Wayne L. Westcott: Get fit with a medicine ball

Wayne L. Westcott

If your basement is like mine, the concrete walls provide a perfect backstop for performing some powerful medicine ball exercises.

Why medicine balls? As we age, we lose both muscle strength and muscle power, and we lose the latter at a faster rate than the former.

Muscle strength is best increased by doing standard strength training exercises using machines or free weights. However, the carefully controlled movements recommended for machines and free-weight training do not have as much impact on power improvement.

Performing fast repetitions with relatively heavy resistance is problematic because this places high stress on your joint structures at the end of the movements.

One means for avoiding these end-range impacts is to release the resistance. While this is not advisable when using barbells or dumbbells, it works extremely well with medicine balls.

Medicine balls are available in progressively heavier resistances, from 2 to 20 pounds, which makes them well-suited for strength training programs. Like free weights, you can use medicine balls for a variety of exercises, such as squats, lunges, step-ups, arm curls, arm extensions, and shoulder presses. Unlike free-weights, you can also release the medicine ball at the end of an explosive exercise movement, thereby preventing high levels of joint stress. This is where the basement concrete wall comes in. You release (throw) the medicine ball towards the wall, where it typically drops to the floor and rolls back to you. Research indicates that these more forceful exercise actions against reasonable resistance are more effective than standard strength training for improving muscle power.

I recommend doing the following four medicine ball throws for 10 to 15 repetitions each. The first few throws should be less forceful (warm-ups), followed by progressively more powerful throwing actions.

Step and push low-throw. This exercise works the muscles of the thighs, hips, midsection, chest and arms.It is performed by holding the medicine ball against your chest with both hands, lunging forward with the left leg, and pushing the ball powerfully toward the bottom of the basement wall. Alternate the forward stepping foot on each repetition.

Step and push high-throw. Although similar to the first exercise, the high throw action addresses the shoulder muscles as well as the thighs, hips, midsection, chest and arms. It is performed in the same manner as the low throw except that the medicine ball is pushed towards the top of the basement wall. Be sure to alternate the forward stepping foot on each repetition.

Right-side mid-throw. Hold the medicine ball with both hands by your left hip. Stand with your right side toward the wall, step toward the wall with your right foot, and sling the ball toward the middle of the wall. This exercise involves the muscles of the thighs, hips, chest, shoulders and arms, with even greater emphasis on the midsection muscles.

Left-side mid-throw. This exercise is similar to the right-side mid-throw, except that you hold the ball on your right hip, stand with your left side toward the wall and step with your left foot while slinging the ball. The same major muscles are addressed, with emphasis on the other side of the body.

These four medicine ball power exercises have proven effective for enhancing muscle strength, power and performance, which is important for a variety of physical activities. Just be sure to progressively increase the resistance by using a slightly heavier medicine ball when you can complete 15 forceful repetitions in good form.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is instructor of exercise science at Quincy (Mass.) College and author of 24 fitness books.