Conditioning questions often arise among coaches who are seeking to simplify and coordinate their conditioning programs. Suffice it to say, conditioning is essential for modern gymnastics. Gymnasts, particularly elite gymnasts, must be in spectacular physical condition. Gymnasts train their fitness primarily for practice - not competition. This is quite different from many other sports that train for fitness characteristics that will only be seen in the competition.
What are the exercises?
Gymnastics conditioning can be distilled to a group of only seven fundamental movements. Coaches should be aware that gymnasts train movements - not muscles. Bodybuilders train muscles and muscle groups. Patients recovering from surgery or immobilization train muscles and muscle groups. Gymnasts and virtually all other athletes train movements. While this may seem to be a trivial distinction, the difference is absolutely fundamental to athlete conditioning. With only a few exceptions, most gymnastics movements are multi-joint, multi-planar, and multi-directional. Simple uniplanar movements rarely mimic sport movements and result in a somewhat misplaced priority for training and conditioning.
Training for gymnastics conditioning consists of the following fundamental movements:
· Shoulder flexion - casting, press handstands, planche
· Shoulder extension - kipping, uprise, downswing phases of in-bar work
· Upper extremity pushing - handstand, handstand push up, rebounding during hand contact phases
· Upper extremity pulling - pull up, pullover, withstand the bottom of swinging skills
· Jumping and landing - tumbling, vaulting, mounts, dismounts, dance movements
· Torso and hip flexion - piking, tucking, leg lifts, forward somersault take offs, hollow body positions
· Torso and hip extension - arching, back bends, walkovers, flic flacs, most backward take offs
Any complete conditioning program for gymnastics should include these movements - refer to the illustration below for a depiction of some of these exercises. Therefore, a circuit program should have at least seven stations. While more exercises are certainly possible, and in some cases desirable, these seven movements are the "core" exercises.
Additional exercises are usually unnecessary. Exercises such as wrist curls, toe raises, dumbbell flies, and so forth do not serve the gymnast well and may add extra body weight due to inappropriate hypertrophy (making bigger muscles that are heavier but not used in skills).
How many repetitions?
Ignoring the idea of circuit training for the moment, each exercise should be performed using 3 to 6 sets. A set is a group of repetitions. The first set is usually a warm up, using lower resistance, ending before contractile failure, and performed relatively slowly. The subsequent sets (i.e., 2-4 or 5) should consist of 4 to approximately 15 repetitions. The gymnast should rarely exceed 10-15 repetitions in a particular set. How the repetitions are performed makes a substantial difference in the outcome of the conditioning. Here are some guidelines:
If the gymnast is working against a heavy resistance (i.e., body weight, heavy weights, or a difficult movement) that typically results in contractile failure in less than approximately 8 repetitions, then the gymnast should complete the set by going to complete contractile failure. The set should end on a final repetition that cannot be fully completed.
If the gymnast is working against a lighter resistance or performing a movement that can be done explosively, then the gymnast should end the set when the explosive nature of the repetition cannot be maintained. This usually occurs between repetitions 4 and 6 if the athlete is really trying hard to be explosive.
· If the goal of the training is muscular endurance - preparation for extended sequences such as routines, the best mechanism for training this capacity is by doing the sequences themselves. Conditioning should focus on strength and power by developing surplus strength that can be used for multiple repetitions. This "surplus" strength is based on overloading the movement via more resistance (weight vests, weights, etc) or increasing the speed (explosive movement). For example, if the gymnast needs to improve shoulder flexion type muscular endurance (e.g., casting and pressing), then the best way to achieve this endurance is to perform casts and presses in a row. Weight training, pulling elastic tubing, and using a spotter aids in developing the strength to perform one or a few repetitions with speed and correct form.
After each set the gymnast must rest in order to be prepared for the next set. The duration of the rest period largely dictates the "general" nature of the conditioning outcome. If rest periods do not allow the gymnast to fully recover from the previous set - you are training muscular endurance. If the gymnast completely or nearly completely recovers from the previous set - you're training strength and power. In order to obtain full recovery, you need to rest 2 to 5 minutes between sets. In short, a fatigued gymnast does not enhance strength and speed/power. As the gymnast rests less, the emphasis on muscular endurance and finally aerobic-type endurance increases. The transition from muscular endurance dominance to strength and power dominance is gradual.
One of the major problems with circuit training is that rest periods are seldom long enough to permit full recovery. Although working on another body area or movement can be helpful, many of the by-products of intense muscular effort spill over into the blood and thus influence other muscles, movements, and areas of the body. Circuit training is not the optimal means of enhancing strength and power. Circuit training is helpful for training muscular endurance.
Variation in conditioning exercises is vitally important. All conditioning programs suffer from "wear". What worked with an athlete this year will not have the same effect next year. The stimulus that is applied to the gymnast via conditioning must not result in complete accommodation or progress will cease. However, changing the core exercises is not always merited in order to increase variety. The gymnast should be exposed to a particular core exercise for at least one mesocycle (4 -6 weeks) before shifting to a new core exercise. Variety in the core exercise should be achieved first by adding resistance and later by increasing speed. Only when the gymnast plateaus and becomes utterly resistant to improvements should the core exercise be changed. Peripheral exercises such as injury prevention exercises can be changed much more frequently, approximately every two weeks.
Body Weight or Weights?
Weight training remains controversial for some coaches. However, weight training will likely become the favored means of conditioning for gymnasts in the near future. The reason for the shift is that in order to achieve high levels of strength and power, the stimulus provided by body weight alone is not sufficient beyond a certain threshold. Using body weight as the stimulus is often too difficult and dangerous when weight training can easily and safely accommodate a higher load stimulus without subjecting the athlete to dangerous postures and risk of overuse injury. However, body weight exercises that mimic gymnastics skills will always be the foundation of gymnastics conditioning. Weight training will only supplement and complement the gymnast's specialized fitness because the skills of gymnastics are simply too complex for simple weight training movements to effectively mimic in their entirety.
Gymnastics conditioning is relatively simple. There are seven fundamental movements that should be included in all conditioning programs. The gymnast should strive to train strength and power via conditioning. Shifting conditioning to muscular endurance should only be attempted after sufficient strength is available for safe performance of the skills. Muscular endurance training for skill sequences and routines is best accomplished via circuit training and by practicing the actual sequences. Exercises should be varied by changing the resistance first and then speed. Core exercises should be kept for at least one mesocycle before changing the exercise. Finally, weight training remains controversial among gymnastics coaches, but we believe that weight training will ultimately become a valuable addition to traditional gymnastics strength training that involves repeated performance of strength-oriented skills.
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