How to get the most out of medicine balls

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When I was first handed a medicine ball in training, the first thought that came to mind was “the grind.” I had a preconceived notion of the medicine ball as an arcane training tool used exclusively in vintage newsreels of calisthenics. Individuals would pick up a heavy leather ball and grind through exercises with a partner. The public image of medicine balls has change a lot in the decades since, but often the intent in medicine ball training – the grind – remains. That’s unfortunate as it keeps us from getting the most out of a great training tool.

» Related content: Listen to this week’s HMMR Podcast where we talk with Steve Myrland about other training methods that can help avoid the grind in training.

Why medicine balls

The advantages of medicine ball training has been well documented elsewhere. It can increase rate of force development, neural recruitment, coordination, and add variety to movement. Those qualities will benefit nearly every sport, but are often hard to train through the sport itself, especially cyclical endurance events like running. Weight training can often train several of these qualities, but requires more equipment and facilities. And often weight lifting exercises lack a clear intent.

Focus on focusing

Training is often a struggle to not go through the motions. If we want to get better, we have to constantly focus on what we’re doing. If an exercise has a clear intent, focus is easy to find and keep. Medicine ball is such a good tool because it is easy to create exercises with clear intent, and therefore keep focus in training.

Most weight lifting exercises straightforward; in the squat, for example, you just go up and down. Or even in a more complex movement like the snatch, you take the bar from the ground to overhead. There is little there to force the athlete to focus.

The medicine ball, on the other hand, is more versatile. Take the example of a heave. On the outside it resembles an Olympic lift: you take the ball from the ground to up in the air. But the fact that you can release it allows you to add external cues and focus. Have an athlete focus on the height (e.g. hit the ceiling) and they all of a sudden they have more focus because the intent is more clear. By focusing on an external goal, they automatically focus on creating a longer path of acceleration and full-body extension. As an added benefit, the ballistic nature of it also means you can accelerate for 100% if the movement, as opposed to the snatch, where you have to eccentrically slow down the bar to “catch” it.

It’s ironic then that when most people do medicine ball exercises they still just grind and go through the motions, racking up hundreds of reps without one that really utilizes what the medicine ball does best. Think about that the next time you do twists or crunches or even lazy throws back and forth to a partner.

Putting it all together: an example

Medicine ball handball is one example of an easy first step to incorporate medicine balls into training and, at the same time, provides an example of getting the most out of it as a means of training.

» Need ideas? Members can watch Martin Bingisser and Nick Garcia demonstrate their key medicine ball workouts.

For medicine ball handball we set up a square with tape on a wall. Athletes find a partner and alternate throwing into that box. The ball may bounce once, but if it bounces twice before it is thrown back, the athlete loses the point.

Athletes may start off slow, but competitiveness quickly takes over and before you know it athletes are tossing the ball with maximum effort at unique angles to try and win. The physical benefits of this are clear: high neural recruitment and power output along with movement variation. But the focus on winning keeps the focus and intent in each repetition. Rather than going through the motions, their competitive nature makes sure that each throw is done with the intent of creating maximal force, as well as balance, so that they are in position to respond to the next play.

Find intent through design

You don’t just stumble upon intent or find it by telling athletes what to focus on; it is best achieved through selecting training means where intent is inherently required. That’s what makes medicine ball handball so great. That, and the fact that deep down everyone wants to be a thrower.