The phrase “balls to the wall” does not, against all expectations, have anything to do with testicles. Instead it derives from the world of military aviation and the handles on the throttle control levers, which are ball-shaped. To achieve maximum power pilots would push these balls forward as far as they went, to the cockpit wall. Hence “balls to the walls”, signifying all-out effort.
Coincidentally, all-out effort is what’s required to get through a session of wall balls, undoubtedly one of the best medicine ball exercises. This testing compound exercise, beloved of the CrossFit community, is second only to the burpee for inducing muscle-aching exhaustion.
The whole body has to work while performing wall balls. The squat part of the exercise focuses on the lower-body muscles—your quads, glutes, calves and hamstrings—before the throw section powers up your chest, back, shoulders and arms. The entire movement also works the core and gets the heart pumping.
Doing wall balls quickly becomes a race to see what stops you first—screaming muscle pain or lung-busting exhaustion. It’s worth the effort though, because this exercise will make you functionally fit, increase your VO2 max (put simply, how efficiently your body uses oxygen) and improve the way you move—in life and sports.
How To Do Wall Balls
First, select your medicine ball. The weight recommended in CrossFit workouts is 20lb/9kg for men and 14lb/6kg for women, but you can adjust it to suit your fitness. The fitness race HYROX has the same standards as CrossFit for Pro competitors, but dials this down in the mass-participation competition to 14lb/6kg (men) and 9lb/4kg (women).
If you’re working out in a CrossFit box, there will usually be a wall with heights marked (10ft for men and 9ft for women) so you can keep each rep consistent.
Once you’ve sorted your ball and your wall, hold the former up to your chest and face the latter. Drop into a squat until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Then push up through your heels and maintain that momentum to throw the ball against the wall. Catch the ball on the rebound and immediately drop into another squat. Make sure you don’t stand too far away from the wall—you don’t want to waste momentum and power by throwing the ball too far forward and leaning over to catch it.
How To Improve Your Wall Balls For CrossFit
If your CrossFit workout includes wall balls you need to prioritize speed, preserving your strength and avoiding “no reps” (not meeting CrossFit’s exercise standards, so it’s not counted).
“The most important thing for beginners is to stand an arm’s length away from the wall,” says Ekai. “If you stand too close to the wall or too far away, you risk a lot of no reps and you might start being pushed forward or backward by the ball.”
His second tip concerns saving your muscles, which is a good idea if you’re tackling a lot of wall balls, as you do in the Girl WOD Karen (a Girl WOD is a subset of CrossFit benchmark workouts named after women), which is simply 150 wall balls done as quickly as possible.
“Don’t stay with your arms outstretched at the top of the movement,” Ekai says. “If you do just 15 or 20 then you won’t get tired, but if you have to do 100 or 200, that’s going to be three or four minutes standing with your arms above your head, and that’s going to make you really tired.”
Finally, continue to breathe regularly and stay relaxed. There’s nothing like a few breathless reps to jack your heart rate up to a level that’s not sustainable.
Wall Ball Workout Ideas
Do 10 to 15 reps for three sets or build them into a circuit—simply try to cram as many reps as possible into the interval prescribed.
Or you can take a lesson from CrossFit classes and build them into a simple 21-15-9 workout with another exercise, doing 21 reps of each, then 15 and finally nine. For example, you could do wall balls and burpees, completing the whole thing as fast as possible.
If that sounds tough, stop reading now, because wall balls featured in CrossFit Open Workout 23.1 and it’s even tougher: a 16-minute AMRAP of 60-calorie row, 50 toes-to-bars, 40 wall balls, 30 cleans and 20 ring muscle-ups.
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Harry covers news, reviews and features for Coach, Fit&Well and Live Science. With over a decade of training experience, he has tried everything from powerlifting to gymnastics, cardio to CrossFit, all in a bid to find fun ways of building a healthy, functional body.
- Nick Harris-FrySenior writer