January 22, 2021
While both medicine balls and slam balls are weighted exercise balls that provide effective workouts and can enhance your fitness, there are some important distinctions between the two. If you are wondering whether you should buy a medicine ball or a slam ball (or both), read below as you will learn everything you need to know so that you can make an informed decision.
By Jan Libourel
Recently I was performing a farmer's carry with two of my heavier kettlebells when a friendly fellow accosted me and asked if I were "the medicine ball guy.""Well, I'm really more the 'slam ball guy'," was my reply. He was also a devotee of "unconventional fitness," and a pleasant chat ensued as I labored along under my ponderous burden. In a way, though, I really am "the medicine ball guy" since it was a 10-pound medicine ball purchased second-hand from the proprietor of the Fourth Street Gym here in Long Beach that really started my exploration of the wonderful world of unconventional fitness. Prior to that, fitness (for me) had consisted of nothing more than free weights and cardio.
In any event, I was immediately impressed by the versatility and effectiveness of this simple, inexpensive and old-fashioned piece of equipment. Soon afterward, I decided to investigate Indian clubs (contemporaries of the medicine ball). These I enjoyed immensely and about six months later began acquiring kettlebells. Macebells followed a year and half later, and the Christmas before last I received my first slam ball--a 40-pound Amazon "house brand." I have mentioned in other posts in this blog what a brutally effective exercise tool it was. Unfortunately, it got ruined in an ill-advised attempt to re-inflate it, but my good friends at SET FOR SET kindly presented me with a 45-pound Rogue Echo slam ball as a Christmas gift. I definitely prefer it to the one that bit the dust.
In a number of ancient cultures, bags or balls stuffed with sand or seeds were used as exercise devices. However, the modern medicine ball owes its introduction to a gymnastics instructor at the Boston YMCA with the somewhat redundant name of Robert J. Roberts. Sources vary on when Robert J. Roberts' medicine ball appeared, some placing it in the 1870s, others in the 1880s. The source of the medicine ball's unusual name may have derived from recommendations for exercising with a heavy ball that appeared in the body of ancient Greek medical literature attributed to a famous physician Hippocrates of Cos, who lived the in Fifth and Fourth centuries BCE. The real Hippocrates probably contributed little or nothing to the medical writings ascribed to him. The other possibility is that in Roberts' day "medicine" was often a synonym for "health" as much as curative drugs.
Medicine balls became enormously popular in the latter part of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. Pioneering health and exercise guru Bernarr Macfadden was a champion of the medicine ball. Macfadden was a fascinating character: An early proponent of healthy eating and regular exercise, he was in varying degrees a prophet, crank, hustler, entrepreneur, showman and egomaniac. (Example: He changed his name from "Bernard" to "Bernarr" because he wanted it to sound like a lion's roar!)
Charles Atlas, whose ads for his muscle-building course abounded in comic books and cheap magazines for most of the 20th century, was a notable disciple and protege of Macfadden. Medicine balls were standard equipment in most gyms. They were extensively used by sports teams and by the armed services for physical training. Then, like the Indian club and the kettlebell, they vanished from the fitness scene after World War II--casualties of the ascendancy of the bodybuilding subculture under the dyopoly of rival moguls Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider--only to be rediscovered in recent years by the "functional" or "alternative" fitness movement.
Let's now look at the principal types of exercise balls available today:
These are usually about the size of a basketball. They typically come in two forms: Those made of stitched-together pieces of leather or vinyl and those with hard rubber shells. The rubber ones are a good deal less expensive and are what I use. There are also medicine balls with handles, which may prove to be useful for certain rotational movements.
Most medicine balls range from 2 to 20 pounds.
These are medicine balls designed to be thrown against a wall. They can also be slammed on a floor. They are much larger than ordinary medicine balls of equivalent weight to diminish impact when thrown against a wall and are most commonly of soft, stitched construction.
Wall balls typically range from 6 to 20 pounds.
Lightweight (typically six pounds) medicine balls of average size, also of stitched construction, these were specifically designed for president Herbert Hoover by his physician for use in a volleyball-like game the president played with his friends and members of the White House staff to keep him in shape. Hoover had been inspired by a medicine ball game called "bull in the ring" played by navy crewmen during a cruise on the battleship Utah. The "Hooverball" game is still played today, and dedicated medicine balls are offered for it.
Hoover balls are around 6lbs.
Unfortunately, despite efforts at online research, I have not been able to find any information on the history and development of the slam ball, as distinct from the medicine ball. The matter is confused by the existence of a game called "slamball" that has no connection with the exercise ball. I believe the latter should always be designated by the term "slam ball" (two words) to distinguish it from the game. It is a variant of the medicine ball with a thick rubber outer shell and an inner core of moist sand or other heavy filler material. It is typically much heavier than a medicine ball of equivalent size. It is also much squishier than a medicine ball. Unlike a medicine ball, it does not bounce when slammed to ground but lies inert. For this reason, it is called a "dead ball" in Britain and some other areas of British influence like Australia. Slam balls can have smooth outer surfaces or be covered with tire-like treads. Having used both, I can't detect any practical difference.
Slam balls typically range from 10 to 50 pounds, but they can get much heavier.
My experience with exercise balls has been and will remain limited to medicine balls and slam balls. Slamming a weighted ball into the walls of our house or outbuilding would incur profound displeasure from the other members of my household, and I have no desire to take up the obscure sport of Hooverball, however beneficial it may be. As mentioned previously, my initial experience was with a 10-pound medicine ball. I found it to be an excellent calisthenic enhancer with a variety of exercises. However, it ceased to be very challenging. I then purchased my 18-pound medicine ball from Amazon and gave the 10-pounder to some friendly neighbors. To my surprise, this brought the wrath of my wife down on my head. Unbeknownst to me, she had been using the 10-pounder. To mollify her, I bought an 8-pounder at nominal cost from an online discount firm. With these two balls I can perform a variety of beneficial exercises. The tempo of a medicine ball workout should be fast and light, with high repetitions.
There are many different exercises that can be performed with a medicine ball. Among those I have found particularly beneficial are high repetition cleans and presses, triceps extensions starting with the ball behind my head, squats with the ball held ahead of me, Burpees, planks combined with leg movements variously called "mountain climbers" or “Spidermans", sit-ups starting with the ball held extended behind my head, crunches starting with the ball held over my chest and trunk and leg twists with the ball held between my legs.
For all these I use the 18 pounder. The 8-pounder I have used for seated Russian twists, asymmetrical pushups, crunches with the ball held between the calves and a nameless exercise involving holding the ball between the ankles with the legs slightly elevated for as long as possible. Some of these exercises such as asymmetrical pushups I have had to discontinue since I received a diagnosis of arthritis in my left shoulder during the past year.
Can you slam a medicine ball?
It has been claimed that you should never slam a medicine ball because you will eventually ruin it. Before getting a proper slam ball, I not infrequently practiced slamming my heavier medicine ball with no ill effects that I could discern. I did limit my slams to grassy swards in the nearby parks. However, medicine balls do bounce. My poor wife found that out to her cost when she slammed the 8-pounder vigorously onto our back lawn and it sprang back with almost equal force to smack her right in the face, leaving her whimpering piteously. Nothing of that sort happened to me, but I did have to spend a good deal of workout time chasing the ball through the park as it bounced and rolled away.
Benefits of medicine balls
Since the medicine ball is a light and low-stress exercise tool, it lends itself well to extended workouts. I recall performing four dozen sets of medicine ball exercises while watching the second half of a football game a little over a year ago. In brief, you can get in a good workout with a single medicine ball. I'm glad I've got the pair I have. They provide a welcome variety to my workouts. I see them mostly as calisthenic enhancers, though: They are good for maintaining muscle tone and can provide cardio benefits, but for building strength and muscle, I do not consider them the equals of free weights, kettlebells or macebells.
There is a considerable overlap between slam balls and medicine balls. Some of the lighter slam balls are no heavier than the heaviest medicine balls and can be used for the same exercises. Some makers recommend their slam balls for use as wall balls. On the whole, though, slam balls tend to be considerably heavier and denser than medicine balls. For example, my new Rogue Echo 45-pound slam ball is a good deal smaller than my 18-pound medicine ball. Medicine ball exercises that you can perform with any slamball would include planks, Burpees, asymmetrical pushups and the like. However, used as intended, the slam ball is a brutal device in a way the medicine ball is not...at least if the slam ball is of a weight that challenges you. In my case, that would be in the 40- to 50-pound range. Some slam balls are much heavier, going up to 150 pounds and even more. In my book, anyone who can complete an extended slam ball workout with a 150-pounder is a man among men, and any woman would be quite intimidating (at least to the likes of me)! I am fond of "bear hug" squats and carries with the slam ball, considerably tougher than equivalent exercises with a kettlebell of the same weight. I can recall one time when I was laboring through a park hugging my 40-pound slam ball when a considerate youngster offered to help me with my burden. I had to explain that I was exercising and the whole object was for it to be tough and demanding.
Although you can perform other exercises with the slam ball, it is at its best, as its name implies, when it is being slammed. The classic slam ball move is to clean and press the ball overhead and then slam it to the ground. My friend Jeff Lewis, proprietor of the previously mentioned Fourth Street Gym, has observed that this exercise alone constitutes a pretty good total-body workout. However, there are many other slams that can hit your muscles from different angles and provide variety: You can slam the ball directly at your feet, or you can heave it ahead of you as far as you can; you can raise the ball over your head and slam it behind you; you can slam it over each shoulder, alternating; you can slam it to either side of you; you can balance the ball on one hand and drive it forward with the other.
Benefits of slam balls
Slam ball workouts are fun and highly versatile, but also very demanding. If you wish to address specific body parts, there are better tools than the slam ball, but for a quick and tough total-body workout, it is hard to beat. Slam balls will build explosive power and strength while also burning a ton of calories (and thus, fat!).
As long as I am vigorous enough to work out at all, I hope to have at least one among my equipment.
Discussions like this are often couched as "medicine balls vs. slam balls." However, I tend to see them as similar pieces of equipment with some overlap but ultimately functionally different: The medicine ball is at its best used in light, low-stress, low-intensity workouts good for muscle toning, strengthening your core and improving your cardio. The slam ball is best for quick high-intensity workouts that put demands on your whole body. I'm just glad I've got both among my fitness gear.***This article contains affiliate ads where we will make a small commission on any purchase you make. We only recommend brands and products that we trust and have experience using.**
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