In my last article, I reminded everyone why ball is life and dove into the world of medicine balls, discussing the (1) purpose of incorporating them, (2) how we can use them to challenge primal movement patterns, and (3) how they can aid in gaining competency across all planes of motion. This was just the tip of the iceberg, so let's take a peek below the surface and expand on the how and why behind incorporating medicine balls.
Even though you’ve got some knowledge behind the what’s and how’s for implementing medicine balls, it’s time to dive into the why’s and give a little more insight and thought behind that implementation. There are a few different components you need to take into consideration to set you and your athlete's’ up for success.
Just like our sprints, we can apply the volume and intensity framework to our medicine ball training. First, let’s talk about volume, since this is what the majority of you are probably most familiar with. Think of this as having more of a conditioning focus; training on this end will be done following your heavy lifts. In general, these are going to be composed of higher rep schemes and shorter rest periods. The drills are still executed at max velocity. However, the overall intensity will be lower or submaximal. This allows you to challenge technique under fatigue and enhance the ability to recover between maximal velocity efforts. This is also known as explosive strength endurance (3).
Next, let’s have a look at intensity end of the spectrum. Exercises here are going to be characterized by a lower rep count with higher rest periods. This allows for greater intensity per rep and results in greater motor unit recruitment. These maximal efforts are where we start dialing in central nervous system (CNS) efficiency and work power development. With the higher demand on the CNS compared to the volume, we want to prioritize this before the barbell lifts.
Single Effort vs Repetitive/Reactive
Depending on your focus for the training day (volume vs. intensity), the same drill can be executed differently to elicit the desired stimulus. There are two different ways that we can have athletes attack various drills.
First would be in a Single Effort format. This is where you are taking each rep 1 at a time; think 5 singles not 5 reps. Here we are working on putting a conscious effort behind each rep to display as much explosive strength as possible. You’re in a beauty contest, and each rep is your chance to win the tiara.
Then there is Repetitive Effort. This where you are performing 5 consecutive reps. The major difference here is that we are ingraining how to produce force, reduce force and redirect that force, again and again. This where we train unconscious explosive strength. This doesn’t mean posture and position goes to shit; now you have to maintain it while fatigued.
Principle of Overload
When programming, the principle of Overload must be taken into consideration (2). We have to stress to progress, but the stress must be applied appropriately. Part of being a good strength and conditioning coach is understanding where your athletes are in their development and applying the appropriate stress.
Volume and intensity are the two primary stressors we as coaches have control over and can manipulate based upon where we need to take the training. Volume (think doing more in the same or less time) is the one most are familiar with, however it needs to be gradually ramped up over time to avoid an overuse injury. Intensity (think increasing weight or executing with more ferocity) must also be ramped up just like volume as too much too soon could potentially lead to an overload injury.
The last stressor to look at is the progression and the complexity of movement. Many coaches and athletes fall into the trap of rushing progression, likely due to a few common factors: misconception of where they sit in their abilities, not seeing the value or thinking that a more difficult drill will achieve greater results. Throwing a more complex movement pattern at an athlete who is not prepared to perform a drill will simply reinforce faulty mechanics, and increase the risk of injury (1). Just because it’s new and novel, doesn’t mean it’s useful.
Training the Nervous System
Now that you have a better understanding of what to take into consideration, let's take a look under the hood to see what we are affecting from a physiological standpoint. Where better to start than where all movement begins: the nervous system. When it comes to the body the nervous system is king. It tells the muscles how fast and hard to contract and in what sequence to fire (1); these signals are what make up movement. As we are learning a new movement pattern, our nervous system is trying to figure out the right mixture of these signals and how to most effectively coordinate them.
What’s the best way to learn? Practice. But remember, it’s not “practice makes perfect” but “perfect practice makes permanent.” Through deliberate practice of something like plyometric medicine ball drills, we are able to work an athlete along the competency continuum in that movement pattern. In the beginning of the continuum, they sit at unconscious incompetence where they are don’t understand how to do something and don’t recognize the deficit (2). Over time, we want to guide them along the continuum to unconscious competence, where the neural pathways laid for the movement pattern are so strong that the movement becomes second nature and no longer requires cognitive effort to be properly executed (1).
Training the Stretch Shortening Cycle
Along with training the nervous system, we are also working on enhancing the Stretch Shortening Cycle of the muscles. This cycle is your muscle’s ability to quickly move through the amortization phase and concentrically contract after receiving a rapid eccentric stretch (think “bouncing out of the bottom” in a squat). To improve on your ability to make the amortization phase look like a checkmark and not like a “u”, there are a few components that we must train.
First are the muscle spindles; they sense the stretch and create an opposite contraction in response to keep the muscle from tearing. Secondly, we have the Golgi Tendon Organ, whose job is to sense tension in the muscle, and when it is perceived as too high, turn off the muscle to avoid injury. The final component of the Stretch Shortening Cycle is what is called the Series Elastic Component. Simply put: the greater the stretch, the greater the contraction we can create. By utilizing plyometric medicine balls in training, we can teach the muscle spindles to contract harder and dampen the effects of the Golgi Tendon Organ (1).
Just tell me what I need to know
In order to properly implement medicine balls into your or your athlete’s training, do you need to understand, in detail, what is going on at the physiological level? No. What you do need to understand and coach is how to use them, and why you are doing so (think 3P model). Understand that volume and intensity are going to drive different adaptations, and how the same drill can be executed with different methods (single vs. repetitive effort) to target different attributes, depending on what you’re training for.
Lastly, understanding the important role that progressive Overload plays into developing, or hindering, an athlete’s development is key to success. Take the lessons learned from this, and the previous article, and you’ll have an effective tool for unlocking athletic potential.
- Kielbaso, J. (2011). Ultimate speed & agility: Drills and techniques for athleticism. Plymouth, MI: Crew Press.
- 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.