"Medicine" doesn't just refer to pills and potions. It also describes anything that promotes health. It's in this sense of the word that people say a doctor is "practicing medicine" -- engaging in the promotion of good health. This definition of medicine is also the source of the term "medicine ball." In one form or another, medicine balls have been used to promote health and fitness for thousands of years.
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History of Medicine Balls
According to an exhaustive study of the medicine ball in ESPN The Magazine, doctors in ancient Greece wrote about weighted exercise balls and such balls appeared in drawings of wrestlers in Persia as far back as 1000 B.C. Gladiators used them in their training, a prominent Renaissance physician prescribed them as part of "medicinal gymnastics" and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has used them for more than 200 years. "As long as there have been athletes, there have been medicine balls," said former Olympic weightlifting coach Istvan Javorek.
What's in a Name
"Medicine ball" first showed up in an English-language dictionary in 1895. At the time, "medicine" and "health" were more synonymous than they are today. The medicine ball was considered one of the four essential pieces of exercise equipment, or "the Four Horsemen of Fitness." The other three were dumbbells, Indian clubs and weighted wands.
Types of Medicine Balls
A medicine ball is simply a weighted ball, typically about the size of a volleyball, although larger, heavier balls were also used. Most modern medicine balls are made of nylon or dense rubber; some are basically leather bags filled with sand and laced up. They're available from 1 pound up to about 30 pounds. Manufacturers make not only round balls, but also specialized balls with handles, tethers and cushioned outer layers that make them easier to grip and handle.
Benefits of Medicine Balls
Most weight training involves both accelerating and decelerating a load: You lift a barbell or a weight stack, then you lower it back down. As the American College of Sports Medicine explains, this builds strength, but it doesn't develop the explosive power necessary in so many sports. Power comes from accelerating a weight and releasing it. With a medicine ball, you don't have to decelerate the load. You can throw the ball -- which is far safer than throwing a dumbbell. Medicine ball exercises can also build flexibility and help strengthen your core muscles.
Selecting a Medicine Ball
Most people choose a ball that's too heavy, says the American College of Sports Medicine. What you want is a weight that slows the motion of your exercise without reducing your control, the accuracy of your movements or your range of motion. You don't want one that's too heavy to control, especially as your muscles get fatigued. Losing your grip on a heavy weight is no way to promote health -- yours or your workout partner's.