After years of hoping medicine ball training would move from weighted sit-ups in boxing to more athletic training, medicine ball training seems to have jumped the shark. For a while, the videos I saw on social media were awesome—athletes throwing the balls with raw power and beauty. Then things started to change. It seems the throw was not as important, and it became more about “Dancing with the Stars” than exploding like a sport athlete.
The last few months have been a series of ups and downs: For every superb video of training, a dozen or more videos of bizarre exercises seemed to be posted in response. The space race for new exercises left the original purpose of the exercises behind. We do have good news, though. More and more athletes are training with medicine balls and getting a lot out of the training, but we can still do better.The space race for new exercises left the original purpose of #medicineball training behind, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
In this article, I decided to do something a little different and be firmer with my opinion. My goal is to make sure you know where to draw your line in the sand. Otherwise, training can dissolve into something that really doesn’t do much except keep athletes busy.
Rate Your Medicine Ball Training
I asked a few coaches to share their list of medicine ball exercises and include videos so I knew if we were all on the same page. The result was not surprising: They listed about 10 exercises and ranked the simple movements by importance. Most of the essential exercises were throwing up, back, forward, and from the side. There was only one sport-specific exercise—a double arm overhead throw—but that exercise was at the bottom of the list and considered nice to have. What was the lesson? Fundamentals rule. Today, unfortunately, flashy and exotic get attention, with very little room for actual training and teaching.
The goal of the rating index was to help rank the value of the training and expand on the rules of training. Of course, on special occasions breaking the rules makes sense and should be expected, but rules are closely related to principles, specifically concepts that mean something. Without making it too complicated, here are the guidelines that are based on past articles.
- Movements shows strong correlation with performance or a training effect.
- Overload and progression can be documented or measured easily.
- The throw is near maximal in effort and is useful in teaching athleticism.
- A protocol can be made out of the movement that is repeatable and valid.
- The movement pattern is useful for many types of athletes and isn’t too specific.
If the exercise passes all five criteria, then it’s a good one. If all your exercises pass, then you likely have something that helps athletes improve. Some of my own exercises don’t pass all the criteria listed, but they are mainly teaching tools and conditioning options, so I am not worried.
The staple exercises you use should pass with flying colors. Otherwise, it’s time to rethink the purpose and value of ballistic activity in sports training. There’s nothing wrong with a few exercises that are helpful for rehabilitation or specialized for elites, or for when actual training isn’t available, but healthy athletes should train to improve athleticism, not sport replication.It’s fine to have medicine balls reinforce gross motor patterns, but when athletes are old enough and developed, they need output or further refinement of their sport, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Common problems usually include the lead up to the throw, where coaches try to add more movement patterns to augment either specificity or ways to load the system more. Other coaches merge sport skills in the hope that the combination will somehow improve transfer, but due to the load of the ball, neither the specificity nor the overload occur. What we see is a dead zone of poor overload and an inability to have the exercise make athletes significantly better in their sport. It’s fine to have medicine balls reinforce gross motor patterns, but when athletes are old enough and developed, they need output or further refinement of their sport. As with agility training that is not as effective as practice and fails to use training time effectively, sometimes it’s better to overload or play the game than be caught somewhere in the middle.
Pick Real Exercises
The main difference between complaining and pointing out problems is the ability to offer real solutions. Instead of toxic exchanges online, I audited my own programs and asked around for input to make sure I was following a healthy path myself. The results were surprising, as some of what I was missing included eccentric rehabilitation training and a few teaching motions. Still, the majority of what I learned from mentors and colleagues were classical throwing patterns from track and field coaches.
Just throwing a ball against the wall for reps isn’t training—it’s exercising. Training is about purpose and direction, and it seems that throwing a medicine ball is a license to kill for coaches and athletes. Perhaps the challenge I have is evaluating the teaching space, since it’s easier to claim that you expose an athlete to a “proprioceptively enriched environment” than make an athlete more explosive or faster. Here are the seven medicine ball movements I consider pillar movements, and anything not listed is second-class:
- Chest Pass: Standing, seated, or supine throwing with strict movement.
- Rotational Throw: Standing, seated, or kneeling positions.
- Behind the Back Throw: For maximal distance or for maximal height.
- Shot Putting: One arm and with various stances and movement patterns.
- Underhand Scoop Toss: From two legs hinging and the hands underneath.
- Overhead Throw: Initiating above or behind the head forward.
- Total Body Push Throw: For maximal distance forward or upward, utilizing a chest pass.
What do all of the exercises have in common besides throwing? They are primarily done from the feet and are standing except for a few modifications. While two of the seven exercises have seated, kneeling, or lying positions, the rest are active with athletes on their feet. All of them can be done for maximum speed and are ballistic activities, meaning no true deceleration during the movement exists, and that is very important.These pillar #medball exercises can be done for maximal speed and are ballistic activities, meaning no true deceleration exists during the movement, which is very important, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
The final subtle characteristics with the medicine ball exercises is that they don’t have much windup action, which tends to be the bane of my existence. Winding up in throwing is similar to countermovement in jumping, but today it’s more of a distraction than a benefit. When the windup appears to be similar to a sporting action, we need to know where to draw the line in the sand. Medicine ball training for baseball is a great example, where an athlete may benefit from some throwing as a way to specifically prepare without the baggage to the elbow and shoulder. Similar to shot put, throwers in track and field use primal patterns for general preparation, but eventually throwing the actual implement matters if you want to perform.
Video 1. A good rule of thumb for the sweet spot of transfer without overdoing sport-specific training is making sure other similar sports can benefit. When you move into position specific within a sport, it enters a point that practicing makes more sense.
What keeps the entire process honest are testing protocols, and a great review on medicine ball protocols can be found in Coach Davenport’s article. The issue many coaches have is balancing the need to be strict with allowing for natural styles and rhythms of movement. The solution is in commonalities of motion, and that means starting the exercise the same way each time and setting up the instructions so the movement is relatively uniform with all athletes, regardless of style. A good training exercise and a good testing movement are nearly identical; meaning you don’t need to test an exercise to create value, but if you did it would be rather straightforward. I get into testing later, but the point is to make sure coaches know that the ability to test a medicine ball exercise ensures that the purpose and benefit is likely more valuable than those movements you can’t test as well.
Miscellaneous conditioning and rehabilitation exercises such as shoulder stabilization exercises and extensive tempo workouts are similar to the above exercises but usually include more specialized movements. I will allow for any coach who wants to claim they can teach an athlete or improve coordination with an exercise that may not fit the criteria I listed in the rating section above, but I need to see a fleet of coaches willing to support the idea with evidence. It seems that experimenting and posting a new exercise awards novelty over results or success with convention, a dangerous path if there is no oversight by the community.
Study Coordination Development from Throws Coaches
My first medicine ball workout was in 1991, and this was just regular dryland conditioning for swimming. It was nothing more than overall age-appropriate fitness and basic strength training exercises. Mike Barrowman was getting ready for his revenge tour and the Barcelona Olympics, and the Germans were still riding the wave from the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact, Mike should be credited as one of my biggest influences and I have mentioned him many times in other blogs. Before the baton was handed to the Australians and Northern Europeans, the Eastern Bloc countries were going through a geopolitical change that was the equivalent of a mass exodus. With knowledge dispersing to China and South Africa, medicine ball training lost a lot of its expertise and training methodology. Unfortunately, what we see today is just a shadow of the great resources available.
I have a hundred books and manuals on medicine ball training. Some of them are in languages that Google Translate struggles to convert into clear terminology. Others are commercially available but very watered down. If I had to make a case for the best information on medicine balls, it wouldn’t come from a tennis physiotherapist, a baseball strength professional, or even a swimming coach. I think it comes from the field coaches, not the sprinting minds. Having some background in athletics, I must agree that if you want to know more about how to throw, a sprint and hurdles coach probably is not the best resource. Sprint coaches are excellent for sports performance as many of them teach other events, but throws coaches get it because they have the most direct connections.If I had to make a case for the best information on #medicineballs, I think it comes from the field coaches, not the sprinting minds, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
In my book recommendation article, I failed to mention a good read that could tie all the strength and conditioning principles into teaching. Piasenta’s work is highly valuable, but remember he was a sprints coach who also trained some field event athletes during his time. He wasn’t a stranger to the throws, but most of his success came in the dash events.
The Throws is one of those books I take out every year to reset my brain from the pollution of Twitter. (Social media is like a swim in the ocean—it can be a beautiful experience, but you still need to take a shower when you get home.) That book simply kills it, especially the sections where the Germans (Gudrun Lenz and Manfred Losch) go full throttle and share some wonderful ideas on developmental exercises. Most of what I see on Instagram is either cringeworthy or flat because the exercises look robotic and the placement seems near random. With their progressions, it looks highly thought-out and fluid.
Then, not once, not twice, but three times we have Klaus Bartonietz sharing his thoughts on throwing events, ranging from strength development to programming. Remember: He was addressing single leg Olympic lifts and force analysis before the 2000s and was doing bar speed analysis that still makes some of the research today look like the dark ages. My point is not to complain, but to actually raise awareness of all of the great resources that remain relatively untapped. My key recommendation here is to find a throws coach in track and field and treat them like royalty. They are some of the finest technicians and they understand and teach movement like no one else.
Inject New Science and Better Testing Protocols
Some very evocative research is published every week, and medicine ball training is an area that seems to be growing in the scientific world. Generally, medicine ball research is not focused on the ball as a test or exercise modality; often it’s just casually mentioned when it’s involved with a training program. In 2019, we still have an issue with classifying throws in sport science testing, as I find myself re-reading sections of research studies trying to figure out how they are testing the athletes. Earlier in this article, I explained the issue I have with all of the body English and movement before the actual throw, and it’s not because I don’t like athletes expressing themselves or having fun. The point of the exercise needs to be clear and potent, not foggy and diluted.
The asymmetry research from Chris Bishop is very useful, and the medicine ball throws are now topics for understanding why upper body throws are a little more complicated than I first realized. George Davies, an isokinetic testing specialist, performed a study on medicine ball put throws. It was interesting to discover the notion of right and left symmetry based on preferred throwing arm and throws. Nearly every athlete can dumbbell bench with the same weight on each arm with no problem, but overhead throwing the ball the same distance with both arms is not likely. So where do medicine ball puts land? Somewhere in the middle, as the scores are rather similar. It seems that coordination is more important than double arm and single arm strength deficits.
Yet the applied science is more complicated than what is on paper since a medicine ball’s size and weight determine throwing mechanics as well. A chest pass with a large-diameter ball represents a diamond push-up (or very narrow bench press) and a small ball in size and weight is more of a punch than a put. Even arm span may be a factor in testing and expressing upper body power. How do we compare fairly when the single and double arm actions are different movements?
Concentric triceps biased movements without rotation are not the same as loading a pectoral with hip and shoulder motion. Those details matter even with strict throws—this is why I am always suspicious of radar readings of peak velocity in research. It’s not that I don’t agree with the data accuracy, it’s just that I don’t know how much we can take from the results if we don’t see how it’s done on video. Short descriptors in a paper are not enough; just have a link to a Dropbox folder with the videos so we can see what’s happening. An excellent example of showing videos and including details can be found in the great rehabilitation study with Taberner and colleagues.
Video 2. I get questions about radar, sensor IMUs, and motion capture all the time. Radar does peak velocity well, but other technologies like the Ballistic Ball are important to consider because they explain how the power was created and don’t just display maximal output.
Coaches must understand that a testing protocol for throws enhances the standard of quality for teaching the exercise. If you don’t have a standard for testing, the data will be unreliable. If you don’t have a standard for teaching, the training will be limited in transfer. When you start writing down a protocol or exercise description, it’s a good check and balance for instructing a movement. If you don’t have a strong reason for specifics and are just parroting other coaches because you saw something online, it’s a nice wake-up call.If you don’t have a standard for testing, the data will be unreliable. If you don’t have a standard for teaching, the training will be limited in transfer, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
A perfect protocol description can be found with the rugby study from about a year ago, “A Reliable Testing Battery for Assessing Physical Qualities of Elite Academy Rugby League Players.” The paper states:
“Medicine Ball Throw. Whole-body muscle function was assessed by having participants throw a medicine ball (dimensions: 4 kg, 21.5-cm diameter) striving for maximum distance. Participants began standing upright with the ball above their head. They then lowered the ball toward their chest while squatting down to a self-selected depth before extending up onto their toes and pushing the ball as far as possible. Feet remained shoulder width apart, stationary, and behind a line that determined the start of the measurement. The distance was measured to the nearest centimeter using a tape measure from the line on the floor to the rear of the ball’s initial landing position. A trial was not recorded if the participant stepped into the pass, jumped, or if the ball landed outside of the measuring area and, in such cases, an additional trial was completed. Participants completed 2 trials separated by 2-minute recovery with the furthest distance used for analysis.”
Note the following three points in the study. The first is that the title of the article includes the word “reliable” while standardizing the weight and diameter of the ball. You should also note the researchers didn’t allow throws that didn’t fit the parameters. I will cover the details of medicine ball sizes later in another article, but if you can’t determine how an athlete is properly creating forces, we can get lost in wondering if something works for sport weeks or months afterward. You also need to include other tests to ensure that confounding variables don’t screw up the interpretation of the relationships between medicine ball performance and other physical traits.
It’s not that I don’t like athletes moving with a ball, it’s just we don’t know if all of the windups, run-ups, and sometimes almost dancing have any impact on performance. Even a chest throw with the legs recommended by the study shared above makes you think about how much leg contribution is made, as the upper and lower bodies sometimes respond differently in training. The dose of caffeine can influence how the upper body and lower body respond to testing, so all the details that sound like nitpicking do actually matter.
Program and Plan with High Performance in Mind
If a coach were to plan just throwing medicine balls for maximal velocity over a year, what would that look like? To make the experiment clearer, what if you could only throw medicine balls and not touch the weight room? What would your program look like? No performance coach eliminates the weight room from their training program, but the exercise just mentioned is a reminder that the throws coach is constantly thinking about throwing farther. When medicine ball training is seen as complementary, the potential for performance drops to a lower standard. You don’t see this with the hammer, shot, discus, and javelin coaching community.What if you could only throw medicine balls and not touch the weight room? What would your program look like, asks @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Three areas in which medicine ball training fits perfectly are conditioning, speed and power, and teaching. Rehabilitation could be a fourth area, but I just consider return to play a process of training rather than something completely different. All of the areas of training still follow conventional principles, such as volume, progression, overload, pedagogical factors, and even sequencing. When the weight isn’t a factor, it’s interesting to see how medicine ball training is seen as a teaching tool. All three benefits will weave into an athlete’s season and career just like any other modality, and it’s up to the coach to find the best path for the athlete by observing how they grasp the training sessions.
Conditioning is the lowest priority in my book, but also the most popular method in the fitness world. When we watch workouts at the gym, we see a lot of core exercises, mainly rotational chops, sit-ups, and exercises that don’t throw the ball at all. When fitness workouts graduate to sports training, we see throws and partner exercises for GPP early in the season or restoration circuits during the competition phase, but the focus is on repetition rather than maximal output. I still believe that core training with medicine balls has a place, especially with trunk twisting motion and dynamic patterns, but expressing and reinforcing power is everything.
Developing or increasing speed and power with athletes with medicine balls is a difficult topic to cover in a few sentences. I already made a case that I think medicine ball training fits into the category of expressing more than developing athlete power, but due to the nature of maximal intent, some adaptations are expected to occur over the long run. Explosive throws and plyometrics over years will add up and improve the capacity of the nervous system. Heavy cleans and sprinting will combine, but medicine ball training can stitch the two modalities together for even greater results. I am not retracting my original point about medicine balls demonstrating versus developing power, but I do know that adding coordination into simple total-body explosive movements will eventually add up. I just don’t know how much it adds over a career, but it’s enough to make sure planning is not haphazard.Heavy cleans and sprinting will combine, but #medicineballtraining can stitch the two modalities together for even greater results, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Teaching or instruction is a benefit where light medicine balls can purposely distract athletes to help them focus. Medicine balls are good for teaching because they create a drive to move, as the need to accelerate a load extracts coordination changes automatically, and gives continuous feedback. Light balls are like regular balls, as simple manipulation of the ball in time and space does make a difference with youth athletes. As the athlete advances, the movement development may not change much, but the neuromuscular adaptations that are nearly invisible do improve. A lot is left to cover with teaching, as that is an entire course in physical education, but the ball, while fun, is a deceptively useful tool for improving athleticism at early stages of training.
Wrapping up training theory is just reminding ourselves not to over-complicate things, but also not to underestimate good planning. Medicine ball training should be respected like plyometrics, but it’s easy to let med balls slide into almost a reward session because they are fun, rather than take advantage of principles that can help drive performance. Medicine ball training is enjoyable, as it’s a ball and provides pleasure with training, but we need to make sure it’s used right. I see a lot of questionable details, such as foot plants, leg drive timing, hip motion, and upper body technique that just looks mindless and without purpose. Testing and working with throws coaches has raise my game tremendously, and I have forever grateful for their patience.
When in Doubt, Stick with Principles
I love innovation, but only when the changes bring about better results. You should feel free to experiment and make adjustments and refinements to what works and try to find a new exercise or two that may help your athletes. My only gripe with experimentation is that you need to make sure you try it for a while before sharing it, as handing over exercises that not have been vetted is just spreading a possible problem or confusing the community.Try a new exercise a while before sharing it, as handing it over before vetting it is just spreading a possible problem or confusing the community, warns @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
You may find the list of exercises to be more valuable today than before because of history, and I hope that the principles behind them will give you confidence that they still have enormous value now.
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