25 Minute AMRAP:
150 Double unders
15 Power Cleans (185/125)
Application of Gymnastics Training to Weightlifting
by Joshua Chan August 07, 2018
These two sports are more alike than they are different, especially in the psychological aspects of the sports as they are both a team sport in training but individual in competition. Gymnastics is clearly an early specialization sport and after a certain age, regardless of talent, the chances of an individual becoming an elite level gymnast are pretty much nonexistent- let alone become a world champion. This rule does not necessarily apply to weightlifting as long as the athlete was exposed and mastered all the athletic qualities required for a successful career in weightlifting. Here is where gymnastics comes in: it is the perfect sport to develop youth athletes that could potentially turn into elite weightlifters.
In the very first years of gymnastics training almost all of the training time is spent developing physical qualities and not skill. This ensures that when the time comes around for skill development there is no physical deficiencies holding the athlete back. It also finds the kids that have an innate strength and explosiveness to them and separates them early on from the kids that simply don´t have the talent. This is very different from other sports where parents can pay a private club and have their kids play soccer well into their teens even though they might not be the best at it. Gymnastics dictates the skills that a kid needs to be doing year to year. There is no faking it.
It would be pointless to name all the qualities that are cultivated in developmental gymnastics so I´ll only focus on three: explosiveness, strength and proprioception. Flexibility and mobility are also of paramount importance but to question these qualities in a gymnast is like asking if a doctor is qualified to take your pulse.
Weightlifting and gymnastics are both sports that require a tremendous amount of power and coordination. They simply can´t be performed at low speed but, as with a lot of things in life, timing is everything. The explosion needs to happen at the right time or else the skill or lift is faulty. There is a rhythm to an acrobatic series as there is to the snatch or the clean and jerk. Let´s take for example a basic gymnastics skill, a giant forward swing on high bar, nothing more than a 360· turn around the bar. The gymnast starts in a perfect handstand position and then starts his descent going into a hollow body position. Here the force of gravity acts upon his center of mass generating a tremendous gain on angular acceleration. The body remains in a hollow position in the descent and almost as it hits the hang, 180·, the shoulders open followed by the hips into an arch. This position is ideal to snap back into a hollow and ensure that he reaches the vertical once again. Easy to describe, very hard to execute. As the gymnast begins his descent on the bar, the force of gravity will obviously try to arch the body. This, in turn, is overcome by a tightening of the abdominal muscles. If the gymnast does not have the strength to stay tight and keep the body position from shifting around, the skill cannot be performed. This sensation is very similar to what the lower back experiences at the moment of deadlifting the bar.
Certain variations of the timing can be done around the high bar depending on what the gymnast is trying to achieve, say, a preparatory swing for the dismount or a release skill. Regardless of what he or she is trying to do, timing of the kick is everything. Let´s compare this timing in the explosion to the snatch. Deadlifting the bar as fast as possible during a lift does not correlate to either max bar height or maximum speed during the second pull. Odds are the lifter, especially a beginning lifter, will shoot his hips up and get his torso almost completely horizontal resulting in a very poor lift. A controlled deadlift ensures that the primary mover of the bar are the legs and that the lifter arrives at the hang position correctly with shins perpendicular to the ground and the shoulders covering the bar. It can certainly be argued that shorter lifters need to begin the explosion faster as the bar is much closer to their hips. This is only a change in technique due to the specific length of the lifter and not an overrule of biomechanics.
Proprioception is defined as the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself. In other words, knowing where your body is relative to space. The difficulty of a sport can be evaluated in terms of the amount of proprioception required at an elite level, obviously all sports are not equally in difficulty. Running is easier than swimming, and swimming is easier than weightlifting from a proprioception stand point. This explains why a gymnast can transfer to any other sport, but no other sport will transfer to gymnastics. In terms of proprioception, gymnastics is the mother of all sports. The time it takes for a gymnast to learn a new skill is therefore very short, accelerating the progress in the sport to the point that he may even surpass those that have been practicing it for far much longer.
Coming back to the snatch deadlift, beginner lifters have a really hard time in learning how to push their knees back as the bar raises off the ground while not allowing their chest to drop. Cutting the extension short or not finishing the pull leads to a diminished bar height and since the body did not reach it´s full extension the speed of contraction decreases. The lifter is slow under the bar. Luckily for a gymnast this movement pattern is nothing more than a staple gymnastics skill, a back flip. The preparatory jump for a back flip is a triple extension and the gymnast needs to fully extend his body in the air to ensure maximal height before tucking to initiate the rotation. And just like in weightlifting the head can´t be thrown back.
The amount of learnt skills that will transfer to weightlifting from gymnastics are way too many to mention. What is important is to recognize a gymnast´s ability to acquire new movement patterns. Weightlifting coaches need to take advantage of this fact and see the sport of gymnastics as one of it most powerful allies in creating dozens and dozens of elite weightlifters year to year.
Into the Body
I have talked to many weightlifting coaches and there seems to be a hate/love relationship with isometric training. Some claim it is absolutely necessary while others swear that it will only make the lifter slower and take all neurological explosiveness away. If the latter was true the sport of gymnastics would not exist. Gymnasts are the kings of isometric contraction: iron cross, maltese, torso during a pommel horse routine, etc. What pertains to the weightlifting coach is the application of such training both in dosage and in timing. Take for example a set of multiple front squats. Lack of strength to maintain and hold the torso upright(isometric contraction of the core) will result in poor mechanics or even worse, injury. Neglecting oblique strengthening exercises leads to the pelvis shifting side to side which is the main cause of sciatic problems.
Shoulder stability is also a huge advantage that gymnasts have when starting their lifting career. Ideally all lifters should be taught a handstand or even a handstand on rings which is by far the hardest shoulder stability work there is. Obviously the time required to learn such skills plus the equipment and safety of it make it just too impractical to add to the lifter´s training program.
After four years of trial and error I have figured out which exercises will directly benefit the lifter and at what time of the training progress should they be implemented.
Hollow and Arch Holds. By far the easiest exercises to implement. Very little skill is required and the time spent doing them is very little but pays tremendous dividends. After a general warm up and mobilization I´ll start right off with the holds. Not only is it a primer for the torso and shoulders for some heavy lifting, but it will also develop the strength-endurance in the lower back and make tightness a habit. As the athlete gets stronger, the arch get bigger and the hollow get tighter so in a way the exercise never gets easier regardless of time under tension. It also helps with the notion of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. They are not fun to do, not even a bit. Much like the handstand holds which I´ll discuss next, they help increase pain tolerance. Period.
Implementation: Start of with two sets of forty seconds both for hollow and arch with no rest. Increase then to a minute. Once an athlete can do both sets of a minute with no rest simply do a rocking motion for the second hold. For example, in my own training as well as the gymnastics class at Crossfit Redondo we do the following. One set of sixty seconds in hollow and sixty in an arch. Then same amount of time but rocking. Total training time: four minutes.
Handstand Holds. Aside from strengthening the overhead position, they are a great joint pre-hab exercise. Long holds, 5 to 10 minutes, will strengthen connective tissue in the elbows and wrists like nothing else due to the constant tension and blood flow. I have many gymnast friends who start getting some nagging shoulder pain and they simply fix it with some extra handstand holds and hanging. A question arises in terms of the actual technique, should they be wall facing or kicking up? The answer is both. When wall facing, only the toes should be touching the wall. It requires a lot more core control and stability. In my gymnastics career all my holds were wall facing, never did I kick up. Now, through experimentation I feel that the kicking up to the wall leaves the shoulders and head in a position that is almost identical as when receiving and holding a barbell in overhead. Train both and cover all your basics.
Implementation: Performing long holds twice a week is enough and perhaps adding two extra as a warm up just in much shorter duration. Beginners could start with easy sets of thirty seconds and build every few weeks to eventually performing consistent sets of 1-2 minutes. More advanced athletes can do 1min. on, 1min. off for 6-10 rounds. The actual ability to sustain the effort increases pretty fast but extra care needs to be given to the wrists. I would expect all intermediate and advance athletes to already be doing extensive joint pre-hab work that improves wrist health and function. Total training time: 10-20min. Twice a week.
L-Sit and Rings Support. Both of these skills are in my opinion are at the top of the list in terms of time invested and dividend paid. The L-Sit is the most efficient way to target the abdominals and obliques. Why do hundreds of crunches when holding and L-Sit for thirty seconds has the same effect? And not only does it strengthen the core like nothing else, major stabilization by triceps and shoulders make it the best bang for your buck. Some people claim it´s too easy but it always comes down to how the skill is being done. A proper L-Sit has the following: active shoulders(pushing down), straight legs or tuck position but knees always at hip level and most importantly, the wrists need to be right next to the hip. Allowing the hips to fall back behind the hands turn the L-Sit into an entirely different exercise. Another side effect of training this position is the strengthening of the hip flexors. The iliopsoas muscles are in simple terms the bridge between the core and the lower extremities. Weakness and tightness often lead to pain in the hip and lower back when squatting. The L-Sit requires a perfect synchrony of muscle activation from abdominals to quads which is why keeping the legs locked out is so important.
The ring support is quite beneficial to lifters as it heavily targets the insertion of the biceps at the elbow joint and strengthens the brachialis. A lot of problems stabilizing the snatch or having to press out stem from weakness in those two areas. When internally rotating the shoulder to catch the barbell, the biceps becomes responsible of protecting the elbows and locking the shoulder in place, much like in strength positions on rings. This benefits are only reaped when doing the rings support hold with the rings turned out in a way that the palms face forward.
Implementation: Accumulate 60sec. in the position with 1:2 work/rest ratio. Both skills are done twice a week but never both on the same day.
There are certainly many other bodyweight skills that have carry over to weightlifting. Handstand push ups and pull ups being up there of course but these are already being performed in the weightlifting community to a certain extent. The exercises I provide are merely aimed to widen the physical base of the lifter and to make the skill development a lot easier. When snatching or clean and jerking, the athlete´s mind should be on the movement alone, not worried on whether or not the body is capable of doing what it´s being asked to do. If you´re worried about standing up a snatch you shouldn’t even be snatching in the first place. Go get strong and mobile and then come back to it. Physical preparedness first, skill second.