Why Weight Training?

Why is it that in a sport like gymnastics where strength is obviously a basic essential and a key to gaining a competitive advantage is not weight training more common? The science of strength training deals almost exclusively with weight training because of its efficiency, measurability, and smooth progressive nature. In spite of the science, gymnastics for the large part has ignored weight training as a part of traditional gymnastics development.

There are a number of traditional reasons for this and a few specific concerns that need to be addressed by the gymnast utilizing weight training.

Gymnastics is very dependent on specific strength to weight ratios. Most common is the weak gymnast without sufficient strength to perform certain gymnastics skills because of a lack of strength. Not as common, but a possibility would be an athlete, who has overbuilt their weightlifting strength capacities well beyond the requirements of the sport and in the process are carrying extra weight from unneeded muscles affecting their ability to perform effectively strength-to-weight skills such as iron crosses, and planches. This is a rare possibility and likely only with male athletes. Lack of testosterone would make it unlikely that female gymnasts would ever be in this situation..

The most prevalent reason for the lack of weight training in gymnasts must certainly be economic. To provide the weight training equipment, in suitable numbers and variety, to train an entire gymnastics team in an efficient period of time, would almost double the equipment investment required of a gym owner. This is often not economically feasible for the owner of the gym.

For the safety of young and inexperienced gymnasts, weight machines would be the ideal weight training choice. The traditional weight machine companies however generally produce equipment sized more for professional football players than gymnasts and many of the normal weight machines are unusable for the normal petite gymnast. There are a number of specially sized women’s weight machines and the AAI weight training circuit for children that are available.

Athletes throughout the entire range of strength development, abilities and capacities can show progress with weight training.

One of the major problems with gymnastics strength training is the lack of ability to be progressive with normal gymnastics conditioning methods.

First is the problem of how to condition gymnasts to do skills such as press handstands when the can not practice press handstands. While there are some drills – reverse presses, presses against a wall, spotted presses, jump presses, press headstands, etc. that are possible, there is certainly no smooth, progressive transition for the weaker gymnast in training.

The second problem is a time problem. Without the ability to increase weight in strength training, the only option is to increase the number of repetitions performed. Performing more repetitions, of course, takes more time and time is a valuable commodity in the sport. By example, climbing a rope is a common gymnastics conditioning exercise. To continue to increase strength, a gymnast would have to climb more each day – one time, ten times, thirty times. Where would it end?

Time is needed to develop the hundreds of gymnastics skills and progressions required and for repetition of skills and routines to develop the consistency of execution required for competition. There is not enough time in practice to be taken over by the need to ever-increasing need to do more strength repetitions.

Gymnastics coaches attempt to solve this problem by having gymnasts do a set number of each conditioning skill – e.g. 25 presses, 2 rope climbs, 25 chin-ups, 50 V-ups… The problem with this has been shown over and over again with scientific research into the building of strength. Increasing strength absolutely requires increasing weight, increasing repetitions and/or increasing intensity.

Lack of increase in these factors can lead to strength loss after only six weeks. Repetition of the same exercises day in and day out without increasing weight, repetitions or intensity will show initial rapid gains for two weeks, two weeks of declining gains, a fifth plateau week and in the sixth week, strength actually declines. So much for same old daily conditioning theory.

Some improvement in this cycle can be achieved by introducing variety into the conditioning program by alternating the order of exercises, using an alternating series of different exercises or introducing competition into the conditioning training to increase the intensity of performance. In the long run the problem remains, improvement cannot be achieved without some type of progressive increase.

Other coaches attempt to weave the conditioning in with increasingly hard sessions of gymnastics skill training using the skill training itself as a type of conditioning. This also requires balancing the repetition needs of gymnastics training with the need to learn new higher level skills, which cannot be repeated enough to get a conditioning effect.

All of theses attempts to use traditional gymnastics conditioning as the sole means of strength training are difficult if not impossible to track on an individual basis and certainly not on a team basis. This makes the development of strength in gymnastics a very inexact science.

Some coaches, systems and countries just select those already strong enough for the sport and just try to use traditional conditioning to just maintain that strength. This may be possible using variety and competition to increase and vary intensity, but it certainly wastes those athletes who just are not yet currently strong enough, but who have the capacity for development.

Indeed, the science of weightlifting shows that building strength is definitely an area where vast improvements can be made. In time the very weak, with enough training and determination can all achieve the strength required for the sport.

This is an area where if an individual gym lacks the facilities for weightlifting and individual gymnast or gymnast’s parent can provide for the training in some other way, either with home equipment or at a separate health club or weight training facility.

Gymnastics coaching is a highly technical process and should not be undertaken by parents or the inexperienced. There is also a balance of the intensity of practice, pressure and the amount of time spent in training that needs to be controlled by a professional coach.

It is not ever recommended that gymnasts or parents undertake any gymnastics training or coaching on their own. They should not even undertake to improve any aspect of their gymnastics training, including strength building, without the advice and consent of their coach, but surely if strength is a problem for the gymnast, the coach should not object to extra effort being made to rectify that situation.

Strength and flexibility training, however, are in the realm of general athletic knowledge and parents could certainly assist or supervise the process for their own child, if the coach approves.

The reasons that weight training are not used in gymnastics are tradition, economic or equipment based. The science of strength certainly demonstrates the effectiveness of weight training for strength development for all athletes, including gymnasts. It is up to gymnasts, parents, coaches and gym owners to overcome the obstacles and provide weight training for efficient strength building for their gymnasts. Anything else flies in the face of science and reason.


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