The term "wall ball" probably conjures up images of your favorite childhood game. And while the CrossFit exercise of the same name bears some resemblance, this grown-up version is a lot more intense (but still fun!). Essentially the combination of a front squat and push press, you finish by tossing a medicine ball up and into a wall.
"Wall balls are an exercise that can improve your metabolic conditioning and/or strengthen your body head-to-toe, depending on how you use them," says Erwin Seguia, DPT, CSCS, founder of match fit performance.
Wall Ball Basics
- What is a wall ball? It’s an exercise that involves squatting down while holding a soft medicine ball, tossing it into the air and toward a target (usually a wall) as you stand up, catching the ball and then repeating.
- *What muscles do wall balls work? *Pretty much everything — quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, core, shoulders, lats and triceps.
- Who can do wall balls? People of all fitness levels, because you choose the weight that works for you.
How to Do Wall Balls — the Right Way
All you need to do a wall ball is a large, soft medicine ball and a sturdy wall. Available in different weights from 6 to 30 pounds, people of any fitness level can do this exercise so long as they choose the right weight. According to the official CrossFit website, the goal is for women to use a 14-pound ball and men to use a 20-pound ball, but beginners should start with a 6- to 10-pound ball.
Proper form is vital because, just like with other exercises, you're putting yourself at risk for an overuse injury if you do them incorrectly. Once you know your form is good — which you can find out by watching a video of yourself doing the movement or talking to a trainer — go up in weight.
For CrossFitters, that means increasing to 20 pounds for women and 30 pounds for men. But that might be a big jump for you. New-York based certified strength and conditioning specialist Kristian Flores recommends going up by 2 to 6 pounds at a time.
Step 1: Start With a Medicine Ball at Chest Height
- Stand 12 to 24 inches away from the wall with feet in "squat-stance" — feet hip-width apart and toes pointed out slightly at a 15- to 45-degree angle.
- Hold the ball at chest height with elbows tucked back, hands along the underbelly of the ball.
- Engage your core and pull your shoulders back and down.
Step 2: Squat Down
- Keeping your chest upright, send your hips back and bend your knees into a squat.
- Continue lowering down until your thighs break parallel or your form starts to break, whichever comes first.
- With your weight in your heels and chest tall, drive back to standing.
Step 3: Immediately Throw the Ball Against the Wall
- As you stand, use momentum to press/throw the ball into the air and toward the vertical target on the wall. (Note: In CrossFit, the target is 10 feet high for men and 9 feet high for women.)
- Keep your arms extended and hands in the receiving position as you wait for the ball to descend.
- Catch the ball, bring it to your chest and immediately repeat the movement.
To make wall balls a bit easier, you can modify this exercise by decreasing the weight of the ball or lowering the height of the target.
If — due to hip or ankle immobility — the issue is getting into the proper position at the bottom of the squat, Seguia says, "You can place a box, bench or second medicine ball stacked onto some weight plates beneath your butt, and squat to that instead, to decrease the range of motion."
How Long Should Wall Ball Intervals Be?
No matter how light of a ball you use, "you really can't do wall balls straight for 20 straight minutes," Flores says. Instead, he recommends doing them interval-style or as part of a circuit.
To do them in an interval, set a timer for 20 to 60 seconds, choosing a time that allows you to do the reps unbroken and at a steady pace. If you're an advanced athlete, opt for a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio. But if you're new to the movement, he recommends a 1:2 work-to-rest ratio. That means if you're working for 20 seconds, rest for 40. Then repeat for 8 rounds.
You can also combine wall balls into any circuit. Flores's favorite combination is wall balls and toes-to-bar. But if you're looking for a lower-body focused circuit you can combine wall balls with burpee box jumps and kettlebell swings. Or, you might also try CrossFit Open WOD 18.4, which is a 20-minute AMRAP with wall balls and rowing.
Benefits of Wall Balls
It's important to understand that wall balls really, truly are a full-body exercise. According to Flores, "wall balls work your quads, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and glutes. Your, biceps, triceps, shoulders, lats, and whole core." And because you're targeting the core, over time, wall balls can improve coordination, stability and balance, he says.
That's not all. Seguia says, "Depending on what weight med ball you use and how you incorporate them into your workout, wall balls can be used to improve strength, power output, or aerobic capacity."
To make it more of a power-building exercise, go for heavier weight and fewer reps, Seguia says. "This will transfer to other explosive movements like the clean and jerk, snatch and kettlebell swing."
To improve your cardiovascular capacity, you need to up the reps. "The longer you hold onto the wall ball, the higher your heart rate will get," Flores says. "And anything that gets your heart rate going and keeps it up is good for your heart and aerobic capacity." If you've never done a wall ball before, you'll be surprised just how quickly this movement will have you gasping for air.
Regardless if you go heavy weight, lower reps or lighter weight, higher reps, both experts say that wall balls torch a ton of calories. As for whether or not they burn fat, they do, but in a roundabout way. There's no exercise that burns fat per se, Flores says. Muscle — or more specifically, your metabolism — is what burns fat. But wall balls certainly help build muscle.
Avoid These Common Wall Ball Mistakes
To stay injury-free, do your best to avoid the common mistakes below. If you notice yourself doing any of them, either rest until you're recovered enough to move in good form or drop the weight and use a lower target.
Breathing incorrectly: "A lot of athletes hold their breath during wall balls," says Seguia. "Your goal should be to inhale on the way down into your squat, and to exhale on your way up as you toss the ball." Losing this rhythm makes the movement harder, because you're not getting sufficient oxygen to your muscles.
Separating the movements: It's also common for people to treat wall balls as two distinct exercises. (They're not!). "Some people will do an air squat and stand up. And then use their arms to throw the ball to the target," Seguia says. But the exercise is supposed to be one continuous motion. "Most of the power and momentum for the toss should be coming from the legs, if you pause at the top, you lose that," he says.
The fix? It depends. "Some people are using their arms to throw the ball because the ball is too light for them," says Seguia. In these cases, trying a heavier ball forces folks to connect the squat and the throw.
Others aren't able to keep their chest upright with that heavy a wall ball in front of them, so they have to stand up in order for the chest to be out of the way enough to throw the ball, he explains. Here, the solve is a lighter wall ball.
Keep at it: "Sometimes though," says Flores, "the fix is simply getting more comfortable with the movement pattern, especially if you've never done it before." Doing dumbbell and barbell thrusters, which are basically the same movement, can help you get down the coordination.
Incorporate Wall Balls Into Your Workout
Need some ideas on how to incorporate movement into your training? Don't worry, the experts have a few suggestions.
CrossFit WOD Karen: 150 Wall Balls For Time
Most CrossFit WODs don't have names, but when they do you know they're going to be challenging. Such is the case with this workout.
"It's really easy to go out hot on this workout with a set of 40 or 50 or 60, and then to be too tired to do more than 3 or 4 reps at a time," says Tony Milgram, level 1 CrossFit coach at ICE NYC. That's why he says the first time you do it, the goal should be to move consistently and minimize rest.
For instance, you might break it up into 15 sets of 10, with an intentional 10 seconds between sets. Elite athletes can finish this workout in under six minutes, but beginners should aim to finish it between 10 and 14 minutes.
- Complete 150 wall balls for time
Tabata Wall Balls
Tabata is a style of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that entails working for 20 seconds at your max capacity, then resting for 10 seconds, and repeating the sequence for four full minutes (8 rounds total). As long as you pick a weight you can move the full 20 seconds, using wall balls in this format turns the exercise into a cardio one, says Seguia.
Complete 8 rounds of the following without stopping:
- 20 seconds of wall balls
- 10 seconds of rest