Medicine Ball Basics

Medicine ball training is an excellent way to peak the accumulative effects of a periodization training program and elevate sport-specific strength and power. While free weights are an invaluable training tool, they have their limitations.

One of the major disadvantages of training with free weights is the deceleration phase, which is present during the concentric portion of most lifts. Since this phase is necessary to protect the integrity of the joint structures, it must be present. However, the ranges of motion that encompass this deceleration phase deserve adequate explosive training.

While you could throw dumbbells and barbells, most gym owners would rather you not. Lucky for us, we have the illusive medicine ball. Med balls come in many shapes, sizes, weights, textures, and degrees of firmness. This makes them extremely versatile and quite invaluable.

The best thing about medicine balls is that you can throw them, bounce them, or catch them. They are designed for these types of activities, and if they are used within the constraints of the individual and the environment, they will not damage anybody or anything.

Due to their design, medicine balls allow you to work any possible range of motion in its entirety. This promotes the development of specific strength and power more precisely than any other type of weighted activity. With med balls, you can work the exact multi-planner range of motion utilized in most sports. This allows for the extensive orchestration of the stabilizers, neutralizers, and prime movers within the same neuro-patterns as the targeted activity.

For instance, while the typical shoulder training protocols for a pitcher consist of internal and external rotations, scapular elevation, depression, protraction, retraction, and rotation, they never truly recruit the muscles in the same pattern as the activity of pitching. If you heed the call of specificity, this will raise some warning flags. While these activities are essential for conditioning the shoulder complex, coaches and athletes must address the need for more dynamic activity.

Weight of the Ball
Now that I have discussed some of the reasons for using medicine balls, let us look at some guidelines for implementing them into your training programs.

When you chose the weight of the med ball, you should consider the following factors.

1) Age and maturity of the athlete: Are there physiological and anatomical maturity factors that must be addressed? Have the athlete’s musculo-tendon units and joint structures developed to a point that they can handle the dynamic loading of this type of training? Lighter med balls do not accentuate the force velocity relationship as extensively so they are better tools to use with younger athletes.

2) Training goal and purpose: Is the goal of the training session strength, power, endurance, recovery, or rehabilitation? Each of these requires different loading variables. Typically, strength training involves using the heaviest med balls while power training uses moderate to heavy med balls. Endurance uses the lightest. I will go more into this later.

3) Physical state of the athlete: How is the athlete’s physical and mental condition? You must consider the athlete’s schedule to avoid overtraining. When the athlete has a taxing schedule due to practice, school, and daily living activities, lighter med balls may be appropriate in order to avoid injury. In addition, when there is a low level of psychological motivation, performance variables may be affected. For this reason, pay attention to the loading variables.

4) Quality of movement: You should always visually examine the training activity. If the athlete is struggling to achieve the prescribed set and rep scheme with quality mechanics, reduce the weight of the med ball to a manageable level.

5) Speed of the target activity: If the goal of the training session is to increase acceleration and velocity, then use a ball that is conducive to these variables. To train a throwing motion, lighter med balls should be used to allow for the expression of similar qualities of these variables. This will ensure that there is an optimal level of carryover from the training session to the actual sporting event.

6) Musculature involved: If the musculature involved in the movement is small, such as the musculature of the rotator cuff, the weight of the ball should be lighter (1–2 lbs). Due to the high loading properties of med ball training, smaller muscles are easily overpowered and damaged. So you must give consideration to the anatomical and biomechanical properties of the movement. Conversely, training larger muscle groups will require much heavier medicine balls. Insufficiently loading these groups will negate most of the training effects that are desired.

The major consideration for choosing a repetition scheme lies in the desired outcome. You must consider the purpose of the training session, which is usually dictated by the periodization of the training model. Here is a basic breakdown of the repetition variables:

1) Power: One to six repetitions

2) Strength: Eight to twelve repetitions

3) Endurance: Twelve to thirty repetitions.

A good goal is to perform reps to failure but aim for that 30 rep mark. In addition, a 60-second time interval is great for targeting the energy systems that may be utilized in sports needing this type of training.

There is an inverse relationship between reps and sets. In typical western style periodization, the higher the number of reps, the lower the number of sets.

Typically, power movements are trained with low repetition schemes as outlined above. In this way, the central nervous system is targeted, not the muscles. These low rep sets may be repeated for four, six, or even ten sets, depending on the individual situation.

Strength is usually targeted with a moderate load and a moderate number of sets. Typically, three to six sets are used with this type of training.

Endurance is characterized by high levels of work done with low levels of rest. Usually one to three sets of high reps are used.

As there is an inverse relationship between reps and sets, there is an inverse relationship between load and recovery. As the load of the movement (the weight relative to the person’s maximal ability) increases, the need for longer recovery times becomes apparent. Exercises that elicit large CNS activity such as power movements and heavy loads may require 3–5 minutes of recovery. This will allow time for the “command center” to refresh before the next attempt.

For moderate loads, such as those that may be used for bodybuilding or hypertrophy-type training, rest periods of 1–3 minutes are usually sufficient. This allows for minimal recovery and optimal fiber recruitment.

Endurance is known for its short and even nonexistent rest intervals. Typically, 0–60 seconds are given for this type of training because it utilizes more aerobic energy system involvement than the other types of training. To ensure that these systems are continuously involved, the physical processes of the body must maintain high levels of activity. Shorter rest intervals will ensure this.