You can find medicine balls, those spherical, heavy objects traditionally made from leather, mostly found tucked in the corner of a gym covered in cobwebs. Newer versions are made of rubber or vinyl, filled with air, water or a gel and vary in size from a tennis ball to a small beach ball.
Unlike the machine training rage of the 90s that concentrates on isolating muscles in a specific plane of motion, medicine ball training promotes the integration of muscle actions and allows people to condition their bodies in all planes of movement.
Simply, you can do things with medicine balls that just aren’t possible on machines, or even free weights!
Medicine Balls Open Up New Possibilities
For example, suppose that you want to develop explosive strength and power for throwing a baseball. Following the Principle of Specificity of Training, you’ll get the best results when you overload the muscles in the exact pattern of movement.
However, most gyms will not appreciate it if you start to throw dumbbells across the weight room!
Compare this to training with a partner or rebounder and a medicine ball. In this case, using an exercise like the medicine ball throw would meet the requirements of the Principle of Specificity of Training (see Figure 1) and improve your throwing power greatly.
Or, if you’re training to achieve quick, explosive movements, most weight machines can be tricky, dangerous and generally not very effective. Remember what happened last time you did an explosive hamstring curl on a machine? Is the leg curl machine still in one piece, or is there a hole in the ceiling of the gym?
Using a medicine ball can be more effective and you don’t necessarily have to lie on your stomach either (see Figure 2 for the standing dynamic leg curl).
Explosive Resistance Training With a Medicine Ball
The fact is that weight machines are neither designed or sensible for explosive high-speed resistance training in ways that medicine balls are!
This sort of explosive training is extremely important. Explosive medicine ball training integrated into a bodybuilding program will give your nervous system a jump-start.
I have seen weightlifters increase their bench press by as much as 7 kilograms (about 15.5 pounds) in two days, after performing explosive push passes and kneeling push passes in just one session (Figures 3 and 4).
Medicine ball training provides a much-needed stimulus for the high threshold motor units and wakes up those fast twitch muscle fibers, the ones that are responsible for greater strength and size.
This type of training also improves start strength, allowing you to get those big weights moving more easily. If your goal is to increase strength and size, and you have been lifting weights for more than a year, you should vary the speed of movement at least every four weeks for optimal strength or size gains.
Medicine ball training can be extremely helpful in making these changes in movement speeds.
Building Coordination, Speed With Medicine Balls
Training with a medicine ball can be helpful for coordination and speed too. Have you ever seen a bodybuilder attempt speed, agility or quickness drills with other athletes such as wrestlers, football players or boxers?
It becomes very obvious that too much machine-based isolation training and not enough integrative exercise makes you slower and hampers coordination. One of the favorite sayings of my good friend Al Vermeil, former strength coach for the Chicago Bulls, is “Train slow, be slow.”
If you lift weights with the intent of improving sports performance, then your speed of movements in training must approximate those of your sport, at least during some phases of your program. By training exclusively on machines or free weights, you may be limiting the ability to reach your full potential.
In general, all good strength coaches cycle speed of movement, contraction types, rest period length and exercise selection throughout their athletes’ programs, and almost always include doses of explosive plyometric and medicine ball training to stimulate the nervous system and activate fast twitch muscle fibers.
The oblique toss, squat push press and back toss (see Figures 5, 6 and 7 respectively) are three such medicine ball exercises I use for this purpose. Not only does this kind of training increase speed, but also allows for increased strength during regular weight training.
Charles Poliquin, one of the world’s most successful strength coaches and another good friend I’ve worked with over the years, uses medicine ball training and as a consequence has bobsled racers weighing less than 220 pounds squatting over 390 pounds. Strong and fast is a winning combination in the sports arena.
The Practical Side of Medicine Balls
Finally, while there are all sorts of in-the-gym benefits, medicine balls have a definite leg up on other training equipment when it comes to practicality.
One of the great benefits of medicine ball training is that it can be done practically anywhere. You can pull out a medicine ball at the beach, the park or a squash court. The choice is yours. It’s a wonderful change from always training in the gym.
I highly recommend that you add a medicine ball training session 1-2 times a week. After only four weeks, you will be amazed at the difference in your lifting, sports performance and overall health.
Love and chi,