How Many Hours of Practice?

Subject: How Many Hours of Practice?

I have recently received a number of questions relating to the number and scheduling of practice time in the gym. I have decided to answer them together. Here are the questions I received:

How many hours of training are productive and safe? My 11 year old daughter will be a L7. The gym’s summer practice schedule is 4 days ( 1day @ 3 hours practice and 3 days @ 5 hours) for a total of 18 hours. Is this a safe amount of practice for her? It seems like 5 hour practices are very long and I wonder if this is good for her body or safe. I would guess that more injuries occur when the girls are tired.

How many practice hours do you recommend? What is the maximum hours you recommend practicing per day.

My daughter enjoys gymnastics, but we’re not looking at making it a career. When it’s not fun anymore, it will be OK to quit. I’m concerned that this much practice will make it “not fun” quicker.

Also I know her body is still developing and I’m concerned about the toll it may take on her development. I certainly wouldn’t want her to her any long term problems (i.e. joint pain…) from gymnastics.

What is the value of split shift training (mornings and after school) for progression to elite?

My second question, is how much practice is too much practice? Our team is moving to a 30 hour per week practice schedule for level 6 and above. Is this the average? Does the rate of injury increase with the number of practice hours?

There are a number of factors relating to length of practice. The first consideration is the age of the gymnast. Probably more than the level at which they compete, the age of a gymnast is a critical factor. The second is the goals of the gymnast. For our purposes as a web site and when we are coaching, we always assume gymnasts are in the gym to become high level optional gymnasts – to be all they can be.

I was recently in Thailand doing clinics and as demonstrators for one clinic I had two very different gymnasts. As is my habit and as part of the clinic, I asked each gymnast “What is your Olympics?” At first, neither gymnast nor their coaches had any idea what I was asking. As it turned out the one gymnast was 13 years old, (and originally from England) making her natural Olympics the 2012 London Olympics, three years hence. Time for her to get very, very serious and increase her training if she had any thoughts at all of reaching that level.

The other gymnast was a very talented 8-year-old who would not be 16 and eligible for the Olympics for 11 more years. In addition to teaching her high level skills, her parents’ and coaches’ main job needs to be to keep her from burning out and quitting the sport long before “her Olympics” comes along. If she is looking the least bit bored or wants to take a day off to do something with her friends, you would be crazy not to let her if you want her to be in the gym 11 years from now.

These are about the extremes of how gymnasts have differing needs for time in the gym. It is incredibly easy to burn out young gymnasts keeping them in the gym too much, too soon. It is one of the most common mistakes of young ambitious coaches when dealing with talented young gymnasts.

There is no substitute for time in the gym. Given equal talent and coaching and equally efficient practices, the gymnast who is in the gym longer will always win.

Parents must also realize how many things that a coach would like to get into training in a day and the planning choices and sacrifices that have to be made to fit into the allotted time schedule.

  • Warm-ups
  • Tumbling on the competition floor.
  • Tumbling on the rod floor
  • Tumbling on the tumble tramp.
  • Trampoline training
  • Competition Vaulting
  • Vaulting into the pit
  • Bar routines
  • Pit bar dismounts
  • Bar release moves
  • Strap bars
  • Learning new bar skills
  • Romanian and Soviet beam complexes
  • Beam routines
  • Beam tumbling
  • Beam dismounts
  • Learning new beam skills
  • Beam dance
  • Floor routines
  • Learning new floor skills
  • Floor dance
  • Gymnastics strength training and conditioning
  • Stretching
  • Educating gymnasts
  • Mental training

Many of these activities should both be done into a pit and on the regular mats, increasing the length of the list even more. This is not an exhaustive list, but there are listed 25 different practice activities that a coach would really like to get in, but often cannot because of limited hours.

In a three-hour practice, that would allocate only 6 minutes to each activity. Don’t forget that on average ½ – ? of practices are not actively productive – moving mats, chalking up, breaks, waiting in line, waiting for a spotter, etc. That gives 2 – 3 minutes for each activity. No where near enough.

It is impossible (unless you do like the Chinese do and take the kids away from their parents for 50 weeks per year and train them 2 – 3 sessions per day year round) get everything into one practice, so each practice is a series of trade-offs.

Younger gymnasts need not and should not spend too many hours in the gym, because they have plenty of time in the sport to develop and too much too soon will almost always result in them quitting the sport before they are even old enough to seriously compete. You have to be 16 years old to compete in the Olympics or a World Championship.

There is considerable science to show that a single practice should not exceed 3 & ½ hours for ideal learning and safety. Temper that with the equally valid science that shows that ideally gymnasts would be training twice per day for maximum progress and consistency.

In America, it is difficult enough for coaches to get parents to bring their daughters every day to practice, much less drive them to the gym twice a day. In order to try to get more hours of practice, the compromise is done to have longer practices.

There are ways to ameliorate the negative factors in a longer practice – breaks, a wide variety in practices from day to day to avoid boredom and loss of concentration and scheduling the practice to go from the most active and dangerous activities to activities that require less energy and concentration. For example, starting with tumbling on the competition floor in the beginning of practice and progressing through practice to the rod floor (softer and easier), tumble tramp and then tumbling into the pit and trampoline near the end of practice. This type of practice plan allows more margin of error later in the practice than in the beginning when the gymnast was fresher and more energetic.

Event wise, practices would be designed to do tumbling, bars, vault and beam tumbling early and beam and floor dance and conditioning at the end of practices.

The averages for weekly practice time according to surveys in the U.S. for gyms:

  • Level 4 – 6 hours a week = 3 days x 2 hours
  • Level 5 – 8.75 hrs a week
  • Level 6 – 11 hours a week
  • Level 7 – 13.5 hrs a week
  • Level 8 – 15 hours a week = 5 days x 3 hours
  • Level 9 – 16.5 hrs a week
  • Level 10 – 18 hours a week = 6 days x 3 hours

This is not to say this is ideal. These are the averages. As you can see, the survey did not investigate how many hours per week by age, which would be a better criterion.

While I have no true scientific basis for the following recommendations, I would modify the above and use the following as a starting basis for how many hours might be appropriate for each age level.

  • Ages 7-8 – 6 hours a week to 8.75 hrs a week
  • Ages 9-10 – 11 to 13.5 hrs a week
  • Ages 11-12 – 15 to 16.5 hrs a week
  • Ages 13 and up – 18 hours a week and up

Any significant variance from this or practices longer than 3 and ½ hours might merit further talk and consideration with coaches concerning team and individual short and long term goals, burn-out, increasing practice variety, avoiding repetitive stress injuries, etc.

In terms of safety, it is true that there is a corresponding increase in the number of injuries as time in the gym goes up and as the level of gymnastics rises and the gymnasts are doing more difficult skills (compulsory and basic optional skills are not in this category). But it is also true that for consistency and safety, it is better to train every day (5 -6 days per week). Again, accommodating what parents will and will not do with younger and lower level gymnasts, in terms of driving to the gym is something that coaches have to deal with.

If a coach has a goal to win Level 6 States as a team and wants to train 30 hours per week (more than every other Level 6 team) to accomplish that, but is not taking into consideration that such a schedule may burn out younger Level 6 gymnasts in the long run before they reach the age at which they are allowed to compete internationally, this is a problem and short-sighted. There must be both short and long term goals and they must coincide in the strategies they employ.

In America, workers are paid time and a half when they work over 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week. Gymnasts’ work = school + practice. Careful consideration must be given when they are asked to work more than 8 hours per day. Summers are more conducive to longer and two-a-day practices as gymnasts have more energy since they are not in school all day. No gymnast not imminently training to successfully compete at Nationals, Worlds or the Olympics should be asked to do two-a-day practices and go to school full-time.

Summer and weekends are more appropriate for longer practices and two-day practice sessions. Gymnasts younger than age 12 – 13 and lower level gymnasts should not likely be doing two-a-day practices.

From time to time gymnastics magazines herald the swift progress of some young gymnast who stands out from the crowd at a very young age and is thought to be a sure candidate for a future Olympics. I have never heard of even one of these gymnasts who lasted until they were old enough to compete internationally. Their coaches and/or parents pushed them too much and too soon and they ended up quitting the sport before ever reaching their potential. Burnout is a tremendous problem in this sport and the more talented the gymnast the more of a problem it is.

Shawn Johnson reportedly regularly practiced 25 hours per week in her own gym to achieve the level of gymnastics she demonstrated in the Olympics. The Karolyis were known at times to push practice levels to over 40 plus hours per week before competitions. At these levels of training hours, injuries were not only common but almost to be expected.

Since every gymnast I put on team is talented enough to be training for high level optionals and since we plan all of our practices and training strategies with that in mind, my personal and team solution for practice time involves offering four hour team practices during the school year with longer practices on Saturdays. During the summer, we either offer two-a-day practices (morning and the same times as during the school year in the evenings) or longer practices, but only five days per week.

I have experimented with Wednesdays off during the school year and practices on both Saturday and Sunday, but there are always gymnasts who because of religious reasons miss Sunday practice.

We track attendance so if gymnasts or most likely parents want to know why their daughter is not doing as well as Suzie Q, we can show them that Suzie Q comes to practice every day and their daughter does not.

Financially, we charged the same to all optional team members and gymnasts and parents determine how many days they come. Parents have a financial incentive to bring their gymnasts more to get their money’s worth. Compulsory gymnasts are charged less and expected to come only 4 – 5 days per week, but still may come to all practices. All of our gymnasts, including compulsories are working toward high level optional skills at every practice (except for a few weeks before States).

This means we offer every gymnast the opportunity to train at the highest levels and as many hours as they want. We monitor and counsel gymnasts and parents if we think they are training too much and may be subject to burnout later. No practice is ever the same and we often have formal and informal competitions during the Saturday practices, including strength and conditioning competitions, skill consistency competitions and personal and team record setting opportunities.

To sum up:

  1. There is not sufficient data to give a complete answer and cover every individual and team situation. We can only give general guidelines to consider.
  2. Coaches are always juggling what to cover in practices since there never seems to be enough time.
  3. Because time is limited, coaches should be very well-prepared with training plans for each practice to maximize training efficiency.
  4. Practices should be efficient in terms of setting up equipment stations before practice, minimizing non-efficient activities like moving mats.
  5. Age is a more critical factor than level in determining the appropriate number of hours in a gym.
  6. Short and long-term goals must both be considered when scheduling team practice times.
  7. Practices ideally would be no longer than 3 & ½ hours and two-a-day sessions are ideal for maximum consistency for high level optionals. Concessions often have to be made to minimize parent’s driving times. The resulting longer practices should be well planned to avoid injury and burnout.
  8. Extremely high numbers of hours in the gym should be reserved for gymnasts who are training for National and international meets.
  9. If a gymnast does not want to go to practice, this is a warning sign of a problem, which may be too much practice or the gymnast is approaching burnout.
  10. Burnout is a much more common problem than most parents or coaches realize. A gymnast’s career and practice schedules should be carefully planned and monitored to avoid burnout. Burnout is almost always irreversible and you cannot give gymnasts back time that you burned up when they were young. In almost every case, too much too soon means the gymnast quits the sport before ever reaching even close to their potential.

While on most subjects, definitive answers are possible, the subject of how much practice time is ideal in a gym has too many variables to give a realistic generic answer. Parents and coaches need to carefully consider all the ramifications and continually monitor practice time to maximize it individually and for the team.

Hope this is some help to your personal situations.

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2 Responses to “How Many Hours of Practice?”

  1. Eden April 13, 2012 at 8:16 am #

    Your hours a week information is false, I retired at level 8 and by then I had 4 hours every day after school, and 6 on fridays. Level 10+, if they are dedicated, will work at least 6-8 hours a day, everyday but Sunday.

    • Gymnastics Zone April 13, 2012 at 11:07 am #

      Thanks for your input. The numbers of hours indicated were averages and starting recommendations and as I indicated, there is considerable variation and widely varying beliefs about what is appropriate and what works. The Karolyis reportedly had gymnasts working as much as 49 hours per week and sometimes 7 days per week, while Shawn Johnson reportedly won Olympic Gold working only four hours per day. There are scientific studies that indicate longer practices lead to increased injuries. Thus, there is a critical balance between the length of practice time and progress that must be maintained, while simultaneously avoiding overtraining injuries and burn-out. The most effective training schedule often varies from gymnast to gymnast and certainly coaching beliefs about practice length vary considerably. Primarily, this article wanted to emphasize that just more and more practice is not always better or the safest for the average gymnast. Parent, coaches and gymnasts must consider training time in relation to level of training, age and actual chances to actually reach Level 10 and above. Just interested, you didn’t mention why you retired or how old you were when you were when you retired. Anyway, thanks for challenging the assumptions of the article. The topic is certainly not one of those areas of the sport that has been clearly established beyond a reasonable doubt.

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