Now more than ever, athletes are embracing the weight room.
Traditional strength training has proven benefits for any athlete, regardless of the sport. For the purpose of this article, traditional strength training is any exercise that uses an external load (barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells) to improve strength. Staple strength training moves include the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Lunges, Overhead Press, etc.
What few realize is that those benefits also come with some limitations. Many young athletes nowadays rely almost exclusively on weight training to develop their athletic abilities and improve their performance on the field, ice or court, and it leaves their body quite imbalanced. Working with a lot of high-level athletes who come to me with many limitations, it has become clear to me over the years that one can become very adept at traditional strength training while still missing the components needed to develop into a well-rounded athlete.
One way to bridge the gap? Gymnastic strength training.
Before going any further, I think it's important to distinguish gymnastic strength training from pure gymnastics. The former utilizes an extremely wide array of bodyweight exercises to strengthen and mobilize the muscles and joints of your body. The latter includes all the same components plus the skills and acrobatics elements. So in short, gymnastic strength training does not utilizes any flips, cartwheels or crazy jumps you'd see at the Olympics. Rather, it's a way of strengthening the body in a wide array of movements and positions. It doesn't always require implements like rings or parallel bars, as many gymnastic strength training movements can be performed with nothing but your own body weight.
What's Missing in the Weight Room?
Why would someone need the addition of gymnastic strength training in their training routine? Simply put, it does a great job at filling the gaps where traditional strength training alone fails to deliver. Let's run through some limitations of traditional strength training.
Loss of mobility. This isn't a guarantee, but I see it happen often. A lot of athletes like to lift weights to get stronger, but few of them are willing to dedicate any substantial amount of time to mobility and flexibility work. Many people will actually lose mobility as they get stronger via traditional weight training due to them rarely working their joints in a full range of motion.
If strength is developed in a specific range of motion it also means that over time your body will progressively have a more challenging time achieving the range of motion and movements that have not been strengthened.
Second, traditional strength training is overwhelmingly limited to the sagittal plane. In human movement and performance, there exists three planes in which movement can occur. Now consider for a minute how most strength training exercises are performed. It's either front to back (Bench Press, rowing variations) or up and down (Squat, Deadlift, Lunges). That's about it. Few movements address the other planes (side-to-side and rotation) of movement, which are crucial for sports performance.
Third, there exists a limited variety of demand on core recruitment. Traditional strength training does stimulate the core through big compound movements like Squats and Deadlifts. Your core is required to fire and stabilize your spine and torso in order to move the weight in a safe, effective manner. This is all great, but other than teaching your body how to brace, it doesn't get trained in many other ways.
Think about all the ways your torso and your core are required to function in sports when you're changing direction, throwing, hitting, punching, climbing, swimming, etc. Your core's main function is to transfer forces between the lower body and the upper body in all those different movements. Just being good at bracing in a neutral position is not going to leave your core very well-equipped for sports performance.
Why Gymnastic Strength Training?
Let's revisit our three points above and see how gymnastic strength training can come in and fill the voids in our athletic preparation. I will also give you some specific examples of exercises that you can start using today to make your training more well-rounded.
If there is one thing gymnastic strength training addresses better than any other training method out there, it's mobility.
Mobility is not just the ability to stretch a muscle or achieve a certain range of motion; it is the ability to control movement and have strength in a full range of motion. This is greatly important for optimal performance; you want to have joints and muscles that have great movement potential and be strong throughout those ranges of motion and movement patterns. An example of such an exercise would be a Straight Leg Fire Hydrant:
This is an exercise that seems very simple, and many will overlook its potential due to its simplicity, but once you try it, you quickly realize how tough it is. It does a great job at increase range of motion at the hips while strengthening the hip in an end range position. Another fantastic exercise is the Stiff-Leg Windmill:
This is a great one to increase mobility (strength AND range of motion) in multiple areas of the body; including the hips, the shoulders, as well as the obliques and trunk muscles.
Gymnastic strength training also does a great job at training the body in different planes of motion, which is very important for an athlete. Most sports require your body to twist, turn, cut, change direction, shuffle, spin, etc. That is why it is important to train your body to be strong in all these different positions, not just in a singular plane of movement like a Squat. A Cossack Squat is a great example of an exercise that challenges a different plane of movement than traditional strength training exercises. At first glance, it looks similar to a Lateral Lunge. When you look closer, however, you can notice how it takes the hips and knees through a greater range of motion, and there is also a rotation component at the hips (with the foot on the straight leg rotating up):
As mentioned above, most traditional strength training exercise don't challenge the core outside of bracing. Learning to brace in such a way is important, but the core can and should do more.
Depending on the variety of floor and bodyweight exercises you are adding to your weight training routine, you can challenge your core in many other ways. It's been my experience that most young athletes greatly neglect their core. That's why including some specific gymnastic exercises can go a long way in challenging your core in various planes of movement. One movement that is a staple with my athletes of all levels is the Hollow Body Position. This is an exercise that engages all your core muscles and really helps your body learn the force transfer that's so important in most sports. What I really like about the hollow body position, other than engaging all the muscles as a unit, is that you can progress it in many different ways. The one I start most of my athletes with is the Bent Knee Hollow Hold:
Again, an exercise that seems very simple at a glance, but one that is highly effective when done right (and one many weight room warriors struggle with at first). The key is to keep the lower back pressed down hard while maintaining a normal breathing pattern. I like to work up to multiple sets (4-5) of 60-second holds before trying some of the more advanced variations.
Another great core exercise is the Side Over Arch. It's an exercise that recruits your obliques, lats and other lateral muscles of your trunk. It can be pretty challenging at first to get good range of motion if you have really tight obliques, which is something I commonly see in athletes of all level. That's why it is important to start slow with low reps before increasing the range motion and the number of reps.
Traditional strength training is a great tool to strengthen your body and get it ready for athletic performance, but it is important to realize it does have limitations. A complete, well-rounded athletic development program fills in the gaps. Gymnastic strength training is just one more tool to add to your tool box in your pursuit of athletic performance. When done right, it makes your body strong and mobile in positions few other training methods can, it builds a core stronger than you've ever imagined, and it significantly reduces your risk of injury.
Start out with the five different movements I highlighted in this article, performing each of them at least a couple times a week, and see how you feel!
Photo Credit: nickp37/iStock
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