Age 7 Strength Question

Subject: Daughter/Flexibility vs Strength

My daughter is 7 years old and is training level 4 at this time. Her coaches are amazed with her flexibility, however, her strength needs a lot of work. She seems to have fallen behind in bars because of the strength issue. If she isn’t going to be a major competitor, is it worth spending the money when I could go to a intramural gymnastics program for a lot less. Is it possible that her strength hasn’t peaked yet? Thanks….

First let us say that strength and flexibility are the two most important prerequisites for success in gymnastics. There is no doubt that having sufficient strength and flexibility before attempting to learn the gymnastics skills that require them is the best and most efficient way to train. This theory of gymnastics strength training and flexibility first and then moving toward high level gymnastics skills is the basis of every successful junior Elite development program like USA Gymnastics’ TOP program.

At age 7, you can be sure that your daughter’s strength has not peaked. In fact, her strength capabilities will not even begin to peak until after she hits puberty. Pre-puberty gymnasts simply do not have the body chemistry yet to truly hit their peak strength levels.

This is not to say that young gymnasts cannot increase their strength. Unlike raw gymnastics talent, strength can certainly be developed by doing strength training, conditioning and regularly performing gymnastics strength skills. So your daughter can and should be able to develop her strength enough to have as successful a gymnastics career as is possible for her (according to her talent and coaching).

Her flexibility is a bonus. Because she already is flexible, she will only have to work enough on it to maintain her flexibility and can possibly spend the extra time working on her conditioning and strength. Flexibility is required for many skills on bars, beam and floor and gymnasts who are more flexible often make even simple skills like walkovers look more beautiful than an inflexible gymnasts could ever hope for.

It is actually also very common for very flexible children to not naturally have an above average level of strength. Gymnasts, of course, must be strong to be successful and this means your daughter will have to work to improve her strength. If she is much weaker than other gymnasts, it is obvious that it will take some time and effort to catch up. But this can certainly be done and your daughter should be able to build the required amounts of strength just by doing the strength-training program being used in her own gym.

In general, your daughter should likely be doing relatively intense and progressively more difficult strength-training program every day she has practice. If she is already participating in such a strength-training program, you have no long-term worries. She should certainly be able to develop sufficient strength to have a long and successful career.

This does not mean that until she does catch up in the area of strength that she will not be at a disadvantage, particularly on bars, until she does catch up. The stronger girls always have an advantage on bars.

Strength gains can come relatively quickly with a good strength program. Noticeable improvement can come in as little as four to six weeks. Since summer is coming up, which is a great time to work on strength (during the off-season), we believe that with a good strength training program, she should be able to develop, catch up and develop enough strength to be successful at any compulsory level over the summer.

You may wish to discuss strength training with your daughter’s coaches and make sure they are aware of the situation you see and are planning how to deal with it. They may explain how they are going to deal with the situation or come up with extra strength training work that your daughter can and should do.
It sometimes happens, especially in the compulsory levels where gymnasts have a limited number of hours for training, that coaches find it difficult to devote enough time to strength training (or at least for gymnasts who are not already strong). Then extra strength training outside of the gym may be advisable.

It is also far too common that some gym conditioning programs are ineffective. If gymnasts always do the same conditioning sets and exercises every day after day, their bodies adapt to the workout and they don’t get any stronger and can even lose strength. If the strength program is varied (at least every 4 – 6 weeks) and is progressively and increasingly difficult, then progress and increases in strength will come and be evident. The most obvious example of this training theory is that in weightlifting, athletes progressively increase the amount of weight that they lift and the number of repetitions they do. All strength programs should have this characteristic.

If the strength-training program is inadequate and the coaches do not have other solutions, strength training (unlike any and every other area of gymnastics) is something that gymnasts and parents can understand and work on themselves. Often doing a similar conditioning program to what is done in the gym on off-days can be enough to improve results or a custom strength training can be developed.

WARNING: No additional strength training should ever be done by gymnasts or parents if gymnasts are already participating in a proper daily progressively difficult program. Over training can and likely will occur and is not only dangerous in terms of injury, but will result in zero and even negative strength progress. It is very easy to over train.

We strongly recommend, however, if parents are not convinced that the gym strength training program is working for their child that they consult with the professionals, their coaches, and come to an agreement and understanding as to how their child’s strength can be improved.

We want to further explain a little more about strength training and young gymnasts. There is no doubt that strength can be improved in young gymnasts. They must, however, use high numbers of exercise repetitions to reach momentary failure instead of heavy weights.

Not working to the point of momentary muscle failure is another one of the weak areas for gym strength training programs. To gain maximum strength in the shortest period of time, exercises must be done to the point where the muscle simply cannot continue to work and fails momentarily. Any strength training program that dos not train muscles to the point of momentary failure is not training for maximum strength as will not develop strength as fast as is possible (and desirable). We suspect that the majority of gymnastics strength training programs do not train muscles to momentary failure.

Pre-puberty gymnasts must use repetitions to achieve failure. Post-puberty gymnasts could use heavy weights to achieve failure more quickly.

Pre-puberty gymnasts also cannot safely strength train the same way post-puberty gymnasts are able to because their bone structure is not fully formed yet. All pre-puberty athletes, including gymnasts, must refrain from certain strength training methods, like doing weight training with heavy weights, that they can safely do later in their careers.

To summarize, your daughter should be able to develop the strength she needs to be successful and competitive by participating in a suitable strength-training program. It would be reasonable to expect that she should be able to do this during the summer (assuming she trains regularly all summer long). Her coaches likely are already planning a suitable strength training program for her, but you may wish to speak with them so you understand what they have planned. You should not feel that your daughter’s long-term gymnastics hopes for success are negated simply because she is not strong yet. She can and most likely will develop the strength she needs. In the mean time, you can be happy that she already has another important characteristic for the sport – flexibility.

We might also recommend reading the following articles we have written. Some relate to strength training, compulsory training and flexibility and some relate to Level 4.

Of course, we also recommend our Secrets to Level 4 Gymnastics book to you (Big surprise, there). You can read all about it at Secrets to Level 4 Gymnastics.

Good luck to you and your daughter. If there is anything else we can do for you, please let us know.

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