The goal of this post is to educate readers on the benefits of incorporating medicine ball training into their schedule or regiment. We will briefly discuss specific applications, form considerations, load management, and strategies to implement for success.
There are a different weight options when training with a medicine ball, but in this series we went with the Dynamax 4lb Soft-Shell Medicine Ball Standard.
What are some sport-specific examples that make sense for medicine ball training?
There are endless possibilities for basketball. The classic swing through when driving past your defenders is a great example of demanding strength through the hands as you coordinate your body to exert force into the ground.
Once you get by your man you have to elevate for the poster which means another athletic movement taking an external load (the ball) from point A (the ground) to point B (the rim).
As a hooper, you might not need to throw 105 MPH but you do need an explosive strength to “pull from the logo” like Damian Lillard.
The next example is baseball. As you will see in this post we can basically mirror throwing and hitting mechanics with the medicine ball.
If there is one principle the entire world agrees on to some degree it has to be progressive overload. This means adding incremental load to a similar movement pattern will increase strength qualities over time.
Overuse is also something we need to keep in mind when implementing sport-specific strategies. If you take an athlete who is throwing or hooping all year round… then add more throws or jumps on top of ACTUALLY PLAYING THE SPORT we probably end up with “Tommy John and “jumpers knee”.
Capacity before skill
As a trainer or strength coach, it’s important to keep in mind that our job is to improve the necessary capacities of the athlete or individual required to be able to effectively learn that skill (the sport).
We can utilize “sport specific” strategies while still keeping in mind your objective is improved strength, mobility, endurance, or power.
For example, I am not a pitching coach, but I can help you improve your mobility and power through the hips unlocking your potential to perfect your mechanics.
If you do not have the ability to achieve a position due to lack of mobility then just cueing you to get your shoulder back or rotate your spine more is not the answer. We must go back to developing the prerequisites necessary to successfully acquire the skill.
Prerequisites Precede Practice
Should the average gym-goer be doing medicine ball training?
Hell yes! Let’s start with the top layer of science that supports why. As a society, we have decade after decade invented technology that makes life easier for us removing the demand for movement variability.
Basically, if you think about the number of different positions you were in today chances are its not an extensive list. We sit, we walk, we stand, and a maybe few reaches to the cabinet.
This differs by individual as always but even the more active fitness crowd does a version of this at the gym. After a bench press set while sitting on a bench we scroll Instagram to see what @markowtrainingsystems posted last.
Well, what about leg day? Okay, your right but squatting and deadlifting are really just picking the weight up and down. Nothing wrong with that but what about moving laterally?
I do my side and curtsy lunges… You are ahead of the game…. and the moment of truth. When was the last time you worked rotation into your workout? Hmmmmmmmm.
We know from our other post that the hip and shoulder are always rotating during movement but what about the thoracic spine (upper back) and what about a movement that connects head all the way to toe while utilizing rotation… To be fair you are doing that to some degree because that actually works as a description of walking.
Training in all three planes of motion is an absolute must.
The one we see most often neglected is the transverse plane of motion which is where rotation lives. Next, as a trainer risk-reward is always a prominent factor within exercise selection.
When it comes to a med ball we are choosing a very safe tool. It doesn’t sit on your neck as a direct load to the spine, it is lightweight when done well, and we can drop the med ball safely at any time. We often hear the goal washboard abs or a six-pack.
If you want abs the med ball can absolutely deliver.
Lastly, people need to let loose a little. Exercise is the best solution for improving stress management.
There is a reason people pack into spin studios and boot camps all over the world. We want to enjoy ourselves.
Throwing something as hard as you can at the ground or wall can be a lot of fun and it doesn’t involve pedaling while sitting or do as many bad pushups as you can.
Common mistakes with Medicine Ball Training
Using too much weight.
You can go to most gyms and see this for yourselves where a sweet 100 lb mom is handed a 16 lb ball to chuck it into the wall.
The trainer hands her the ball and says okay Darlene remember to squish the bug!
Unfortunately, Darlene has trouble wrangling in this boulder and ends up being the one thrown instead of the exterminator. This is because she is trying to throw 16 % of her body weight.
After 6 sets of AMRAP Darlene exclaims that was a great bicep and lower back finisher. That’s not what we are trying to accomplish with our medicine ball training.
When people ask what size to get I always suggest a 6lb if they are getting one and 4lb and 8lb if they are getting two.
The beauty of the med ball often lies in the ability to move fast, fluid, and connected which does not happen when we use too much weight.
Even some of the guys you see throwing 100MPH are using 12lb and 14lb balls which really puts it in perspective why Darlene needs a new trainer.
For reference, an NBA basketball is only 22 ounces and the MLB baseball is around 5 ounces.
Programming does not match the intent.
We are firm believers in changing the intent of exercises to match your needs so grabbing a ball and doing 20 slams for an energy systems development session is great.
When we are doing rotational scoops or other rotational-based exercises that demand power and explosive movement we do not want to be exhausted. They literally changed the rules of baseball so pitchers have to pitch within 12 seconds of having the med ball with the hitter in the box.
So why are you doing sets of 20 reps with no pause? Coordination and kinetic linking are big components of med ball training so rushing reps is a disservice.
From an energy systems point of view, keeping reps lower with maximum intent and adequate time between reps is the only way to access that tank. We like to compare these to plyometric training where a really heavy week might have 60 total throws and should be considered during the deload protocol.
Not integrating the hips.
We have mentioned the idea of linking the energy from the ground across the body to deliver the ball into the wall. This is a tough task to execute early on.
The cue I joked about “squishing the bug” was a personal experience. At first, the visual made sense, but since then I have realized that this appears to integrate the hip but also minimizes the force being exerted into the ground.
Cueing someone to drive the ground away and turn the hip has produced much better results. Another successful strategy for me is explaining these movements in terms of sequencing.
I want you to load the hip with the hinge and then the movement happens in order from the ground up. The foot and knee move first then the hip/pelvis feed into the thoracic spine finishing with the delivery.
Not getting enough weight transfer.
This goes hand in hand with integrating the hips. I find that so many of us favor or are “stuck” to one side of our bodies.
This is a complex topic but keeping it simple when we walk or run we must be able to transfer weight from one foot to the other. We can incorporate this within our medicine ball training.
Are there different types of medicine balls?
Yes, there are many different types that change the training stimulus. We suggest getting the softer ones shown in the videos below because they are so versatile.
They can bounce back adequately for any reactive work and are soft enough that mistakes rarely end up with injuries. The harder and bouncier types definitely have value but we have seen a lot of people get hit in the face not ready for a bounce.
The third most common type is in between hard and soft but it really dies when it hits the ground or wall.
This can be good for certain exercises, especially slams where you throw the ball down and have to squat to pick it up.
You will get an extra training stimulus because you have to lift the med ball from the ground because of the lack of bounce. We actually prefer a sandbag for this type of exercise.
Eccentric Core Training
Another phenomenal way to use the med ball is eccentric core training. This refers to the lengthening of the musculature across the ribcage, especially during thoracic rotation and extension.
If you look at the 3rd and 4th parts of Tiger’s swing you will see the huge stretch across the left side of his ribcage. This lengthening reverses to a concentric contraction to bring power to the point of contact.
We can challenge different positions such as kneeling, lunge, split stance, and standing by throwing the ball at someone forcing them to eccentrically control the rotation but catching it and then snapping it back.
Having resiliency in this specific movement is crucial because oblique strains and lower back injuries are all too common with rotational athletes.
With this swing, we can see how the sport of tennis differs greatly from golf and also mirrors shortstop in baseball. It makes sense that the majority of medicine ball reps programmed for a tennis athlete would focus on more dynamic, staggered, and varied exercises.
We want them to be able to create rotational power no matter where their feet end up when chasing the ball. This is where the variation below might be more applicable.
So where do I start with medicine ball training?
First, we want to give you another reminder about the importance of prerequisites before practice. We need to make sure your spine is moving well before we load it and especially in an explosive manner.
Check out the free routine below. We suggest filming it to make sure all segments are moving as well as establishing a baseline to track mobility progress.
Once you have some baseline control with both flexion and extension of your spine progress by adding more rotation. If we can get gain better control of our spine and hips then learning these exercises will be much easier.
This is where we start most of our students and athletes with rotational medicine ball work. We can definitely play around with the details and even change our intent with this exercise.
We suggest learning as described in the video first focusing on loading and unloading the hip. Remember, this is one variation of this exercise and by no means the only way to perform it. Here are some other variations of this setup:
If you are interested in an individual program that incorporates med ball training you can find more information here.
We also have included med ball training in our Mobility Coach Plus course.
If you would like to take online exercise classes with us, you can start with your first week free of our Elite Video Membership.
Please feel free to reach out with any questions you have!