THE MEDICINE BALL PRESCRIPTION
Take sport-specific training to the next level with BFS medicine balls.
By Kim Goss
Published: Fall 2001
Remember genie pants? Those baggy workout clothes popularized by M.C. Hammer that flared out at the thighs and came together tightly at the ankles? Ten years ago just about every lifter at the gym had a pair, and with all the psychedelic colors available many weight rooms looked like a training school for circus clowns. Now that the trend has faded, most serious weight trainers wouldn’t dare wear a pair of those pants for fear of being laughed out of the gym.
As with clothing trends, it seems every year there is an unusual new piece of exercise equipment that has everyone excited. Perhaps it’s another abdominal crunch bench, a unique pulley attachment, or a speed training device smuggled out of an Eastern Bloc country. Although there are continual legitimate advances in exercise equipment, those of us at BFS - a company with over 25 years’ experience in the athletic training business - have seen a lot of fitness products come and go (but mostly go). One product that has stuck around is the medicine ball.
Medicine balls are weighted spheres designed primarily for throwing and catching. In the past most medicine balls were made of leather, were usually slightly larger than a basketball, and didn’t rebound significantly when dropped. Now they come in a variety of materials and sizes, and many are designed to bounce. Such differences have increased the versatility of medicine balls, especially in regard to sport-specific training.
The best way to decide if it’s time for you to take on the challenge of medicine ball training is to ask, “What is the training goal?” Will you use medicine balls to develop strength, increase power, or test athletic ability - or do you just want a better way to warm-up for sports or heavy lifting? Let’s look at each of these athletic objectives in turn, beginning with strength development.
Strength Training Basics
With the BFS System, multi-joint strength training exercises such as squats produce high levels of muscle tension, and this muscle tension leads to improvements in strength. For an athlete to continually get stronger, higher levels of muscle tension are necessary. This requirement demands that the athlete strive to use incrementally heavier weights (thus the importance of recognizing the achievement of personal records in the weight room).
With the exception of exercises for very small muscle groups, a medicine ball will produce only a minor increase in strength levels because the balls seldom weigh more than 16 pounds (the heaviest BFS ball weighs 30 pounds). A 6- to 12-pound medicine ball would be fine for a very young athlete; in fact, the beginning pre-teen female athletes I coach perform a few strength training exercises with such light medicine balls. For example, front squat with a medicine ball. For this exercise, however, even the heaviest ball would quickly become too light for most athletes. For a higher-level athlete, medicine balls would be more useful to help them achieve an effective, enjoyable warm-up.
Warm-ups and General Conditioning
One of the goals of a warm-up is to raise the working capacity of the muscles to the level of the activity to be performed. Most importantly, the warm-up should raise body temperature, a key to preventing muscle pulls, and increase respiration. One of the problems with using only static stretches is that they are usually performed on the ground, causing body temperature and respiration to decrease. More importantly, this type of stretching is not dynamic.
To understand the relevance of the dynamic component in conditioning exercises, consider that during sports activities, muscle groups and their opposing muscles are involved in a complex pattern of contracting and relaxing at high speeds. In fact, because angular limb velocities reach values often greater than 300 degrees of movement per second, there are very few weight training exercises that can truly be called sport-specific. Many dynamic movements with a medicine ball can be performed at high speeds and will keep the body warmed-up and ready for serious athletic training.
Let me give you an example of the value of adding medicine balls to traditional training from my years as a strength coach at the Air Force Academy. During the off-season the “skill players” on the football team would lift on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and perform speed, agility and endurance drills on Tuesday and Thursday. A major portion of the Tuesday and Thursday workouts was spent in dynamic medicine ball exercises to provide resistance during traditional calisthenics, especially those designed to work the abdominal and lower back muscles.
Remember how boring sit-ups are? One partner exercise especially popular at the Academy was partner sit-ups with a medicine ball. As shown above, the athletes lock their ankles together and toss the ball back and forth, performing a sit-up as they throw it. Because the ball is moving rapidly, when the athletes catch it the abdominals get a much tougher workout than if the athletes simply held the ball on their chests.
One exercise that was especially tough was a series of push-ups with one or both hands resting on a medicine ball, as demonstrated on page 56. This exercise emphasizes many of the smaller muscles of the shoulder that stabilize the joint, and it’s much tougher than it sounds. In fact, the Air Force Academy tried to incorporate these types of push-ups during a toughness training ritual called “Recognition Week” that every cadet must endure. However, after the cadets had performed dozens of these push-ups, we received a call from the supervising officer to stop them because the cadets’ upper bodies were too exhausted to continue the remainder of their physical tasks!
What the medicine ball is especially good for is power development. Power can be defined as “work performed over time.” Medicine balls take the strength developed from high-tension lifts such as the squat and teach the body and mind to use that strength faster. In sports, you have only a fraction of a second to return that tennis serve or to break that tackle. This is exactly why athletes who excel in the weight room often may be outplayed by physically weaker opponents who can apply a given level of strength more quickly.
For most athletes, especially beginning-level and most high school athletes, power cleans and push jerks can produce significant improvements in power. And with limited amounts of time available to most of these athletes, the basic BFS system is perfect. However, athletes who have extra time or who are at especially high levels of ability may be ready for more sport-specific power movements using medicine balls.
For example, a volleyball player will want to achieve maximal jumping ability. If the player does a series of squats using a barbell, the weight slows down, achieving zero velocity at the end of the movement. This is necessary for safety purposes. But in jumping, there is an increase in velocity, with peak forces occurring near the end of the movement. This difference in velocity curves may not mean much to a 12-flat sprinter trying to lower their time to 11.9, but such training details mean a lot to a 10.4 sprinter trying to lower their time to 10.39.
In addition to their use in developing power, medicine balls are a great tool to determine if an athlete needs to concentrate more on increasing strength or power. A great test, and one that is used extensively in Europe, is to have an athlete throw various weights of medicine balls overhead and backwards for distance. If there is a big difference in the measurements, this indicates the athlete has excellent lower-body power and should concentrate more on BFS strength exercises such as the squat and bench press. If there is little difference in the measurements, the athlete needs more power and should concentrate on power cleans and medicine