This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's April 21, 2008, issue. Subscribe today!
JUST DOWN the mountainside from the ancient Sicilian town of Piazza Armerina sit the massive ruins of La Villa Romana del Casale.The crumbling walls of this 1,600-year-old estate contain the world's richest collection of Roman mosaics, including the slightly scandalous "girls in bikinis" mosaic. The famous work, which spreads across the floor, depicts 10 golden-haired women in various stages of athletic competition. On its upper level, a pair of women in burgundy two-pieces works out; one hoists dumbbells, the other lifts a weighted, oblong orb. The Romans called it a paganica. We call it a medicine ball.
Similar references to this early piece of fitness equipment dot the ancient world. Medicine balls appear in the texts of Greek physicians and in drawings of Persian wrestlers from 1000 B.C. "Someday we will discover drawings of two cavemen throwing a round rock back and forth," says Istvan Javorek, a former Romanian Olympic weightlifting coach and a member of the USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame. "As long as there have been athletes, there have been medicine balls."
From the dawn of athletics to the first round of this month's NFL draft, the medicine ball has rolled through the centuries, its elemental formula unchanged and unsurpassed: Sphere + gravity = fitness. The medicine ball has toned presidents, altered Olympics and sculpted empires. It has survived wars and plagues. Thanks to a recent resurgence, it just might outlast performance-enhancing drugs and Jack LaLanne. And though most people, when they think of the medicine ball at all, think of it as a smelly, brown-leather boulder abandoned in a dark corner of a middle school gym -- or as the thing Rocky used after beer-bonging his eggs each morning -- nothing less than the course of humankind's athletic evolution can be traced by its epic, transcultural path.
Gladiators in Alexandria, Egypt, trained with medicine balls. Renaissance physician Hieronymus Mercurialis recommended them as a principle component of "medicinal gymnastics" in De Arte Gymnastica, a seminal work on fitness published in 1569. The U.S. Military Academy has trained soldiers for every battle since its inception with the medicine ball, and Herbert Hoover stayed in shape by tossing one around the South Lawn. Now, after a lull brought on by the clean-machine era (Universal, Nautilus), you'd be hard-pressed to find an elite athlete who hasn't gone old-school in search of more explosive muscle strength.
To help them burst off the line, Cowboys blockers regularly run through a series of overhead med-ball slams inside the racquetball courts at their training facility in Valley Ranch. Strength-and-conditioning coach Joe Juraszek knows the drill is going well, he says, when "the entire facility shakes and people in the building think the walls are about to fall down." To build hip strength, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek has destroyed several med balls by whipping them against a cinder-block wall. Michael Jordan's dynasty in Chicago was fine-tuned by trainer and med-ball enthusiast Al Vermeil. Helio Castroneves swings an eight-pound ball in a core-strengthening drill he calls The Tornado. Lorena Ochoa recently tweaked the top of her swing using only a weighted sphere. And everywhere the German national soccer team travels, it is followed by a snaking trail of rolling luggage. Guess what's inside. "In 3,000 years of athletic training, only two things haven't changed: man and the medicine ball," says Mark Verstegen, a trainer, author and founder of Athletes' Performance Institute, a multisport training facility in Tempe, Ariz. "When you're talking about optimizing performance, from gladiators to the French Open, this simple ball might have more power to unlock an athlete's potential than any other tool ever invented."
MATT RYAN GRITS his teeth and stares up at a chilly, cobalt Arizona sky. As the potential No. 1 pick in the 2008 NFL draft, the quarterback from Boston College is about to become a household name (not to mention $30 million richer). On this particular March morning, he's at Athletes' Performance preparing for his bright future with nothing more than the scuffed six-pound orange ball he cradles in his arms. Like most elite athletes, Ryan's large-muscle groups and cardiovascular system are in top form. But with critical workouts with the Dolphins and Falcons on his schedule, he has turned to the med ball for some fine-tuning. Already this morning, Ryan, all perfect form and posture, has run through 100 med-ball reps aimed at QB-specific strength. He's tossed the ball at a cinder-block wall from a deep-lunge position (working his back, hamstrings and triceps); he's twisted with it held at his waist (hips and glutes); he's slammed it to the ground from overhead (calves, quads, stomach and shoulders) and heaved it 30 feet backward over an 11-foot wall (working nearly every muscle group).
Med balls used to come in only one style: large and leather. Now, as proof of their reborn popularity, they can be found in every imaginable size, shape, style and color. Even Nike makes one. Old-school balls are still made with hand-stitched leather (see page 104), but most now feature hard, grippable polyurethane covers. Some bounce. Paper-fiber fillings have been upgraded to silicone, rubber chips and sand. They come in sport-specific shapes, like baseballs and footballs, with weights ranging from two pounds to 200. The typical ball, like the one Ryan uses, is the size of a basketball and weighs between eight and 20 pounds. It's essentially the same piece of equipment heavyweight champ Jack Johnson trained with in 1910, just a whole lot prettier.
Prompted by his trainer, Ryan squares his feet and lowers his center of gravity. He moves his hands under the ball, then uncoils his body upward. This is no traditional resistance training, which isolates small areas of the body. All the muscle fibers in Ryan's frame, from toes to fingertips, fire in rapid succession as he first balances, then propels the ball into the air. It shoots 35 feet skyward with the force of a small geyser, crashing into the metal roof and just missing the sprinkler pipes before landing at Ryan's feet with a thud.
Shooting baskets nearby, Jake Long, a former Michigan lineman and soon-to-be fellow first-rounder, jumps back, startled by the display of power. As he bends over, limp with exhaustion, Ryan is told that Spartan soldiers used med balls to keep in battle shape. "I always felt a little like a Spartan," he says with a wry, satisfied smile.
As Ryan finishes his workout, a TV plays highlights from the teary-eyed press conference of the retiring Brett Favre. In each of the previous three off-seasons, the Packers quarterback trained with a med ball for eight weeks at his Mississippi home under the guidance of Ken Croner, director of NFL training at Athletes' Performance. Hooked to resistance cords, Favre would simulate a seven-step drop, at the end of which he'd pick a med ball off the ground, then chest-pass it as far as he could. During these drills Favre's heart rate jumped so quickly that Croner made him wear a pulse monitor. Each morning, a hopeful Favre asked Croner what was in store. When the answer came back "All med ball," Favre glared back as if Croner were a rookie who'd just dropped a touchdown pass. "I'd ask, 'You like the med ball, right?' " says Croner. "And he'd just give me that Favre look. He'd shake his head and stare at me in silence, like he loved it and hated it at the same time."
There is speculation inside the gym on this day that pondering another summer of that torture hastened Favre's decision to hang 'em up.
"MOST PRO ATHLETES are obsessed with training and always looking for the next thing," says Saints fullback Mike Karney. "The med ball is so simple it makes people skeptical. You see commercials for all this complicated, expensive stuff, and you think, You want me to train with a ball that's how old?"
A staple of national fitness programs in Germany and Sweden for hundreds of years, the medicine ball's first recorded appearance stateside was in a photo of Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett, curator of the Harvard College Gymnasium from 1859 to 1871. Hewlett sits at his desk, one foot propped on a med ball. Not long after, in 1895, the term medicine ball appeared in an English-language dictionary. Proclaimed by fitness historians as one of the Four Horsemen of Fitness (along with dumbbells, weighted wands and Indian clubs) the med ball's ThighMaster moment occurred in 1931, after a New York Times Magazine piece headlined "At the White House at 7 a.m." explored President Hoover's unique training regime.
"There is no rank or distinction while the leather sphere is in the air," reported the Times Magazine. "The deportment of the contestants was not unlike that at a town-lot ball game. Players were often subjected to a treatment technically known as 'the raspberry.' All of which confirms the not so well understood fact that male members of genus Homo never grow up."
Hoover never managed to get the country into any kind of shape, of course, and he was voted out of office in 1932. After that, the ball slowly faded from its popular peak back into army barracks and boxing gyms. It fell further into obscurity in 1957, the year the Universal weight machine was introduced, and further still when the Nautilus system became the rage.
While hoisting weights on a bar controlled by a machine is a user-friendly and efficient way to build muscle mass and fundamental strength, it also reduces the dynamic elements of balance, explosion and sport-specific movement that are gained from resistance training. In fact, the very idea of functional training got lost during the machine craze as performance took a backseat to looking good. With static, mass building training ascendant in the States, the Soviet Union and East Germany began to dominate Olympic-medal counts in the 1960s and 1970s. Heavy doses of illegal drugs aside, athletes in Eastern-bloc countries had developed faster contractions from dynamic methods kinesiologists call jump training or plyometrics -- lighter weights and faster reps that produce more elastic, efficient and explosive muscle contractions. Soon, as the Cold War fizzled and Eastern European athletes, coaches and their training manuals made their way to the U.S., the same phrase kept appearing: medicine ball.
The ease and effectiveness of the med ball give it something of a Forrest Gump quality, allowing it to jump among centuries, continents and ideologies, all the way from pharaohs to Favre. Three thousand years after it was invented, the medicine ball is back.
WHILE THE BALL itself is simple, the kinetic science behind it is anything but. The unpredictable path of a med ball as it flies through the air forces the exerciser to use entire muscle groups instead of, say, just the biceps or deltoids. After aeons of evolved movement, the body can still grow more kinetically efficient as it links dozens of its smaller muscles to adjust to the ball's flight. Adaptation is the key to athletic development, and no two med-ball reps are the same. "If the game you play is chaotic, you have to train chaotic," says Titans tight end Alge Crumpler. "How are you going to do that with a machine?"
Human power is determined by the level of contraction in the muscles. By lengthening the muscle just before contraction (more so than in static weight lifting), the med ball creates stored elastic energy that dramatically increases the speed and strength of the contraction. (The farther you stretch a rubber band, the more it stings your little brother when it snaps back.) It's the difference between standing flat-footed as you take an arms-only chop at a golf ball (static) and the violent entire uncoiling Tiger uses to explode off the tee (dynamic). "That's the foundation, the operating system that has developed all human movement," says Verstegen. "The med ball has always been smart. It just had to wait 3,000 years for athletes to catch up."
And these days, it seems like everyone has gone ancient-school: from synchronized swimmers to power lifters, from Mia Hamm to Adrian Peterson, from New Zealand rugby stud Jonah Lomu to fitness historian Dr. Ed Thomas, who's pioneered a medicine-ball exercise program for middle school kids in Iowa.
In 2006, after dedicating 12 years to free-weight training, Karney, the Saints' 5'11", 258-pound fullback, hit a strength ceiling just as he entered the make-or-break point of his career. A fifth-round pick in 2004 out of Arizona State, Karney had amassed impressive "barbell" strength. But that skill was isolated and linear, one-dimensional, while Karney's job required him to jump sideways to chip a blitzing linebacker and twist around to catch a flair on his downfield hip while sprinting full speed toward the sideline in the other direction. "I wish the game was square, slow and straight," says Crumpler, imitating Frankenstein's walk. "I could block guys and catch passes all day. But you got all these crazy defenses and guys like Dwight Freeney twisting, jumping, bending, turning all over the place. I know a lot of very strong guys who aren't very good players, because they can't apply what they have to the football field."
That used to be Karney. But in the summer of 2006, trainers persuaded him to switch over to the med ball. At AP there is a grueling 200-rep routine Crumpler nicknamed the Beast. A month into his new regime, a gung-ho Karney was using the Beast as a warmup. Positioned in his exact blocking stance, he rapid-fired a med ball against the wall, making mirrors on the other side of the gym wobble.
At his best, Karney could bench-press two 100-pound dumbbells 12 times. No matter how hard or how often he lifted, he couldn't improve on that. Hitting this kind of wall is often what leads athletes to think about steroids. But after a summer of med-ball training, Karney arrived at the Saints' facility feeling "freakishly strong." After the team's first training-camp practice, he walked into the weight room and grabbed a pair of 135-pound dumbbells off the rack. Teammates, still exhausted from the 105° heat, watched in silence as he pushed out 30 reps with ease. "What the hell did you do?" came the whispers.
Med ball, Karney told them, just med ball. (Says Javorek: "Medicine balls can develop better and more explosive muscles than drug enhancement.")
That season the Saints made it all the way to the NFC championship game, and Karney earned second-team All-Pro honors. In Tempe, they began to refer to him as Captain Med Ball. These days, whenever he speaks to high school players or youth coaches, Karney preaches the benefits of the simple sphere.
Even now, as he holds one up, Karney stares at it keenly, as if the weighty orb had mystical powers. "What can I say -- I'm a true believer," he says, with a laugh. "This ball flipped my world."