Gymnastics Strength Training and How it Can Benefit YouImage: Brandon Wynn (@brandonwynngym)
The Gymnastics Strength Training method has recently gained more exposure through social media and has experienced a spike in popularity.
This post will give you an introduction about what it is, and some of the benefits we can experience when training this way.
Why is Gymnastics Strength Training getting more attention?
While there may be many other factors involved in the newfound interest for gymnastics, Tim Ferriss’ The Secrets of Gymnastic Strength Training podcast (May 2016) with US national team gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer raised curiosity levels.
It’s a worthwhile listen, especially for beginners who want to learn more about the art of gymnastics strength training.
A quick look at the Google Trends graph for Gymnastics Strength Training adds more credibility to my prediction.
Before I delve into the short list of benefits, let’s first understand a bit more about Gymnastics Strength Training.
What is Gymnastics Strength Training?
In short, I would define Gymnastics Strength Training as a way of building up a your baseline level of strength primarily though gymnastics and bodyweight-based exercises.
This strength is applicable in several ways:
1) Advancing into training for more difficult progressions of fundamental gymnastic movements, such as those on the floor, rings or bar.
2) Advancing into weighted variations of basic pushing or pulling exercises performed with bodyweight, such as weighted chinups, pullups, muscle ups, or dips.
3) Transitioning into a conventional strength training protocol, such as those used for Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting or to a degree; Bodybuilding.
4) All the above. An impressive balance between an ability to manipulate your bodyweight, perform weighted bodyweight exercises, and achieve respectable numbers when performing heavy compound movements with a barbell.
Gymnastics Strength Training is not easy. Progress is often slow, which for someone who wants to experience amazing results with minimum work, will only serve as a source of frustration.
But, like with most things that take considerable time and effort, the rewards will pay dividends if you stick with it.
Listed below are five reasons why you could consider Gymnastics Strength Training.
1) Anytime, anywhere
The majority of my training has involved Gymnastics Strength Training and Calisthenics since I began in January 2012.
Since starting, I’ve never looked back.
My motivating driver at the time involved wanting to make a physical change without having to tentatively commit to a gym membership.
I also preferred the convenience of training at home, especially when I was a final year post-grad student and wanted to cut down on unnecessary travel to the gym.
The beauty of this style of training involves the lack of equipment you need to begin and get started.
If building up ring strength is your goal, you can easily buy a pair of rings online, take them to a nearby park, set them up, and get to work.
If working towards the planche is the journey you’re embarking upon, floorspace or a pair of paralletes will meet your requirements.
All that’s left is you, and your continual fight against gravity.
2) Many ways to improve and get stronger
The moves we see high level gymnasts perform is the culmination of many years of hard work, and painstaking progression through easier variations of the movements you see before you.
As an example, anybody can do a bench press, whether it’s with a wooden stick or a substantial amount of weight.
The movement pattern remains unchanged.
However, ask somebody new to attempt an iron cross on the rings and you’ll see this is an impossible task for them. The end goal can only be reached through a series of regressions of this movement while the strength base is slowly built up.
And how is this done?
By taking simple movements and making them more and more difficult over time.
There are many variables that can be changed with Gymnastics Strength Training.
For example, we can vary:
1) Tempo. Slowing down the “eccentric”, or the lowering down part of the movement, increases difficulty substantially.
2) Hold times. Especially with isometric exercises, we can spend more time on muscle contractions in disadvantageous positions.
3) Height of rings. By adjusting ring height, we can control the stability of the movement. If the rings are set high, the straps are shorter, requiring less stabilization. If the rings are set lower, the straps are longer, making the movement very unstable and difficult.
Coupling these factors together ensures a hypertropic response is felt.
This means that muscle growth and strength gain will be inevitable. In saying this, I’m assuming that you’re not shooting yourself in the foot with poor sleeping habits and a questionable diet.
Regardless of training style, the way we look after ourselves does not change.
Changing the way we do a simple exercise, even slightly, can have a profound impact on its difficulty, and your strength build up over time.
3) Development of straight arm strength
Straight arm strength, what’s that?
There’s little, if any, emphasis placed on the development of straight arm strength for the average person following a cookie cutter bodybuilding program.
In a nutshell, Christopher Sommer defines straight arm strength work in the following way:
Straight arm strength refers to moving the body without the advantage of bending the joints. Essentially then, by increasing the length of the lever, we greatly magnify the intensity of the exercise.
We have a tendency to spend a lot of time in muscle flexion, meaning that we decrease the angle of our joints during an exercise. To keep things simple, assume that the joint in question is our elbow.
The angle reduction makes sense, because it’s easier, we feel stronger, and it’s “safer”. As an example, think about how much easier it is to do a pullup when starting from half way, instead of from a dead hang.
Alternatively, think of a bicep curl, and how it gets easier as you bring the weight up.
In Gymnastics Strength Training, regressions of the planche (pictured below) is a common starting point for beginners when starting out with straight arm work. This is an example of muscle extension, meaning that by increasing the angle of our joints, we make the exercise more difficult.
This movement also has a nice carryover to front deltoid, shoulder and bicep development(!)
4) Transferability to conventional strength training
The benefit of straight arm strength work is that it builds up an impressive strength base which carries over to deadlifts and weighted pulling movements.
One of my student’s, JJ Gregory, far exceeded my own modest accomplishments. On his first day of high school weight lifting, JJ pulled a nearly triple bodyweight deadlift with 400 pounds at a bodyweight of 135 and about 5’3″ in height. On another day, he also did an easy weighted chin with 75 pounds, and certainly looked as though he could’ve done quite a bit more. – Christopher Sommer
In October 2013, after never incorporating deadlifts into my training, I was able to max out at 200kg/441lbs.
My form was not textbook by any means, but I use this as an example of how my bodyweight training was able to carry over to a loaded bar.
One of the reasons why this strength comes about is due to the amount of time under tension straight arm work places on our tendons and ligaments.
It’s easy to be captivated by big muscles, but what about the middle man – our connective tissues? If these are not strengthened over time, it’s not a matter of if and injury will occur, but when.
You’ll often be surprised at the incidental strength gain that’s possible when you become more adept at performing bodyweight exercises well.
5) Build a proportionate physique.
Lastly, a training regimen that consists of primarily bodyweight movements is able to generate a considerate amount of muscle. This assumes, of course, that you are training hard, intelligently and not simply going through the motions.
The idea of training a specific body part in Gymnastics Strength Training is absurd, where in a simple sense, most training sessions could be viewed as a complete “upper body workout”.
However, you need to pay attention to the following:
The responsibility of training your lower body rests on you.
Gymnastics does not place a strong emphasis on conventional lower body training, which can hinder development in this area if you neglect it.
If your aim is to specialize with your gymnastics training and reach your goals sooner, I can see the merit in not approaching your lower body training with the same level of dedication.
But if your goal is aesthetic and/or practical progression, it’s best advised to not “skip leg day” and dedicate at least one day a week to training your lower body.
What are you waiting for?
In short, Gymnastics Strength Training would prove beneficial for anybody, whether you’re a complete beginner, or someone with a lifting background.
It’s also humbling, because we’ve observed that barbell proficiency does not always guarantee competence with bodyweight exercises.
Using rings for the first time, in particular, can prove to be quite a grounding experience.
In turn, we recommend that anyone interested in developing monstrous upper-body strength engages in gymnastics training for at least 6 weeks.
Related: Body By Rings (our comprehensive training series using gymnastics rings)
We promise that you won’t be disappointed.
Readers, I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with gymnastics strength training. What motivated you to start training this way? Does your training routine involve any ring work? Have you managed to stay injury-free? Any advice for newbies starting out?
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