Finding the Medicine in Med-Balls

My first sighting of a medicine ball was in a school gym littered with different equipment: it was a 4kg leather stitched ball filled with t-shirt rag. Bigger than a basketball it sat in the corner inviting curious young boys (girls weren’t allowed into the gym in those days) to investigate. It was a ball, and so the first thing young boys typically do with a ball is throw it. Typically at one another. If there are two people it becomes a passing game. If more gather together games such as ‘monkey in the middle’ are devised.

The problem at that time was that without supervision or instruction everything we touched became competitive or even mean-spirited. How high, how hard, how fast, how many times; the list goes on. Because of this the true value of the ball was missed. Within the various partnerships and games a predictable situation arose: it became dodge-ball. People got hurt or terribly frightened and then decided that this overstuffed bit of leather was best left in the corner.

Fast forward a few years to a different experience... With the influx of Eastern European coaching influences medicine balls were re-introduced into my sport training and coaching. We had to first locate a source since typical gyms had just one. Then the exercises and movements commenced. I fully expected a return to dodge-ball styles and how-far type throwing. It didn’t happen. In fact, the real surprise for me was that 80% or more of the moves involved holding the ball or using it as a prop, and then passing it to a partner for their turn and a built-in rest interval. Nor were the moves static in terms of foot placement or body pose: they were combined with hopping and bounding or used with strides and rebounds. Within a short time I began to appreciate the potential numbers of movements that could be created. When I helped out with the translation and illustration of a booklet on MedBalls we stopped at five hundred variations.

SEARCHING FOR MEDICINE

When I asked the coach why they were called Medicine Balls he shrugged and said that the old saying where he came from was that by using them you didn’t need medicine. Over the next decades I’ve found that there is an extensive history to using oversized weighted balls and bags for carrying, lifting and moving around. Medicine, as a word, was used interchangeably with ‘health’ and MedBalls were part of body gymnastics (men and women) and classic sports such as wrestling. They were used for total body health and mobility.

At some point in my journeys with MedBalls I came to a sudden realisation: the reason why classic MedBalls were big and cumbersome was that they weren’t meant to be thrown for distance or accuracy. Even the rubberised vinyl versions today are large for their weight. Throwing implements and related training devices tend to be compact and weighted closer to a target weight so they can be held easily in one hand.

So if not heaving and launching, then what? The answer, for me, came from reading about ‘Hooverball’, a fitness and health game devised for US President Hoover that was played with a standard volleyball court and basic rules. The MedBall was thrown back and forth and points awarded, but the big big thing was that you had to catch and control the ball before launching it back. To catch it you had to move, stabilise, intercept and then stop the flight in an instant. Here was the source of the medicine.

When you catch a heavy ball with the intent of control you have to use your whole body and also maintain stability. This requires strength from tip-to-toe and especially requires a strong set of torso muscles so that the shoulders don’t pull the upper body away from the hips as the Medball is intercepted. There is a sudden eccentric stretch that is then controlled to a stop before beginning the concentric move to launch the ball back or simply hold it. Global muscles such as the Tranversus Abdominus (Transversalis) flinch when we move quickly, are startled, land or prepare to intercept a falling MedBall. It functions as a corset to compress the abdominal contents against the spine to protect the spine from being deformed in movements. Without its use other muscle chains and systems cannot perform well.

Hooverball wasn’t a few people standing around expecting the ball to come to them. They had to lunge, reach, crouch and sprint reactively in order to play. By keeping the ball in play everyone gets a good workout through throwing and also catching.

CREATING A DEVELOPMENTAL SYSTEM

When I see most athletes use MedBalls I see two basic variations: smooth rhythmical swings and heaving with force. In over four decades of coaching with MedBalls I’ve never broken or split one, but today I do see it as smashing a ball harder and harder against a wall or floor has become an objective part of some fitness programmes. An example of choices can be seen with the little cartoon. The Lateral Scoop Squat can be performed as a solo effort where you squat and rise in a smooth action, alternately pass the ball to a partner or use a rebounding wall, be heaved for height or downwards with as much force as can be generated, or used with leaps for height and distance. I like most of them, but prefer to use a distinct feature so that they have value.

When I started coaching with MedBalls I used a fairly simple format related to body postures. You can stand, squat, lunge, kneel, sit, lie and lie prone (as examples). With a few basic moves and different body postures a good workout can be accomplished. The need for something better came with workshops and programming for different events and sports. I needed a system and didn’t have one.

To develop a system I went back to my early experiences with a traditional style of programming. Ignoring the percentage of max throwing variations for the moment I realised there were three basic alternatives of movement with a MedBall that could enhance sport fitness.

 

1.     The ball moves while the body remains stationary or must balance.

2.     The body moves while the ball remains fixed relative to the body.

3.     Both the body and the ball move.

When looking at sport related moves many actions are quite quick and use a great deal of force in the application. For this reason heaving oversized MedBalls around may not provide the best use of training time if the selected exercises are imitative. Trying to heave a 4kg ball in imitation of a javelin throw tempo may seriously damage the shoulders, back and hips... Doing rhythm drills with a 4kg ball to prepare the shoulder structure and its link to the torso for faster throwing does make sense. In simplicity, MedBalls are best suited for Training Preparation, not Performance Imitation.

I outlined some of the variations for the Scoop Squat... If I am interested in using MedBalls as a training device I need to use them to best advantage. Most athletes and coaching situations will do the solo exercise as a smooth crescent where the ball is slowed during the arc until it comes to a halt and then the movement is reversed or perhaps made into a continuous circle. There is no assurance of whole body action nor is there dynamic eccentric loading. You can see the result of this style of training when attempting harder throws: the athlete gets the ball moving slowly then overpowers it with the arm(s) once it is moving. The hips and legs are now passive.  As you train so shall you compete.  

I prefer to use it for the stop-actions; the ‘catch’ movements at the top and bottom. Move the ball then stop it moving and stabilise the whole body in an instant. Even with a hard throw there is an emphasis on the ‘catch’ sequence of moves that engage shoulder elasticity. This is hard work. Not hard in terms of intensity but in control. Almost all the athletes I work with require precision of movement at speed, and MedBalls are one great way of challenging that development. The process of designing programmes out of the hundreds of variations available can be condensed into four areas of attention. They can be seen as a progression or an integrated approach depending on your situation.

1.     Strive for Mobility and Stability First – moving the ball through a range of motion and then stopping it at the end points helps the body achieve a sense of stability while moving. Further, by exploring the full range of motion you are also developing strong coordinated movement chains. If you need one-legged stability train for it!

2.     Hold the Ball at Speed – one way of creating overload for the upper body is to hold the ball while hopping, leaping, striding and shuffling. With each landing the ability to fix the position of the ball in short times is developing dynamic posture and posture endurance throughout the movement chains and from top to bottom.

3.     Coordinate the Arms and Legs – many sporting and dance actions contain coordinated arm and torso actions that are stopped at the moment of toeoff. By using a MedBall you can create a built-in start and stop point that is synchronised with the leg and hip actions. In this way arm actions can contribute to takeoffs and speed rather than detract from them.

4.     Integrate Throws and Catching into Body Moves – a good arm throw involves a rapid eccentric load on the shoulder that initiates an elastic response by the body and arm chains. By using different body postures (seated, kneeling, lunge as examples) with variety throws and catches the total body can be strengthened and taught to use tendon and ligament elastic energy rather than (slower) muscular overloads.

J. Erik Little

MOVERS Workshops, as offered by TAKEOFF COACHING, offer a range of MedBall sessions for preventive and developmental programming. Contact info@takeoffcoaching.org for more information.