Medicine ball training is a widely popular training modality amongst tennis players at all ages and levels. Med ball (MB) training is primarily used to augment rotational power. For a review of the underpinning science and theory on this topic, please take a look at a previous post on this topic. Why augment rotational power though? Today's game is classified as power based - players are hitting the felt off the ball. The rationale from a training perspective is as follows: increase rotational power and you'll increase hitting speeds - whether that's groundstroke or serve speeds.
Getting more heat on a forehand or a first serve seems like a worthwhile pursuit. That said, performing MB training with inappropriate loads, half-hazard programming and poor technique likely won't help achieve these goals (and if they do, may come at a cost to the body). In this article, we’ll explore MB training in greater detail to see if what’s currently being done, is in fact eliciting the desired outcome.
Using MB Training to Increase Hitting Velocities
We’ll start with the most intriguing topic. Does med ball training increase serve speed? Or forehand speed? A colleague of mine (Genevois 2013 & 2014) tackled this question while looking at the forehand. What did he find? A couple things - in the 2014 study, the aim was to determine whether a correlation exists between forehand post impact speed and MB throws using 1 vs 2 hands. The results - there was only a correlation between the 1-handed variation and post impact ball speed. The greatest results occurred with a 1.5kg MB but heavier loads were also significantly correlated (the study used adult subjects which may help with heavier loads). As for the 2-handed variation, there was no correlation at any MB load. This is the principle of specificity at work.
The second study (which was a 6-week training study) compared a 1-handed MB throw versus a weighted racquet (i.e. adding about 10% weight to players existing frames). In this case, both training modalities saw increases in forehand speed - the MB throw group showed an increase of 11% while the weighted racquet showed an increase of 5%. The downside - it seems that hitting accuracy actually saw a decrease when using the 1-handed throw vs. the weighted racquet (10% vs. no change in accuracy). These are interesting results but before we come to any conclusions, let's look at a more recent study.
An Updated Look at the Med Ball Research
A recent study (Terraza-Rebollo et al, 2017) had conflicting findings when it comes to this topic. These researchers compared a strength & power program (exercises included 1/2 squats, dumbbell snatches, bench throws etc.) vs a med ball power program (exercises included FH & BH side throws, overhead throws, slams etc.). One group of tennis players performed the strength & power program 3 days/week while the other group performed the MB program 3 days/week for an 8 week period (there was also a control group that continued their regular tennis training with no additional off-court training). What were the results? It seems that both groups improved throwing speed in 1-arm and 2-arm throws (both overhead) BUT, only the strength & power group showed a statistical improvement in serving velocity (the med ball group had a small increase but it wasn't statistically significant). When looking at the forehand, the strength group had a small increase (not significant) while the med ball group had a significant DECREASE in forehand hitting speed (a loss of about 6km/h).
Does This Mean We Should Stop Throwing Med Balls?
These results are interesting to say the least. Why would med ball training have a negative effect? Well, we could interpret this in a number of ways. Firstly, most research on the topic of strength and power suggest that athletes get strong first BEFORE they incorporate specific power programs into their training regimes. If that’s true, perhaps these players (who ranged from 14-18), weren’t yet strong enough to get the most out of their MB training. For me, this doesn’t pass the logic test. Players are competing all year round, at all levels! We can’t prescribe 6 weeks of strength, then 6 weeks of power then 6 weeks of tennis. All training qualities should be trained at all times throughout the training year (that’s my belief anyway) - this is called concurrent training. Will there be instances where more time is being focused on strength vs power? Sure. During competitive cycles, should players focus more on their tennis? Of course. If too much off-court work is done, it’ll compete with resources - i.e. limited physical resources that are needed for tennis practice and play. But that doesn't mean we stop lifting entirely, for example. Perhaps 1 day a week of heavier lifts could still help maintain that quality through the a 3-4 week competitive phase.
Pardon my rant...I’m simply a believer in a holistic approach. Focusing too much on one quality is never a good thing and is likely a big factor in overuse, overtraining and burnout. In this particular study, perhaps it would have made more sense to have the 3rd group perform a program that incorporated BOTH the weight room work AND the med ball work (matched for volume and intensity of course).
Training Loads and Implement Weights Matter
Another factor to consider - the ball size that was used was 2kg. I use this size of ball with 19 and 20 year old grown men - who are quite strong to begin with! Teenagers (which is what the participants were) are probably not as strong and powerful as the players I coach. A 2kg ball is likely too heavy. A 0.5 kg, 1kg or 1.5 kg ball would have likely been more appropriate - and more specific. But I’ve seen this in academy settings all too frequently - we get worried about teenagers lifting light loads but we’re ok when they throw heavy med balls? Do you know how much stress is imparted on the lumbar and thoracic spine during rotational exercises (especially when form is compromised)? A lot!
Add to that, the throwing intent of MB training needs to be appropriate. Based on the exercises in this study, they all seemed geared at increasing maximal power - if that's the case, maximal intent is a must. There's no indication that this was enforced. Secondly, did they manage tennis training loads (probably the most important aspect of training)? If players are performing additional off-court training sessions, we need to dive deeper into what their on-court sessions look like. In this study, it seems like the off-court training was performed after tennis (but it's not obvious as the authors simply state that 2 hours were done on court and 1 off court with no specific timing indicated). In any case, med ball work should probably be done BEFORE tennis training so that fatigue isn't a concern (with strength training, I have found that it isn't as important as long as some spacing is present).
To summarize on this topic, I still believe med ball throws (one-handed, double-handed, in a variety of directions etc.) have a place but many factors need to be considered - i.e. timing and planning of the program, implement loads, exercise order and so on. This is where the experienced coach uses their understanding and creativity to plan an appropriate progression (while monitoring along the way).
Med Ball Specificity is Key
This leads us nicely into the next topic of discussion, specificity. This principle states that adaptations occur to meet the specific demands of a stimulus. It makes sense then that if we prescribe lighter med ball throws, they are more specific to the demands of actual hitting. Why? Well a tennis racquet weighs ~300-350 grams (a touch less or more depending on if you’re a young junior or a seasoned pro). Throwing a 3kg (3000g) med ball isn’t very specific in terms of weight. It will also change the overall mechanics of the throw, the way in which we recruit specific motor units and muscle groups, the rate at which we recruit these muscles groups and the angles of projection (among other factors). That doesn’t mean there’s not a place for heavier med ball exercises in our programs. When attempting to increase max power, for instance, heavier med balls are appropriate. But they should still be used to complement more specific forms of rotational training. The videos just below are examples of general exercises that may require the use of heavier loads (3-4kg). Specific examples are found at the end of this post.
**Side note** - I’m really not a fan of using heavy-ish external loads in the weight room to do rotational exercises that mimic tennis movements. Using a pulley system to replicate a forehand is a dangerous proposition. It places undue stress and loads on the spinal column. Again, there are weighted rotational exercises that warrant use - russian twists, landmine rotations etc. - but these are performed in a more general, controlled pattern; and not with maximum intent (i.e. trying to move a heavy load aggressively). Be cautious when someone prescribes these types of movements into your training program.
What Do Specific Med Ball Exercises Look Like?
The question we should now ask ourselves is, how can we make med ball exercises more specific and thus aid in transfer? Remember, it's transfer to ‘hitting speed’ that we’re primarily looking for. Let’s briefly revisit the Terraza-Rebollo study - recall that after 8 weeks of med ball training, throwing speeds increased but hitting speeds did not. As an aside, it's probably more relevant to track hitting speeds instead of throwing speed or throwing distances (which is what most of us do/have done in the past). Even if we see an increase in throwing speed it doesn't necessarily transfer to hitting speeds - which is why I test groundstroke and serve speeds from a variety of locations on the court using a radar gun.
Back to the exercises. Look at the table above (Earp and Kraemer 2010) - it's a really nice representation of the different hitting points that athletes may encounter in different swinging sports. In tennis, a player can make contact with the ball in any of the zones (1, 2 or 3), on either side of the body. When implementing MB exercises, targeting a specific zone is therefore quite practical. Furthermore, varying a player's throwing stance, angle of projection and so on, can add further specificity, depending on the desired outcome.
We can also broadly classify med ball exercises into 2 categories:
Max Power (or stationary - as depicted in the table above): I.e. we have time to develop more power (serve and high forehand for instance). With these exercises, we would provide the player with more time to throw the med ball as explosively as they can (while maintaining proper form).
Reactive Power: There’s less time in these situations (think of a fast crosscourt exchange or a return of serve). In this case, we’re doing more of a catch throw pattern with the players (either in partner form or the coach throwing the ball back to the player). The aim is to generate as much power as possible, in the shortest amount of time.
One final word on this topic - med ball weight is important. With strong males, I use a 2kg ball as the heaviest load! Trained/experienced females can likely work with this weight as well but juniors and/or inexperienced players (those that have been doing off court training for less than 2 years), will likely need to use lighter implements (500g to 1500g). This will allow them to not only release the ball with some form of acceleration, but it will also enable them to maintain good postures, proper kinetic chain transfer and keep the movement task specific.
Below are a number of throwing MB exercises that incorporate different contact zones, varying stances, angles of projection and force/velocity demands. Coaches can be creative in the design and implementation of these types of exercises, as long as proper loads, techniques and periodization schemes are adhered to.
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