By Dr. Mercola
Strength training is an integral part of any well-rounded exercise program, regardless of your age or gender. Resistance training can be done in a gym, or at home using weights, resistance bands, or just your own body weight.
When it comes to weights, you have a number of options, including dumbbells, kettle bells, or the topic of this article: a medicine ball.
Medicine balls are especially useful for adding resistance to your abdominal workout. You can also incorporate a medicine ball in plyometric, or "explosive" exercises, to increase strength and muscle mass.
What Is a Medicine Ball?
Medicine balls look like a regular kickball, or basketball, but they’re much heavier. They come in varying sizes and weights, from baseball-sized balls weighing a couple pounds, to larger balls weighing up to 50 pounds or more.
They can be thrown, swung, caught, or lifted, and since they have no handle, you have to engage and coordinate a number of different muscle groups to maneuver them.
As explained by Livestrong,1 “medicine” refers to anything that promotes health, and medicine balls have a history of promoting health and fitness that reaches back thousands of years:
“...[D]octors in ancient Greece wrote about weighted exercise balls and such balls appeared in drawings of wrestlers in Persia as far back as 1000 BC
Gladiators used them in their training, a prominent Renaissance physician prescribed them as part of ‘medicinal gymnastics’ and the US Military Academy at West Point has used them for more than 200 years.
‘As long as there have been athletes, there have been medicine balls,’ said former Olympic weightlifting coach Istvan Javorek.”
Selecting the Right Medicine Ball
A common mistake is to select a medicine ball that is too heavy, or heavier than necessary. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends2 making your selection with the following guidelines in mind:
- Use smaller and lighter balls for speed training, and heavier balls for strength-speed and/or power training
- For power training, select a ball with a weight that corresponds to about 30-50 percent of your one-repetition maximum of a similar weight training exercise
- The ball should be heavy enough to visibly slow your motion, but not so heavy that you lose control, accuracy, or range of motion. If you start to lose coordinated control of the ball at the end of your workout, the ball is too heavy
There are a number of different brands of medicine balls on the market, varying in their construction from soft gel-filled impact-absorbing balls that are great for throwing, to sand-weighted vinyl-covered balls.
Some have textured surfaces for added grip, and most are color coded for easy weight identification. Greatist.com3 lists and describes a number of brands if you’re in the market to buy one for your home gym.
If you usually use dumbbells, switching them out for a medicine ball or two can help rev up your routine and add some variety. A recent article on Health.com4 suggested the following five exercises for toning and sculpting your body using a 10-15 pound medicine ball.
#1: Rolling Push-Up
You're probably familiar with the advice to avoid doing the same exercises all the time. You need to "confuse" the muscle to keep building it. So doing the standard push-up exercise with your legs straight or knees bent on the floor, while certainly beneficial, will start to lose effectiveness over time if you don't add in new challenges.
To get more out of your push-ups, throw a medicine ball into the mix. To perform this exercise, get into a plank position with both arms extended. Place the medicine ball under one hand, and then perform a pushup.
As the ball shifts, it will force your core muscles to work to keep you in balance, while providing a greater challenge to your upper body. Move the ball to the other hand and repeat. Perform 5-10 pushups on each side.
Another option is to use two medicine balls. Simply place the palms of your hands on top of the balls and perform the push-up from there. If performing a standard pushup is too challenging, drop your knees to the floor. For even more variety, try the following tweaks:
- Lift a leg. As you extend your leg behind you, your upper body gets a challenge while your core and glutes get toned.
- Elevate your feet. In the traditional push-up position, put your feet on a step, chair, or gym ball, so your feet are higher than your hands. This puts more weight on your upper body, giving your arms, chest, and upper back a workout.
#2: Lunge with Twist
While a standard lunge places the focus on your legs, this variation will help develop your abdominals and obliques as well. Start out by standing with feet shoulder-width apart, holding the medicine ball with both hands in front of your body.
Next, take a large step forward with your right foot. Keeping the heel of your front right foot flat, descend into a lunge, bringing your left knee towards the floor. Stop just short of the knee touching the ground, making sure your front heel is still flat on the ground.
When you reach the lowest point in your lunge, twist the ball to the right by rotating your torso. Rotate back to center and step back up to standing position. Repeat on the other side. Do three sets of six to eight repetitions on each leg.
Alternatively, you can do walking lunges, moving forward and sinking into the lunge with each forward step.
Another variation is the lateral lunge twist. Instead of stepping forward, take a wide step out to the right. Keep your left leg straight, bend your right knee, and swing the medicine ball to your right, over your bent knee. Return to starting position and repeat on the other side.
#3: Weighted Superman
To perform this back-strengthening move, lie face down on the floor, arms and legs outstretched like Superman. Holding the medicine ball with both hands, slowly raise your arms, torso, and legs up as high as you can. Be sure to engage your back and core muscles as you do this. At the highest point, hold for a few seconds, and then slowly lower your arms and legs down again. For a quick demonstration, see the video. Do 10-15 repetitions.
#4: Alternate Chest Fly
Stack up a few exercise steps as shown in the video and lie down on them, face up. Keep knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Start out by holding the medicine ball above your chest with both hands, arms outstretched. Slowly shift the ball to your right hand and lower your right arm so it’s parallel with the floor. Maintain a soft bend in your elbow to prevent injury. Bring the ball back to center above your chest, and repeat on the other side.
That counts as one repetition. Do anywhere from five to 10 reps. If you want to add another level of difficulty, replace the flat exercise steps with a large exercise ball instead. The added instability will challenge your balance and give your core an added workout. Rest your neck and shoulder blades on the center of the ball, and be sure to engage your core to keep your hips raised throughout the exercise.
#5: Medicine Ball V-Up, with or Without Ball Pass
This is a challenging abdominal exercise, so if you’re a beginner, you may want to trade out the medicine ball for a much lighter, inflated exercise ball. Lie flat on your back on the floor, with your legs straight and your arms stretched out overhead. Hold the ball with both hands. A medicine ball in the five-pound range is plenty for most people.
Engage your core to simultaneously lift your hands and feet in a jackknife-movement, touching the ball to your feet. Lower your body back down and repeat. Aim for 10 reps. For added difficulty, add a ball pass. Here, you’ll be placing the ball between your feet rather than just touching your feet. Squeezing your feet together to keep the ball in place, lower your body down to the floor. On the next pass, you’re transferring the ball back to your hands before lowering back down.
Spice Up Dozens of Exercises by Adding a Medicine Ball
These are just a handful of several dozens of exercises you can perform with a medicine ball. Greatist.com5 recently ran an article covering 25 medicine ball exercises that promise to firm and tone your body from head to toe. It also includes a total body workout consisting of the following six medicine ball exercises:
1. Lunge with twist 2. Tricep push-up 3. V-ups 4. Single leg squat 5. Rolling push-up 6. Crunch with medicine ball hold
Aim for a Well-Rounded Fitness Program
For optimal health and fitness, strive for a varied and well-rounded program that incorporates a wide variety of exercises to avoid hitting a plateau. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program:
- Sit down as little as possible. The research is quite clear on this point: the more you sit, the greater the risks to your health. This applies even if you exercise regularly and are very fit. The key is to keep moving all day long. For ideas on how to incorporate more movement into your day, please see my interview with Dr. James Levine, author of the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.
In addition to limiting your sitting as much as you possibly can, I also recommend challenging yourself to walk 7,000-10,000 steps per day. This is over and above your regular fitness program. Consider one of the new fitness trackers that can monitor your steps and your sleep.
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT): This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
- Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high-intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.
Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls "Modern Moveology," which consists of a catalog of exercises. Postural exercises such as those taught in Foundation Training are critical not just for properly supporting your frame during daily activities, they also retrain your body so you can safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury.
Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer. Some of the exercises described above, such as the V-up using a medicine ball, also fall into this category.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.