Track and field, Olympic lifting and swimming have long been visible in the development and use of periodized cycles. These often-complex programs are designed to enhance the abilities of athletes by dividing training goals into segments. These segments emphasize particular biomotor abilities at different times of the year, to accomplish established goals.
What are biomotor abilities?
Essentially they are life movements; we use some aspects of them every day. They can provide a means for evaluating and understanding training programs. Below are the primary biomotor abilities and a brief discussion of their nature:
- SPEED - Relates to movement and is measured by time. Not only straight ahead or running related, speed can be a reaction (single movement) or a series of movements (locomotion). Part of the power (speed strength) equation.
- STRENGTH - Refers to a muscle’s ability to resist or apply force. Can have many expressions including maximum strength, core strength or strength endurance.
- ENDURANCE - Ability to tolerate fatigue, work capacity. Not just “cardio” at a target heart rate. Also can be combined with other biomotors to develop a specific ability like speed endurance or power endurance
- FLEXIBILITY - From static to dynamic. Mobility around a joint and extensibility of soft tissue. Can include myofascial release and other corrective exercises done to increase functional range of motion. Important in many areas, including warm up and expression of power.
- COORDINATION/SKILL - Easier to spot a lack of it than to define. It is demonstrated in efficiently completing simple and complex tasks. It includes, but is not limited to, all technique development, tactical sports training and balance.
As you can see, these abilities can be worked on independently, but they also work well when properly combined. They are an important measuring stick for any sport, rehabilitation or personal training program and should be (in some degree) part of each session. The “Big 3” biomotors are speed, strength and endurance. They are the ones that will yield the most noticeable results. Medicine balls can be used to address all of these abilities.
We will examine one of the many paths available for incorporating medicine balls into your training programs. The exercises will have a common denominator: they will lead to and ultimately become throws. Technique, cues, progression and variation will be discussed. We will cover overhead and rotational throw progressions and will begin with straight ahead or overhead throws.
Movements that require shifting, bending, rotating and balance are common in life. By learning to balance and transfer momentum from rear to front, a golfer can reduce risk of injury and improve performance. When watching or listening to golf pros, they often talk about releasing the club or they would ask "How do you throw it?" But the reality is that many people never learn to throw. Due to poor movement skills, many people have no patterns established to complete tasks like this in a coordinated efficient manner. Learning to throw (again?) can help establish or re-establish these movement skills. This can be an area where clients will see measurable improvement relatively quickly. Throwing balls is an expression of speed, strength, flexibility and skill/coordination. Where can we begin to introduce these progressions?
The dynamic warm up is a good place to introduce new skills of any type because the client is of the fresh and rested at the beginning of a workout. Before we discuss these progressions we must determine what equipment is appropriate for doing these movements. Since the lead-in or warm-up exercises do not require the ball to bounce, then any ball would be appropriate. The weight of the ball should be between 2-3 kilos or 4-7 pounds for most people. Exercises like Wood Chops (see Figures 1, 2 and 3) and Russian Twists (see Figures 7, 8 and 9) are very progressive.
When doing Wood Chops (Figure 1), start with the ball overhead and feet a little wider than shoulder width. Move the ball from top to a position between the feet, return to start and repeat. Figure 2 shows a variation on the start and movement, from ear to knee (Diagonal Chops). Figure 3 is a single leg variation of previous exercise (Single Leg Diagonal Chops).
When doing standing movements that involve rotation, the backside foot should turn, allowing a wider range of motion and a shift of the center of mass over front side. By doing this, the integrity of the low back is not compromised. And by cueing these actions from Day 1, you set up patterns that will be used in future exercises. It is a good idea to cue bending and rotating with as many joints as possible. As you can see, these exercises have a balance component. Ultimately, throwing requires some single leg balance.
After mastering of the first three exercises, work on these next three. Figure 4 shows Slams. Note how similar the beginning positions in Figures 1 and 4 look. To begin the “slam,” cue a dragging of the ball. Try to separate/stretch or move away from the ball. Start with a swing of the ball to the top position to create a need for deceleration/loading of the upper extremities. As the ball is approaching the top position, anticipate it and cue a strong pulling/bending of the core musculature. Deliver through the ground. Make sure the ball is left at arm length and hits the ground about one foot in front of the client’s feet. Repeat by swinging the ball back to the top position.
Figure 5 begins the penultimate movement sequence by showing the Wall Throw. Begin in the same position as before with a swing to the top. Client should be standing about five to six feet from the wall and aiming about one to two feet from the bottom of the wall. Cues will be very similar. Ask them to chase the throw with their hands. If done correctly, the ball should bounce back to them about knee height as they finish the follow through. Reload the throw with a stretch and repeat. Figure 6 is the last progression for overhead throws. Do it with legs staggered (Staggered Wall Throws). Begin with a swing to a stretch position. Push with rear leg to “get to the left side.” Throw should be completed with more weight over left than right side of the body. Leave the left side bent for now, but exercise can later be adapted to involve a more rigid left side and higher delivery to begin to feel blocking.
Many movements in life and sports involve acceleration and shifting or moving weight from one side to the other to complete a task. Working toward being on one leg and having to decelerate or block one side of the body is a big part of throwing. To properly finish throws, jump takeoffs and many swinging movements, the body must fix one side to achieve greater acceleration of the free or moving side. The overhead sequence discussed earlier lays the groundwork for force application, balance, weight shift and learning to work with a loaded start. Next we will literally add a twist to the straight-ahead throws.
Russian Twists will be the first exercise. This exercise got its name from observation of former Soviet Union throwing event athletes doing variations of this in their training. You will see later the close connection to the hammer throw. In Figure 7, you can see the finish or deceleration position. Note the turned back side foot and noticeable shift in body weight. Cueing footwork to initiate movement is important. References like “get your left or right hip to face a particular wall” or “turn your belly button” are good cues. Start the ball close to the torso and work outward. Figure 8 is a single leg variation of this exercise (Single Leg Russian Twists). The next two steps will involve your client beginning to throw.
Start them 90 degrees to the wall or you with the ball behind the right hip and arms slightly bent (Side or Hip Throws - Figure 9). They will be about three feet from a wall and further (four to six feet) from a partner. Initiate the throw by swinging the ball to the start position (loading that side) and getting more than half their weight on the right side. Have them start to think about delivery and right side movement a little before the ball is completely decelerated. This will eventually get them to have their right side ahead of the ball teaching a whipping or elastic delivery. Cues for right side activity “squish the bug,” “turn your right foot until your ankle touches the ground” (think of the finish position in a Professional golf swing), concentrate on turning not throwing, think of pulling or dragging the ball. When this begins to happen, you and the client will note that the effort is easy. It will feel like they didn’t do anything, and they will be standing on their left leg balanced. Progression for this exercise is for a faster loading and switching. Walls allow this to happen best, but good results can be achieved with a partner accurately delivering the ball back to the thrower. The partner doesn’t need to be doing the same exercise. Train both sides. A ball that bounces is needed for wall throws.
The final exercise used in this progression (Modified Hammer Throw - Figure 10) involves adding 90 more degrees to the range of movement. The client will be facing 180 degrees away from the wall or partner, three or five feet away. Movement to initiate this is the same, with a swing of the ball into position and loading of the right side. Similar cues can be used. In this exercise, the client will sense the delivery position and really be able to accelerate through the fixed left side. The ball will end up being delivered closer to shoulder height with arms on the up swing at the finish. The reception of the ball (from wall or partner) will set up a stretch for the next rep. Think golf on this one. It is very close!
Using a few throws or lead in throws can add a fun, skill-based component to your workouts. Sets and reps can be anywhere from one to three sets of six to 12 reps. If done in the warm up, they can be part of your circuit or sequence. Throws are excellent when doing a speed/strength session because they are a summation of forces activity. Be creative and let balls help you address the biomotor abilities.
Medicine balls are available in many different forms. Best case would be having a mix to accomplish your goals. If you are looking for balls with good bounce quality consider the economical First Place balls, which come in different colors based on weight. Another option would be the Nemo series, which are more expensive but have a lifetime guarantee. If you are in a situation where you don’t need a ball to bounce, consider the Dynamax (all the same size, rounded rectangular shape) or the D ball various sizes all the way down to half pound. D-balls will feel gel filled and compress some on landing. They also carry a lifetime guarantee. Another ball that will not bounce is the Power ball. It is a unique product because it has a handle built into the ball. Power balls come in a variety of weights, but the balls are all the same size. Converta balls come with a rope attachment to allow swinging and chopping movements. The rope can be removed and the ball is a good bouncer.
To learn more, check out Vern Gambetta’s "Complete Guide to Medicine Ball Training." Either book or video form is an excellent choice for exercise ideas and program design. Many of the exercises used here come from this book. In "Advanced Medicine Ball Training," Vern adds many variations to the original. Vern’s work in this area has helped bridge the gap from track and field to other sports and health professional’s use of this versatile training tool.
Also, Carlos Santana's Essence of Medicine Ball Training online course and his Medicine Ball Blast DVD both provide an innovative look at using medicine balls in many environments.