Principles of Strength Training

While strength training is an important part of just about any sport, few sports’ strength demands are as high or as specific as those of gymnastics. The goal of gymnastics-oriented strength training is NOT to simply crank out as many repetitions as possible; rather, the goal is to ensure that each individual repetition of any strength element is correctly executed, and that the difficulty of the exercise is well-calibrated to the gymnast’s strength levels. To illustrate these concepts, we’ll analyze a strength skill with which everybody is probably familiar: the push-up.

First, we’ll talk about correct execution. In a correctly-executed push-up, the body is perfectly straight or very slightly hollowed. The head should be neutral or slightly up. It is very common for gymnasts to drop the forehead towards the floor, but this is incorrect; the head should be perfectly in line with the rest of the body. The hands should be positioned just barely outside shoulder width. When the gymnast descends, her chest should stop within an inch of the floor, but not touch it. After a brief hold (about a second), she should then push back up. With the obvious exception of the arms and shoulders, the body position should not change at all during the execution of this skill. A correctly-executed push-up is a deceptively intense exercise.

Now let’s look at calibration of difficulty, which is a bit more complex. If a gymnast can crank out 100 correct repetitions of an exercise without breaking a sweat, the exercise is too easy for her to gain any real benefit from it. And if a gymnast cannot correctly execute the skill a single time, obviously it is too hard. The goal with any strength skill is to find the middle ground, where the gymnast can execute the skill correctly, but maxes out at a relatively low number; I generally like to aim to max between 5 and 15 reps depending on the exercise and the goal. Note that the gymnast is “maxed out” when she can no longer perform a flawless rep — gymnasts should never sacrifice technique in order to reach higher numbers.

So how can we adjust the intensity of a push-up? With strength skills (as with all skills) there are progressions that gymnasts can work through as they train in order to efficiently attain their goals. Let’s take a look at one push-up based progression.

FRONT SUPPORT: Also known as push-up position or prone position. Just holding the position can be a challenge for beginning gymnasts. As mentioned above, the body must be completely straight with the head held in a neutral position and the hands just barely outside of shoulder width. The chest should be caved in and the shoulder blades pulled apart, giving the upper-back a slightly-rounded shape. Often gymnasts will arch in the back, pike in the hips, or drop the forehead. All three are incorrect.

KNEE PUSH-UPS: This is a push-up where the knees are allowed to rest on the floor. DO NOT allow the hips to bend – the hips should remain straight, and all other rules concerning correct execution still apply.

PUSH-UPS: I think by this point everybody understands what these are.

PSEUDO-PLANCHE PUSH-UPS: Gymnasts whose strength has developed past the point where standard push-ups are beneficial can train pseudo-planche push-ups. Not only are these more intense (due to the increase in the proportion of weight born by the arms and the disadvantaged leverage by the shoulders), but they more closely mimic a wide variety of gymnastics skills. The gymnast should, from a front support, lean her shoulders forward past her hands to achieve a pseudo-planche, then perform push-ups in that position. (The pseudo-planche itself is an excellent exercise, and simply holding that position will help gymnasts as well.)

As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and topic requests.

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