Despite ever increasing evidence & awareness of the benefits of strength & conditioning for gymnasts such as improved force production, increased muscle strength & improved landing mechanics, many coaches, parents & gymnasts still express concern about lifting weights, preventing suitable exercises being incorportaed into their training. Here are some common myths surrounding weightlifting along with an evidence based discussion around them.
Should be avoided in young gymnasts
Will make gymnasts 'bulky'
Should closely resemble gymanstic skills
Causes muscle soreness
Takes too much time away from apparatus training
1. Should be avoided in young gymnasts
both the International Olympic Comittee (IOC) & the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) support resistance training in youths providing it is age appropriate & supervised by a qualified coach with emphasis on safety, good technique & enjoyment.
"Young athletes should be encouraged to participate in regualr & varied strength & conditioning programs". - IOC
"An appropriate resistance training program should be an essential part of training programs for aspiring young athletes". -BJSM
Historically fears arose about damage to growth plates stunting growth, however research supports positive effects on the maturing skeleton such as increasing bone density, along with the positive effects on muscle strength & motor skills. Furthermore, evidence suggests that in fact, pre-maturation may actually be the optimal time to initiate strength training programs.
2. Will make gymnasts 'bulky'
Gymnastics is an aesthetic sport, & as such fears exist around any change in appearance along with the negative effect of gaining excessive weight on performance. Luckily, maximal strength can be increased without increasing muscle size. Most existing research has not found increases in bodyweight following resistance training in aesthetic (or other sports) in young athletes. Additionally, after resistance training programs, young gymnasts percieved no negative effects on body image with some research even suggesting improved body image following resistance training programs in women.
The aim of S&C programs for gymnasts is to improve the amount of force produced over time and to improve muscle capacity for the demands of gymnastics. This is not the same as a body builder trying to grow muscle size, therefore the reps & sets used & style of training prescribed will be very different. A bodybuilder has to follow a strict high protein diet & many hours of targeted hypertrophy training every week to gain visible muscle mass, not something a gymnast has time or inclination to do!
3. Should closely resemble gymnastic movements
Sports specificity has become a buzz word, & as a results many have started to believe that in order to get transfer into sports performance, the exercises should look like or be very similar to the sporting movement. Whilst this is true in skill conditioning, as a rule this shows a lack of understanding of the importance of general athletic development. A gymnast must have a strong foundation of strength & movement in order to be able to withstand the demands of their sport. This comes from fundamental movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, pulling, pushing & crawling. There are times when skill specific conditioning is required but this should not be the bulk of S&C training. A good example is with core training, when although a high degree of flexion strength is required, their torso must also be able to resist extension, flexion & lateral flexion when required in order to transfer forces adequately & to minimise injury. Thus, dynamic plank, quadruped & deadbug style exercises do not resemble gymanstics movements but are still crucial for health & performance.
4. Causes injury
Providing techniques are correctly taught & appropriate weight used, the risk of injury is very low, much lower than during the sport of gymnastics itself. Furthermore the forces going through the leg joints during gymnastics are high (up to 15 x bodyweight during certain tumbling skills), much higher than during resistance training exercises. In fact, performing resistance training has been shown to improve landing mechanics associated with knee injuries, so therefore may actually injury risk.
5. Lead to muscle soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) will inevitably occur initially when a gymnast starts a new strength training program. Whilst this is short lived and the muscles are quick to adapt to subsequent stimuli, minimising future DOMS, it may temporraily impact muscle strength, force production & performance. Therefore periodised traning plans around the competition cycle, not going near maximal weight and avoiding eccentric emphasised muscle action exercise immediately prior to competitions is sensible. If DOMS does occor at the start of a new training plan remember it is short-lived and will not be detrimental in the long run, furthermore measures such as foam rolling may temporarily illeviate some of the discomfort. The benefits of strength training such as increased force production & msucle strength and improved landing mechanics, outweigh the potential for temporary discomfort providing the program is properly periodised.
6. Is too time consuming
Gymnasts must train for multiple disciplines as well as spending lots of time improving flexibility and as such, already spend up to 30 hours/week training. Making use of ALL available time by utilising supersets & performing mobility or core work in rest periods. S&C aspects such as mobility can easily be incorpoated into a warm-up. With effective planning short 30 minute sessions can be incorporated 3-4 x a week without eating into apparatus training time. Sprint drills can be incorporated into vault training & metabolic conditoning only needs to take 10 minutes at the end of a session providing appropriate exercises are selected. Setting aside some training time for S&C also helps minimise the risk of overuse injuries which have historically been an issue for young gymnasts due to the high trianing volume.
So whilst some of the myths originate from valid concerns, the benefits of S&C training for gymansts such as improved muscle strength, force production, landing mechanics & decsreased injury risk, outweigh any potential negatives providing the plan is appropriately periodised, progressed & coached.