It’s time for our periodic check-in on James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and patron saint of GQ‘s fitness coverage, to see what brand of utter weight room absurdity he’s been attempting of late. Although his most frequently-documented workouts involve him lifting the equivalent of a small- to medium-sized family in free weights, the man has also demonstrated a fondness for medicine balls, incorporating a series of hops, tosses, and even a bench press into his regimen of choice.
Although these exercises might look a bit less ambitious, they are no less useful. (Also, you already know this, but do not ever question what James Harrison does in the gym.) Use of weighted spheres to improve fitness is literally a millennia-old tradition, and while you may remember medicine balls from P.E. class as ungainly, leak-prone leather contraptions filled with sand—or, even worse, water—modern versions are made of rubber or polyurethane, with the weight distributed evenly throughout.
Traditional weightlifting focuses on the amount of weight lifted, not the time required to do it, which means that plenty of gym rats neglect exercises that would help them develop power—the ability to exert force quickly. This is especially important when training for sports, and even more so for ones like golf and baseball, where one’s ability to whack the ball depends in large part on how quickly they can whip the relevant implement through the air. Medicine balls, like kettlebells, have proven especially adept at helping athletes develop explosive strength. Studies have shown that medicine ball training can be more effective than conventional strength training at boosting throwing and swinging performance. And it isn’t just useful to weekend warriors, since it it helps boost the amount of power generated for weight room staples like the bench and shoulder presses, too. If you’ve hit a plateau, adding medicine balls to the mix could be a smart way to move past it.
The slam—where the user holds the ball overhead and then spikes it directly in front of them, catching it on the bounce and raising it back up before repeating the motion—is probably the best-known medicine ball exercise, and also happens to be delightfully cathartic. But even just throwing the thing, whether against a wall or with a friend, will challenge your body in ways that iron cannot. (Have you ever tried to play catch with a dumbbell? It… goes poorly.) Our old friend James Harrison is a noted fan of Hooverball, which basically incorporates a medicine ball into a slightly-modified version of beach volleyball. It looks whimsical, but hucking a heavy rubber orb over an eight-foot net for an hour or so will work out every muscle in your body and render you barely able to walk the next day. (James Harrison remains insane.)
Like adjustable dumbbells, the medicine ball has a small storage footprint that makes it great for at-home workouts. It was one of our best pieces of home gym equipment available for under $100, and if one variety is not enough for you, you can buy inexpensive tiered racks that allow the stacked storage of balls of different weights. Just make sure to save certain exercises for when you’ve got some asphalt to work with. Even one set of early-morning indoor medicine ball slams is a great way to make your downstairs neighbors loathe you forever.