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The right exercise for the right person at the right time

Programming workouts is as much an art as it is a science. There is more than one way to program amazing workouts and there are a ton of ways to program really bad workouts, too. A training session should improve an athlete and shouldn’t make them worse, other than muscular soreness. People should leave the gym feeling BETTER than when they came in.

The art of programming is choosing the right exercise for the right person at the right time.

One of the exercises that isn’t considered enough, in terms of “does this movement make sense for this person right now” is the wall ball. Now what I am NOT doing is saying wall balls are universally bad, but I do think any exercise can be “bad” for a certain person at a certain time. But you may ask, “What? The wall ball? Why would the wall ball be something worth thinking more about?”

Have you seen this?

I’ve seen it way too often. After a workout with a ton of wall balls, people are hobbling around the gym, quads gooey, with their hands back on their neck rubbing the soreness. “Ryan, can you pull on my head for just a minute? My neck hurts”.

Some of these same people that complain of neck soreness after a workout containing wall balls suffer from neck pain that has its ups and downs, good days and bad days, and has been going on for months or maybe even years. Why would we subject this person to a movement that stresses the neck like this?

A short story

Imagine you just finished a workout with wall balls and your neck is sore and you are complaining to your non-crossfit friend (if you have any non-crossfit friends) that your neck hurts and they would (hopefully) ask why. If you told them, “well I was throwing a ball up to a 10 foot target with my neck cranked back for upwards of 5 minutes”, I hope they would just stare at you like “well duh”. I don’t know about you, but I have done workouts where there is more than an accumulation of 5 minutes of wall-ball-neck-cranking-back.

Flip the story around. You have a non-crossfit friend that complains to YOU of neck pain and you ask why and she says “I was standing in 24 hour fitness and stared at the ceiling as far back as I could for 5 minutes and now my neck is sore”. Wouldn’t you say, “well stop staring up at the ceiling for 5 minutes. Of course that would bother your neck”.

Is there much difference between the two? In one version, the person is standing with the neck in end range extension and the other the person is squatting and throwing a ball at a target with her neck in end range extension, but because that movement is being used as an exercise, we for some reason neglect to consider the stress on the neck.

I am not saying don’t do wall balls. If you read this article and complain that I am saying wall balls are bad and no one should do them, read this article again, but more slowly.

What I am saying is it’s worth considering if wall balls are the right movement for the right person at the right time.

What is so bad about the neck being kept in sustained extension?

The neck should move through a full range of motion, yes, that is normal. No one is saying that isn’t the case. But it’s no secret that I am not a fan of highly repetitive spinal motion exercises. If you do a workout with upwards of 100 wall balls, that neck is going to be under a lot of stress for a large number of reps.

The most common area of the neck for degenerative joint changes is the mid cervical spine (c4-5-6). Many people would argue that joint degeneration occurs because of too much motion occurring there, so bone spurring is the body’s way to help stabilize those segments.

Too much motion occurring at a joint (which you could just call hypermobility) will basically lead to overuse injuries. Why? Because the joint is being overused by moving around too much. The passive tissues (discs and ligaments) can, over years and years, get damaged. It just so happens that these joints are the ones where disc herniations most commonly occur.

Are you saying that wall balls are causing those injuries?

No, I am not saying wall balls are causing those injuries, but they could exacerbate them.

I think those issues are more likely happening from people sitting at computers slouched forward (thoracic spine flexion) and they have to look at their computer monitor so they have their neck slightly extended all day, and that, occurring over years and years, is a culprit.

Why would I want to reinforce that in the gym?

Shouldn’t we be un-doing the bad postures and movements that occur in the person who has to sit all day at work?

Why would I choose an exercise that subjects their neck to the same stress they are already getting all day? And why would I choose that exercise for someone whose neck knowingly gets bothered after doing wall balls?

If they are working out in the gym to improve their health, quality of life, etc, what is so unique about the wall ball that you can’t get from another exercise that doesn’t stress the neck like that, for that person?

Can you modify the wall ball?

A question that comes up a lot is can we modify the wall ball to reduce neck strain? I have tried to figure this one out, but I haven’t found a good way yet. I suppose you could drop your head between every rep or try to keep your head and neck more neutral and look up with your eyeballs more. A system of mirrors? Maybe, but that could get messy. If you find a good modification that reduces neck strain, please tell us about it in the comments.

I find that substituting a different exercise for that particular athlete at that particular time works better.

What substitutions make sense?

First of all, what training stimulus are you trying to get out of the wall ball? Probably a metabolic training stimulus, an explosive squat, and an explosive overhead pressing motion.

There are a few ways to replicate this (these are listed in order from least preferred by me to most preferred):

  • Barbell thruster
  • Dumbbell thruster
  • Kettlebell thruster
  • Max height wall ball throws

The first 3 are pretty self-explanatory. The 4th one you may be less familiar with, so let me explain.

The big issue we are talking about here is the need to continuously look up in the wall ball shot in order to catch the ball to do the next rep. Why not take the need to look up out of the equation? Take the wall ball, clean it, front squat it, and throw it up to the wall as high as you can and let it drop. Repeat.

You will find 2 things: 1. Your neck won’t hurt 2. Your legs will be FRIED. Doing wall balls this way vs the way where you can do 50 in a row is similar to doing a heavy power clean in a workout where you have to drop the weight between reps vs being able to touch and go endlessly. You are creating MORE upper body explosion, more lower body explosion, and less strain on the neck vs the standard wall ball.

Final thoughts

It’s funny when you write articles that go on the internet. People read what you write and totally misinterpret it. I think of it like a high school English class where we are forced to find quotes from a book some author wrote 50 years ago and try to interpret what they are “really saying”. I’m sure if those authors read our papers they would say, “you guys really missed the boat on what I was trying to say here”.

So let me say this again. I am not saying don’t do wall balls. I am not saying they are inherently evil and I am not trying to “slay a sacred cow”.

I am saying consider if the wall ball is the right exercise for the right person at the right time. Consider if they have a history of neck pain and if they previously have had neck pain after wall balls. Neck pain shouldn’t be a result of a functional workout. Increased strength, metabolic capacity, and durability should the result.

I see “mysterious, chronic neck pain” go away too often just from making these simple changes.

If you like wall balls and they don't bother your neck, cool. Do them to your heart's content!

Sound off

What do you think? Does your neck hurt after wall balls? Have you tried any modifications? Let us know in the comments!


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