How Many Hours in the Gym?

Subject: Hours in Gym
Dear Ask The Coach,

My concern is “training hours in the gym”. My daughter is training for level 7 and I worry about how much time she spends training in the gym. She trains 4 to 4.5 hours a day, 5 days a week along with going to school full time. I worry about injuries…I realize that the more conditioned a gymnast is the less chance she will have injuries but I also think if a “child” is tired because of too much training there is more chance that they can get injured. I have been told that if my child really wants to succeed that she does require the long hours of training and that I should consider homeschooling her, but I do not want her to miss out on social aspects of school. It just seems like all or nothing…what is your opinion…???

Thank you,

A concerned gym mom

You did not mention how old your daughter is and this is a critical factor in the hours she should be in the gym. We shall try to answer your questions in general and hopefully that will help you.

Those of us coaches who have been coaching for a long time have learned the difficult lessons that gymnasts that are in the gym too much, too soon almost always burn out and quit the sport before they are even old enough to compete internationally at age 16.

There is seemingly, however, a new wave of younger coaches who have not yet learned those lessons. Worse, is that the better young gymnasts are, the more coaches keep them in the gym and the more likely they are to burn out and quit the sport before they reach their potential.

If your daughter is 8 or younger, she still has 8 years in the gym before she is eligible for International competition and is probably in the gym too much at 4 – 4.5 hours per day. If she is 9 – 11, this is relatively typical of the hours optional gymnasts spend in the gym.

If she is older than 11 and she has any desire at all to become a high level gymnast (Level 10 or Elite), she needs all the time in the gym she can get. Many gymnasts will work out six days per week in this situation.

We feel it is only fair to tell you that you should evaluate the gym and coaching level your daughter has available to her. We are seeing many coaches who have never created an Elite gymnast but think they know how, having their gymnasts train long hours, but without offering a program that can actually successfully get gymnasts to that high a level. Certainly before you agree to commit your daughter to any higher level of commitment, you should make sure that her time and effort have some chance of actually paying off. Read our Ask the Coach article, “Finding the Right Gym and Coaching” for a more detailed explanation of that topic.

Basically, if your gym’s coaches have been coaching for a long time (say 10 years) and have never created an Elite gymnast or winning Level 10 gymnasts, they may not be capable of it and you would be wasting your daughter’s time practicing more or home schooling.

We believe that in most cases it is best to keep gymnasts in regular school for the social aspects and all-around experience. From a gymnastics point of view, this depends somewhat on how cooperative a school or teachers are in helping your daughter with her gymnastics career. Letting gymnasts out of school early for practices, allowing her the flexibility to miss and make-up classes, homework and tests when gymnasts need to travel to compete can allow gymnasts to have a relatively normal school experience. If schools or teachers are inflexible, then it can be difficult for a gymnast to advance their career and home schooling may be the only other option.

If and when your daughter is age 12 – 13 or older and is seriously and successfully training for Level 10 or Elite, then perhaps two a day practices (which seems to be the theoretical scientifically ideal practice schedule) might make home schooling a necessity. But unless a gymnast is actively working at that level, it is likely overkill to do two a day practices and home school.

Young gymnasts are amazingly adaptable and can handle what seems to be (and actually is) a very heavy school and workout schedule. Strangely, often the more they work out the better they do in school. Likely something to do with self-discipline. If a gymnast gets injured it is most likely to be some cause other than overwork and being tired.

There is a two to three week period of time in the beginning of the school year, where gymnasts are going to be tired until they adapt to their new gym and school schedule. Don’t measure from that period of time.

We are firm believers in using your daughter as a barometer. If she gives any indication that she wants to take some time off, and has always been a dedicated gymnast and loves to go to the gym, you likely should have her take some time off. (say, one night or take an early weekend). It’s going to be a long gymnastics career (hopefully) and a day or two off here and there, especially early in her career will not ruin her overall success and may well keep her in the sport longer. It may also be a good time to reevaluate and make sure she is not getting burned out.

Make no mistake. There are and always will be gymnasts out there working hours and hours every day and your daughter will be competing against them sooner or later. There is also no substitute for time in the gym. There are certainly gymnasts in China working out two to three times per day year-round.

It is important to identify a gymnast’s real goals and then you can more intelligently match their workout schedule to match their goals. If you want to win at certain levels you have to pay the price in time in the gym and hard work.

Age is the most important factor in length of workouts (and how many). Huge sacrifices (home schooling, two practices a day and long workouts) should only be made if the gym program and coach are truly capable of producing high level gymnasts. Just as important is whether your daughter wants to make these type of sacrifices, she is old enough (age 12 or up) and is talented enough and successful enough in competition to warrant making all of this extra effort.

That gives you an overall view. For a more specific answer, we would have to know more about your gymnast. Age, years in the sport, gym and coaches, gymnastics successes, etc. all help in giving truly valuable personalized advice.

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

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6 Responses to “How Many Hours in the Gym?”

  1. Bob March 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Coach Howard,

    This is a very insightful article. We have a 7 year old who will soon be turning 8. She is a level 5 gymnast and the gym she goes to want her to go 20 to 22 hours a week over the summer. She is very talented but I am concerned of the chance of injury for her young body. She already has soreness in her knee and when I voice my concerns to the coaches they tell me I am overreacting and that this is normal.

    I get the feeling that more or less they are recommending the higher number of hours because they are trying to get me to pay more towards her coaching ($$$) over the summer.

    Does this seem out of line? Should I look to another gym if they refuse to listen or is this normal? Please tell me I’m not crazy.

    • Coach Howard March 23, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

      Assuming your daughter is scheduled to be going five days a week in the summer, that means five 4+ hours of practice per week. As mentioned in the article, that is a lot of hours for an 8-year-old, especially since your daughter is a Level 5.

      There are, however, no firm guidelines or general agreement among coaches on this topic. The Chinese gymnasts in the national training centers at this age are working twice as many hours, year-round, two sessions per day, six days a week.

      The problem with doing too many hours of practice at a young age is that gymnasts burn out and don’t stay in the sport. They quit years before they are even old enough for Elite international competitions. Even if the gymnasts themselves are begging to go to the gym more and more, that does not at all mean they are not going to burn out at 13 or 14. Since they want to go and their coaches want them to go to practice more, they rack up too many hours in the gym too soon without anyone noticing. The results of working out too much, too soon is not seen until years later.

      More hours in the gym does correlate to more possible injuries in the gym. That is only logical, but that is not what would be my concern. Level 5 gymnasts are at a much lower risk of injury than higher level gymnasts doing way more difficult skills and the extra one hour of practice time is not significantly different than their current risk of injury. While more time in the gym, just like more time on the playground at school, can mean a somewhat higher chance of injury, a healthy 7-year-old Level 5 is not really going to be be at significantly increased danger of injury from one more hour of practice. Burn out in her teen years is the problem to be guarding against and that battle really starts now.

      While it is true that gyms usually have fewer regular class students in the summer and may welcome any opportunity to make more money to cover summer expenses, it is equally true that gymnasts have a great opportunity to make significant progress over the summer, when they have more free time to practice more and are not tired from going to school all day. Gyms have a right, in that case, to expect to be paid more for more hours of training. That is fairly common in many gyms around the country. I firmly believe parents should support their own gyms financially, especially in the summer, because in the long run, their own gymnasts will benefit.

      I am a little more concerned with the soreness in her knee. The fact that she is sore in only one knee may be an indication of injury rather than general soreness from exercise. I have a rule of thumb that if a gymnast has an injury interferes with practice for more than three days that having it checked out by a sports doctor is a wise choice. Better to get a diagnosis and start the healing process or for her to to be cleared and to know she can go all out in practice.

      Overall, this is not necessarily a situation that I would consider changing gyms over. All coaches feel tremendous pressure to get more gym time because there are so many things to work on. Most gyms you would go to will be doing something similar. Summer practices of 3&1/2 hours (17.5 hours per week) for her age would be recommended and one hour more per day (for 20 – 22 hours per week) should not be a deal breaker.

      On the other hand, you should feel free to communicate your concerns over the effect of so many hours this summer on long-term burn out and you should monitor your daughter for any signs that she may need a break from time to time. I certainly would not hesitate to let her participate in occasional special summer activities like pool parties, birthday parties, vacations, long weekend family trips, etc.

      Good luck and if there is anything else we can do for you, please let us know.

  2. julia-ann fenech May 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Coach Howard,
    I am a gymnast and am 13 years old. i have been training for about 5 years. I am from Malta and there isn’t much hope for me in becoming an elite gymnast here. I am of idea to move to another country and get home schooled while i practice everyday gymnastics. I haven’t discussed this with my parents yet as i am making some research so i can chose right. What advice can you give me?

    A hopeful gymnast.

    • Coach Howard June 1, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

      As far as countries with successful gymnastics programs, you are closest to Italy. There are a number of good programs there putting out successful International gymnasts. I am a big fan of Italian gymnasts, like Carlotta Ferlito. She also moved in 2007 to Lissone and to Gal Lissone’s club near Milan to become a member of the national team under Paolo Bucci and Claudia Ferrè. Vanessa Ferrari trains at Brixia Brescia. Giulia Leni competes for the Gal Gym Team. Elisabetta Preziosa, Giorgia Campana. Chiara Gandolfi, Andrea Foti, Erika Fasana, Francesca DeAgostini, Elisa Meneghini and Serena Bugani all trained in good programs in Italy. Of course, language would be a problem there unless you speak Italian.

      On the other hand and much farther away is one of the up and coming programs in Europe – Great Britain. And not only that, but with the Olympics there in 2012, there are so many great things going on. Three time world Champion, Beth Tweddle, has some of the best bars in the world and trains at the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club with Hannah Whelan and Jennifer Pinches. That would have to be on your wish list of gyms to train at. I assume you speak English, because you live in Malta, so this might end up being the most likely choice, simply because you already speak the language.

      There are two choices. One or both of your parents moves with you or you find someone to live with wherever you move. Only you will know which of those is the right choice for you.

      This is no small decision and would have an incredible impact on your family so make sure you know exactly what you want to do so you can be convincing when you talk to your parents. You are right to do research. But this also could be an incredible adventure and a powerful life experience.

      Well, hope that helps some. Good luck to you.

      • Elvira Alexander June 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

        Coach Howard,
        I first started gymnastics when I was about 3-4 years old. However it was more of a recreational thing. I stopped for a while but started at a new gym when I was about 7 years old. By the time I was about eight years old I started at the beginner level, but I was soon moved up to a more advanced level (level 4). I dislocated and cracked my arm while performing a cartwheel on the high beam. I didn’t go back for a while after that. I returned to another new gym when i was about 11 years old (Fall 2011). I started in level 1, but only stayed there for a few weeks. I was advanced to level 2, but my parents knew this level wasn’t challenging enough. So in a way I skipped level 2 and moved to level 3, which I stayed in for about 6-8 months. After that I was moved to level 4 where I stayed at for roughly a year or so. However in the summer of 2013 my parents decided to move me to private lessons. I only took about 3 lessons and mastered skills that would advance me to level 5. I began level 5 in Fall 2013. I moved out of that level in Spring 2014. As of now I am beginning level 6. Do you think I am going at a steady pace? Also, I don’t think my gym is challenging enough. Level 6 (also called Gold II) is based on the Level 6 Junior Olympic Level. However my gym schedules practices for this level Tuesday and Thursday 6-9:30 PM and Friday 6:00-8:30. Saturdays and Sundays are extra practice days (like open gyms). However I don’t think a required amount of 9 and 1/2 hours a week is enough so I do my own conditioning practices and exercises at home. However my parents get a little concerned that I push myself too much. Do you think this is a bad thing? They say I can really hurt myself. At home I practice things such as sitting in splits for 30-60 min on each leg so my parents think it’s a little extreme at times. I have developed a pain in my right knee but my doctor says it’s normal. At home I practice for an average of about 2 hours (sometimes 3 hours) every day including and that’s including the 9.5 hour average. I would just like to know if I should continue this routine, tone it down, or add extra hours to my required gymnastics training at the gym. Thanks.

        • Gymnastics Zone June 20, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

          For such off and on participation from ages 3 – 11, your progress seems fine. Serious gymnasts practice almost every day. It is possible to do extra conditioning, stretching, dance and some beam at home that will be beneficial to your gymnastics career. But I suggest you take advantage of of as much time in your gym as possible to train, including open gyms and private lessons, where you have access to all the right equipment, pits and mats for safety. Your parents should not be concerned with you doing the kind of training at home, you have mentioned. Make sure you do take at least one day off per week to let your body (and mind) rest and recover. NOTE: Pain is not necessarily “normal” and is often a sign that you need to back off. If pain interferes with your workouts, especially if for three days or more, it is likely time to see the doctor again. Continue to monitor the pain levels. Good luck.

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