Medicine ball myths and truths

The term medicine ball was coined by Robert J. Roberts in 1876. He had been inspired by one of the stories in Arabian Nights where an Eastern Potentate was advised by his physician to toss a large, soft ball of herbs a certain number of times a day until ‘he did sweat.’ Movement was being recommended as medicine back in ancient times. Roberts made a ball weighing 7-8lbs and sewn like a baseball. He then recommended a series of exercises in his work with the Y.M.C.A. that included lifting, circling and throwing the medicine ball. 

As materials and manufacturing have improved, the balls have moved from bladders to stitched leather to various hard-wearing resins. This means the bags can be slammed or dropped into hard surfaces or thrown far and we don’t have to worry about breaking them. The balls may look and feel different, but Mr. Roberts would see many of his exercises still in use today as they have become a standard piece of training equipment in most gyms. Anything that has a long history also has some myths that go along with it as well as some proven truths. Below I will break down both categories and share how medicine balls fit into our training at Excelsior Athletic Development Club.

Medicine ball myths

Look around the web and you’ll see some statements about medicine ball training that just don’t hold any water. Before I discuss how I use medicine balls in training, there is one thing we need to get on the same page about: 10 kilograms is 10 kilograms.

Some coaches advocate med balls as safer than other training, but 10 kilograms is 10 kilograms. It’s no safer to lift a 10-kilogram med ball from the floor than a dumbbell or barbell. And 10 kilograms can also still hurt if it falls on your head or foot.

The medicine ball might also be a good introductory tool for resistance training, but it has a limit there as well and eventually a barbell is a much better choice. I have yet to see a 100kg medicine ball (happy to be proved wrong).

And, unless you are throwing the ball, then a small weight plate is likely just as good for chops, twists and similar exercises. 10 kilograms is 10 kilograms after all. There is nothing ‘magical’ about the ball being round. Disks might even be better for some people with small hands because they are easier to hold than the ball.

Medicine ball truths

As mentioned above, many exercises done with the medicine ball could be easily accomplished with other training equipment. So why use a medicine ball? There are two areas where the medicine ball provides a distinct advantage: acceleration and perception.

Medicine balls allow you to accelerate in a way you just can’t recreate with other loaded exercises in the weight room. Hold on to an implement in the gym you will inevitably have to reduce your velocity to zero at some point in the movement. Slamming on the brakes is an essential part of the exercises, often at the point where you’d be just starting to move in the actual sport. Medicine balls allow for ballistic movement. Since you can safely release them, you can accelerate the whole movement. While you can throw barbells, dumbbells and plates, I wouldn’t recommend it as they are liable to break. Medicine balls bounce evenly and are designed to be dropped or thrown.

There is also a positive perception of medicine balls, which helps them integrate into training. I work with many children, and often schools will ban “free weights” for under 16 athletes due to the stigma of with the though of ‘lifting weights is bad for children.’ Other children, especially girls, often avoid free weights due to a fear of becoming too muscular. Yet medicine balls seem to be less of a problem: schools, and the female pupils that I have coached, are happy to use 2kg-5kg medicine balls. They fit well into a continuum of bodyweight exercises to lighter implements to dumbbells and eventually barbells. Once a child is familiar, competent, and happy with a 2-3kg medicine ball, it is an easy win to get them to lift two 2kg dumbbells. The ‘weight room’ is often an intimidating place for newcomers and so being able to transport weighted items to their home turf also helps with confidence.

How medicine balls can fit into training

How I use medicine balls in training lines up with their unique benefits: acceleration and perception. I typically use them in three situations, and each one you can see where the advantages listed above fit in.

  1. Part of our warm-ups for weight lifting and athletics.
  2. As an introductory tool for resistance training with lighter, younger or beginner athletes.
  3. For throwing and tossing as acceleration training.

An example of one of our warm-up sequences is here:

Final thoughts

Medicine balls are useful but they are not a panacea. Like every other piece of equipment, and most exercises, there needs to be a rationale as to ‘why’ they are being used. Coaches should also be aware there are some great alternatives out there to medicine balls that can better fit in your budget. For me, the medicine balls are too expensive for what you get. Even budget medicine balls will cost you a bit and might break down fast. Last year I found some weighted sand disks from the Aldi supermarket for a couple of bucks. They do not easily bounce, but otherwise tick the same boxes we are often looking for from medicine balls in training. The key is to focus on what you want to do as much as what equipment you do it with.