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The Value of Medicine Ball Training — Part II

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Many thanks to my friend, Martin Bingisser, an 8-time Swiss hammer champion and founder of HMMR Media, for penning this 2-part post on medicine ball training. He and the resources at HMMR Media were invaluable in my initial education about effective application of medicine ball work. If you missed Part I, you can read it here.

HMMR Media has a lot of resources on athletic development for runners. For an overview, visit their endurance page. Popular resources include GAINcast 92, where mentor Vern Gambetta explains his approach to athletic development for runners. Martin Bingisser and Nick Garcia have put together a video demonstrating their key medicine ball routines. Distance and throws coach Carrie Lane also put together a webinar on lifting for runners

Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

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The Value of Medicine Ball Training — Part II
by Martin Bingisser of HMMR Media for High Performance West

In my last article I looked at the unique advantages offered by medicine ball training and how to design exercises to get the most out of the dynamic training tool. But once you find the right exercises you also need to put then into a plan. Should medicine ball training complement the primary sport work you are doing? Should it contrast it? And how do we make sure it doesn't counteract it? Finding the right plan is perhaps more important than finding the right exercises.

I am not an expert in the science of transfer and potentiation, so in answering these questions I try instead to rely on one of my favorite coaching tools: common sense. In fact, common sense can be a lot more powerful than science in this area, as it is really hard to compare the transfer between similar protocols. For example: will one type of exercise or another be the key to reducing the 5km time of an elite runner? Is it better to use 10 reps or 20 reps for a sprinter?

Science hasn’t answered those questions yet since the answer is quiet complex. Complex problems demand simple solutions. Rather than cracking open a textbook to find the answer, simply look closer at the goals you are trying to accomplish and see if the work might complement training, contrast training, or counteract training.

Complementing primary sport training

Before you start out with any plan, you better be able to clearly define the goal of the primary sport session. For a hammer thrower that might mean trying to build up specific strength by throwing heavier implements, using lighter implements to work on specific speed, taking more throws to develop work capacity, or even focusing on correcting a small technical error. The goal of the main session, and the overall development plan for the athlete, is crucial to know so that you can see if medicine balls can be used to potentially complement the session.

Here’s an example: let's say you want to build up an athlete’s work capacity. I might have a thrower who is unable to take more than 10 quality throws in a session, or a distance runner who starts to break down after 25 miles a week. Simply having them execute more throws or miles will not be effective to develop work capacity. Pushing too far beyond their current threshold for primary sport training can lead to developing bad technical habits for the thrower, and simply getting injured for the runner. This is where medicine balls can step in to complement the session.

To do this we would implement medicine ball circuits with a high volume of reps and reduced recovery periods. For throwers, this gives us sport-specific work with higher volumes and increase density, while also using less technically demanding exercises and therefore a reduced chance of developing bad habits. We can accumulate volume without sacrificing quality; all of a sudden instead of 10 throws, we are able to get 50 or 60 throws with the use of medicine balls. For runners, the circuits are less movement-specific, but that is an advantage as they provide movement variation while still adding a large stimulus for the legs, heart, and lungs.

Complementing training can also help with advanced athletes. Sprinting places a high mechanical load on the body, especially for throwers or runners who might not sprint regularly. Doing too many sprints to warm up for sprints might max out the system. But doing a low volume of power exercises with the medicine ball, such as forward underhand throws, has a cross-over in coordination, primes the nervous system, and gets the body ready to sprint without taxing the systems too much. Another example comes in the world of recovery. A distance runner might have a session focused on recovery or threshold training. Here, short medium-intensity circuits can aid in recovery and add movement variation without overdoing it.

The key in all of this is that you are sending a clear and consistent message to the body. If the goal is focused on one thing, then medicine ball training is focused on it too.

Contrasting primary sport training

Complementing training works in some situations, but it can also cause problems in other situations. Sometimes it is better to contrast medicine ball work with the primary sport session.

Let’s take an example of an elite marathon runner doing their long run: 20 miles at race pace. Would it make sense for them to complement the long run with long circuits of medicine ball exercises after the run? Certainly not. As an elite runner, this athlete already has the work capacity they need. If they want to increase endurance, their engine allows them to do that work specifically by running, which will also have more transfer for them. Topping off the run with more circuits will push them into the red zone and detract from the potential gains they made on the run.

Instead, if medicine ball training is used post run, the focus should be on a smaller volume of high-quality work. The athletes got almost two hours of endurance work, but they the miles had almost no focus on high force production, which can be a key determinant in the final sprint of a race. Ending with some medicine ball exercises focused on force production can bring some more balance to the training session.

Don't counteract your primary sport training

The underlying theme here is that you need to understand where the athlete is going and, by all means, don't do something stupid that will work against your goals. Making progress in training is hard, but unfortunately, it is easy to undo it all with a single decision that leaves your athlete injured or overtrained. Just look at some of the examples above to see how medicine balls can push your athletes into the red zone, or sending mixed messages to the body.

Medicine ball training is by definition supplementary work; it is the second priority. If a second priority exercise counteracts your main priority, you need to rethink your approach. Less can be more here until you make sure everything is pushing the athlete in the right direction.

Jonathan Marcus