Finding purpose, direction, and planning for medicine ball training

Believe it or not, as an athlete I hated 95% of the medicine ball training we did. To me it seemed somehow stupid just throwing a ball 200 times around just to do it. The other 5% have been fun and I loved it. This 5% was the most challenging stuff. I loved it because it had concrete purpose. It might have been as simple heaving the ball up to the ceiling, but that wasn’t easy so it presented a challenge and a purpose. When I finally succeeded, it earned me a drink from our physio or coach and the feeling of having thrown intensely.

» Related content: Rene Sack discusses more about medicine ball training in HMMR Podcast 211 and Video Lesson 16.

Finding purpose

Why do I share this old story? Think twice as the fitness industry is trying to sell every well known tools with new names and questionable results. There is nothing special or magical about medicine balls. They’re just heavy balls. It is the way you use them and how you implement them into your training that allows them to work or fail. Just throwing around a medicine ball doesn’t give you anything, just sweat and bored athletes. And a a lot of what they are used for in training might not actually help you get better at your sport.

But when you use medicine balls well, they can be a great tool. To get the most out of them you have to give athletes a concrete task or look at the specific movement qualities. Otherwise you are just going through the motions and you can do that with any piece of equipment.

This is even more important when working with younger kids. When I coach young athletes we often turn to medicine ball games. With the right game structure you giving the kids purpose, not just making them tired. One of my favorites is a 1-on-1 court or field game. Simply have the kids throw the ball back and forth. The winner is the athlete that gets the ball over the court’s back line first. This could take a while, but the kids make all the throws with full power. You can add variation by defining how they area allowed to throw (one arm, two arm, overhead, etc.). It’s way more fun and purposeful than throwing against a wall.

Start with the end point

Purpose is important, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Purpose might be the most important thing about medicine ball training, but it is not always the starting point. Picking exercises only comes after you define the training. Different exercises create different adaptations. A key point of my approach to medicine ball training is that I only choose exercises after I decide what we want to train.

Do you to strengthen tendons and prepare the body for training? Then pick up a heavy medicine ball.

Are you trying to build some elasticity? Then take a light ball and do reactive throws.

If you are trying to train elastic stuff with an 8-kilo ball it won’t work, just like training strength with a 2-kilo ball.

You don’t even have to throw the medicine ball. If your goal is core or shoulder stabilization you can also get that by carrying around different weights and in different ways like bearhug- or overhead-walks, etc. You can also use them like weights as well. There are so many ways to use medicine balls that they are a cheap and proper way to expand your home gym.

Developing a plan

Just as you periodize weight training, you should also have a plan to progress medicine ball exercises in parallel. The intent of each training phase is the start point to determine which exercises to use at different times of the year. In general it starts with building a base, then developing technique, then going fast and throwing far. The medicine ball progression then might look like this throughout the year:

  • Essential exercises – choose exercises that are preparatory in nature. They get the athlete stronger and stabilize the body’s structures. For example, a shot putter might take a high volume of heavy standing throws or throws with different starts (walking, running, jumping, turning).
  • Special exercises – The focus is force and overloading the force component with the medicine ball. This might use reactive throws that are heavier than the implement, or plyometrics combined with throws. I have built a small medicine ball circuit which I love to use at the end of our strenght phase and also incorporate at other times throughout the year. I can’t take credit for that as I learned some of the exercises on social media, but I like that they all give athletes a chance to combine core stability, jumps and throws in an explosive way. Those are the exact qualities we need in the ring.
  • Technical exercises – These exercises start to incorporate more technical elements. Some will look similar to the last phase, e.g. reactive throws are still done, but they are with lighter weights at higher speed.

Putting it all together

As conclusion i just need to say, medicine balls are great to to use in your program in every variation. Knowing the adaptation you are chasing and how it fits into the plan is key, but also none of that matters if purpose or intent is lacking in the exercises. There aways should be a purpose or intent. Just throwing them around gives you nothing.