If you’re looking for a way to switch up your strength training, medicine balls might be the answer. By adding new types of intuitive yet challenging movement to your workout routine, medicine balls let you build balance, coordination, and most importantly, strength.
Studies show that regular strength training lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in women, and while few studies have looked at medicine balls specifically, the ones we’ve found indicate that medicine balls are at least as effective (and possibly more effective) than free weights.
“With the medicine ball, there are tons of exercises to work on your abs, your stamina, your strength, and your explosive power,” says Vanessa Gebhardt, a training specialist at Freeletics. “For some athletes who are used to training in the gym, doing bodyweight exercises, or running, training with a medicine ball is a very good way to strengthen the core and all the small muscles we normally don’t use.”
“It’s the explosive and rotational movements of the upper body where medicine ball training can really shine, and these moves are relatively safe as long as you’re keeping good form,” says Tyler Spraul, National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and head trainer at Exercise.com. “They might be a little too risky, though, if you’re just getting started with strength training and don’t have the watchful eye of an experienced coach to keep an eye on your technique and give you pointers.”
We spoke with trainers to find out how to use medicine balls safely and effectively. As we learned, medicine ball workouts aren’t too intimidating, and with proper attention to form, they can be an incredibly fun way to build strength.
Staying Safe During Your Medicine Ball Workout: Form Is Everything
While medicine balls are perfectly safe when used correctly, the key word is “correctly.” As with so many types of exercise, poor form can easily lead to an injury.
“It’s easy to overlook the challenge that medicine balls can bring, but they can be deceptively tough because we’re used to throwing around much lighter things like footballs and basketballs,” Spraul says. “This is another reason to pay attention to your form, paying special attention to your hips and low back!”
“If you’re getting into any kind of explosive throws—whether it’s up, down, or sideways—make sure to take care of your lower back,” Spraul says. “You’ll need to have good core strength and glute engagement, otherwise you may end up getting hurt. Be careful not to over-extend and compensate through your spine.”
Keep your core engaged through these exercises, and avoid lifting with your back. For your first few workouts, you might want to exercise in front of a mirror to watch your form. If you notice yourself slouching forward or losing proper form, stop. Never risk an injury to complete a strength training exercise.
Medicine Ball Exercises for Abs: Working Your Core
In a sense, medicine ball exercises are full-body workouts—that’s part of the reason they’re so effective. Still, if you’re looking to target your abs specifically, these exercises are a great place to start.
Medicine Ball Side-to-Side Slam
Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Start with the medicine ball held firmly in both hands and drawn in toward your core. Then, as you raise your arms, rotate your body to the left and swing your arms out and over your head (think of making a rainbow arc with your arms).
As you finish the arc on your right side, slam the ball down from about shoulder height as hard as you can. Repeat this motion, starting on the right side, rotating and slamming to the left. Do 5 reps on each side before resting.
Half-Kneeling Medicine Ball Scoop Toss
Start with your left knee on the ground (you can use a yoga mat for extra padding and comfort) and your right knee bent at a 90 degree angle. Be sure to keep your legs, glutes, and core engaged throughout this exercise—engaged muscles will help keep you from twisting during the motion. Hold the medicine ball in both hands on your left side. Keep your arms straight and throw the ball across your body against the wall 5 to 10 times. Repeat on the right side.
Sit on a comfortable mat with your legs slightly bent and your heels on the floor. Bring the medicine ball to your chest, sitting completely upright with a straight back. Contract your core, exhale, and slowly rotate to one side while keeping the ball in close to your chest. Pause, then rotate to the other side. Repeat 5 to 10 times, then rest.
This one is exactly what it sounds like. Lie on your back, arch your knees at a 90-degree angle, and hold your medicine ball to your chest.
Don’t cheat by sticking the ball out toward your knees—by displacing the weight, you’ll actually make the sit-up easier to accomplish, which, we’re sorry to say, is the opposite of the goal here. Do a sit-up, keeping the ball tight against your chest. Complete this medicine ball exercise for 20 reps for an intense core workout.
Medicine Ball Exercises for Arms: Toning Up
These medicine ball exercises help build strength in your arms, and they’re a good substitute for free-weight exercises. Your results will vary depending on the weights you use; choose lighter weights and do more repetitions if you’re looking to tone up. Add more weight if you want to build muscle mass. (Going for that long and lean look? Check out our article on bulk-free resistance training, too.)
Overhead Medicine Ball Slam
This is a great exercise for strengthening the arms and working out a little pent-up aggression. Start with your feet hip-width apart and bend your knees slightly, keeping your joints loose. Take the medicine ball in both hands and raise it directly above your head, arms straight. Then hurl the medicine ball at the ground in front of you as hard as you can, following through so you can feel it in your abs and glutes. Catch the ball on the bounce-back and go again. See if you can get through 20 reps with the proper form demonstrated in the video below.
Side Rotation Throws
Stand parallel to a wall, several feet away from it. Hold the medicine ball with both hands, remaining parallel to the wall. Bend your knees slightly.
Rotate your shoulders away from the wall, bringing the medicine ball out to your side. Rotate explosively toward the wall, keeping your back straight and turning your shoulders. Release the ball, allowing it to bounce against the wall, and catch it as it bounces off, returning to your original position.
Repeat 10 to 20 times, or as many times as you’d like, stopping prior to exhaustion. Keep in mind that since you’re throwing a weighted ball around, this is not the type of exercise you should continue until you’re no longer able to maintain the good form demonstrated here.
Medicine Ball Shuffle Push-Ups
Get into a push-up position with your medicine ball on your right side. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart with your legs straight and your hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Keep your right hand on the medicine ball and gradually lower your body to complete the first phase of the push-up.
At the bottom of the movement, push the medicine ball toward your left hand. As you come up, push yourself off of the floor completely in a single explosive movement, landing with your left hand on the medicine ball. Keep your waist completely straight, and don’t dip your neck. Repeat, alternating the ball from your left hand to your right hand for 10 repetitions.
You can increase number repetitions over time, but we’d only recommend trying this exercise if you’re already familiar with standard push-ups since the explosive plyometric movement it entails can be difficult for beginners.
Wide Open Circles
This simple yet impactful movement will tone the arms from the shoulders down. Start by planting your feet about shoulder-width apart. Keep your knees loose and slightly bent.
Grab your medicine ball, and hold it straight up above your head, keeping your arms straight, then draw circles in the air in front of you, keeping your arms straight the whole time. According to Jonas Sahratian, strength coach for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, beginners should complete 10 reps clockwise and 10 reps counterclockwise.
When should you increase the weight of your medicine ball exercises?
When starting a medicine ball workout, be sure to choose a medicine ball weight that allows you to perform movements comfortably.
“The proper weight of the medicine ball is determined by the type of exercise being performed, your individual strength level, and the number of repetitions you complete,” says Gebhart.
“The important part here is that you are able to perform the movement with the best technique and range of motion. You should always start with a lighter weight, and make sure you are doing the exercise correctly before moving on to a heavier weight. This is the safest and most effective way to train.”
If you want to incorporate a power training exercise—which involves performing a single rep or set with high weight—here’s Gebhart’s advice:
For power training exercises, the weight of the medicine ball should be about 30 to 50 percent of your bodyweight one rep max for a similar weight training exercise. For multi-joint exercises such as the overhead throw, the medicine ball must be large enough to handle comfortably with both hands while tensing all of the major muscle groups involved in the movement. Start with lighter weights here, and see how you feel after warming up.
What are you waiting for? Pencil a medicine ball workout into your calendar (or bullet journal!) and get your whole body moving in high gear.