Running training: these medicine ball exercises will improve a runners strength and power

These medicine ball workouts can do wonders for running velocity and power.

The medicine ball has been used as an athletic training aid for decades in Europe, but only in recent years has the value of medicine ball training been recognised in the United States. A number of collegiate and professional sports teams are now incorporating this form of strength development into their training, and with proper guidance runners can also benefit from using the medicine ball.

Most medicine-ball workouts involve lifting, throwing, and catching the ball, but the real focal point for such activities is the muscular 'corset' which surrounds the junction between the trunk and the legs. This meeting point, also called the 'core' area of the body, is coordinated and held together by the abdominal, spinal erector, hip flexor, and gluteal ('buttock') muscles. This central region is also called the 'power zone' of the body, because force 'moves' through this area from one leg to the other during the act of running, and because the core muscles must stabilise the body during footstrike so that unnecessary motions are minimised and all the power created by the hip and leg muscles can be used to drive the body straight forward.

Most runners focus on the core area at least to a small extent in their training by carrying out conventional abdominal and low-back exercises such as crunches and back extensions. However, during the running motion, the amount of active trunk flexion (carried out by the abdominal muscles) is rather negligible, as is the extent of trunk extension (a function of the low-back muscles and gluteals). Compared with direct flexion and extension, there is much more rotational action in the trunk during running, yet most runners totally ignore workouts which would improve the rotational strength of their core muscles.

That doesn't mean that runners should forget about traditional exercises such as abdominal crunches, leg raises, and trunk extensions. Those activities do provide generalised strength and can probably help to stabilise the body during running. Medicine ball training, however, can give you additional specific strength which can be used directly during your workouts and races to improve your running velocity and overall power.

The following group of exercises can provide runners competing at all distances with considerably improved core strength. Typical training weights for medicine ball workouts range from two to 15 pounds. Larger balls (up to 25 pounds or so) are used by certain strength athletes (weightlifters, football players, body builders) but are unnecessary for runners. In fact, most runners will do very well with a set of three medicine balls which weigh about two, four, and six pounds (approximately one, two, and three kilograms, respectively).

THE MEDICINE BALL EXERCISES

1. The Standing Trunk Twist (Hammer Twist)

Muscle groups emphasised: Hip and leg muscles, abdominal and oblique muscles, and spinal erectors

Value for runners: This exercise develops dynamic-stability strength for all of the core muscles in a standing posture, making the exercise more specific to running than many of the conventional abdominal and low-back exercises that are performed in a seated position. Strong core muscles provide for an upright and economical running posture, as well as a strong anchor point for the propulsive muscles in the legs.

Weight of ball: Two pounds for beginners, four to six pounds for advanced trainees
Other equipment: A towel

Instructions: Place your towel flat on the ground and then put the medicine ball in the centre of the towel. Bring the ends of the towel one at a time over the top of the ball to create a 'ball in a sack' effect. Start the exercise with your feet shoulderwidth apart and your weight shifted on to your right foot. Twist your body to the right with your hands grasping the ends of the towel and the ball positioned behind your right shoulder. While keeping your arms straight, swing the ball out away from your body toward the front and then to the left in a wide arc, while bending your legs and 'sitting' into a shallow squat position as the ball reaches the middle of the arc in front of you. Continue this arc until you finish the swing with the weight shifted onto your left foot, with your hands still grasping the ends of the towel and the ball now behind your left shoulder. Immediately swing the ball back to the starting position, and repeat the swinging motion back and forth for a total of 10 to 15 repetitions on each side. Begin this exercise in a slow manner, and progress in speed (while still maintaining good control) over a period of several weeks. Perform two to three sets total.

2. Hanging Body Flex

Muscle groups emphasized: Abdominal, oblique, and hip flexor muscles

Value for runner: The body-flex exercise strengthens the integrative action of the muscles which raise the thighs and stabilize the pelvis. This provides for a powerful knee drive and an economical running posture.

Weight of ball: Two pounds for beginners, four to six pounds for advanced trainees. Other equipment: A horizontal/chin-up bar

Instructions: Start from a hanging position with your arms overhead and your legs extended straight down toward the floor. The medicine ball should be placed between your feet and held there firmly by squeezing the feet and legs together. Raise your knees toward your chest (with knees bent) while maintaining a firm grip on the ball with your feet and ankles. Flex your toes and feet up toward your knees throughout the entire movement. Return to the starting position by extending your legs back down toward the ground under control. Perform the movement at a slow speed during the first few sessions and progress to a moderate speed over time. Use 10-15 repetitions and two to three sets per workout.

3. Walking Trunk Twist

Muscle groups emphasized: Hip and leg muscles, abdominals, obliques, and spinal erectors

Value for runners: The walking trunk twist develops stability of the core muscles much like the hammer twist (Exercise I ), but the walking twist also incorporates the integrated muscular action required during rhythmic movement. As the right leg moves forward, the trunk twists to the right, following the same oppositional pattern found in running (right leg forward left arm forward). The added momentum gained by swinging the ball creates increased tension in the stabilising core muscles, thus strengthening them.

Weight of ball: Two pounds for beginners, four to six pounds for advanced trainees. Other equipment: A towel

Instructions: Start from a standing position with your feet parallel and the ball secured firmly within the towel and held up behind your right shoulder. Step forward with your left leg and simultaneously swing your arms through a wide arc in front of you. Continue the swing until your arms are shifted to the left and the ball has stopped behind your left shoulder. Continue the exercise by stepping forward with your right leg while simultaneously swinging the ball back behind your right shoulder. The swings should be fairly slow as you learn the exercise but will progress to a moderate (but controlled) speed over time. Repeat the action (stepping and swinging) for a total of 10 to 20 reps (five to 10 swings on each side) before resting for a few moments. Repeat for a total of two to three sets.

4. Jump and Pick-Up

Muscle groups emphasised: The hip and leg muscles

Value for runner: The jump and pick-up activates both the extensors and flexors of the hip during the jumping phase of the drill and thus improves explosive leg power for both the pushoff and leg-swing or knee-drive portions of the running stride.

Weight of ball: Two pounds for beginners, four to six pounds for advanced trainees

Training note: To lessen the chance of injury, perform this drill on a resilient surface such as a wood floor, synthetic track, or grass.

Instruction: Start with your feet flat on the ground and the ball held firmly between your ankles. Your knees should be bent slightly so that you are in a shallow squatting position. From this position, perform an explosive jump upward and lift the ball in front of you by pulling both knees up quickly toward your chest to near-chest level. Catch the ball with both hands in front of your chest as your feet land on the ground. Squat down and place the ball between your ankles before repeating the action for a total of six to 10 repetitions. Perform two to three sets.

5. Knee Throw and Lunge

Muscle groups emphasized: Hip flexors and quadriceps are utilised for the throwing action, quadriceps, gluteals, and hamstrings are used for the lunge, and core stabilisers are involved in both the throw and the lunge.

Value for runners: The knee throw and lunge develops explosive knee lift, eccentric leg strength, and coordination. The knee-drive action is followed immediately by an energy-absorbing landing in the lunge position. This combination of throwing and lunging requires both strength and coordination to complete.

Weight of ball: Two pounds for beginners, four to six pounds for advanced trainees

Instructions: Start in a standing position with your left foot forward and your right foot two to three feet back (standing-start position). Your left arm will hang relaxed at your side while your right hand supports the medicine ball on the front upper third of your right thigh. The knee throw takes place as you step forward with your right foot and drive your right knee forward and explosively upward. Essentially, you are releasing the ball with your right hand and 'throwing' the ball forward with your knee. Your motion continues forward until your right foot lands on the ground in front of you, leaving you in a wide lunge position with your trunk held upright. A wall or partner can return the ball to you. Perform 10 to 15 repetitions with the right leg before switching over to the left. Perform two sets with each leg.

6. Squat, Throw, Fall, and Chase

Muscle group emphasized: Leg muscles, abdominals, spinal erectors, and shoulders are utilised for the squat and throw actions. Leg, abdominal, chest, and shoulder muscles are stressed during the fall and chase movements.

Value to runner: This drill is the most dynamic of the six exercises. The squat and throw actions develop overall power in the muscles of the hips, legs, back, and shoulders muscles which contribute to a strong push-off and proper posture during running. The fall action improves coordination and whole-body control, as well as upper-torso, abdominal, and leg strength. Although some runners may laugh at the idea of practicing falling, knowing how to fall can prevent injuries during workouts and races (most runners will fall at some point in their careers, and for runners in more northerly areas, where ice and snow cover the roads during the winter, slipping and falling is rather commonplace). Also, it's important to be able to recover from falls in race situations (remember Mary Slaney's unfortunate tangle with Zola Budd and subsequent tumble during the 1984 Olympic Games?). The chase part of the exercise teaches you to get back on your feet as quickly as possible after a spill and develops strength and coordination in the shoulders, chest, abdominal area, back, hips, and legs.

Weight of ball: Four pounds for beginners, six pounds for advanced trainees.

Training note: Perform this drill on grass or other soft surface to minimise impact forces. Allow yourself at least 15 to 20 metres of space to sprint forward during the chase action.

Instruction: Start by performing a shallow squat with the medicine ball held in front of you at chest level. Explode forward by extending both legs and arms and pushing (throwing) the ball out in front of you at approximately a 45-degree angle. Continue falling forward and catch yourself by driving one knee forward, landing with your body weight on your lead knee, foot, and both hands. Rise as quickly as possible and sprint forward until you catch up with the rolling ball. Strive to keep your momentum moving forward throughout each phase of the exercise, never coming to a complete stop at any time. Walk back to the starting point with the ball, and repeat the overall exercise for five to 10 repetitions. Perform two sets per workout.

General training guidelines for medicine ball workouts

Medicine ball exercises represent a form of strength training and are typically performed with other strength exercises, when you are relatively fresh and non-fatigued.

Perform all twisting and lifting exercises slowly and deliberately while you are learning the movements. After a few training sessions, the actions may then be speeded up to a moderate speed, but remember to maintain good control at all times !

Focus on developing good form while using light balls early on; progress to heavier balls after three to four weeks.

Core-strengthening exercises can actually be carried out frequently (four to six times per week) for relatively brief periods (10 to 15 minutes). The sample programme given below is a guide for including core exercises in your overall training programme (many other programmes are possible).

MONDAY Medicine ball exercises 1 & 2 (after a tempo workout)

TUESDAY Traditional core exercises such as abdominal crunches, back extensions, etc. (after your usual weight-training routine)

WEDNESDAY Medicine-ball exercises 5 & 6 (after your speed work)

THURSDAY Break day no core training

FRIDAY Traditional core exercises (after long, moderate exertion)

SATURDAY Medicine ball exercises 3 & 4 (after weight training)

SUNDAY Rest day no core training

Walt Reynolds

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