Athletic training has changed a lot over the last century.
Advances in knowledge and technology have been reflected in the methodologies of some of the world's most renowned trainers and facilities.
But there's one exercise with ancient origins that's still going strong today—Med Ball Slams. There's reason to believe that Med Ball Slams are one of the oldest exercises in existence, as it's a primitive move done with an implement that's been around for thousands of years. Why have Med Ball Slams persevered in an age when athlete training is becoming increasingly cutting-edge? Here's why this archaic exercise still holds a place in elite athlete training, and why it isn't likely to go away any time soon.
The Origins of Exercise
Medicine balls (often referred to simply as "med balls") are the heavy weighted balls you've seen inside gyms for as long as you can remember. They come in a wide range of weights and sizes, but every serviceable medicine ball meets the same basic requirements—it's round, it's evenly weighted and it's insanely durable.
But why are they called medicine balls? The answer likely dates back to Ancient Greece, where Hippocrates—often called the father of western medicine—is said to have stuffed animal skins to create weighted, round balls. He would encourage his patients to toss the balls to help them rehab from injury and stay in good health. Thus, the term "medicine ball" came about. But the use of weighted balls as a way to stay in shape predates Hippocrates. Ancient drawings dating back nearly 3,000 years show Persian wrestlers training with sand-filled bladders. Since then, med balls have been used by nearly every profession that involves fitness—gladiators, soldiers, Olympians and professional athletes. "In 3,000 years of athletic training, only two things haven't changed: man and the medicine ball," Mark Verstegen, founder of Athletes' Performance Institute, told ESPN in 2013.
The Med Ball Slam is one of the most basic med ball exercises out there. As such, it's not hard to imagine its history traces back nearly as far as the medicine ball itself.
Why Do Modern Athletes Use Med Ball Slams?
Med Ball Slams are an exceedingly simple exercise. Lift the ball high above your head, launch it into the floor beneath you, pick it up, do it again. It looks like child's play compared to more technical lifts like the Snatch, but beneath its no-frills exterior, Med Ball Slams are building better athletic performance. Thus, the reason Med Ball Slams have persevered for centuries can be summed up in two words—they work.
Why they work boils down to a few key reasons.
One, they're hard to screw up. That means that the benefits of the movement can be reaped even by inexperienced trainees, which isn't always the case for more complex exercises. "[Med Ball Slams] are easier to teach than some of its alternatives, like Olympic lifts. For that reason alone, we use it a lot with younger athletes," says Aaron Bonaccorsy, a performance coach at STACK Velocity Sports Performance.
Craig Weller, Precision Nutrition's exercise specialist and co-owner of Rogue Performance and Barefoot Fitness, notes that the exercise requires "minimal skill" and can be "done well under high stress and fatigue."
Second, it's an explosive exercise that trains athletes to transfer energy via their core. "[You're] raising the ball overhead while getting triple extension from the ankle, knees and hips and controlling it with your abs, then forcefully contracting your abs while keeping a rigid torso and slamming the ball down," Bonaccorsy says. "It's essentially a total-body movement with a lot of emphasis on bracing the core."
A weak, unstable core acts as an energy leak in the chain that is your body. A strong core allows you to connect the power of your upper body to the power of your lower body, leading to much more explosive performance. "(Med Ball Slams) help train the body in a more athletic fashion, in the sense that there's a synchronous interplay between the upper and lower body to complete the movement. When performed well, the core is targeted with helps reduce "energy leaks" between the upper and lower extremities," says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS and Boston-based performance coach.
Med Ball Slams are also a good complement to exercises like Squats and Deadlifts since they put strength into opposing movement patterns. "It's good to balance out [things like Squats and Deadlifts] with some stuff that puts strength into patterns involving flexion and posterior pelvic tilt," Weller says.
Third, they're just freaking fun. Due to their simplicity and the fact that gravity is working for you during the "slam" portion of the movement, Med Ball Slams let you cut loose and get violent. It doesn't matter how you grab the ball, you don't have to worry about racking anything, you don't have to worry about hurting anyone—all you have to do is take that ball and try to throw it into the molten hot core of the earth. "I always say 'the best exercise is the one that you'll do.' Something about throwing a ball down violently and repeating it is fun to do and can sometimes be therapeutic," Bonaccorsy says. The intensity and repetitiveness of Med Ball Slams also add a cardiovascular element.
How to Perform Med Ball Slams
Ready to reap the benefits of this ancient exercise?
Awesome. Before you start slamming, it's important to make sure you're using the appropriate weight. "The idea is not to use the heaviest ball possible. When I see athletes try to use balls upwards of 20 pounds, it often compromises things. You want to be fast and explosive on these, for many athletes an 8 to 10-pound ball will be more than enough," says Gentilcore.
Here's how to perform Med Ball Slams:
- Start off by finding an area of solid ground where you know your slams will not cause damage. Cement or the floor of the weight room are good choices. Grass works, too.
- Grab a med ball.
- Assume an athletic stance and hold the med ball at waist level in front of you.
- Rise up onto your toes as you bring the med ball overhead.
- Explosively contract your abdominals and drive your chest down to slam the ball into the ground with as much force as possible.
- Retrieve the ball as it bounces up and go into your next rep.
- Your feet should remain in a good athletic stance throughout the exercise.
- Perform 3x6 reps with maximum effort.
Med Ball Slams are just one of many med ball-focused exercises that can help you amp up your athletic performance. For more, check out STACK's deep library of med ball drills and exercises.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock