Field Strong utilizes many different tools with purposes well beyond their seemingly "light" or "easy" appearances. One of the most beneficial pieces of equipment discussed in our Field Strong Equipment Starter Pack was the medicine ball. Not your average Dynamax med-ball, but reactive medicine balls, in order to challenge your ability to both produce and reduce force. This generated some churn, so now Carlito is going to dive down the rabbit hole of medicine ball training and dissect through the lens of a new 3P model: Purpose, Primals, and Planes of Motion.
Let’s start with purpose. Why incorporate plyometric medicine ball work at all? What can they provide that other pieces of equipment cannot? Anything implemented in our training must have a specific reason for being included, and these are no different. First, let’s focus on the neuromuscular characteristics that can be improved with med ball training.
The use of reactive med balls allows for the development of a specific component of our neuromuscular system called reactivity ability. This quality is heavily dependent on a muscle’s ability to generate a dynamic force, after an intense stretch (eccentric force), in the twinkling of an eye. (3). Thinking about using the big stretch of the hamstrings in the bottom of the squat to rocket yourself up. A muscle’s reactive ability is a key component in developing what is known as explosive strength, which is defined as the ability to produce maximal force in minimal time (3).
This is where using lighter implements such as medicine balls or implementing CAT to barbell lifts, comes into play. Explosive strength is crucial in athletics because things happen in an instant on the field and focusing solely on absolute strength will not pay the same dividends come Game Day.
Second, let's examine med ball drills as a tool for condardio. These drills can be useful in enhancing an athlete’s ability to recover between max velocity efforts; in the arena of competition, it isn’t good enough to be a one pump chump. Athletes who can recover best and quickest between their explosive bouts, and jump back in the fight, are going to prove the most useful to the team, and the deadliest on the field. We can also use the elevated heart rate as another form of stress to challenge an athlete’s ability to maintain posture on position in all planes of motion
First, let me refresh you on our definition of athleticism to help paint the picture. We define athleticism as: “the ability to seamlessly and effortlessly combine primal movement patterns through space to accomplish a known or novels task” (2). Let’s start by diving into the primal movement patterns.
To gain competency in these movements, we must provide opportunities in training for our athletes to work on them. This may seem like an obvious statement, but despite its simplicity, we have found this concept gets frequently overlooked. Medicine balls are a great way to challenge these Primals in a relatively low stress/low risk environment.
You aren’t asking them to load up a heavy barbell and squat, step or lunge. Instead, you’re asking them to use a 4 to 8 lb medicine ball, and practice contracting explosively from these primal positions. This doesn’t equate to them being easier by any means, so don’t let yourself or your athletes fall into that trap.
You need to put as much attention on this as anything else; they are executing movements at high velocity, so this will have implications on their ability to produce force (improved performance) and reduce force (decrease risk on injury). However, the potential risk from a rep being executed incorrectly is relatively low when considered amongst other options, making them a valuable tool for the novice athlete.
Planes of Motion
Now, let's examine what we mean when we say move through space. There are three planes of motion that we need to build competency of movement in, if we want to be effective on the field. Just like the Primals, we must provide opportunities to move through these planes in training in order to drive proficiency and competency. Many programs fall into the trap of staying solely in the sagittal plane (think squat, power clean, sprint, etc.).
On the one hand this is understandable, as these are the movements easiest executed in a gym setting. But, you’re creating a huge proficiency gap by omitting the other two planes in your regular training. If you’re curious whether your program is stuck in this plane, ask yourself: can your entire training day be performed in a doorway or hallway? If yes, then you’re gonna have a bad time.
By failing to address these other planes of motion, we are setting our athletes up for failure. Just like the with the Primals, medicine balls are a low-cost way to train all movement through all planes of motion, in all primal movement patterns. The dynamic use of medicine balls also allows us the unique opportunity to train a specific type of mechanoreceptor, known as “Pacinian corpuscles.” These receptors, found in joint capsules, provide feedback that allow us to detect the rates of movement of our limbs, giving us the ability to predict where the extremities will be at any precise moment (3). Simply put, this body awareness, or kinesthetic awareness; having an idea of where your limbs are in space, at any given moment, is critical in any sport.
Our ability to combine Primals and planes of motion in training is paramount, because through these known tasks in training we are able to prepare our athletes for the novel tasks they are bound to face. Sport is an infinite combination of Primals and planes of motion.
Lower Barrier to Entry
Perhaps the greatest appeal about plyometric medicine ball training is the lower barrier to entry they have for athletes, especially when compared with other dynamic training tools. Don’t get me wrong, movements such as plyometrics, CAT, sprints, and Olympic lifts are great for CNS efficiency and motor unit recruitment. However, they also have a higher barrier of entry in regard to proper execution, technique, and carry a higher potential for injury if performed incorrectly. Implementing intensity sprints and CAT training will get the job done, but they also carry a large technical component that must be honed in order to be executed effectively.
Plyometric medicine ball work involves the same, and in some cases greater, motor unit recruitment and coordinative abilities without the baggage of technique and injury potential (1). This not to say we ignore plyometrics, CAT, sprints, and Olympic lifts; we just know these are going to take more time to develop the necessary skills to maximize their intent and perform them safely. In contrast, medicine ball work can be implemented relatively early in athlete’s life cycle and begin to drive some of the necessary adaptations.
As a coach this is your chance in a low stress environment to work on your coaching voice, communication, and ability to see of the execution of these primal movements through varying planes of motion. This is crucial because these are the building blocks for more complex task, and more importantly athleticism.
“Complexity of drills and apparatus often seems to replace optimal simplicity, technical correctness and elegance” (3). Just as with any movements you need to start with simple iterations of the drills and then add complexity from there. Don’t simply do a quick search on Instagram, and think to yourself, “hey that looks like fun!” You always know why some is doing a drill, or even if they have a why.
Also, you don't know if they've spent the last 8-12 week progressing to the drill you are seeing filmed. It can be very hard to gain context from these. Instead start to implement the drills from this article into your training. Introduce these after your dynamic movement prep.
This week pick one of the lower body primal movements and move through all planes of motion in that primal. Each week change up the primal, but always hit all three planes of motion. As far as reps go start with 5 reps, once proficiency is established progress 7 reps, and then 10 reps. Lastly remember to keep our purpose these drills call for lighter medicine balls. For more examples of how to intelligently implement these into a program head over and check out Speed Kills.
- Francis, Charlie (2008) Key Concepts: Elite Edition. Structure of Training for Speed. Charliefrancis.com
- Welbourn, J., Summers, L., & McQuilkin, C. (2017). Power athlete methodology: Level one workbook. Austin. Power Athlete, Inc.
- Verkhoshansky, Yuri, and Mel Cunningham Siff. Supertraining. Verkhoshansky, 2009.
After an introduction to CrossFit in 2007, Carl became a certified coach in 2009 and co-owner of CrossFit South Bend in 2011. In addition to coaching CrossFit and CrossFit Football classes at the gym, Carl has been coaching high school rugby since 2009. He uses the CrossFit Football and Power Athlete concepts to help his young athletes identify their goals and provides pointed instruction to help achieve those goals.