Medicine Ball Load Selection

Mastering Medicine Ball load selection is essential for optimal strength and power development. Dive into a chapter of our comprehensive guide to understand the nuances of load selection, from considering athlete characteristics to utilizing objective measurements like RPE and velocity loss percentages.
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Appropriate load selection is a crucial component for strength and power development. In traditional barbell training this is a commonplace, with the use of objective measures such as absolute load, relative load (%1RM) or movement velocity (m/s) all being widely utilised.

The intricacies of MB loading are often less considered but are equally important. Appropriate loading in MBT requires thoughtful analysis and effective coaching given the range of exercise options, planes of movements and possible physical development goals. There are no hard or fast rules but there are key aspects which should be considered: 

  • The desired training outcome
  • The athlete’s existing strength levels (and/or history of physical training)
  • The body mass of the athlete
  • The athlete’s maturation level
  • The sex of the athlete
Table 1: Medicine Ball Loading Guide

Table 1 above provides a sound starting point. Depending on the athlete’s sex, strength, body mass and training goal, the coach can start the training process within the suggested loading ranges below. From there observation and quality coaching guides the potential progression or regression.

As with any training method, quality of movement execution is the key component for achieving an optimal and specific training stimulus. Determining appropriate loading based on how a movement looks and is executed using the “coach’s eye” is the primary way to progress or regress MB load selection from the guidelines in table 1. If technique breaks down following an increase in load, it is likely that loading should be reduced to allow for correct mechanics and to achieve the desired stimulus.

In addition to the coach’s eye, in many instances using the “coach’s ear” can be equally helpful. The audible feedback of ground contacts, throw impacts, and the rhythm of catch-pass sequences provide valuable information regarding movement quality and tempo. For example, if MB loading is too high for movements such as MB-loaded bounding or partner chest throws, both eccentric and concentric movement technique and rhythm will be negatively affected, and this will blunt ground contact quality in terms of audible and visual characteristics.

The objective measurement of MB movement outputs is becoming an increasingly accessible method through which to guide loading selection. This has traditionally been constrained to measuring throw distances, which poses many limitations as poorly optimised “angles of release” can mask the physical efforts produced. It is also time consuming to measure distances on multiple throws in group training settings. Using distance as an outcome measure is simply not an applicable option for many MB exercises such as slams, vertical throws or rotational wall throws. Until relatively recently there have been limited valid and reliable measurement devices for MBT.

However, this is changing, particularly in systems utilising accelerometers, which can take the form of wearable technology (applied to the active limb) or instrumented medicine balls. These systems allow for quick and reliable measurement of almost any exercise involving a MB within any plane of movement. This can allow practitioners to collect a variety of performance metrics most notably ball release velocity. The commercial availability of radar gun technology also provides some options here.

Using the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) system is another simple method to help guide loading, either in combination with objective output monitoring or as a stand-alone feedback tool. Whilst the use of RPEs is commonplace across general training, it’s seldom used within MB training. Aside from reliably supporting the prescription of execution effort for a given movement, it is also an excellent teaching tool to help educate athletes as to how a given part of the loading/target adaptation spectrum should ‘feel’ in terms of physical exertion.

RPE Chart

These output measures can be used to measure performance and track progress with the RPE supplementing this to guide loading, much the same way that velocity-based training (VBT) and RPE approaches are used in traditional strength work. While research within the area of MBT measurement is in its infancy, we provide some guidelines in Table 2 which can help inform MB loading with respect to ball speed and perceived exertion.

It is important to note that for intensive MB training methods, adaptation to training is extremely contingent on high levels of athlete movement intent and quality of exercise outputs. Providing direct feedback on limb or ball speed is a proven method to increase athlete intent.

Velocity loss percentages (VL%) are an effective and efficient way to implement VBT style autoregulation into MBT prescription. Velocity loss percentages track decrease in movement velocity as a % of an athlete’s “best rep” in the set or training session and provide a cut-off point to guide when a set should be ended. Here's our quick-start guide to using velocity loss percentages in MBT:

  1. Establish the general reps and sets desired for training.
  2. Select your VL% drop-off percentage based on your primary training goal:
  • Reactive strength and rate of force development= ~5% loss
  • Peaking & tapering phases = ~5% loss
  • Explosive strength = ~10% loss
  • Maximal strength = 10-20% loss
  1. Train with maximal intent of effort on all repetitions.
  2. End set when velocity drops below the selected VL% or when you reach the end of your prescribed rep range.
  3. Consider reducing absolute medicine ball load if VL% is consistently reached 1-2 reps before the end of the prescribed number of reps.

Velocity loss percentages can also be used to assess the appropriate loading against previous training sessions. Athletes can compare their first set average velocity to the previous weeks’ values. We recommend comparing to a moving average of a 4-6 week range. If the athlete is below the “between-week” VL% thresholds outline in Table 2 below, MB load (kg) can be reduced to maintain velocities within normal ranges and to maintain quality of training outputs. Table 2 below gives broad guidelines on recommended velocity loss thresholds for within-sets, between-sets and between-weeks.

Table 2: Velocity Cut-offs and RPE Recommendations for Medicine Ball Training

Download the full Comprehensive Guide to Medicine Ball Training by Eamonn Flanagan and Cedric Unholz here!

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