Weights in the real world are rarely as compact or easy to handle as barbells and dumbbells. More often than not, you’re hauling an awkwardly-shaped sofa up four flights of stairs, or trying to fetch that steel cooler off the top shelf of your garage, or manhandling a 55-gallon drum of almond butter into your pickup truck. Those weights (and, therefore, your attempts to move them) are awkward and inefficient—and they challenge whole swathes of muscle groups that you don’t normally use together at the same time.
Fortunately, there’s an increasingly popular tool to help train for exactly that kind of motion. Slam balls are relatively soft, like traditional medicine balls, but they’re typically larger, and they handle like dead weight—no bounce, no elasticity. Plus, since they're usually filled with sand, their uneven weight distribution forces athletes to grapple with the unwieldy bulk as it shifts in their hands.
The slam ball “allows for exercises, ranges of motion, and movement speeds that one cannot obtain with traditional gym equipment like barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells, or machines,” says Marc Megna, C.S.C.S., co-owner and chief body architect at Anatomy at 1220 in Miami. “It can be an easy way to add resistance to exercises that are typically performed with just bodyweight.”
While modern fitness enthusiasts might have first encountered the heavy-duty slam ball at a niche gym, medicine balls are no novelties. Hippocrates supposedly tossed around stuffed animal skins to stay in shape. Persian wrestlers trained with sand-filled bladders 3,000 years ago. Medicine balls of 4 or 6 lbs. are even used to play “Hooverball,” a volleyball-like game developed in the early aughts for President Herbert Hoover. (It’s exactly the kind of sport that quickly fades, only to then become a CrossFit WOD 100 years later.)
Several companies make heavyweight medicine or slam balls, but Megna recommends Dynamax, which was founded in 1985 is more or less synonymous with vinyl slam balls. "They're easy to grip and very durable," Megna says. "We use them indoors and outdoors on our turf area. We find they last the longest."
The Slam Ball Workout
There's not much you can't do with a slam ball. Unlike, say, the average 45-lb barbell plate, slam balls can get tossed at concrete walls (or your training partner). That makes them especially useful for developing your ability to generate a lot of force quickly—in other words, power.
“This workout is designed to improve the strength, power, and explosiveness of every muscle of the body,” Megna says. “There’s a definite cardiovascular component, because anytime you’re moving the body through a large range of motion at a high velocity, there will be a high energy demand that must be supplied by the anaerobic energy system—thereby taxing the aerobic system to aid recovery between sets and exercises.”
As always, be cautious and work out smart. This workout is plenty tough, and it’s equally taxing on your strength and your conditioning. And while that slam ball might not be made of cold steel, it still poses an injury risk if you mishandle it. Megna recommends that beginners start with a 14-lb or 16-lb ball, while advanced guys can probably start around 20 lbs.
Exercises labeled A and B are supersets, so each set should be done without stopping between A and B. If you get through set 6 and you still have some energy left in the tank, perform sets 7 and 8 as bonus rounds.
1) Squat Throw to Sprint
(shown with medicine ball) (3 sets of 5 reps; rest 1 minute between sets)
Start by standing over the ball with your feet shoulder-width apart and the ball between your feet. Squat down to pick up the ball and pull it up to your chest as you explode upward. Continue moving the ball upward at a 45 degree angle to throw it forward with both hands while you jump forward at the same angle. Immediately upon landing, sprint forward through the landing position of the ball and repeat back the other way.
As always, be sure to squat with your hips and knees. Keep your back in its natural arc and your chest as vertical as possible through the thrusting movement.
2a) Scoop Overhead Throws
(shown with medicine ball) (3 sets of 5 reps)
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the ball between your feet. Squat down to pick up the ball underhand. Scoop the ball up and throw it vertically as high as you can. Make sure you extend your hips and squat explosively, so you reach your tip toes or even jump. Be mindful of the ball as it falls, and let it hit the ground—don’t try catching it.
2b) Overhead Slams
(shown with medicine ball) (3 sets of 5 reps; rest 1 minute between supersets)
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the ball between and slightly in front of your feet. Squat down to pick up the ball, holding it on the sides (so your palms face inward). Stand up, bring the ball above and slightly behind your head. Push your hips backward, fire your core, and power your arms so you slam the ball into the ground.
3a) Reverse Lunge to Chest Pass
(3 sets of 5 for each leg)
Start standing up, with your feet together and holding the ball at your chest. Do a reverse lunge, and as you step back to the starting position, throw the ball at a wall or to a partner. Let your momentum carry you forward as you make the throw.
3b) Overhead Straight Leg Sit-Up
(shown here with barbell) (3 sets of 10 reps; rest 30 seconds between sets)
Start lying down, facing up. Hold the ball above your chest, your arms fully extended. With your heels touching the ground, perform a situp, holding the ball vertically above your chest and head as you ascend to a seated position. Lower yourself back to the starting position, making sure to keep the weight level. Make sure you keep your back in its natural arch.
4a) Split Squat to Lateral Pass
(3 sets of 5 for each side)
Perform this one with a partner, or do it against a wall. Start with your left leg in front and your right leg behind you. Hold the medicine ball on your right side at waist height. Perform the split squat, and as you’re at the bottom of the squat—with your right leg about an inch above the ground—fire your core muscles and throw the ball to your right side. Squat back up. That’s one set; next do a set on the other side (right leg in front, left leg behind you, and throwing the medicine ball to the left).
4b) Russian Twist
(shown here with medicine ball) (3 sets of 50 reps; rest 30 seconds between supersets)
Sit on the ground with your knees bent, heels on the ground, and your upper body leaned back at a 45-degree angle to the ground. Start with the ball touching the ground next to one of your hips. Holding the ball, twist your upper body so the ball is on the opposite side. Make sure you push your chest out and keep your back in its natural arc. Want it even tougher? Try lifting your heels off the ground.
5a) Front Lunge to Facing Side Pass
(3 sets of 5 for each leg)
This is a standard front lunge, except you’ll start with your torso swiveled to the side, holding the ball underhand in front of your torso. Step forward with the opposite leg, rotate your body back to the neutral position, and throw the ball forward to a wall or a partner. Hold at the bottom of a squat position until your partner hands the ball back to you (or until the ball bounces off the wall), and then power yourself back upward.
You can either perform each rep on the same side, or alternate back and forth.
5b) Dead-bug, holding ball with opposite limbs
(3 sets of 8 for each leg; rest 30 seconds between supersets)
Start with your back on the ground. Hold the ball between your left knee and your right hand. Extend your free limbs (in this case, your right leg and left hand) out to your sides. Next, bring your extended limbs to the ball and hold it, while you extend the other limbs. Make sure to keep your back flat on the ground as you do this exercise.
6a) Explosive Walk-Over Pushups
(3 sets of 8 per side)
Start in a pushup position with one hand on the ground and the other on the ball. Keep your feet slightly wider than they’d be for a normal pushup. Lower yourself in to the bottom of the pushup, relying mostly on the grounded hand for support. Then explode upward, pushing laterally with your grounded hand, so your grounded hand lands on the ball and the hand that was previously on the ball lands on the ground on the other side.
6b) Reaching Single-Leg Deadlift
(3 sets of 8 per side; rest 30 minutes between supersets)
Start in a standing position, holding the ball at chest level and your knees slightly bent. Shift your weight to one leg. Pivot at your hips, lowering your body and raising your free leg so they’re approximately parallel to the floor as you reach the ball down towards the ground in front of you. Pause, then return to the starting position.
7a) Overhead Squat to Overhead Throw
(3 sets of 8 per side)
Start in a standing position. Set your feet shoulder-width apart and hold the ball with straight elbows above your head. Perform a squat with the ball overhead, and then return to the start position. At the top of the squat, throw the ball forward to a wall or partner. Get the ball back—don’t try to catch the ball overhead—and return to the starting position.
7b) Feet on Ball Hip Thrust
(3 sets of 8 per side; rest 30 seconds between supersets)
Start lying down, with your back on the ground and the soles of your feet on the top of the ball with your knees bent. Power your hips off the ground, making sure to push your heels into the ball and squeeze your glutes. Stop when your upper legs and torso are in a straight line—don’t hyperextend your hips—and then lower yourself back to starting position.
8a) Reaching Lateral Lunge
(3 sets of 8 per leg)
Perform a lateral lunge, making sure to keep your toes pointed forward, and push your hips back as you lower your body. As you lower your body, “punch” the medicine ball forwards while keeping your chest as upright as possible. Once you’re at the bottom of the lunge, push off your outside leg and return to the starting position. Repeat with your other leg on the other side of the lunge. Up for a challenge? Hold the ball overhead as you perform the lunge.
8b) Side Bridge with feet on ball
(3 sets of 30 seconds on each side; rest 30 seconds between supersets)
Start by lying down on your side, with your elbow directly underneath your shoulder, your hips on the ground, and your feet on top of the ball. Push your hips upward until your body is in a straight line. Hold for 30 seconds before lowering your body. Repeat the exercise on the other side. Amp up this exercise by raising your top leg once you reach the hold position.