Dead balls are under appreciated and under utilised.
We use heavy dead balls often in our training. We use them to load up bear carries, isometric holds, squats and lunges. We use them for conditioning efforts such as ground-to-shoulders. We like the training effect it has on our total body strength. Dan John calls it the ‘Anaconda Squeeze’ – which is the perfect name for it. You get this vice-like grip and squeeze strength that improves your ability to generate full body tension. It teaches you to maintain your breathing pattern while producing or resisting force. It's very hard to replicate any other way.
Here’s why we like the dead ball...
Because of their design, barbells and dumbbells are very conducive to lifting heavy weights. Dead balls on the other hand are large balls full of sand. It makes lifting them very awkward. This is good because it forces your body to adapt and lift in a way that’s not ideal. Not many things in life are as perfectly shaped as a barbell or dumbbell for lifting heavy. Most things are odd shapes and require some manoeuvring. You’re not going to be able to get in the perfect position for lifting when you’re moving house, lifting rocks while gardening or in any sort of sport. So it’s important to train in these awkward positions.
THEY’RE GREAT FOR BUILDING THE MIDLINE
I can’t think a better exercise for combat and contact sports athletes than heavy dead ball work. This is one of my favourite ways for building midline strength (a.k.a. anaconda squeeze). We’ve all felt it or competed against someone like this before, someone that seemed to be immovable. This is the type of midline strength we develop when using heavy balls. When working dead balls you can feel your midline expanding and bracing like a can of coke. If you’re in any kind of contact sport that involves tackling, wrestling, or resisting movements (from say a bump, or a take down) than you should be training with heavy balls.
THEY’RE GREAT FOR LEARNING HOW TO BREATHE AND BRACE SIMULTANEOUSLY
We do a lot of carries and isometric holds using these heavy dead balls. A lot of people are good at taking a deep breath in and lifting a heavy weight for one rep. But what happens when you’ve got to maintain that breath for long periods of time while under load? Are you capable of keep the spine safe while you’re out of breath? Are you capable of breathing while trying to produce or resist force? You can’t hold your breath forever. And nothing burns you out faster than holding your breath under tension. Learning to breathe under tension is key to athletic performance.
THEY’RE GREAT FOR ADDING LOAD WITHOUT ADDING TOO MUCH LOAD
HUH? We like to use heavy balls for exercises like lunges, squats and single leg RDL's. You only have to add a fractional amount when compared to barbell work to get the same stimulus. I can back comfortably back squat 3 times as much as I can comfortably dead ball squat. And I feel my midline, lower body and upper body working together as a unit much more effectively without the stress on the spine or the joints.
THEY’RE GREAT FOR BUILDING A STRONG, BULLETPROOF BACK
I can’t remember who said it, maybe Joe Defranco, but they said “don’t be afraid of the guy with the 6 pack and the big arms. Be afraid of the guy with the thick back and big glutes.” If you’re an athlete spending your time worrying about the muscles in the mirror than you’re doing yourself a disservice. If in doubt, focus on the post-chain. Everything you can’t see in the mirror. The way that your body has to stiffen through your back muscles while performing a heavy bear hold, carry, squat or hinge while holding the weight in front of your body is hard to replicate anywhere else. The big-ass back-strap muscles that run up your spine are forced to maintain spinal integrity so that you don’t fold in half.
How to begin?
I’d recommend getting 2 balls. A lighter one you can use for long distance carries, conditioning efforts like ground-to-shoulders, offset squats, lunges etc. And a heavier one that you can use for heavier carries, bear holds, zercher squats and heavier split squats.
Don’t be an idiot with this kind of training. Due to the nature of the ball being awkard and on the ground, it requires you to lift with a slight round in your back. That’s okay! As long as you know how to breathe and brace effectively. Just don’t go to heavy with it and make sure you maintain a nice braced midline before trying to lift too heavy or implement them into conditioning workouts. It takes time to build up strength through your midline, so don’t be in a rush.
Implement them into your training. slowly!
Slowly begin exchanging the dumbbells or barbells for a dead ball. You don’t have to do it all at once. For example: if you had lunges in your program, you could switch out the dumbbells you were holding in each hand for a dead ball. And to be clear, your program doesn’t have to be only dead balls, nor should it. You should have a well-rounded program including barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and dead balls. Why choose?
Let's say your session was originally planned as
Single Leg RDL
You could comfortably take out the dumbbells in the reverse lunge, SL RDL and farmers carry and use a d-ball instead. The farmers carry would turn into a bear carry, so depending on your training goal, you might want to keep the d-ball out of the carries that day.
Where can I buy them?
You can buy them online at any major gym equipment store. Iron Edge, Rogue, NC Fitness, Verve Fitness, SMAI and many others have them. Again, grab a light one, say - 35kg and a heavy one – say 55kg. You could substitute these for heavy sandbags available at some online equipment stores as well.
Or you could always make your own. Grab a shitty backpack, head down to the beach and fill it up with sand. If you don’t live near a beach, buy some playground sand from a local store.
The strongmen have had it right for years. There are more ways to get strong than simply using a barbell. These dead balls challenge the body in a different way. I’d recommend using them for anyone that’s healthy and training. Especially for fighters and contact sports athletes that need that ‘anaconda squeeze’ kind of strength.