Upper Body Strength

Foundational Concepts


     Upper body strength and stability are essential qualities for gymnasts to develop. Gymnastics is a unique sport in which athletes spend almost as much time upside down as right side up. An estimated 30% of movements performed by female gymnasts are supportive tasks of the upper body (supportive holds, momentary support, and passing through a support moment during movement), all of which require large amounts of muscular strength and power for their successful execution [7].  Increased strength is the foundation of power and rate of force development and is, therefore, step one in improving gymnastics skills performance. 

     Injuries occur when tissue in the body is loaded at a higher rate than it can handle. At a foundational level, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones break down when the load placed upon them repetitive during skills or routines is too high from them to handle [25]. Updating gymnastics strength and conditioning practices correlates with reducing injury risk and improving gymnastics performance [25]. The appropriate application of strength training for gymnasts increases strength, power, speed, and force transfer through the body--improving the body’s ability to handle and disperse load, thus reducing injury risk [25]. Considering the significant amount of time gymnasts spend on their hands, it is especially important to pay attention to the body’s ability to handle and disperse loads. The anatomy of the upper body does not have the same capacity to absorb force as the lower body [25]. Gymnastics places a high demand (2-4x bodyweight or more) on the elbows, wrists, and shoulders of gymnasts, setting the stage for many common gymnastics injuries when proper preparation is not in place [25]. Common upper body overload injuries include gymnast wrist, osteochondritis dissecans (elbow OCD), stress fractures, and triceps growth plate traction injuries (olecranon apophysitis) [25]. In order to reduce the rates of these common injuries, gymnastics can no longer depend on a strength and conditioning model that only emphasizes bodyweight strength training or very light external loading [25].

     In its most basic form, strength training aims to overload the neuromuscular system, bones, cartilage, and other tissue to cause favorable adaptations for the task at hand [3, 6, 11, 12, 25].  Bone development is directly dependent on mechanical loading in a concept known as Wolff’s Law. Progressively and systematically loading the bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and other structures in a gymnast’s body bridge the gap between excessive loading from high force gymnastics skills and the body’s ability to tolerate those loads [25]. Likewise, physical preparation programs allow the gymnast to increase muscle cross-sectional area, increase motor unit firing rates and synchronicity, and tap into the larger, more powerful muscle fibers that are more difficult to recruit [25]. All of these adaptations ultimately lead to increases in power during gymnastics skills. 

Upper body weight training may only equate to a fraction of the force a gymnast may take on their wrists, elbows, and shoulders during more gymnastics specific movements such as a handstand or a front handspring vault. However, slowly adding load and progressing exercises can improve the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints’ load-bearing capacity, increase bone strength, muscle strength, and produce force through the arms and core [25]. These adaptations may reduce injury risk incurred from numerous vaults or handstand impacts while improving performance due to increased power production.   

Practical Application


When designing training programs, it is crucial to consider the following:

  • Training goals and ages (biological and chronological) of the athletes

  • The current level of exercise knowledge (athletes and coaches)

  • Amount of time available per day for strength training

  • Days per week available per day for strength training

  • Equipment and staff available

  • Time of season/periodization


     Failing to plan for these things when designing a program can render even the best program useless. It is beneficial to select exercises in each phase with the next phase in mind--choose exercises in each category that will build on each other throughout the year. Begin by ensuring that athletes can do the basics well before moving on to more advanced exercises. The “big blocks” of your program should be a balance of the exercises found in the table below. Target each movement category 1-2x per week, progressing up to 2-3x per week over time. Include more horizontal pulling than horizontal and vertical pressing to help offset the large amount of those movements already occurring in gymnastics skills. Remember, one of the strength and conditioning programs’ main goals is to give the athletes what they don’t get from their sport. The exercise should be challenging, but not approaching failure. When in doubt on training volume, do less. It is much easier to add volume when needed than repair the damage from too much volume. For more details on program design, please visit the program design and periodization page. 


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