By Carl Valle
If you have read SimpliFaster over the last few years, you know that medicine ball training information on the site is nearly exhaustive. While this bad pun happens to be true, coaches have also asked for details on conditioning circuits since athletes just love the modality. Most of the workouts I have used are for reinforcing power or helping teach the expression of explosiveness, but conditioning is not a bad idea if done right.
If you are interested in getting a great workout for fitness during the off-season or need something flexible to keep athletes from getting stale, this article covers the science of med ball conditioning and actually makes new science. If you want to squeeze every drop out of medicine ball training and learn how to add the finishing touch, this article brings the standard up.
Why Medicine Ball Conditioning vs. Other Options?
Coaches today have more creative and effective information on conditioning than ever before, so why go back to something older than organized sport? Medicine balls are timeless because they are fun and intrinsically engaging for both athletes and regular Joes. I spent a few weeks talking to coaches, and even researching books from the 1890s and early turn of the 20th century, to see what the soul of medicine ball training was. It seems to me that a ball, the simplest of toys, brings joy to everyone.
Other benefits are less obvious, but certainly not a mystery. Medicine ball training is:
- Challenging: A carefully constructed medicine ball circuit can really tax an athlete’s physiology if designed properly.
- Versatile: The application of medicine balls is nearly limitless, and the only constraint is a coach’s imagination.
- Coordinative: Coaches can design programs that are enriching or simple, and medicine balls add more motor skills than other options.
- Measurable: Loading and stressing an athlete can be done with a measure—of ball speed, the way the body transmits the implement, or even the metabolic demand.
- Convenient: The ease of utilizing medicine balls is compelling for coaches who want to limit the amount of equipment and setup for groups.
Clearly, running programs or training on your feet overlaps the benefits above, but usually, reducing the training that mimics practice gives an athlete a break. I am all for pure conditioning outside of practice, but have warned that balancing specific and non-specific is a very difficult juggle. Medicine ball training—specifically conditioning—is great because it’s general enough to reduce impact but specific enough to have some carryover in maintaining fitness. Would I use medicine ball training to condition a marathoner? No. Would I add it in to keep athletes lean and enable them to handle the rigors of training? Yes.Medicine ball training—specifically conditioning—is great because it’s general enough to reduce impact but specific enough to have some carryover in maintaining fitness. Click To Tweet
Medicine ball training isn’t a solution for everything, but it certainly is effective to cover a lot of bases. Simply put, the value of medicine ball training is that it supports the small zone of conditioning that fills the small gaps without adding more of the eccentric baggage that running provides. It is also more practical than other conventional options.
Bending but Not Breaking the Rules
When a coach asks when medicine ball training is a good option for conditioning, I usually respond with a simple question: Are you happy with the technique of your power training? With medicine ball training, I like to throttle down instead of adding speed to junk reps, so start with technique and power rather than adding speed to mechanics that developed in an environment of fatigue. Near maximal or maximal efforts usually direct an athlete—with supportive coaching, of course—to the right mechanics of the throws. With conditioning, the training rules change slightly, but the soul of the power training is still there.
There are some key differences with conditioning and power training that coaches should know about medicine ball circuits and endurance sessions. The primary one is that you may not need to throw the ball, but most of the workout is usually a lob-style pass or honest throw. Second, while the nature of the throw is not all-out, the technique needs to be sharp and never get sloppy. Just because fatigue exists doesn’t mean that it should decay the repetition quality.
One rule that should never be broken or even bent is technique falling apart or even compensating slightly. Movement variability is fine, but changes from fatigue only teach an athlete to allow technique to fail when fatigue rises. In fact, a good program should reinforce an athlete going to their mechanics when tired—a potentially beneficial way to enhance technique if used properly.
A good program should reinforce an athlete going to their mechanics when tired—a potentially beneficial way to enhance technique, if used properly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Athletes can throw medicine balls to a wall or rebounder, or another athlete. When developing specific work capacity, the balls are usually exchanged between two athletes, sometimes called “partner play” or “paired conditioning.” Most of the value of medicine ball training when implementing conditioning is the simple nature of passing the load back and forth rhythmically. The use of rhythm and purposely altering or breaking movement patterns is the value of medicine ball training. Generally, strength exercises are done slower in order to remove the advantages of summations of force, the near opposite of most throws.
Coaches who design medicine ball conditioning sessions usually do continuous repetitions paired or strung together, or just crank up the volume. In my experience, it makes sense to delineate power training and conditioning by both intensity and number of throws with significant differences in total volume. Non-throwing movements that are cyclical actions can be counted as repetitions. Sometimes a repetition and a throw are the same, but if you are measuring distance and want power, use the term “throw” as it evokes maximal effort, while “repetition” sounds more endurance-like. As you can see, the differences are subtle, but the line in the sand is when the efforts are submaximal enough that you know they are not near an absolute effort.
The Physiology of Medicine Ball Training
My own personal quest to unlock the secrets of the physiology of medicine ball training started in 2006 with a company that is in the military space. Foster Miller, the company that is now QinetiQ, was next to the training facility I worked at in Massachusetts. During that time, I was desperate to come up with a measurement to quantify the work of medicine ball training, as it was always seen as “stuff that worked,” but nobody really had an answer to what it really did for an athlete. We tried heart rate monitors and lactate testing, and found some very fascinating information with trained athletes.
A physiological monitoring shirt by Foster-Miller was interesting, as it added other measures beyond heart rate and created a crude work measure that gave me the idea to directly measure oxygen utilization and electromyography for a more holistic look, rather than just physiology. Still, the overriding reason coaches do circuits is for physiological responses. Recently, a study on medicine ball circuits was published with child subjects. While the workout and population weren’t ideal for transfer to more advanced athletes, the novelty of how they studied medicine ball training was refreshing.
Again, the key to medicine ball training is to see how adaptations manifest from specific design elements. If a program overloads the erectors of the spine or muscles that don’t contribute much to propulsion, we can make adjustments so training exhausts a body but doesn’t mechanically strain it too much. I don’t expect too many conditioning benefits from the workout, but it needs to be able to kickstart athletes in the preparatory phase and maintain them in the competitive season.
Generally, heart rate and lactate follow each other, but only if the sessions are extensive and similar to those proposed by Derek Hansen and other coaches with track and field backgrounds. What is more of a grey area is how specific muscle groups respond and how demanding the entire workout is metabolically. I am sure work rates can be modeled with IMUs, but it’s really about knowing the true nature of how exercises sequence together rather than how much density is required of one movement pattern.
I believe that the art of medicine ball training is adjusting the variables so muscle recruitment is distributed, but the physiological demand is maximally extracted from a flow of exercises in a smart routine. It takes a lot of tinkering, and I have shared a few examples in the past, but it’s going to take a community of coaches sharing their workouts for us to find really smart ideas. Obviously, each athlete has different responses to training, and each coach will have their own style of training, but we can figure this out soon.
The research and past experimentation have led me to conclude that medicine ball training as a conditioning option is limited but worth it. The modality is just at the threshold for you to include it with team sport or power events, but it will not help endurance sports much. I am sure another study will come out within the next decade but, based on the trajectory of the past few years, I am not holding my breath for answers.The overarching issue with medicine ball research is that it’s part of a winning formula, but it’s not the entire equation, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The overarching problem with medicine ball research is that it’s part of a winning formula, it’s just not the entire equation. Medicine ball training is great to add to a system, but not great by itself. True, some athletes have made amazing changes in physique development with just a handful of exercises—just look at the training of Alan Wells. The issue is we need to know the specifics on exact circuits and can’t just lump the training into any one category.
Circuit Design Variables – Build Your Own Workout
If you are interested in creating a conditioning session from scratch or you want to tweak the workouts below, this section is for you. Overall, the rules for medicine ball training are the same as any sports science training application, but the nuances require some experience to manage. When creating workouts, the parameters are that medicine ball training can’t be a primary way to get stronger or fitter; it’s just a glue between the main options such as running or weight training. Knowing that medicine ball circuits are not the main course, coaches can then be free to address conditioning with a reasonable outlook and reasonable expectations.
- Density: The work rate and effort of the exercises can be throttled up and down based on subjective physiological measures.
- Duration: Volume can be either repetition counts or set for time, but I prefer using a pace clock or interval method.
- Distribution: Coaches should examine each exercise and connect how the loading patterns involve particular muscle groups, so work is spread throughout the body.
- Delivery: The final variable is how the ball is exchanged, and that can be a pass, throw, or even hold if an athlete is working solo or with a coach.
Video 1. It’s easy to see habits such as loss of tension and RFD stem from fatigue, so adjust the load of the ball. Here the Evolution ball from Gopher Performance is used for general throws, as it’s versatile and has excellent grip qualities.
Beyond these four variables, some small caveats exist with training, especially the selection of medicine balls and granularity with the details of exercise selection. We likely already have enough exercises to choose from, but if you need more movements or details, I recommend Circuit Training for All Sports or ideas from other articles here on SimpliFaster. Keep in mind that the above variables are not the endgame, but just starting points for training.
Example Training Sessions and Recipes
Now comes the part I am sure those who just want to get a workout will read first, but I will warn you, the examples are merely ideas. What I mean is that the example sessions are actually staples of mine, but they could be problematic or ineffective if used with the wrong athlete. I am perfectly fine with coaches borrowing ideas, as it’s about a knowledge exchange, but I still feel that workouts must eventually be audited in some way.
I share three workouts here, mainly because each one is succinct in outlining the primary differences with conditioning an athlete. I have found from listening to some smart coaches that medicine ball work is perfect for lactate exposure, general aerobic capacity, and introductory volume needs of the general preparation phase. I believe fitness matters when you are at or near genetic ceilings and competing at higher levels.
All of the workouts are for athletes in high school or higher levels, since I don’t think any of the workouts would make a difference at the youth levels. I am sure you can repurpose a little of the training, but at that age, instruction and fun are more important than the athlete’s ability to fight acidosis.
Extensive Capacity Training
Programs that have high reps in the hundreds are capacity work. Anything under 15 minutes is part of a warm-up, but the key is to keep the average heart rate at a point that it mirrors similar alternatives such as tempo running. You don’t need medicine ball training for conditioning, as specific training in practice may be enough, but athletes often find more running stale. I like to split training into as many modalities as possible to remove monotony in training. Adding extensive methods keeps easy days honest without defeating the purpose of active recovery, meaning facilitating rest from not doing insanity-type exercises or high eccentric work.You don’t need med ball training for conditioning, as specific training in practice may be enough, but it helps remove monotony in training, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
General Strength Circuits
For a period of time, junk reps or busy work resurfaced because general strength was abused instead of implemented properly. What could have been surgically programmed to support training became watered-down circuits with no structure or reasoning. General strengthening routines or connective strength exercises, like climbing ropes or doing sandbag lunges, are fine for a few weeks to wake up athletes. A good month of therapeutic doses of circuit training done throughout the first few blocks can work wonders for aging athletes or those who need a deep foundation before jumping into maximal strength or power. Sometimes the ball is just a way to keep the athlete distracted or focused on the task, but it really is about disguising boring, straightforward options, as the ball is fun to train with.
Lactate Exposure Sessions
Athletes who need a reminder that not everything is going to feel “fresh” in competition or training respond well to a vigorous circuit for time. You need to look at how they perform the reps, as athletes will almost always game tests or assessments to chase better numbers, and we have learned that athletes will shorten the motion to keep the rep counts fast. The solution is to know what exercises work well and when power drops in favor of speed of movement. I am not a big fan of chasing numbers, especially moles of lactate, but it’s nice to get a flush of by-products to athletes who may not be good responders to pH changes in their blood. I don’t recommend lactate sessions to get tougher, but from time to time you can see which athletes are more resilient to acute fatigue.
Other workouts with groups of athletes exist, but when the ratio of medicine balls to athletes becomes similar to a sporting game, it leaves the realm of training. As the athlete advances and uses the same workouts over and over, the dilemma is how to keep things interesting without losing the purpose of the training. Comparing workouts occasionally is useful, as it keeps an eye on how the athlete is adapting. Even subjective indicators of a familiar workout can extract important trends to training, especially with athletes who have been in a program for a few years. The above three workouts are just the tip of the iceberg and should not be seen as prescriptions for medicine ball training, just casual options that have worked for me.
Conditioning and Play – Make Both Work Together
If you notice a theme within the article, it is that I have made sure the science isn’t dry and I have added a little more fun into the equation. I have found over the last few months of visiting great coaches that they do a better job of taking fun ideas and making them into training plans, and I just took classic training and added a dash of variety to keep things interesting. Don’t repeat my mistakes. Fun and engagement is a starting point, not a box to check off.The medicine ball is the gift that keeps on giving, so give it the attention it deserves with better programming and great teaching, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I recommend that coaches think about the themes and important elements from the historical framework of the modality and get adults back into playing more. The medicine ball is the gift that keeps on giving, so give it the attention it deserves with better programming and great teaching. If you invest in the workouts by really polishing the fundamentals, athletes will love working out with the ball year after year, as it keeps things fresh for the modern athlete.