Thursday, January 21, 2010

Having a (medicine) Ball with Exercise!

For the same reason that home exercise equipment doesn't work for a lot of folks, training at my own personal training studios doesn't work too well for me personally. Oh, there's plenty of equipment to keep me interested, and with which I can get a great workout, but there are simply too many distractions about.

I really, really do need to get out of my 'work' environment to get an effective 'workout.'

In doing so, I encounter many of the same challenges a lot of you do when working out at large public facilities. And this time of year can be especially frustrating. Whether it's morning, noon, or night, it seems I'm always bumping into equipment contention.

So, as they say, let's make lemonade out of these lemons!

And the way we're going to do it is by using one of the oldest pieces of exercise equipment known to mankind ... the medicine ball. In fact, did you know that medicine (med) balls have been used in physical therapy since 1000 BC?! Sizes and shapes vary from 1 Kg to 11KG, but all medicine balls will be soft enough to bounce on a firm surface (like a wall or floor). Indeed, it's ability to absorb impact is what makes a ball a medicine ball.

What's even better is that while you'll frequently find the benches, the bars, and the pin select equipment in use at the club this time of the year, you will ALWAYS be able to find an unused med ball and a few square feet of open space.

What's more, most of the exercises you do with a med ball are compound exercises that incorporate a LOT of major muscle groups and burn tons of calories!

A couple of tips before you get started:
  1. Keep to the edges and the corners of the gym floor to avoid widely flung bars and cables;
  2. Always start with the lightest weight ball available when learning a new med ball exercise;
  3. Gradually use (over weeks and months) heavier and heavier balls as you develop competence and strength.
Here then, are a few simple med ball exercises. Use one or two of them to supplement your workout, or use all of them for a complete workout!

Walking diagonal lunges with a gentle hand to hand shot-put-like overhead toss (works the glutes, deltoids, and improves balance). Hold a med ball in one hand close to your ear as a shot putter would. Step forward into your lunge keeping the ball near your ear. Then, as you step up out of the lunge to a standing position push the med ball overhead with one hand like a shot putter might. Keep control of the ball as push it over hand over head to your other hand. Lower the ball to shoulder height near your other. Lunge with the other leg and again, pass overhead to the other hand as you recover. Pause between steps and keep your head up!

Explosive seated overhead throw and catch against a flat wall (trains your lats and core). While sitting upright, and like an overhead two handed basketball pass, throw the ball into a wall and catch it on the rebound. NOTE: You might need to wander into a lesser used area of the facility ... perhaps even the basketball court or an unused racquetball court to find a non-mirrored wall and space enough to make this safe to other gym rats. You do not want to hit another gym member with a med ball! And you should not throw med balls against a mirror!

Sit-up and overhead throw to partner/trainer (abs, lats). Like the overhead throw, but this time start with the ball overhead as you lay flat on your back on the ground about 3 feet from your partner. Perform a situp with the ball overhead (a strong back is required!) and complete the exercise with an overhead throw to your trainer. While recovering from seated upright position back to lying prone, have your partner toss you the ball back. You can catch it anywhere, but is most effective if your partner throws to and you catch it over head. Repeat until fatigued.

Explosive squat position basketball chest pass against a wall (gluts, delts, triceps). Begin facing a wall about 5 feet from it. Perform a basic squat with the ball grasped at chest height. As you recover from the squat position (and are raising up to a standing position) forcefully chest pass the med ball to the wall. Be sure your arms are fully extended when you release the ball. Catch and repeat until fatigued.

Russian Twist on the floor. An exercise specifically for your abdominals, balance on your butt with feet and torso lifted off the floor to form a 'V' with your body. Suspend the med ball with two hands above your abdominals. Twist at the waist to your right while balancing on your butt to rotate the ball to above your right hip. Then twist in the other direction to move the ball in a twisting motion (abs, obliques) to atop of your left hip ... all the while keeping the ball suspended off of your body. Repeat until fatigued.

Overhead karate-type chops. Wile standing w/ feet shoulder width apart and with a slightly bent leg, grasp the ball with two hands. Raise the ball overhead. Then, while keeping your arms fully extended, bend at the waist and accelerate the ball downwards towards one foot, but don't let go of the ball! Recover by bending only at the waist (keep those legs and arms mostly straight) standing upright again with the ball overhead, and arms fully extended throughout the motion. Bend at the waist again , but this time accelerate the ball downwards towards the other foot. Again, don't let go! Repeat until fatigued.

Once you have those exercises down, here are a few more advanced movements:

Single arm supported dumbbell rows: support yourself in a plank/pushup-like position with one arm fully extended atop of a med ball. Then, grab a very light dumbbell with the other. Balance on the ball with the extended arm while knocking out a few single arm dumbbell rows with the other. You'll train Tris, Delts, Pecs, Core, Traps, and Lumbar with just this one exercise! CAUTION: Do NOT do this exercise if you prefer to avoiding attention. It's a difficult exercise and turns a lot of heads.

Mostly for biceps, but with significant core stability and balance training, try doing some standing dumbbell curls while standing on top of the med ball! Yes, on top of the med ball. It's actually easier than you might think. Getting on top of the med ball is, of course, the trickiest part. You should try this with lots of open floor space and WITHOUT dumbbells before trying it with dumbbells. Find the largest, softest ball you can find to start with ... it will squish flatter onto the floor and roll the least. Use harder, smaller balls as you get better.

There are a few techniques for getting up onto the ball, but my favorite is to start with your left foot (for righties) atop of the med ball just left of the ball's crown. Then, without hesitation, simply step up with the other foot and place it just to the right of the ball's crown. The key is to try to keep the ball from moving as you step up onto it with the second foot. It takes some practice, but do persist. I've been doing this exercise for years to try to improve upon one legged balance needed to help my suffering hockey game. Even to this day it sometimes takes me 6 or 8 attempts to get up on top of the ball.

Once you're standing on top, simply perform alternating dumbbell curls as you would do standing. Just don't fall of the ball! Try to 'wrap' your feet around the ball to put as much foot in contact with the ball as possible to improve control.

Last, if you're truly at an advanced fitness level without any lower back ailments, try some of what I call offset med ball pass push ups. Assume a normal push up position, but with just one hand atop of a smallish (3 K) med ball. The fact that you'll have one shoulder naturally higher in this position (it being over the ball) makes it an 'offset.' In a single explosive move, execute a accelerated push up by pushing simultaneously against both the floor and the ball. At the top of the movement (you'll need a bit of 'hang time' here) roll the ball from the hand with it towards the hand without it, and control it under the new hand as you recover from the push up ... then recede to the floor. Repeat for 15 and you, my friend, are king/queen of the gym!

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