It seems that strength coaches can’t leave well enough alone. It used to be that barbells, dumbbells, squat racks and benches were enough to make athletes . . . well, better athletes. Now if a weightroom doesn’t have Bosu balls, vibration platforms and over priced nylon straps, coaches – and the athletes they coach – worry that think they will be a step behind.
Although there have been some great advances in exercise equipment, most are overrated and some could be considered a regression. Along with free weights, which are rightfully here to stay, medicine balls are useful training tools that usually take a backseat to gimmicks, unfortunately.
For those unfamiliar with this type of tool, a medicine ball is a soft, weighted sphere designed primarily for throwing and catching – as opposed to a kettlebell, which is designed primarily for throwing. In bygone days when YMCAs were the happening place to train, these balls were made of leather, about the size of a basketball, and did not bounce when dropped. Now medicine balls come in a variety of materials and sizes and are extremely versatile and durable; some can bounce.
The first step in deciding what to do with medicine balls is to determine your goals for using them. Do you want to use medicine balls to develop strength, increase power, improve muscular endurance or test athletic ability – or do you just want a better way to warm up for sports or heavy lifting? Let’s look at each of these athletic objectives in turn.
Medicine ball training is effective as a general warm-up to increase body temperature and prepare the neuromuscular system for dynamic performance. It could be considered a dynamic stretching warm-up, in contrast to static stretching, which can have a temporary negative impact on an athlete’s speed and power. The theory of dynamic stretching is that sports require complex sequences of relaxing and contracting muscles – often at high speeds. Medicine ball throws can be extremely fast, and as such are a great warm-up for the rapid movements that occur in sport.
Strength and Power.
I recently came across a video of a coach who said that training with high levels of muscle tension, such as occurs with weight training, does not help athletes because sports are performed too quickly. I strongly disagree. For an athlete to continually get stronger and more powerful, higher levels of muscle tension are necessary. Proof of this can be found in peer-reviewed research studies showing that for developing power, it is far more effective to combine weight training with plyometrics to increase vertical jumping ability than to simply perform plyometric training alone.
Can medicine ball training make you stronger? No, medicine ball training will not produce a significant strength training effect, except for extremely weak beginners. In exercises such as squats and deadlifts, for example, the weight of a medicine ball is too light or will become too light after a few sessions.
A simple definition of power is “work performed over time.” To increase peak power and performance, you can pair hang cleans with vertical jump training. Complex training – pairing a resistance exercise (either a heavy-load strength exercise or a fast-speed conditioning exercise) with a biomechanically similar dynamic action – is effective because the muscles being worked have been previously activated at the point at which they are required to produce rapid force. So for example, barbell pullovers can be followed by overhead medicine ball throws.
Energy System Training.
High-repetition medicine ball training, especially with dynamic leg exercises such as squat jumps, can certainly produce increases in muscular endurance and can be a fun method of training, especially for young athletes. And I have to say that high-repetition energy system training using medicine balls would be preferable to high-repetition Olympic lifting movements, as technique can quickly break down on exercises such as power cleans and power snatches when high reps are performed.
Medicine balls are a great test to determine an athlete’s power. One test used in Europe is to have an athlete throw various weights of medicine balls overhead and backwards for distance. If there is a large difference in the measurements, this suggests that the athlete has exceptional power and could benefit most by focusing on basic strength exercises such as squats and deadlifts. If there is a small difference, then power exercises such as the power snatch and power clean should be a priority. A good test for upper body power is the chest pass, performed standing or seated.
What is the best type of medicine ball? It depends on your purpose for performing this type of training. The larger-diameter, vinyl-coated-nylon balls such as Dynamax
are soft and have the feel of leather but tend to be more durable (the stitching on leather balls can easily come undone) and more economical. Other types of medicine balls have a rough surface, which makes them easy to catch, and vary in size (usually according to weight). The versions that do not bounce are best for indoor training; the ones that bounce are best for outdoors – they are also good for rebounding off walls. And as with weight plates, storage racks are a must.
Are medicine balls a perfect prescription for you? Let’s just say they certainly have value – just keep their value in perspective and use them when appropriate.