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The Fitness Benefits of Keeping a Few Balls in the Air

Medicine Ball Workout

Someone new to CrossFit training might be surprised to see big, goofy-looking balls flying around the room. As with every piece of equipment in the CrossFit training arsenal, these balls – called medicine balls and slam balls – are important tools to functional fitness training.

The medicine ball has a long, colorful history. According to several online resources, its origins can be traced back 3,000 years to Persian wrestlers who were using it trying to get stronger.  According to an April 2015, article by Karl Smallwood in “Gizmoda,” even the father of medicine appreciated the physical benefits of these balls.  “In ancient Greece, Hippocrates considered them to be an essential tool for helping injured people regain mobility and he advised people to use them as a general, all-purpose way of remaining healthy.”

Even the “name” of this piece of equipment is interesting. It was not originally called a “medicine ball.” This identity came into the fitness lexicon in 1889. Smallwood notes, “The word itself is only a few hundred years old, being attributed to one, Professor Roberts way back in 1889According to a Scientific American article from the time, Roberts coined the term “medicine ball” in reference to the fact that using the ball ‘invigorates the body, promotes digestion, and restores and preserves one’s health.’  As “health” and “medicine” were considered to be synonymous terms at the time, calling it a “medicine ball” was natural enough.”

While slam balls are a more recent innovation, they are a variation on the medicine ball and serve an important function in CrossFit training. Slam balls are similar in appearance to medicine balls but are more durable and designed to withstand high-velocity impact. 

The Difference Between Medicine and Slam Balls

Medicine Balls and Slam Balls

When they are first picked up, CrossFit trainers will immediately recognize the difference between a medicine ball and a slam ball and their design suggests how they are both used for workouts.

Austin fitness writer, Jolie Johnson notes, “Slam balls, which are non-bouncing workout balls, approximately the size of a basketball, have a tough rubber outer shell filled with a mixture of air and sand. Medicine balls, available as bouncing or non-bouncing, have leather, nylon or rubber exteriors and are filled with air or sand. Some medicine balls are soft and pliable, but others are hard and rigid. Varying in size from a baseball to a basketball, some medicine balls have built-in handles for an improved grip.

“Medicine and slam balls are weighted fitness tools. Slam balls are available in 5-pound increments from 10 to 50 pounds. Medicine balls have a larger variety of weights, starting as low as 1 pound and increasing in 1- or 2-pound increments up to 25 pounds. After 25 pounds, medicine balls increase by 5-pound increments up to 50 pounds or more.”

How These Balls Are Used

These exercise balls can be used for strength and plyometric training, both are important to realizing fitness goals in a CrossFit environment. Plyometric training, while not as well-known as strength training is incorporated in many, if not all, CrossFit WOD’s.  

A recent Men’s Fitness” article by Lee Boyce notes, “A plyometric movement is quick, powerful move that starts with an eccentric (muscle lengthening) action and is immediately followed by a concentric (muscle shortening) action. Performing plyometrics movements increases muscular power, which translates to higher jumps and faster sprint times. Combining the moves with resistance training is a way to maximize power and performance.”

Medicine Ball Exercise

The two types of balls are used for different exercises. Johnson notes that “because they have a hard rubber, durable exterior, and they don't bounce, slam balls are most often used for slamming exercises such as ball slams and chest throws against a wall. Medicine balls are used for strength-training exercises, such as the squat to press; functional movements, such as the wood chop; and plyometric exercises, such as the chest throw to a workout partner.”

She adds a precaution. The American College of Sports Medicine warns that many exercisers choose balls that are too heavy. To select the proper weight, choose a ball that is heavy enough to slow the movement, but not so weighted that you lose control or sacrifice accuracy or form.” As with any piece of equipment, it is always advisable to get professional advice on technique from a CrossFit trainer before getting a few balls in the air!

For trainers who work out at home and don’t have the benefit of a trainer’s direction, click here for eight, plyometric drills focusing on upper body training. These are supplied by Sports Fitness Advisor.

Have you had any good or bad experiences using medicine or slam balls in your CrossFit workout? Contact us and let us know so we can share with our other readers.