By Carl Valle
If it weren’t for medicine ball training in high school, I would have gone to college to become an architect. Although, I was never a great athlete, I credit any success I had to medicine ball training.
I believe the medicine ball is one of the most potent tools to develop athletes, but it’s also the worst regarding available science and application. Because the tool is a ball, anyone can simply add it to a workout without thought and structure. This has not changed since I started training with my first Nemo ball in 1992.
In this article, I’ll show what I’ve learned since asking some honest questions. I may create some emotional responses, anger a few coaches, and question beliefs, but I will also present the truth. Many assumptions and much dogma have interfered with ball training’s evolution, and I hope this article becomes a catalyst to athletic development.Medicine balls are one of the most potent tools to develop athletes. Click To Tweet
Bad Medicine: What Nearly Everyone is Doing Wrong
At the heart and soul of medicine ball training is the creation of what I call connected power. Balls are arguably the best training tool to connect the weight room with the coordination areas of the nervous system, from our fingertips to our brains. I dislike making up or christening terminology, but without naming the concept we often can’t move forward to a working definition.
The fact that the average fitness enthusiast can go to the sporting goods store and buy a ball and perform medicine ball crunches shows the current lack of respect for the tool. A similar attitude exists in coaching circles because the ball’s load isn’t dangerous and it’s usually softer than a kettlebell. Instead of powerful training tools, medicine balls are often used simply as toys for athletes.
No one specific error is the cause of poor training, but the lack of comprehensive understanding and application of the modality is ruining its potential benefits. After decades of diluting the equipment’s value, it’s time to return to the origins of the medicine ball and give it the recognition it deserves.
Built for Battle: From Weapons of War to Sports Training
Someone asked why I spend so much time looking at the past when a lot of good information is available now. My reason is that I don’t want to reinvent everything. I want to only innovate when necessary.
In the past, medicine ball education was a means to either winning a war or a medal. These purposes have been lost because of the commercialism of sports training. Other than an interest in sports training history, why do we care about what people did in the past? Simple. History provides a vast perspective and showcases creativity.
As noted by several leading experts in sprint training, the medicine ball is thousands of years old. A word of caution is needed with this statement. Just because the modality is ancient doesn’t mean it’s free of any baggage or training impurities. I don’t believe anything came of interest until the late 1800s when physical education became professional and when sports became more competitive. In the 1940s, a world war was occurring and training to win took on a new meaning.
What I learned from my long investigation into the history was disappointing; the novelty of medicine ball work has led us to focus on exercises over rationale. Even in current manuals and books, multi-throws and various core exercises don’t seem to need validation. We need to reboot what we believe medicine balls can do and start over.
The Modern Medicine Ball: Applications that Matter
The most important innovation in medicine ball training during the last few decades was the alteration of materials. Medicine balls changed from leather pouches to rubberized spheres, sparking more creativity and engineering. After reaching a peak with medicine balls during the functional training craze in the early 2000s, we experienced a dark age in sports science for more than a decade.
The frenzy over medicine balls has calmed, and we’re now in a phase of moderation. I’ve boiled down the ball’s benefits into three primary categories.
The use of medicine balls as instruments of motor skill development is timeless. Many fundamental motions can be taught with medicine balls. Coaches also use them to distract athletes from the “paralysis by analysis” trap so they are not too focused on their task. While some favor cueing via vocal commands to manipulate learning, I’ve found task directed options are far superior.
Medicine balls are loaded implements, but their appearance and feel can deceive coaches and athletes. While the weights are usually between 1-6 kg, medicine balls create loading demands that are underestimated and may create problems for some overhead athletes. Conversely, the weight limit provides a safety net for most exercises, and the lighter load reinforces ballistic action and skilled movement.
Throwing performance can be measured with medicine balls, and distance is the metric of choice when evaluating power. Common tosses thrown by athletes are often evaluated by a measuring tape. After twenty years of throwing medicine balls, however, I believe testing is not that simple. Distance is convenient to get raw measures, but the lack of context can distort our perspective when analyzing distance alone.
Without a clear purpose in mind, medicine ball exercises can be perceived as busy work or play. Balls should be respected and programmed like any other part of training and not just causally included in workouts.
Does Medicine Ball Training Improve Athletic Power?
No one really knows if medicine ball training actually develops or expresses power. Most coaches want to see measurable changes in power from the trunk or legs. But the research is scant on medicine balls compared to traditional weight training. Although evidence of the ball’s influence on training is murky, the same can be said of many modalities.Medicine ball training accelerates and enhances other modalities. Click To Tweet
Several experts in sports science believe that medicine ball training has very little impact on absolute power. I agree. Adaptation craves overload. This means a quality must be nearly foreign to the body to trigger biological changes. It’s my opinion that medicine ball training isn’t a primary stimulus for advanced athletes, but likely accelerates and enhances other modalities.
Looking at biological stimulus, medicine balls are too light to provide mechanical overload to most sporting actions and are too heavy to create neuromuscular adaptations. In addition to the load, the motion is not specific enough to improve sports skill and is too general to give a break to the actions needing enhancement.
Medicine ball training reveals athletic development, it doesn’t actually develop athletic performance. So why use this option and why is it popular? The most plausible reason is that medicine ball training infuses coordination changes that are hard to measure. I’ve spent ten years trying to tease out how one actually improves from this training. Medicine balls fall into a “Bermuda triangle zone”; their use doesn’t make much sense on paper, but they are worth the effort.
Some promising research defends the position that medicine ball training creates adaptations. Whenever conflicting research arises, however, we need to look at the populations and the training protocols along with experimental design details to weigh the value of the outcomes.
I’ve read at least sixty papers on medicine ball studies in sports science literature and have reached the conclusion that most lack enough procedural details to find clear value. Also, even if a very crude study of medicine ball training were to isolate the modality from conventional weight training or sprint training, no coach worth their salt would program only this type of training throughout the training period. If a holistic program incorporating many modalities were studied, it would still be unlikely that any substantial conclusion could be drawn.
While no firm verdict is in, I believe medicine ball workouts are complementary to developing athletes, as are most options in sports performance training. This isn’t very enlightening or shocking. In my opinion, the flexible benefits of medicine ball training make it a wise staple in programs, and I believe the training is most likely a catalyst for development.
The Data and Technology of Medicine Ball Training
Several coaches have asked my opinion about the Ballistic Ball from Assess2Perform. I have used various iterations of the “ball with brains” as well as proxy products that measure limb velocities and estimate output. What should have been a simple act of measuring common exercises turned into a rabbit hole where I almost got lost. Still, after years of use combined with the evolution of product firmware and algorithms, I’ve found a simple throw is more complex than I’d like it to be. This was a bitter pill I had to swallow.
Video 1. An athlete performs overhead back throws for height with the Assess2Perform Ballistic Ball using drone footage. Note the athlete employs a pre-jump to engage in more elastic utilization.
The most repeated statement I hear from coaches concerns the value of measuring a ball’s output over the common practice of using distance. I’ve concluded the ball is perfect for testing multi-throw exercises and recommend coaches invest in one. Conventional “zombie balls” are still the primary solution for training because they’re the best tool for testing overhead throws.
I’ve created a simple chart of training and testing technology solutions. Testing solutions range from virtually nothing (just a ball) to something simple (tape measure) to a comprehensive lab option (including the ballistic ball). My intention is to demonstrate that sometimes no measurement is needed. Sometimes athletes just need to train and learn, while other times we need a sophisticated measuring device to truly know how well athletes are performing.
Measuring distance or height are not perfect ways to assess the output of throws. Any coach can measure simple distance, but that’s only half the story. The most important part of medicine ball assessment is how the throw’s output was created, not just the raw result afterward.
Countless times, I’ve seen athletes improve their throwing distance and get excited, only to learn they didn’t improve their force generation abilities, they just became better at the test. Test familiarization is not the only guilty party.
Sometimes, when doing throws behind them, athletes simply launch the ball at a better angle. They improve their score but perhaps threw with less speed and power. Sometimes explosive legs are negated by a slightly early arm action, losing the advantage of a summation of forces. Other times a small countermovement taints a squat throw and gives a false impression of improvement.
Lots of unnoticed factors and hidden problems can be with revealed when studying medicine ball training closely. Combining video (kinematic) with sensor enhanced medicine balls (kinetics) and body measurement tools have led to my belief that most research is not valid enough to reach concrete conclusions.
Video 2. Shown here Johan Wissman is performing an overhead shot throw for distance during a training camp in Formia Italy.
Coaches should not be frightened about the lack of data on medicine ball output, but they shouldn’t pontificate beliefs without serious investigative approaches to their training. What I find strange is the obsession with bar tracking technologies and the lax attitude toward the purpose of weight training, which is to improve throwing and running output. Ball output belongs at the table of performance training, right between bar and body speed.
Improving the Applied Sciences of Medicine Ball Training
Go to any website for sports training and you’ll probably find videos featuring athletes throwing balls stereotypically. Many coaches show the carcasses of broken balls as a badge of superior coaching or athletic ability. It’s more likely, however, that the balls are low quality.
I’ve examined common exercises to find what will help our athletes and how we can improve the tactical side of executing movements. I follow four principles of medicine ball training, and they are timeless.
Is Peak Ball Velocity the Metric of Choice?
Several coaches have asked me about the creative use of radar and similar technologies to measure ball speed. Radar guns are great but remember, like video technology, we must set up the equipment precisely, or the outputs can be misleading. More importantly, radar guns only capture peak velocity from early release without data to explain how the speed was created.
Video 3. Trailer from Fastball.
Fastball was a great documentary that showed why, in different eras, we had issues measuring the part of the throw called pitchers speed. The early use of radar technology seemed to measure Nolan Ryan teetering just above 100 mph at release when, in reality, he was much faster at about 108 mph. At that time, the speed at the plate was measured. It is important to understand how technology defines velocity within specific parameters.
Because the details of force generation resulting from technique (coordination) and raw force abilities (weight room) are subtle, we need to recognize how these forces are created. With this knowledge, coaches can discover if an athlete is innately good at throws and requires more conventional training or if the athlete is maximizing the weight room and simply needs ways to learn to produce force efficiently.
Generating good medicine ball throws does not create an expressway to winning the 100m or throwing 100 mph, but it does indicate if an athlete has coordination outside their sports skills and weight training. Add into the equation an athlete’s anthropometry and the size of the ball, and things get dicey.
For example, a tall athlete may attain great peak velocity but takes a long time to generate it. A very large 150-kilo athlete may throw the same distance as an athlete who is half the size. This makes all the scores relative because absolute scores matter for throws in track and field. A healthy approach to this is to make sure the data collected reveals the underlying story and not just the story’s end.
Use medicine balls sparingly
The most surprising commandment: only use medicine balls when needed. It’s amazing how many times the ball can be a training distraction and sabotage a training session. The ball represents an ergonomic spherical load and nothing more.
If an activity isn’t clearly enhanced by the ball, don’t use it. If the ball can be swapped out with another implement of similar load without loss, the ball was not programmed properly. I did this for years by combining traditional exercises with the ball, and I will never make that mistake again.
Balls are not sprinkles on an ice cream sundae; they must be a primary variable. Athletes will appreciate the universal appeal that makes training with medicine balls fun if they’re used parsimoniously. Only use the ball when it’s use is purposeful. Consider both the need and the entertainment value when weighing whether to use medicine balls in an athlete’s training.
Load the body precisely
The right load and the right amount of work must be juggled carefully, in addition to the choice of exercises. Casual weight selection reinforces lower technical proficiency and defeats the ball’s neurological benefits.
- Overhead forward throws: The shoulder and lumbar spine are prone to injury if the ball exceeds the 1-3 kg weight range. Keep vigilant in running up speeds because the extension stress is huge when an athlete decelerates.
- Rotational and twisting throws: Deceleration and eccentric torque occur with some side throws, and the way the hips and shoulders turn is a big detail. Twisting occurs when the shoulders start to disassociate from the hips, and the propulsive initiation of the legs account for a lot of the force generation. Take note of how the legs are used, as athletes can lock the hips in to emphasize the torso or use the core more passively with a leg drive and elastic response of the oblique system. The lighter loads help with relaxation, and the heavier (slower) loads increase concentric recruitment.
- Vertical and horizontal tosses: Heavier loads from 3-8 kg are possible for athletes, but the ball speed must never slow down to become sluggish. The athlete should be able to accelerate the medicine ball throughout the entire movement, but the latter range of motion may not contribute to exit velocity.
Finally, be cognizant of the total volume of work of both the balls and corresponding activities that could overload patterns and excessively fatigue local points. Determining excessive volume is not easy because of the lack of research on medicine ball programming in the literature.
Organize medicine ball training carefully
A common mistake I’ve seen occurs when people don’t look at the big picture: how medicine balls can develop athleticism and global body power. In the early 2000s, I had a very rude awaking while listening to Gary Winckler and seeing how he integrated throws into his sprinters’ workouts. Coach Winckler’s planning is a work of art, and the results are obvious. In a presentation I attended years later, he outlined how to complement training and contrast it with variables to enhance the stimuli of an entire program. Those presentations are now the framework of my entire medicine ball program, and I’ve distilled the most effective training options.
Measure or test repeatedly
Some general conditioning exercises are not worth measuring. With some exercises, it’s nice to see reference points. And some are gold measures to athletic performance in some circles. I believe most exercises in medicine ball training aren’t worth spending the time to test. But if one is going to measure, do it correctly.
We can get lost in the moment of teaching. Working with athletes is a rewarding process, but training is also about pushing the body by finding its limits and later surpassing them. A simple number won’t summarize an athlete’s worth, but from time to time a test keeps the entire process honest.
One point from my experience: any exercise done with the medicine ball needs a definition, a working explanation of the protocol, and a description of the movement expected from the measurement sample. Subtle aspects must be factored in. Examples are shifting the weight during a rotational throw from the rear leg, change in stance, and a recoiling action during loading. We must also factor in the testing environment.
The Future and Digging Deeper with Medicine Ball Training
I hope that the future brings dramatic improvements in the education and coaching of medicine ball training since today’s practices are not much better than those in the past. I hope the coaching community can start raising the expectations and the standards of good and acceptable methodology, what requires cessation of training, and a required educational review.
Medicine ball training for great athletes does not promote real athletic development, it simply shows off the talent one inherits, like peeling out with a sports car. When coaches claim observable or measurable improvements with medicine ball training, they are fooling themselves and their athletes. I made many mistakes for years with medicine ball training because little education information was available beyond exercise catalogs and perhaps teaching points. Now we are in a better place to move forward.
Special Thanks to Scott Damman from A2P for providing equipment for research. The photo image is from Derek Hansen.
Author’s Note: The article was commissioned two years ago and involved a long process of historical and scientific research as well as experimental investigation of medicine ball training. An estimated 250 hours was invested into this article and included the following:
- 80 hours spent researching training and coaching books and articles from leading experts in the field
- 120 hours reading the peer reviewed research pertinent to ballistic throws and medicine ball training
- 150 hours of training experiments with research-grade instrumentation and training tools