Foundations of Strength & Power Development

“Coaching folklore condemning weight training for gymnasts is probably misguided. Weight-training workouts that develop strength with minimal muscle hypertrophy are likely to enhance the performance of female gymnasts. The current skill-repetition approach to developing strength in female gymnasts may cause more hypertrophy than a well-designed program of weight training.”--William Sands [22]

Introduction:

     Gymnastics skills are continuing to increase in difficulty yearly, resulting in ever-increasing forces being applied to gymnasts' bodies. This increase in difficulty and forces highlights the need to prioritize the development of high-level strength and power to perform skills and reduce injury rates. [25] Increasing strength is the foundation of increasing speed, explosive power, and maximizing force output. [25] Furthermore, high levels of strength (and the resultant power) allow gymnasts to produce, transfer, and absorb force efficiently.[25] Athletic injuries occur when muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones are exposed to more load than the structure is prepared to handle,[25] whether all at once in the case of acute injuries or repetitively over time resulting in overuse injuries. Appropriately designed resistance training programs may reduce sports-related injuries and should be viewed as an essential component of preparatory training programs for aspiring young athletes.[12,25] 

     Thus, it is imperative that coaches understand the fundamental concepts behind strength/power development and load management in order to optimize performance, reduce injuries, and maximize athlete wellness. Combining externally loaded strength training with the use of periodization systematically prepares the body to handle more force, prepares tissues for the loading experienced in high-level gymnastics skills, and reinforces proper movement mechanics.[25] Updating gymnastics strength and conditioning methods is strongly correlated with reduced injuries and elevated performance.[25] However, there is a gap between the available scientific evidence and information disseminated by high-level strength and conditioning professionals, and what gymnastics coaches are currently applying the daily training of their gymnasts. That said, there is no need to adopt every practice from the strength and conditioning field, however, we must study and critically evaluate the available information and choose the best application. [25] 

     As you are likely aware, almost every college gymnastics program has dedicated weight training time, and many high-level clubs have adopted this model as well. Integrated hybrid approaches to strength training are slowly being adopted across collegiate, elite, and JO gymnastics teams worldwide--these programs take the best of traditional gymnastics training and combine it with general strength work implementing dumbbells, kettlebells, weight vests, barbells, and more. When comparing the clubs embracing external loading to the hundred of clubs that do not include consistent weight training, these bodyweight-only clubs tend to have higher rates of injuries and athlete attrition rates. [25] 

Mythbusting:

Myth: Lifting weights causes injury.

Busted: Weight training is orthopedically less demanding than extra skill repetitions, and requires less time for gymnasts to complete than gymnastics skills practice.[22] Impact forces in gymnastics can exceed 15x bodyweight, multiplied by hundreds or even thousands of skill repetitions per week[25], which is exponentially higher than anything gymnasts will be lifting during weight training. Furthermore, an abundance of research concludes that organized weight training programs are one of the most effective methods for reducing injury, enhancing performance, reducing burnout rates, and encouraging long term athletic development (LTAD).[25] As with all things, the application of proper programming and coaching is a must. With proper coaching, the risk of long-term damage, stunted growth, and growth plate injuries is minimal--much lower than those same risks from participating in gymnastics itself. Athletes in many sports (gymnastics included) have experienced significant increases in power with the application of a resistance training program that implements adequate planning, sound exercise selection, and a periodized approach.[25] Ultimately, an integrated hybrid approach combining traditional gymnastics exercises with traditional weight training is likely the best approach.[6,22,25] 

Myth: Lifting weights makes gymnasts bulky. 

Busted: Gymnastics coaches often worry that using weight training with female gymnasts will result in detrimental muscle mass increases. However, the high-intensity and low repetition sets that should be used to increase strength will improve performance with minimal muscle hypertrophy, and gymnasts who weight train are lighter and have lower BMI scores than those who did not.[22] Using high repetitions (eight or more reps) of bodyweight or very low weight exercises, as well as completing a high volume of gymnastics skills practice, actually causes significantly more muscle hypertrophy (increases in muscle size) than smart strength training. Increasing strength without increasing muscle mass is an essential goal for gymnastics because the gymnast must move her own body to complete difficult skills. The power-to-bodyweight ratio (relative power) is a factor that decisively influences performance.[13] An increase in maximal strength is always accompanied by an increase in relative strength, which translates to increased power ability. The most scientifically supported method for increasing the force a muscle can produce is through strength training. 

Myth: Fatigue develops strength.

Busted: Contrary to what many coaches and fitness gurus believe and promote, rest to work ratios and recovery are essential components of strength training and gymnastics. Fact: training with higher reps & lower to moderate loads that induce a “burning” feeling are actually much more indicative of hypertrophy. Adequate rest is necessary for increasing strength--chronic fatigue reduces the effects of strength training.

Foundational concepts of strength and power training

 

      The high levels of strength required for high levels of gymnastics cannot be built or maintained by gymnastics alone. This article previously established that all coaches should have a foundational knowledge of the concepts surrounding strength and power training. The following section of this article is dedicated to providing a working knowledge of these foundational concepts. In its most basic form, strength training aims to overload the neuromuscular system (made up of the muscles and nerves that innervate them, and connective tissue), bone, and cartilage. Tissues require loading to stimulate growth and adaptation.[25] Put simply, an appropriate dose of stress (strength training, plyometrics, etc) followed by recovery (rest, sleep, nutrition, etc) signal a physiological response. The body responds to the overload by improving itself in an attempt to be better prepared for similar performances or training-bones grow stronger, muscles increase their force-generating capacity, cartilage and connective tissue increase their ability to handle load, and so on.[25] This concept is known as supercompensation. 

 

Neuromuscular adaptations to strength training: Neural adaptations

  • Increased motor unit recruitment: A motor unit consists of a nerve and the specific portion of muscle it innervates. Conceptually, motor units are recruited by the body according to the Henneman size principle, which states that units are recruited in order of increasing size (from smallest to largest). Additionally, type I (slow-twitch) fibers are recruited first and for lower demands followed by the larger type II (fast-twitch) fibers as higher demands or forces are required to complete a task. Strength training allows the body to increase the number of motor units it can recruit. 

  • Increased rate coding: Rate coding refers to how fast a motor unit can fire. A faster firing rate results in greater overall force output. Strength and power training improves firing frequency, leading to more rapid and more significant total force production. 

  • Increased motor unit synchronization: Synchronization refers to motor units firing together in a more coordinated fashion, both within muscles and between muscles. This results in greater force produced more smoothly. As specific movement patterns are repeatedly trained, they improve. A gymnastics-specific example: gymnasts learning to use their arms, core, and hips altogether to increase power while tumbling[25] 

  • Decreased neuromuscular inhibition: turning off the “built-in brakes”[25]. Human bodies have natural regulatory mechanisms that limit the amount of maximal force muscles exert normally. This is an attempt for our bodies to protect themselves from injury. Strength and power training can allow muscles to tap into more force output during times of need, which is a concept known as disinhibition. 

     Strength training benefits for bones: Bone development is directly dependent on mechanical loading according to Wolff’s law. Adequately dosed gymnastics progressions, strength training, and recovery can help prevent excessive loading from high force gymnastics skills being matched with insufficient loading capacity within bones.[25] 

     Progressive overload with appropriate exercises, periodization, and program design is necessary for these adaptations to take place. Consistent strength training is necessary for maximum gymnastics performance. In other words, use it or lose it. Inconsistent strength training or failing to strength train into the competitive season can lead to stagnation or declines in performance for athletes who have promising preseason performance. In general, training should be periodized over the course of the training year, progressing from general strength to specific strength and power during the competitive season. The increased muscular strength gained from training in this way takes significant strain off young gymnasts growth plates, tendons, and ligaments during training as the season approaches. [25]These topics will be covered more in-depth in the program design and periodization sections of this website. 

P=f x v: An equation for increasing power

     Power is equal to the amount of force produced multiplied by velocity. An increase in maximal strength is always accompanied by an increase in relative strength which translates to increased power ability. Speed of movement is related to the amount of force applied to a surface--if an athlete can’t produce sufficient force, speed will be limited. In this way, force production capability becomes a limiting factor to performance. Again, the most scientifically supported method for increasing the force a muscle can produce is through strength training.[25] Increasing foundational strength serves as step one for developing other aspects of physical preparation such as power or speed. Furthermore, increases in baseline strength provide a foundation for other athletic qualities, such as faster sprint speed on vault and floor, stronger taps on bars, longer endurance holds for shaping, and so on. Power, rate of force development, speed, agility, and metabolic capacity are all dependent on strength to some degree. [25] 

     This increased strength is the foundation of power and speed of force development, but when an athlete's training is not correctly dosed, the positive adaptations and supercompensation discussed previously do not occur. Often, a mismatch in workload (physical, neurological, endocrinological, psychological) dosage can manifest as a lack of power.[25] When an athlete is overdosed without proper recovery time, maladaptation to training will occur--the tissue that is overtaxed will experience higher than normal levels of breakdown during training. Unfortunately, gymnastics coaches often do not have background education on load management and many take a more is always a better approach to training. 

The importance of increasing maximal strength: 

     Maximal strength refers to the highest force produced voluntarily by an athlete. Force production is the main driver of increasing power, so it follows that increasing a gymnast’s maximal strength levels will also result in increased power capability, which translates to bigger, better gymnastics. Training in this manner also increases neurological efficiency.[3]  A focus on high intensity (% 1RM) strength work with fewer repetitions and longer rest breaks accomplishes this goal, in turn increasing relative strength and power.[13,22] Hypertrophy training, or training geared towards increasing muscular size, is made up of large numbers of sets with light to medium loads, short rest periods, and continuing into repetitions that slow in speed or result in failure due to fatigue. Contrastingly, maximizing strength consists of training that utilizes heavier loads, fewer reps, and longer rest periods. Minimizing hypertrophy cannot be accomplished with solely bodyweight training--in fact, typical gymnastics strength training methods are more likely to increase hypertrophy than relative strength.[22]  Training with added external weight is the only practical way to bring the number of required repetitions into a reasonable range to minimize hypertrophy. 

     As mentioned previously, rest to work ratios and recovery are important components of strength training. Training to the point of failure and fatigue does not develop strength, however, it can be indicative of hypertrophy.[13] Adequate rest, both during a training session and between training sessions, is necessary for increasing strength. Ideally, max strength training should take place when a gymnast is warm but mostly fresh. It should not be followed by heavy skill training because coordination and technique will be affected. Separate strength training from skill training whenever possible. 

Strength training basics:

     Strength training should match the needs of gymnastics. It is also imperative that movement patterns are mastered before adding external loads. The gymnast should be able to consistently demonstrate proper mechanics before graduating to loaded training--don’t just add load to add load! Relevant lifts for gymnasts include squats and squat patterns, vertical and horizontal presses, vertical and horizontal pulling, and hip hinges and/or deadlifts. Prescription of resistance training should be based on training age, motor skill competency, technical proficiency in strength movements, and baseline strength levels.[3,11,13,25] Biological age and psychosocial maturity level should also be considered.[3,11,13,25] Programs should focus on developing the technical skills for strength work as well as a competency in performing a variety of resistance training exercises.[3,11,13,25] Individually appropriate intensity and volume should be applied.[3,11,13,25] This is why hiring or consulting with a certified strength and conditioning professional is highly recommended.

To summarize, adding external resistance training to gymnastics training programs results in the following benefits (adapted from Dave Tilley’s textbook):[25]

  • Building quality movement patterns safely & early on in an athlete’s career that are necessary to perform at higher levels (jumping, landing, reactive overhead control, etc). 

  • Systematically loading and adapting a gymnasts body for the everyday high-force situations of tumbling or dismount landings, high force overhead upper body impact, and high force overhead upper body swinging.

  • Slowly exposing the gymnast’s body to stress so it can adapt and get stronger, increasing resistance to the force overload injuries that are an epidemic in gymnastics.

  • Developing 360-degree core bracing and strength strategies that slowly expose the spine to compression forces so that the gymnast can learn to control it and protect their spines from injury.

  • Teaching neurological control and coordination to express higher force transfer during skill work, causing increased power and increased amplitude.

  • Helping bridge the gap between lower force compulsory skills and the much higher force skills performed at the optional and elite levels--large jump in force and lack of preparation is the main driver of overuse injuries.

  • Maintaining global balance within the body & creating general physical preparedness to enhance long term athletic development.

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Evidence-based training practices for women's artistic gymnastics pDF

REFERENCES:

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  2. Batatinha, H. A. P., da Costa, C. E., de França, E., Dias, I. R., Ladeira, A. P. X., Rodrigues, B., & Caperuto, É. C. (2013). Carbohydrate use and reduction in number of balance beam falls: implications for mental and physical fatigue. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 32.

  3. Bompa, T & Buzichelli, C. (2019). Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

  4. Buckner, S. B., Bacon, N. T., & Bishop, P. A. (2017). Recovery in level 7–10 women’s USA artistic gymnastics. International Journal of Exercise Science, 10(5), 734.

  5. Burt, L., Naughton, G., Higham, D., & Landeo, R. (2010). Training load in pre-pubertal female artistic gymnastics. Science of Gymnastics Journal, 2(3), 5–13. Retrieved from http://www.gymbc.org/files/Coaches/SoGYM_2010_vol2_num3.pdf#page=7

  6. Chu, D. A. (1994). Strength exercises specific to gymnastics: a case study. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8(2), 95-102.

  7. Daly, R. M., Bass, S. L., & Finch, C. F. (2001). Balancing the risk of injury to gymnasts: how effective are the countermeasures?. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(1), 8-19.

  8. Durall, C. J., Udermann, B. E., Johansen, D. R., Gibson, B., Reineke, D. M., & Reuteman, P. (2009). The effects of preseason trunk muscle training on low-back pain occurrence in women collegiate gymnasts. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 86-92.

  9. French, D. N., Gómez, A. L., Volek, J. S., Rubin, M. R., Ratamess, N. A., Sharman, M. J., Gotshalk, L…. & Hakkinen, K. (2004). Longitudinal tracking of muscular power changes of NCAA Division I collegiate women gymnasts. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18(1), 101-107.

  10. Gateva, M. (2014). Investigation of the effect of the training load on the athletes in rhythmic and aesthetic group gymnastics during the preparation period. Research in Kinesiology, 4(1), 40-44.

  11. Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2015). Essentials of strength training and conditioning 4th edition. Human kinetics.

  12. Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (Eds.). (2019). Strength and conditioning for young athletes: science and application. Routledge.

  13. Major, J. J. (1996). Strength training fundamentals in gymnastics conditioning. Technique, 16(8), 1-15.

  14. Marina, M., & Jemni, M. (2014). Plyometric training performance in elite-oriented prepubertal female gymnasts. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(4), 1015-1025.

  15. Marina, M., Jemni, M., Rodríguez, F. A., & Jimenez, A. (2012). Plyometric jumping performances of male and female gymnasts from different heights. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(7), 1879-1886.

  16. Michel, M., Monèm, J., & Ferran, R. (2014). A two-season longitudinal follow-up study of jumps with added weights and countermovement jumps in well-trained pre-pubertal female gymnasts. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 54(6), 730-741.

  17. Mcneal, J. R., Sands, W. A., & Shultz, B. B. (2007). Muscle activation characteristics of tumbling take-offs. Sports Biomechanics, 6(3), 375-390.

  18. Panzer, Victoria & G.A.Wood, & Bates, Barry & Mason, Bruce. (1987). Lower Extremity Loads in Landings of Elite Gymnasts. 

  19. Ramírez-Campillo, R., Andrade, D. C., & Izquierdo, M. (2013). Effects of plyometric training volume and training surface on explosive strength. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(10), 2714-2722.

  20. Rhea, M. R., Peterson, M. D., Oliverson, J. R., Ayllón, F. N., & Potenziano, B. J. (2008). An examination of training on the VertiMax resisted jumping device for improvements in lower body power in highly trained college athletes. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(3), 735-740.

  21. Russell, K. W., Quinney, H. A., Hazlett, C. B., & Hillis, D. (1995). Knee muscle strength in elite male gymnasts. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 22(1), 10-17.

  22. Sands, W. A., McNeal, J. R., Jemni, M., & Delong, T. H. (2000). Should female gymnasts lift weights. Sportscience, 4(3), 1-6.

  23. Sands, W. A., Irvin, R. C., & Major, J. A. (1995). Women's gymnastics: The time course of fitness acquisition. A 1-year study. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 9(2), 110-115.

  24. Shinkle, J., Nesser, T. W., Demchak, T. J., & McMannus, D. M. (2012). Effect of core strength on the measure of power in the extremities. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(2), 373-380.

  25. Tilley, D. (2018). Changing Gymnastics Culture: Reflections, Lessons, and Visions for the Future (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://shiftmovementscience.com/freeresourcelibrary/

  26. Valle, C. (2019, February 25). Why Sport-Specific Training Is a Red Herring. Retrieved from https://simplifaster.com/articles/sport-specific-training-debate/