mentioned.  The 1000lb part is plenty for most people, but the 200 safety of the load rating will be EASILY EXCEEDED by even light resistance training.  Hell, I’m 210 pounds WITHOUT lifting any weights!  A 150-pound person with 25-pound dumbbells would be at the limit without even moving.

Pregnant women stretching on exercise balls

The other thing to consider is inertia/momentum.

If you are moving, the load you generate is greater than just sitting still.  Visualize doing a small bounce on the ball. The force generated at the bottom of your bounce will be MUCH greater than your actual weight.  Because of this, you DO NOT want to be at or near the burst limit.  It makes sense to have a substantial safety “cushion” in place for you DLR.

What is a “Burst Resistant” Exercise Ball?

This term is purely marketing.  EVERY ball is “Burst Resistant” in that the material is resisting the pressure inside the ball.  Without a quantifiable number attached to the “burst resistant” term, it is absolutely useless.  The problem is that almost every manufacturer (even the good ones) use this statement.  People read it and think, “Oh, it must be safe because it’s ‘burst-resistant”.  Now you know!  Look at the numbers so you can compare the safety levels of various balls.  The good manufacturers will back up their claims with solid numbers and testing.

How you will be using your exercise ball?

Exercise balls are a VERY versatile tool that can be incorporated into a wide range of fitness and wellness activities. Sadly, few people use them regularly or properly.

If you have it in your basement as a decoration or clothes hanger and never plan on using it, then by all means grab the “Wal-mart special”!  However, if you actually have a functional purpose in mind for the ball, then invest in quality.  Your activities will depend on the type and quality of the ball you need.

As with any exercise, proper technique is important. By investing in proper coaching and instruction, you will save time, effort, and frustration. Book a session with a FRESH! coach to learn how to use and maximize your exercise ball.

Bodyweight exercise and exercise ball chairs

Stretching, yoga, Pilates, ab work, and many other bodyweight exercises will require LESS stringent burst ratings than more intense activities.  However, I still recommend top-quality balls for the following reasons.

  1. If your body weight is near the DLR, you are still at risk (i.e. many “medium” quality balls have a DLR of 200lb or less and I weigh 210lb)
  2. Balls are very versatile and you never know when you might want to change activities and incorporate the use of a ball (such as going from Stretching to Strength Training)
  3. Top-quality balls often have better structural integrity and feel more predictable when in use.
  4. If you are using your ball as a chair, staple, paperclips, thumbtacks, and many other potential puncture dangers lurk in an office environment, so having a higher DLR ball will give you the peace of mind that you won’t end up on your butt in a split second if you roll over an errant staple or hit the edge of your metal filing cabinet!

 Strength/Resistance Training

Even if you are a beginner in resistance training, you are strongly advised to get a top-quality exercise ball.  For the reasons mentioned above, plus the fact that your safety is seriously in jeopardy when continually working over the DLR of your ball (assuming it even has a listed DLR).

The top-level balls are rated for static loads well in excess of 4,000 kilograms with burst-resistance to a load of 1000 kg. This does not mean the balls are puncture-proof but will help protect you from having the ball pop like a balloon (explosive deflation as one manufacturer describes it). Burst resistance means that the balls are designed to slowly deflate if accidentally punctured.

Any other uses will need to be evaluated individually, but once again, having a LARGE “safety cushion” is recommended.

Who manufactures your exercise ball?

Most likely, the place you buy the ball will not actually manufacture it, so it’s important to do a little research.  Read the box/bag the ball comes in, ask questions to the staff in the retail store, look on the company website, or seek professional advice for the right ball for your needs.  Don’t always trust that the person selling you the ball will know.  Come armed with information to keep yourself safe (this article will provide you with the details you need).  Remember, many stores are on commission and don’t have the most ethical salespeople.  They are often chasing the highest commission or promoting whatever is on special that week.

What quality standards do they adhere to? What MATERIAL is the exercise ball made of?

When checking out the manufacturer, look for the testing, quality standards, and product specifications.  Do they print “lot” or “batch” numbers on the balls, what is their guarantee, do they have a customer education program, are directions, instruction, and inflation guidelines provided with the ball?

Production material is also extremely important. The best and most durable material currently available is inflatable PVC.  This helps the ball keep its shape during use. This is extremely important for the structural integrity of the ball and for your safety. Foam-based ball designs are very “soft and squishy”, even when filled to capacity.  This “squishiness” of foam-based (and lower quality balls in general) completely changes the dynamics and predictability of the ball and therefore the exercises you are performing on it.

What testing do exercise balls undergo?

These balls are much lower quality and have significantly lower load ratings.  In fact, many manufacturers of these balls do not post any statistics at all about the ball’s performance.  These balls that I’m talking about are generally the cheap variety. They are found at almost every big box bargain store. Keep in mind that many specialized sporting goods retailers also sell them.  Such balls work well as a decoration, but that’s about it!  If you push into the ball and it easily stretches around your hand, avoid it for exercise. These are NOT balls you should be using for anything to do with exercise, particularly strength training.

Here is a great example of the testing methods TOP manufacturers use to test for load and durability.  Also, check out the images.  I KNOW the bargain basement manufacturers are NOT doing this!

  • Cyclic testing of loading/unloading where approximately 500kg of force is applied in excess of 500 times over a 2 hour period.
  • Hydraulic press to test maximal capacity
  • Real-world practical “field testing”

All of these factors speak to the care the company has taken to ensure you are safe.  While it doesn’t guarantee anything, it shows commitment to the product and helps provide some peace of mind for you.

How old is the ball?  When should I replace it?

Balls don’t last forever.  They are made of materials that break down over time and with use.  The amount of use and physical environment determines the practical lifespan of a ball, but here are a few rough guidelines.

  • Regardless of the age of the ball, it’s time to be replaced when there is visible damage. This includes even small nicks, cuts, scrapes and abrasions. Large scrapes that cut into the outer layer are particularly dangerous.
  • The inflation date should be recorded on the ball with a permanent marker for reference and regular replacement.
  • Set a regular replacement schedule and replace it in that timeline even if the balls look OK.
    • Balls taken out of high use areas may still be used for lighter duty activities. This will depending on the condition of the ball and the type of activity being performed. For example, a lightly scraped ball may not be good for strength, but fine for yoga or stretching.
    • Some manufacturers have a trade-in program to encourage safety and help minimize your recurring expenses
  • High Volume and/or High load environments (such as busy health clubs, civic centers, Sports Training Centres) should replace their balls every 3-9 months depending on the volume of use and load being used
  • Moderate volume fitness centers and training studios (every 6-12 months)
  • Lower use home environments (every 9-15 months)
  • Never used…replace it in 18 months anyway.  Who knows, a new ball may motivate you to get off your butt and start using the new ball! 😆

What condition is the exercise ball in?

If the ball is looking “beat up”, scraped, scratched, or has surface cuts in it, replace it immediately.  Always check the condition of a ball by looking and feeling the surface before using it.

Do you know the exercise ball’s history?

Most people use a ball in a public facility where they don’t know who else has been using it and how the ball has been treated.  That means it is even more important to check the integrity of the ball before use.  If it looks or feels damaged or worn out, don’t use it!

I made this mistake ONCE before and will NEVER do it again.  At a Calgary high-end executive club, I was doing heavy strength training on an exercise ball when it popped.  This exercise ball failure happened while doing a chest press with 100lb DBs in each hand. In less than the blink of an eye, I ended up flat on my back and was left wondering what happened!  Thankfully, and perhaps out of sheer luck, my elbows didn’t hit the ground first. The weights missed my hips by about an inch.  An inch closer and I would have had broken both arms and shattered my pelvis.

The good news is I wasn’t injured, just knocked the wind out of me and had a major scare.  The bad part is I knew the ball wasn’t in good shape.  Interestingly, this was actually a top-quality ball. However, being a trainer at this facility, I was aware that the balls hadn’t been replaced in over 2 years!  This is a HIGH USE club and the balls were a good 18 months past their useful life.  Needless to say, ALL of the balls were replaced the next day!

It was a stupid mistake on my part because I understood the risks, but wasn’t thinking straight at the time.  Most people are not aware and continue to put themselves in unnecessarily risky situations at home and at the gym.

How to Properly Blow Up (Inflate) Your Ball

Each ball will have different inflation instructions.  So, read the directions and follow them carefully.  If you can’t find directions or are unsure, a good rule of thumb is to inflate the ball to 80% of the proper size (each ball should have a specific size such as 55cm, 65cm, etc.). Then, wait 24 hours for the material to acclimate to the environment (temperature, humidity, etc.) and for the material to “break-in” and stretch out slowly.  This reduces the risk of damage to the ball.

After 24 hours, fill up the ball to 100% the proper size.  It’s VERY IMPORTANT to avoid over-inflating the ball!  This reduces the structural integrity of the material and increases the chance of product failure.

Proper Care of Your Ball

  • Check your ball for structural and visual damage prior to each use
  • Cleaning – Check with the manufacturer for specific directions, but often the ball can be wiped with mild soap and warm water.  It may seem like common sense, but abrasive cleaners are NOT a good idea (don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen).
  • Temperature – Avoid freezing or extreme heat as it will reduce the structural integrity of the ball (check with the manufacturer for specific parameters)
    • Never leave an inflated ball in direct sunlight
  • Avoid using your ball around sharp objects

So, there you have it!  The 411 on exercise ball safety.  If you have a ball at home or use one at your gym, evaluate it based on the criteria I talked about above.  If it fails the test for quality, condition, age, or any other factor, REPLACE IT NOW!  Your safety is too important to risk.

Once you’ve started using a top-quality ball, there are thousands of great exercises and workouts you can do!  If you need help with the workouts or have questions on which ball to buy or where to get it, just click here to contact me.

Yours in Health,

Tim Borys
FRESH! Wellness Group

P.S.  In case you were wondering, my favourite and a highly recommended exercise ball is the Duraball ProWe’ve used them in our studio for years (replaced regularly though!) and provide them to clients for their home gyms.  You can buy them here. Check the sizing chart above to choose the right one for your needs!

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