A growing number of NFL athletes are playing volleyball in the off-season as part of their workouts. But not ordinary volleyball. They're playing volleyball with medicine balls, the weighted balls often used for core exercises.
This is traditionally referred to as Hoover Ball, because the game was created to help keep President Herbert Hoover in shape.
We first saw James Harrison, linebacker for the Pittsburgh Stealers, play Med Ball Volleyball—his training looks ridiculously awesome, by the way. More recently, Brian Cushing, linebacker for the Houston Texans, played Med Ball Volleyball under the watch of strength coach Joe DeFranco.
So why are football players playing this game? Besides the fact that it looks ridiculously fun, it confers great training benefits.
It Develops Explosive Power
Rather than hitting the ball back and forth like you do in regular volleyball, you hurl the med ball over the net with a movement that looks like an explosive Med Ball Throw. Depending on the situation, it might be a Med Ball Rotational Throw, an Overhead Throw or a Scoop Toss.
These movements train the two easiest ways to produce power: triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles, and rotation. Almost every athletic skill that guys like Cushing and Harrison perform on the field involves one or both of these elements.
Plus, it develops a strong core, which helps transfer power from the lower body to upper body skills.
"You want to develop a rock solid core? Play that game for a few minutes," says Joe DeFranco on his Industrial Strength Show Podcast.
You must react to your opponent's toss and quickly move to catch the med ball before it hits the ground, which improves your speed and quickness. Then you need to get into a strong position to catch the ball and hurl it back over the net.
In the weight room, we focus on exercises that require us to move the exact same way every single time, which is important for perfecting form but doesn't always translate perfectly to football or other sports. Think about how many times in a live game that you execute a skill with flawless technique? More often than not, you're in an awkward position, trying to avoid a defender or getting hit.
"I like the fact that we are hitting different muscles and training 3-dimensionally in a chaotic environment," explains DeFranco. Much like what happens on the athletic field, you never know which way your body will get twisted, especially with football tacking on a block."
It Improves Body Control
The plays you make in Med Ball Volleyball require you to catch a heavy med ball that may be traveling at fairly high speed.
Catching the weighted ball trains your core to decelerate the force and control the movement. Better control allows you to stay balanced and launch the ball with more force.
"It was even more dynamic than regular med ball throwing because every throw had a rebound effect. Each guy was catching and then throwing the ball," says DeFranco. "They are catching it and going right into the throw, so you get that nice plyometric rebound effect, which is great for improving explosive power and reactivity."
For Cushing and Harrison, these are critical attributes. Their opponents attempt to knock them out of position on every play. Their ability to control their bodies and explode with force becomes absolutely critical.
It Improves Conditioning
Have you ever played a game of volleyball? Not just hitting the ball back and forth, but an actual game? If so, you know how freakin' hard it is. After a long game, your legs feel like Jell-O.
In Med Ball Volleyball, you don't jump or go up for blocks and spikes, but you must move quickly in sand and explosively throw a heavy ball, which takes a ton of energy. It's a great way to teach your body to perform repeated bouts of speed and power, which is absolutely crucial for football endurance.
As Texans strength coach Craig Fitzgerald told us, "Absolute speed isn't as important as repeatable speed, so we need to make sure our guys are in great shape."
Training shouldn't always be super serious. You need to have fun sometimes. This ingenious game packages all the above benefits into a game that's a lot of fun, although it is difficult.
Plus, who doesn't like competing. You may push yourself more to track down the ball and launch it past your opponent for the satisfaction of a victory.
We talk a lot about football, but Med Ball Volleyball can be used to make anyone a better athlete. Also, it's great if you have sand to play in, but that's not a requirement. In fact, you can play this without a goalpost or a net, but that's obviously not ideal.
When you first try Med Ball Volleyball, don't go crazy with the weight. Start with a four-pound med ball and gradually increase the weight as you get comfortable with the game and get stronger. Cushing uses only a 12-pound med ball.
"I'm looking for speed of movement and quality," DeFranco says. "I'm not trying to have them blow out their backs throwing a 30-pound ball."
DeFranco had his guys play Med Ball Volleyball as part of their dynamic warm-up; however, it can also be used as a workout finisher. Try either a best of three series or play for 10-15 minutes.
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