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Medicine ball (MB) training has become somewhat ‘in-vogue’ over the past few years as the fitness industry continues its ‘functional’ boom. In reality, training using weighted balls has been around for millennia. In fact, Hippocrates is said to have stuffed animal skins for patients to throw for medicinal purposes, while Persian wrestlers trained with sand-filled bladders, and Gladiators used weighted balls to prepare for the arena.
Pictured is author and athlete Ben Simons completing rotational throws using Output Sports
The term itself however is probably only a few hundred years old when the terms ‘health’ and ‘medicine’ were pretty synonymous. According to a Scientific American article from the time, a certain Professor Roberts coined the term in 1889 in relation to the belief that using the ball “invigorates the body, promotes digestion, and restores and preserves one’s health “.
Moving onto the 20th century and American President Herbert Hoover is said to have further popularised the use of medicine ball training after his physician suggested the overweight president play volleyball using a medicine ball, appropriately termed ‘Hoover ball’.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century the medicine ball became a staple in boxing clubs and gymnasiums across the world. Recently the medicine ball has become a common and highly versatile piece of equipment use to develop several qualities across different sports and events.
The most common application of medicine ball training is during general strength and fitness sessions. MB exercises are regularly used in a circuit training fashion for energy system development, general strength, and fitness development.
Watch Ben complete med ball slams as he measures his power, velocity and acceleration using Output.
Below I have included some methods you can use in your MB training.
Much of the premise for this is the use of the medicine ball to overload calisthenic movements, simple gross body movements are used, targeting large amounts of muscle tissue. Developing muscular endurance and cardio-vascular fitness. Sample Medicine Ball Circuit
Repeated throws against a wall or with a partner allows for stretch-shortening through the target muscular and connective tissue, accessing elastic and proprioceptive mechanisms. This enhances applicability to most sporting movements and is especially useful when training the core. The force of receiving the medicine ball from various angles of assault produces elastic responses and forces stabilisation through the core musculature.
The repeated mild eccentric stretching also has a regenerative function, restoring mobility and elasticity in the tissues, making MB circuits ideal for low intensity or ‘general’ training days or phases. Here is an example of me using this technique with my own training: Catch Toss Work Sample
Training session parameters:
Using the MB for power development is a simple yet effective modality. MB training for explosive power development is well established within track and field and throwing sports. Explosive MB training sessions involve throws for maximum distance or height. These throws are often measured, providing instant feedback for the athlete and a useful monitoring modality for the coach to gauge for physical readiness and progress throughout a training programme. Measurable repetitions also increase motivation and provide competition within a training group, significantly increasing training intent and neural drive. Explosive throws take little to no technical coaching and are relatively safe compared to other ballistic techniques used in the weight room. Explosive throws can be overloaded at different weights depending on the strength level of the athlete and the demands of their sport.
Explosive throws are especially useful for developing ballistic power, with maximum acceleration of the implement through full ROM using the whole kinetic chain, with none of the deceleration or inhibition in the movement observed in most traditional barbell lifts.
As athletes become more accustomed to the explosive throws, they will start searching for extra power through stretch shortening, dropping quickly through the eccentric phase and utilising the stretch reflex and elastic components around the hip and knee to augment the subsequent concentric phase and ultimately increase the throwing distance. This presents an excellent opportunity to train slow SSC around the hip and knee, where traditional plyometrics heavily bias fast SSC at the ankle joint. Therefore, the inclusion of explosive throws in the training programme often creates some much needed balance essentially ‘filling a gap’ and preventing overuse injury in the lower limb associated with high plyometric volumes. The development of slow SSC abilities is also highly correlation with acceleration and change of direction performance, which is of particularly high value in field sports.
Explosive Training Session Parameters:
I like to include simple overhead toss in my own programming: Medicine Ball Overhead Toss
Shock training can also be utilized to advance training progression and further augment and overload the elastic mechanisms around the hip and knee. Adding depth drops to subsequent throws is the final and most intense progression when using the MB explosive power. MB shock training is still inherently less risky than traditional depth jumps as ground contract times and ensuing impact is much lower.
Using medicine balls is a simple way to overload sport specific movements, light load ensures mechanics/speed of the movement pattern are similar, while heavier loads are used to overload the target tissue and neural pathway. Below is an example of a sports specific sprint drill I use in my own training.
MB training is a safe and effective way to introduce external load to youth and development athletes. The gross movement patterns employed in MB circuits need little to no technical feedback and allow fun and movement freedom during this critical period of development. Simple squat, hinge, push, pull and rotational movements can be used, developing the postural awareness that will be needed when they enter the weight room in years to come.
Medicine ball training is not a new fad, and has been used in one form or another for millennia. This style of training is versatile and allows you to train multiple characteristics and can be applied in various ways. As with any training tool, the key is to ensure that your methods align with your principles and desired adaptation. Once you keep this in mind, the medicine ball can be employed very effectively in your training program.
Ben Simons holds a Masters in Sports Science and is a 2x Olympian representing Team GB in Bobsleigh. Ben also works as a sports therapist and performance coach, running Semtex Systems.