We all know there are so many different coaching methods, training programs, and coaching personalities. Many gymnastics coaches successfully get their gymnasts stronger, but they do not need to adequately incorporate sport training into their programs. I have seen gymnasts benefit from the general strength exercises such as push ups, but when it comes time to perform certain skills the gymnast's muscles are not always prepared, accustomed to the sequence of movements for the skills, or strong enough in each position required to safely complete the skill.
Gymnasts really need a variety of training to include sport specific training coupled general strength conditioning in order to more closely simulate the skills in our sport. For example, many straight arms exercises such as the front lateral raise, press handstand, or planche drills more closely simulated gymnastics skills than bent arm exercises such as the push up, bench press, or reverse dips.
Here is one straight arm exercise that has helped many gymnasts strengthen their chest, shoulders, and back muscles, becoming stronger in two very important motions. Since the gymnast often has to be able to open and close the shoulder angle during skills on uneven bars, I have included a very useful exercise which incorporates both up and down movements. This one should help her learn to efficiently transition from one arm motion to the next with ease. Picture your gymnast performing a glide kip, cast handstand, clear hip handstand. She will have to reverse shoulder movements several times within this short period of time. Once you see the shoulder movements necessary to connect these skills you will see the reasons I had for incorporating two exercises into one drill more than a decade ago. This exercise actually alternates the motions of opening and then closing the shoulder angle.
Lie Down Cast / Kip Drill (Barbell / Toning Bar)
1. Spot your gymnast during this exercise. Give her full instructions before she begins the exercise.
2. Setting Up: Have your gymnast lie on her back between two folded panel mats with her arms above her head. Her head must remain between the mats, but her hands and wrists should go beyond the mats in order to allow the bar to near touch the floor after it is lifted over head for full range of motion.
3. The folded mats must be a few inches higher than your gymnast while she is lying between them for safety reasons. The bar must be long enough so that each end can rest on the center of one of the mats. The bar will be lifted from and returned to the mats without touching your gymnast. There should be enough clearance for your gymnast to slide in or out while the bar rests on the mats. Although you will be spotting your gymnast, the mats will also help prevent the bar from touching her. If one mat on each side is not high enough, please use two folded mats on each side. If the bar is brought down too quickly or falls, it should land on the mats, not your gymnast. This is a very safe exercise when the coach and gymnast keep safety in mind.
4. Once the mats are set up, place the bar on the mats and make sure it will not fall between the mats or roll off.
5. Starting Position: Once the mats and bar are in place, instruct your gymnast to sit between the mats, slide her legs under the bar, and then lie down. She should position herself so that the bar is above her hips.
6. Once positioned, allow your gymnast to grasp the bar and then straighten her arms. Instruct your gymnast to keep her arms straight, but not to lock them.
7. Be careful the bar does not shift to an unsafe starting position.
8. Next, instruct her to lift the bar up toward ceiling and then toward the floor above her head to simulate a cast to handstand motion with her upper body.
9. Remind your gymnast to continue to hold the bar securely and then allow her to lift the bar off the floor, toward ceiling again, and then lower it to the mat above her hips to simulate a kip with her upper body.
10. Allow your gymnast to continue with several repetitions if she is able. Inform her that it should be a continuous motion once she is comfortable.
11. Your gymnast will likely need more spot lifting the bar from the mat (the initiation phase) which involves the shoulders (deltoids) than she will on the return phase which involves the back (latissimus) muscles. Be prepared to spot all phases of this exercise. You can have one coach spot each portion. To spot the lift from the mat, kneel on one of the mats to help your gymnast lift off the mat. Kneel near her head to spot the lift from the floor. Make sure you can reach the bar, especially when it is above your gymnast's body.
12. Start with the lightest bar possible, maybe even a broomstick to ensure proper safety and form. Once accustomed to this exercise, your gymnast can use weights on a barbell or a toning bar, but it should always depend upon her strength and experience. If you are using a bar with no weights, you can wrap a thick towel around each end to help prevent your gymnast's knuckles from touching the floor.
The second exercise is more obvious. This one also helps the gymnast with specific gymnastics skills because it will be in and out of a handstand. The Planche – Virtual Handstand – Planche Drill is a great exercise for body tightness, control, upper body strength, and core strength. This drill is an appropriate exercise for gymnasts on so many levels, including those expected to perform the cast handstand and clear hip handstand on bars in the near future.
1. Instruct your gymnast to stand with her back to a spotting block or mat stack, place her hands on the floor, and then place one foot / ankle on the block. Once your gymnast has one foot / ankle on the block, she can then place her other foot / ankle up on the block.
2. Now your gymnast should be in an elevated push up position with her feet on the block. Your gymnast's legs, hips, and chest should remain off the floor through this exercise.
3. Now that your gymnast is in the elevated push up position, instruct her to move her hands closer to the spotting block and her shoulders forward in order to form a slight planche position.
4. Once your gymnast is in the plane position with her feet on the block, instruct her to squeeze her buttocks and then to pull her belly button in. You should see the lower portion of your gymnast's back elongate into the correct low back position for a handstand (pelvic tilt).
5. After your gymnast has formed the correct shape with her lower body, instruct her to push down on the floor and pull in her chest simultaneously. The portion of your gymnast's back between her shoulder blades should rise toward the ceiling. Your gymnast has just performed a protraction / shoulder shrag in the planche push up position. To help teach the shoulder shrag touch the portion of your gymnast's back that is between her shoulder blades and ask her to push up on your hand to form the round back.
6. Instruct your gymnast to hold that tight shape throughout the rest of the exercise.
7. To start the exercise, instruct your gymnast to lift one of her legs up toward the ceiling, but to keep her other foot / ankle on the block. Your gymnast's body, with the exception of the foot / ankle still supported on the block should have moved as one unit up to the single leg, or virtual, handstand. The leg that is pointed toward the ceiling should be the one forming the handstand shape along with the upper body.
8. Your gymnast's shoulders, hips, and one ankle should be directly above her hands while the other leg remains supported on the block. Inform your gymnast that her hips and shoulders should remain square with the block. Her buttocks should be under, belly in, hip opened, chest in, and shoulders in a shrug / stretched position. Remaining square and tight is not always easy for the gymnast.
9. Once your gymnast is in the correct single leg, or virtual, handstand position she can begin the return motion by slowly lowering her free leg back to the block and shifting her shoulders slightly forward so she returns to the planche push up position. Your gymnast's body should move as one unit to the starting position. Instruct your gymnast to keep her head in line with her spine, either tucked in nor tilted back.
10. Next, instruct your gymnast to return to the single leg, or virtual, handstand position by lifting her free leg back up above her hips so that she is vertical, with the exception of her supported leg. She must also open her armpits back up, and square her shoulders and hips with the block. Your gymnast must bring her shoulders and head into alignment for the correct handstand shape again. Instruct your gymnast to look at the floor just above her hands for the planche and then at the block for the handstand.
11. Once your gymnast understands the motion of the virtual handstand to planche and back to the handstand, ask her to complete a few repetitions before stopping if she is able.
12. Inform your gymnast not to planche too far forward until she builds strength and becomes very comfortable so she does not collapse.
13. You must also inform your gymnast to communicate when she is fatigued so that you can allow her to rest. This exercise puts tremendous pressure on your gymnast's wrists. You should allow her to rest when she communicates that her wrists are getting tired.
This exercise, when performed correctly, closely simulates the shoulder movements of the cast handstand and clear hip handstand on uneven bars. You can use a floor bar as long as the floor bar is stable.
The constant change in shoulder angle causes a change in the demand on your gymnast's upper body muscles. Your gymnast should develop strength in a wide range of positions after performing this drill frequently and consistently over the course of time.
As you can see, these exercises are so much different from push ups because of the straight arm training which so closely simulates gymnastics skills. Your gymnast's entire upper body will be challenged with this exercise. If performed frequently and consistently this drill should help tremendously with overall upper body strength in addition to specific gymnastics skills.
Although the push up and bench press are great exercises, they do not really simulate the gymnastics skills of female gymnasts. Gymnastics skills must be simulated in a safe manner in order to train a gymnast's mind and body to perform gymnastics skills safely and efficiently.
Karen M. Goeller