A (Medicine) Ball of Confusion

On any given day, when you walk through the doors of Unity Fitness, there will be an abundance of noise. Coaches and members greeting you, the blender drowning out all conversation within a 3-foot radius, weights and plates being racked and unloaded. But as you walk further, it’s often likely you’ll hear a rhythmic pounding coming from the large group training space. This noise is common. We often don’t acknowledge it. It blends in with the others, all part of the gym atmosphere. However, it signals the use of a medicine ball.

At Unity Fitness, I would argue that the medicine ball is one of our most highly utilized tools. And rightfully so! They’re a versatile implement that offers balance and support during a press-out squat, the ability to train power with a medicine ball slam or other exercise, among a host of other strength and power benefits.

In this blog post, we’re going to focus on the use of medicine balls in power movements. This will specifically relate to ballistic movements, such as the chest throw, slam, rotational throws, rollover slams…all of the exercises that make the loud, rhythmic slamming which we drown out amidst a busy night on the training floor.

Dynamax, reactive, and non-reactive medicine balls are all tools in the toolbox of medicine balls when I’m coaching.

Types of Medicine Balls

Before we go any further, let’s look at a quick review of types of medicine balls. This will specifically focus on the three we use at Unity.

First up, the Dynamax medicine ball. These are widely used in the gym from training power to press-out squats to throw-and-chase finishers. They offer a little bounce, don’t hurt if we miss a catch, and are easily to hold and handle for most people.

Pivoting rollover slam with a reactive medicine ball
A pivoting rollover slam performed with the reactive, SPRI medicine ball.

Second, the SPRI medicine ball is highly reactive. After we throw it, it bounces back, fast. We have to make sure we catch the ball…or get out of the way! Just kidding, the reactive quality of this ball is usually why it’s chosen. It challenges us to not only throw as hard as we can, but to also catch and control the ball through its deceleration.

Our final type in the gym is the jam ball. As we perform the exercise using a jam ball, it stops moving. There is no bounce back that we have to worry about controlling or catching. This makes it ideal for testing out a movement you’ve never done or moving faster through a movement that you’re experienced with.

What can we do with each of these types?

What is the goal?

Tall kneeling jam ball slam with a non-reactive ball
A tall kneeling jam ball slam is best performed with a non-reactive ball, so there’s no concern of it hitting us in the face.

Ultimately, when utilizing medicine balls, our goal is to develop power using movements that allow for the generation and resistance to outside forces. Secondarily, we want to decrease risk of injury by increasing our tolerance to loads at a variety of speeds, directions, and sizes. The second goal is simple – by exposing ourselves to a variety of different stimuli, we’re able to build our ability to react to it. The first, however, takes a bit more unpacking.

What is power?

Power is equivalent to force multiplied by velocity. In other words, it’s the ability to express a maximal amount of force within a short period of time. We can see this in movements such as jumping, accelerating into a sprint, and throwing a medicine ball, for example.

Let’s take a closer look. Force is the “strength” component. The amount of force we’re able to produce is proportional to how strong we are. But, with these medicine ball exercises, it’s important to note that strength is not the only factor. When we chose a ball, we have to consider how fast we’re able to throw the ball.

Side rotation throw with a dynamax ball
A side-rotation throw performed with a Dynamax Ball.

Let’s take the side rotation throw for example. Typically, we see this performed with a Dynamax ball. At Unity, this offers us choices in weights ranging from six to twenty pounds. So, which do we choose? It’s like bowls of porridge; we have to find the one that’s just right.

First, I look at strength; which ball do I feel comfortable throwing? This takes the 14- and 20-pound options off the table. Left with six, eight, and ten-pound increments, I ultimately decide based on which ball I will be able to throw fast while maximizing the strength required. For me, it’s usually the eight-pound ball. The lightest ball is too easy; the heaviest ball is too slow. The middle is perfect.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about going heavier.

We have to take into consideration how fast we can throw. If we don’t we’re leaving power on the table and not utilizing the medicine ball training to its fullest extent. As with any exercise, our weight selection matters but I would also argue our form matters as well. Our form is crucial when we talk about the transfer of power into our medicine ball.

The Transfer of Power

Quick high school physics review of Newton’s First Law of Motion:

“Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.”

In other words, if the medicine ball isn’t moving, it’s not going to move unless we move it. To do this, we need a transfer of power. To do this, we utilize a concept call kinetic linking. Simply put, this is the transfer of power, typically initiated from the lower body into an object or the ground. This usually results in a kick, throw, jump, bound, etc.

Universal Medicine Ball Cues

Throw the ball through the wall or floor.

We want to throw that ball as hard as we can! If we’re not maximizing the power output, we’re not maximizing the training stimulus we could be achieving. Whatever way you choose to throw the ball, make sure it’s hard. Throw it through the wall; don’t just play catch.

Throw from a stable base.

You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe. If you’re trying to throw something as hard as you can, which is what you should be doing with our medicine balls, we cannot have our feet be moving all over the place. Our feet are the connection to the ground. If we’re unstable at the base, it’s going to continue and leak power, instead of transferring it all into the medicine ball.

Keep your core engaged.

Just as we can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe, if the second reinforce of the cannon is made out of rubber, that cannon ball is going nowhere fast.

Parts of a cannon
Parts of a Cannon

If we can’t take the force, generated in our lower body, and preserve it as it transfers to our arms and ultimately the ball, we’re not maximizing our power output that we’re trying to improve. 

In Summary:

  • We have a variety of different medicine balls and they’re all utilized for different exercises and to train different qualities.
  • As with everything, FORM MATTERS. When we throw from a stable base, we can transfer our power with the highest amount of efficiency and utilize our medicine ball training to the highest extent.
  • It’s not just about the weight. We have to take into consideration how fast we can move the ball. I might be able to chest throw a ten-pound medicine ball, but how fast does it go?

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