Daniel Taylor, MS, a performance enhancement specialist (PES) and certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS). Taylor is a conditioning coach at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, and coauthor of Conditioning to the Core.
You probably don’t think of yourself as an “athlete,” but adopting a secret from the pros will help you stay as strong and fit as possible. More and more professional athletes, including football and soccer players, are now adding medicine ball workouts to their exercise regimens—and you can, too.
You’ve probably heard of medicine balls. Originally made out of animal hide, they date back to ancient times and were used for the same reason we use them today—to increase strength and cardiovascular fitness. Modern medicine balls, typically made out of rubber, leather or nylon, come in a variety of sizes and weights, ranging from one pound to 50 pounds and costing as little as $12 to about $100.
What can a medicine ball do for you? Plenty! Throwing and catching a medicine ball is a plyometric exercise—that is, it combines stretching and contracting movements to build strength, speed and endurance. Medicine ball workouts are particularly effective for people with chronic conditions that improve with consistent strength training (such as osteoporosis, back pain, diabetes or high blood pressure)…and/or those who don’t have much gym experience. Barbells, machines, kettlebells (heavy weights with handles) and other gym equipment can be intimidating if you are new to them—balls are not. Medicine balls are comfortable and fun to use!
Medicine ball training primarily addresses the core—all those muscles in your abdomen and lower back. Strengthening these muscles is particularly important to help prevent back pain, improve posture and make everyday movement easier.
There’s no one-size-fits-all weight for the ball. You want one that you can throw…but if it doesn’t require much effort to do so, then you should go a bit heavier. Most beginners start with six-to-eight-pound medicine balls. People with an intermediate level of fitness can use a 10-to-12-pound ball…and those who consider themselves very physically fit may use a ball that is 15 pounds or heavier.
The following workout is a great complement to a regular exercise regimen that might include aerobic activity, such as regular walking or running, and stretching exercises. Adults at various fitness levels can perform the exercises below. Do them two to four times per week on nonconsecutive days.*
• Push-up. Purpose: Strengthens the chest, shoulders and abdomen, which improves strength for carrying heavy items. What to do: While lying facedown on the floor, position your body next to a relatively solid medicine ball. Place your right hand on the ball and your left hand on the floor. Lift your body so that your left hand and toes are the only parts of your body touching the floor while your right hand is on the ball. The ball may feel a bit unstable—if you can’t control it, prop the ball against a wall. Then simply do a push-up with one hand on the ball and the other hand on the floor. Repeat eight to 12 times. If this is too difficult, do the push-up with your knees on the floor.
• Overhead slam. Purpose: Strengthens the shoulders, back and abdominals for core fitness. What to do: Stand with your feet parallel and hip-width apart. Slightly bend your knees. While holding the ball, extend your arms in front of you, then raise the ball overhead. Next, throw the ball as hard as you can at the floor, then catch the rebound. Repeat eight times.
• Side throw. Purpose: Strengthens the shoulders, back, side abdominals and hips for better turning movements (such as golf swings) and to help prevent falls. What to do: Kneel on a gym mat parallel to a wall (about your body length away). Your right knee should be on the mat while your left leg is bent at a 90-degree angle with your foot flat on the floor. Tighten your glutes (buttocks) and abdomen to create stability. Throughout the exercise, maintain a completely straight body alignment for maximum effectiveness. Using both hands, hold the medicine ball to the side of your waist about a hand span away. Rotating through your shoulders (not your lower back), throw the ball as hard as possible in a baseball-swing fashion against the wall. Perform eight repetitions. Repeat on the opposite side.
*Check with your doctor before beginning medicine ball workouts—or any new exercise program. This is especially important if you have osteoarthritis, heart disease and/or diminished hand-eye coordination.