Gymnastics is a sport that requires a multitude of different physical characteristics – speed, power, strength, technique, acceleration – the list goes on.
Perhaps you’re a parent, coach or aspiring athlete and are wondering how a strength and conditioning regime can help improve gymnastics performance?
Well, you’re in luck!
Today, we interview Scott Conway, the Head of Athletics and one of our Fitness Coaches at Melbourne Girls Grammar, who has extensive experience as a strength and conditioning coach for high level gymnasts for many years.
Today, he’s going to be sharing his experience about strength training for gymnastics.
He’ll be discussing:
- His experience as an strength and conditioning coach in gymnastics
- What physical characteristics gymnasts need
- Why being strong as a gymnast is important
- Why simply doing gymnastics training alone isn’t enough for a well-rounded program
- What types of exercises he includes in a gymnast’s strength program
- How he balances high training loads in gymnastics with his strength programming
- The common injuries he sees and how he deals with them
At the Artemis Centre, we are dedicated experts in the physical, social, emotional and academic wellbeing of our members, and want to help them to perform at their best.
Let’s dive in.
Following an internship in 2013, Scott started off his journey as a full-time strength and conditioning coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) in 2014.
Here, he was responsible for the strength programming for several sports, including diving – an acrobatic sport involving twisting and turning at high velocities – which laid the foundation for his work to come in gymnastics
When one of Scott’s colleagues took leave due to injury, Scott easily slipped in to cover his role, taking a group of elite gymnasts for six months in the sport of Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG).
Fast forward a few years after working overseas in hockey, Scott returned to Melbourne in early 2018 when an old colleague of his was finishing up his work with the National Centre of Excellence (NCE) – a high performing gymnastics facility.
Scott spent six weeks shadowing him to gain a scope of the role, understand the program and meet all the coaches and athletes. Scott has been working at this facility ever since in a part time capacity.
The gymnasts here are aged between eight and 24 years, with the most common being between 10 and 16 years. All of the athletes Scott works with are either on the junior gymnastics pathway or the national program/team and are all aspiring to become elite senior athletes.
Here are Scott’s answers to some common gymnastics questions relating to strength training:
What physical characteristics do gymnasts need?
SC: Simply watching the four apparatus in artistic gymnastics, it’s clear that the sport is one that requires many different well-developed qualities in order to succeed.
Gymnasts need strength everywhere – in their upper and lower body, as well as their trunk/core in order to transfer force between them.
There are substantial ground reaction forces that go through the muscles, joints and bones, which the body must be conditioned for.
Mobility and Flexibility
You’ll find that most gymnasts are quite mobile, as they need to be able to get into all sorts of unusual positions. In fact, many gymnasts can be hypermobile, which makes strength and stability work all the more important.
In particular, gymnasts need high levels of upper back (thoracic) and shoulder mobility in order to support themselves when they are performing handstands and tumbling manoeuvres.
Power and Speed
Gymnasts also need high levels of speed, in particular acceleration for their vault runs and tumbling. I therefore spend a lot of time on running technique and running drills.
Gymnastic athletes require high levels of anaerobic tolerance when they’re doing their floor routine, as this can range in time from 90 seconds to two and a half minutes.
During that period of work there is a lot of lactic build up, so they need a well developed ability to tolerate lactic acid while still performing their tumbling routine to a high standard.
Why do gymnasts need to be strong?
SC: The biggest benefit I see strength training having, especially for the demographic and age levels I work with, is the mitigation of injury risk.
When young gymnasts complete a strength program, they are building a strength base, enabling to better handle the demands of the sport. If the can handle these loads better and lessen the chances of injury, they spend less time on rehabilitation programs and more time practising their sport.
This leads to greater performance gains organically.
Why do they need a dedicated strength programs?
SC: When they’re doing gymnastics training alone they’re not actually working on their top end strength. We want to create a good strength base through the legs, trunk and glutes.
A dedicated strength program gives gymnasts a profound ability to absorb forces. A lot of my program focuses on increasing force in order to allow gymnasts to have safer landings, because you’re doing that 40 or more jumps a week that’s a lot of force going through the skeleton.
When gymnastic athletes do a lot of their apparatus work, they need to deal with large ground reaction forces when landing from heights. They need to be able to absorb and withstand these forces, as they can be upwards of 10 times their body weight.
What exercises would you typically include in a gymnast’s strength session?
SC: Due to the limited time I have, I need to make every exercise count and be as efficient as possible with my programming. I therefore select a lot of multi-joint, compound lifts that work on a lot of things at one time, with each gymnast completing two x 45 – 60 minute strength sessions each week.
Examples include double leg exercises such as squats and trap bar deadlifts and hinge exercises such as back extensions and RDLs.
Single leg activities to account for asymmetries and for beam/running such as single leg squats, single leg back extensions and sled runs.
I also like to focus on strength speed, often including overhead weightlifting derivatives such as the power snatch, jerks, split jerks and push presses due to the time gymnasts spend overhead.
In terms of trunk strength and core strength, I avoid anterior work such as V-ups, sit ups and leg lifts as these are covered well in training. Instead we focus on anti-extension and anti-rotation activities such as deadbugs and Pallof press to help prevent excessive extension patterns.
You’ll also find a lot of chin ups, single arm rows and inverted rows in my programs.
how do high training loads AFFECT YOUR PROGRAMMING?
SC: Fortunately, the coaches I work with are of a very high level and deeply understand loading parameters. It’s important we work closely and get the balance right as the girls train upwards of 26 hours per week.
We’ve found a structure where volume, intensity and load is distributed throughout the week where we prioritise different qualities on different days.
On Wednesdays I keep the volume low, intensity high and rest periods long because the girls have a large load for their skill-specific session . There’s a big focus on speed, acceleration with limited metabolic work in order to minimise the chance of DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness).
Conversely on Saturdays, I am the last rotation and they get the following day off, as well as a light day on Monday. This allows me to prescribe exercises working on higher repetition ranges in an attempt to get more anatomical changes such as increasing muscle mass as well as metabolite tolerance.
What are the common injuries you see?
SC: The most common injuries I see are stress reactions in backs, in particular L5S1, which can turn into a stress fracture due to excessive extension. In order to combat this I replace their double leg exercises with loaded single leg work such as Bulgarian split squats and lunges as this reduces the compressive and shearing stress on this area.
The overhead nature of the sport causes elbow, shoulder and even wrist injuries. In my view, this is most often due to weakness in the muscles that control scapula retraction and stability. This leads to the humeral head not in optimised position in conjunction with winged shoulder blades and a lack of stability.
I therefore include accessory exercises to improve serratus and scapular control to help my gymnasts adopt a better overhead position.
I keep away from plyometric exercises as this can cause too much shin stress and can lead shin splints. Gymnasts are already doing so many impacts and they need to prioritise the force end of the force-velocity curves, not the other way around.
Patella tendon pain such as Osgood Schlatter’s and Achilles tendinopathy are also common due to jumping and landing loads in conjunction with peak height velocity. I’ll often look into an athlete’s potential weaknesses or lack of mobility when I come across these injuries.