‘Medicine ball’ training is becoming increasingly popular with athletes. Volleyball players throw and catch medicine balls (heavy balls weighing from two to 15 pounds) to upgrade their spiking ability, basketball players use the balls to improve their passing and rebounding capacities, baseball players toss medicine balls to improve their throwing speed, and all-around athletes cavort with the balls in hopes of enhancing their ‘core strength’ (muscle strength in the hips, abdomen, and back).
Although medicine balls are definitely in vogue, a pretty important question hasn’t been answered: do the damned things really work? To answer that question, scientists at Southern Cross University in Australia recently signed up 24 junior development baseball players for an eight-week training program. During the eight weeks, eight of the athletes engaged in medicine-ball workouts, while eight others took part in conventional strength-training sessions and eight additional athletes served as controls.
The medicine-ball training took place twice a week and consisted of explosive two-hand chest passes and top-effort, two-hand overhead throws using a three-kilogram (6.6-pound) medicine ball. All throws were preceded by a counter-movement (moving the arms back in the opposite direction of the throwing motion) to ensure that an explosive stretch-shorten (‘plyometric’) action was utilized. To increase upper-body effort, the feet were held in place for each throw, and players attempted a maximum effort on each throw. For the first four weeks, there were three sets of eight repetitions for each throw per workout, with three-minute rests between sets; during the final four weeks, there were three sets of 10 reps.
The weight-training group also worked out twice a week, utilizing barbell bench press and barbell pullover exercises. For the first four weeks, weight trainers completed three sets of eight- to 10-repetition max (RM) exercise per workout for both the bench presses and barbell pullovers (in other words, they used weights which could be lifted only eight to 10 times per set). For the final four weeks, they employed three sets of six- to eight-RM for each exercise. All weights were lifted in a slow, controlled manner – not explosively. Medicine-ball, weight-trained, and control athletes all participated in their regular baseball workouts during the eight-week period. After eight weeks, all athletes were tested for maximal baseball throwing velocity and bench-press strength.
Weight training proved to be far superior to medicine-ball workouts, both in terms of bench-press power and throwing speed. Weight-trained athletes upgraded their baseball throwing velocity by 4.1 per cent, while medicine-ball men enhanced throwing by a statistically insignificant 1.6 percent. Control individuals also failed to improve their throwing.
Likewise, bench-press strength advanced by 23 per cent for the weight-trained athletes but inched upward by just 9 per cent for medicine-ball tossers. Again, control people failed to improve at all.
Up-to-date athletic trainers and athletes like medicine-ball training because it appears to be more specific to their preferred athletic activity than conventional weight training (throwing a medicine ball is more like throwing a baseball or basketball than is lifting a heavy weight, and it’s hard to imagine why lifting a weight would improve the skill factor associated with throwing). Baseball teams at all levels of competition use medicine balls in their training programs.
However, although medicine-ball workouts are more specific, they also involve the use of lower weights, compared to traditional strength-training exertions. Most athletes throw with medicine balls which weigh no more than nine or 10 pounds, while considerably heavier weights are used during strength training. It appears that the use of higher weight may outweigh the benefits of specificity of training in this case. Maximum limb velocity appears to be a function of rate of force development and overall force output, both of which are enhanced rather dramatically through the use of fairly heavy weights.
As the researchers concluded, perhaps the overload on the muscles when accelerating a three-kilogram medicine ball is not enough to induce a training adaptation. ‘
(Baseball Throwing Velocity: A Comparison of Medicine Ball Training and Weight Training,’ Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 8(3), pp. 198-203, 1994)
A note from Los Angeles Sport Specific Training expert Jason Kozma: “I have found that traditional weight training used in the correct manner to increase strength and maintain flexibility to be the most effective method of increasing sports performance.”
Meet Sports Strength Trainer in Los Angeles Jason Kozma here