Gymnasts possess some of the most impressive and powerful physiques on the planet. Every four years as the Olympics roll by, anyone with an interest in body composition simply marvels at the excellence displayed on their TV screens.
Huge, muscular arms. Wide, capped deltoids. Barn-door backs. Gymnasts possess them all and more. Back in the early to mid 20th century, many weightlifters would combine the two endeavours, and believed a mix of weights and gymnastics was the key to aesthetic and physical success. Now, it’s fallen very much out of favour besides a select few outside the gymnastics circles.
This article aims to look at some of the lessons we can learn from gymnasts, and how we can apply them to our own training.
Embrace Your Own
The majority of all gymnastic work is comprised of bodyweight movements. This may surprise some of you, but in order to build their impressive muscles, gymnasts don’t use any traditional bodybuilding type exercises in their regimen.
One of the greatest lessons we can learn from gymnasts is the power of your own bodyweight in building your physique.
Whilst very few of you are willing to (or should) abandon all traditional exercises for gymnastics, we can reinforce certain principles in our own training. For example, if you take a look in any commercial gym, far too many trainees are gravitating away from the chin and dip station in favour of machine based pulling and pushing.
This is a grave mistake, and only to the peril of the trainee’s physique, as the neurological and muscularity requirements of these movements are far superior to their machine counterparts.
To make it more effective, and gymnast like, incorporating the use of rings can make for a very tough and humbling (!) experience.
The increased stability requirements make the rings an excellent choice for improving upper body strength, especially around the shoulder girdle. As the rings are not fixed, they also provide a more natural range of motion. This can be beneficial for shoulder health and for people who struggle to chin or dip pain free on a fixed bar.
Of course, attempting to master more advanced bodyweight moves such as the planche, maltese and iron crosses will require a certain commitment to the task. Proper progression models and careful plans are needed to ensure they are all done safely with sound technique.
What these ‘more advanced’ moves tend to involve is a lot of straight-arm work, which means there is no bending of the joints in movement. This is a very difficult type of strength to more traditional bent arm work we all perform in the gym. With a straight arm, the leverage is highly disadvantageous, magnifying the neurological complexity and intensity of the exercise.
Gymnasts don’t do regular curls, but their abundance in straight-arm work is what is largely responsible for their exceptional arm development. If you picture a gymnast performing an iron cross, think of the enormous strain and tension on the biceps to maintain the position.
The key lesson to learn here is that we can do a lot with our bodyweight, and that we should be incorporating and striving to improve on our bodyweight based exercises continuously.
Mastery of the Basics
A lot of gymnastics is based on the principle of mastery, and lots of deliberate practice of very specific skills. Gymnastic coaches are very particular with the technique and execution of some of the very basic moves. For example, the best gymnasts will spend hours and hours repeatedly performing handstands, cartwheels and swings, to name a few. These are some of the basic, core moves in gymnastics, and the very first skills you learn in training. More importantly, these are the moves that form the foundation and provide a spring towards learning more advanced progressions and manoeuvres.
In this age of training ADD, most people don’t like doing things more than once. They want the new exercise, the new supplement, the new diet, the new plan every other week. A constant searching for the next step, and the more ‘advanced’ plan.
This is the downfall of so many beginner and intermediate lifters, who fail to master the basics of lifting and eating, before progressing.
Do you need to do squats with chains if you can’t squat with a barbell properly? Do you need to carb cycle and fat cycle or whatever the latest cycle is, if you can’t eat enough protein at each meal?
Gymnastics is the best evidence in sport of mastering the basics. From a skill perspective, the moves they need to advance towards are extremely complex, with a high risk of injury. If they don’t master the basics, they will quickly stall and fail in their progression up the movement complexity ladder.
Apply this principle to your training and dieting and watch your results skyrocket.
The ability to generate maximum contraction is one of the most important elements of gymnastics training. Your ability to fully contract and tighten your body is very much correlated to how well you can perform more advanced moves.
For example, let’s take the straddle planche on rings, one of the most complex skills in gymnastics. Every single muscle in the body needs to be tight and maximally contracted in order to perform the move successfully. There’s no two ways around it.
This a missing element in many average gym goer’s training, and something we are always on top of at UP. If we have a client performing a heavy deadlift, we need the entire kinetic chain to be rock solid and tight. Every muscle from the lats, abdominals, all of the posterior chain and the forearms need to be in sync and maximally contracting in order to keep safe and lift the most load.
Injury prevention and strength aren’t the only benefits. If bodybuilding is your only goal, you can take this principle and apply it to specific muscle groups. If you’re doing a dumbbell chest press, you want to be able to fully contract your pectorals as hard as possible, whilst lifting the highest load under the safest technique.
Maximal tension and contraction are vital aspects of lifting, and something which will accelerate your training gains, no matter the goal.
Pauses and Plyos
Once you’ve applied the above principles, we can begin to implement a few advanced lessons from gymnasts.
Let’s begin with pauses. Mastery of your own bodyweight entails being able to pause in any given position during a move. Have a look at any gymnastics routine and you will see this throughout.
Pausing in traditional barbell and dumbbell work can be a very beneficial tool to boost strength and hypertrophy. Specifically, pausing in the bottom position in extensor chain movements such as squats, deadlifts and presses dissipates the use of the stretch reflex, and increases intra-muscular tension. Research points at needing a 4 second pause in order to remove all stored elastic energy, but varying your pause length has benefits too.
To implement isometric pauses in a gymnastics inspired strength training programme, try the following routine below. The key is to stay ultra tight in the paused positions, ensuring maximal contractions of the involved muscles.
1A. Ring Dips 5 sets of 4-6 32X0 – Rest 120s
1B. Ring Pull Ups 5 sets of 4-6 50X1 – Rest 120s (stop mid way through eccentric and pause for 2 seconds)
It’s no secret gymnasts are brutally strong. We’ve all heard the stories of gymnasts performing double bodyweight bench presses on their first attempts.
The cross over from gymnastics strength to traditional weightlifting is incredible. The reverse however, is never true.
There are a few reasons why this may be. Firstly, the tendon and ligament strength built from straight-arm work can’t be replicated in traditional lifting. Placing the body in highly mechanically disadvantageous positions (think when the muscle is stretched and fully shortened in a gymnastic sequence) on unstable surfaces (rings) continuously will create the necessary time under tension over the years to stimulate a lot of strength and hypertrophy gains.
Another overlooked part of gymnastics training is its plyometric nature. Gymnasts are extremely explosive. With the continuous practice of swinging, bounding and tumbling, gymnasts develop a lot of plyometric ability. Combined with the static and traditional strength they develop on rings, it’s no surprise gymnasts can produce so much force.
True plyometric training is only for the very advanced trainees, and most of you reading this won’t fall in to this bracket.
Instead, a simple way you can use plyometrics in your training is through force potentiation with lift specific exercises. Two examples come to mind:
- Before your next squat workout, perform 5-6 sets of 2-3 squat jumps with approx 20-30% of your max load. The focus should be on maximal acceleration through the move.
- Before your next pressing workout, perform 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps of some plyometric explosive pushups.
What this will do is ‘prime’ the nervous system for the training that lies ahead, and in turn, you should be able to lift heavier weights.
Patience is a Virtue
The key to success and mastery in any endeavour lies in accumulating lots of deliberate practice. Typically, Olympic gymnasts start training at a very young age, and practice their skill over and over again. Due to the high skill nature of the sport, staying disciplined and consistent with their practice is vital. To be able to perform advanced moves such as an iron cross, gymnasts need to exhibit a high level of patience.
This lesson applies broadly across all endeavours.
To be the Mr. Olympia of bodybuilding, it takes well over a decade of hard, consistent training and eating. Even then, only the genetic elite will make it to the top.
In the world of body composition, the never ending stream of quick fixes and diet fads, as well as the growing trend of training ADD, can leave people spinning their wheels with no progress to show. Instead, we should all take a leaf out of a gymnasts’ book.
Master the basics and focus on executing the fundamentals over and over again. Over time, you’ll soon start to realise that this is the magic ticket to the physique of your dreams!
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