Developing Upper Body Power
Foundational Concepts for Developing Upper Body Power
The ultimate goal of strength and conditioning for female gymnasts is developing the explosive power necessary to perform high-level gymnastics skills. As mentioned in the foundations series, the equation for power is force times velocity. Developing the ability to produce force must precede attempts to generate force quickly. Therefore power training must follow strength training and will only be effective once a sufficient base level of strength is achieved. Power training aims to use the existing level of strength and teach the neuromuscular system to produce force rapidly through adaptations in the mechanical and neurological systems . Specific strength (in this case, power) is only maximized when preceded by a well-planned strength phase, both at the annual and multi-year plan levels . As Bompa and Buzichelli state in their text, “a house is only as strong as its foundation .”
Power training is a relatively advanced form of training. Increasing strength will go a long way towards increasing power without spending significant amounts of time training “power” exercises specifically . A certain level of force production and ability to distribute forces is needed to proficiently perform athletic movements, indicating that gymnasts should start building a strength reserve early on to respond to a wide range of reactive and unpredictable athletic scenarios effectively . Research has demonstrated that young athletes who are stronger have superior vertical jump, sprint, and change of direction speed than weaker players. Resistance training improves performance in front handspring vault performance and many other athletic measures . In simple terms, complicated power exercises are not necessary to increase a young gymnast’s ability to produce power in their gymnastics skills. Without proper progression and base-level strength, these training methods may do more harm than good due to the higher inherent forces . It is important to remember that most gymnasts at the club level are novice or intermediate level resistance trainers (regardless of their competitive level). Training should be designed with that fact in mind. Gymnasts who have progressed to the college level or continued gymnastics at the elite level after graduating high school will most benefit from more advanced power training. It certainly doesn’t hurt to mention that stronger athletes are less likely to suffer sports-related injuries .
It is imperative to meet prerequisites when designing any strength training program. Bompa and Buzichelli outline the Seven Laws of Strength Training that all coaches should consider when developing programs:
Develop Joint Mobility: train through the entire range of motion (especially at the knees, hips, and ankles)
Develop Ligament and Tendon Strength: muscle strength improves faster than tendon and ligament strength; anatomical adaptation phases and progressive increases to training load are crucial
Develop Core Strength: the arms and legs are only as strong as the trunk; core isolation exercises are only a starting point to training the core muscles.
Develop the Stabilizers: Prime movers work most efficiently with strong stabilizer muscles; weak stabilizers inhibit the prime movers; unilateral exercises are a great choice.
Train Movements, Not Individual Muscles: the bulk of training should consist of multi-joint movements resembling the actions of the sport (squats, deadlifts, etc.) with a small amount of accessory or isolation exercises
Focus Not on What is New but on What Is Necessary: many products on the market to improve athletic performance are not only not effective but often inhibitory; a thorough understanding of biomechanics and exercise physiology can prevent coaches from falling for the gimmicks
Periodize Strength in the Long Term: maximize the athlete’s motor potential over the long term by not using high loads as soon as possible with complex exercises that have not been technically mastered
When working with young athletes, coaches must balance the quality (learning and enjoyment) of a training session with the “quantity” (intensity and volume of training) . Programs for youth and adolescent athletes must be individualized to ensure appropriate exercise prescription is achieved . Coaches should avoid using blanket plans or relying solely on group workouts in which all athletes are expected to complete precisely the same workout at the same time. After athletes develop a competency for basic movement patterns and strength exercises like bodyweight squats, lunges, and push-ups, more advanced exercises can be included . Once the basics are mastered, more advanced multi-joint exercises such as weightlifting derivatives and plyometrics can be included in the program. Athletes should learn and practice these movements with no or minimal load until technical competency is demonstrated . Coaches should place these advanced exercises and other more (relatively) challenging movements early on in the training session when the neuromuscular system is less fatigued .
Gymnasts are strength and power athletes who will need medium training volume, but begin with a low volume of strength training and increase slowly over time when necessary to keep seeing improvements. Avoid sudden spikes in training volume or load. Once form and technique have been developed, volume and intensity will need to increase progressively to optimize adaptations . According to the current research body on dose-response relationships in this population, technically competent young athletes should perform fewer repetitions (6-8) at higher intensities for multiple sets to improve physical performance . As training experience and skill competency improve further, coaches may introduce athletes to periodic phases in which lower rep ranges (less than 6) and higher external loads are employed, assuming technical integrity is maintained . These phases should be kept short and supervised by a qualified and experienced professional, as prolonged exposure to high volume and training intensities can lead to overtraining and overuse injuries .
Novice trainees will need to learn exercises with moderate velocity to ensure control and technique mastery. As trainees improve and advance in competency, speeds may be varied to better match training goals. While moving quickly is the desired velocity, all movements should be performed with control . It is important to remember that children (before puberty) recover more quickly than adolescents (after puberty) . Gymnastics competitive levels tend to combine both children and adolescents; another reason that training must be individualized to meet individual athletes’ needs. Specifically, rest intervals of 1-2 minutes may be appropriate for children, while adolescents may need rest intervals of 2 minutes or more during moderate-intensity exercise (with rest intervals increasing as intensity increases) . Insufficient rest intervals can lead to technical breakdown and excessive fatigue, hindering performance, and leading to possible injury . Resistance training frequency should be approximately 2-3 sessions per week on non-consecutive days to allow appropriate recovery between sessions . When resistance training is performed on consecutive days, alternate body parts allow for recovery time. More program design and periodization information are available on the Program Design page.
Power exercises in which gymnasts can only use specific body segments (arms only, for example) can ensure that athletes train the intended body parts effectively. An example of this is having the athletes perform med ball throws in a seated position first so that the legs cannot contribute to the movement. Eventually, exercises progress to involve the whole body or be more dynamic. The goal of this method is to activate the local motor units within a muscle group to enhance their rate coding (firing rate) and encourage disinhibition (allowing more force production) . Optimizing each piece can contribute to whole-body progressions that result in improved energy storage and transfer throughout the body . The following table of upper body power progressions is adapted from Tilley's Changing Gymnastics Culture  to include suggestions from the author of this site.
More information on power development can be found on the plyometrics page.
Bompa, T & Buzichelli, C. (2019). Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (Eds.). (2019). Strength and conditioning for young athletes: science and application. Routledge.
Tilley, D. (2018). Changing Gymnastics Culture: Reflections, Lessons, and Visions for the Future (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://shiftmovementscience.com/freeresourcelibrary/