Should We Condition Body Parts?

The following is a response to one of the questions that Lee proposed with regards to conditioning. I am actually going to start by addressing the third part of Lee’s comment.

If you disagree with the one body part a session approach, what order do you condition each body part? When talking with a personal trainer I was told to work the mid section last. Her reason being that the core provides stability for other areas; therefore an athlete is more likely to tire out by working first/ in between. She suggested working arms/legs then on the core. What are your thoughts?

I do not believe in conditioning body parts in the sense of arms, legs, abs, etc. This is the bodybuilder mentality that still radiates throughout every Gold’s Gym in America. It is acceptable if your goal is to spray paint yourself brown (spray-on tan) and walk around in your underwear on stage while other men rave over the symmetry of your quads or obliques.

But, for athletes, your strength and conditioning program should focus on two things – 1) Performance Enhancement and 2) Injury Prevention. That should dictate your approach first and foremost. My belief is that you must focus on developing strength relative to specific movement patterns. A comment from Nick Winkelman, a coach/trainer from Athletes Performance in Arizona continues to stick in my mind:

If you train the muscles, you forget the movements.  But, if you train the movements, you never forget the muscles.”

For me, this makes absolute sense.  The focus of your strength/conditioning should be on conditioning specific movement patterns.  So, now the question becomes – what are the specific movement patterns?  In a general sense, I use the patterns as set forth by strength coach Michael Boyle in his book Functional Training For Sports with some slight modifications.

Coach Boyle suggests the following patterns:  (I am providing example exercises to give you an idea of each.)

*Hip Dominant:  Deadlift Variations/Glute Bridge Variations

*Hip Dominant would also include hamstring exercises

Knee Dominant:  Squat/Lunge Variations

Vertical Pulling/Pushing:  Pull-Up (Pull) / Overhead Press (Push)

Horizontal Pull / Pushing:  Seated Row / Push-Up or Bench (Push)

Core

The terms “horizontal” and “vertical” reference the plane of movement.  When you move your arms in front of the body as if you mimicking a push-up action while upright, your movement is in a horizontal plane.  When pulling or pushing with the arms overhead, you are moving in a vertical plane.

Now, gymnastics is not quite so simplistic and there are other patterns specific to gymnastics.  To me, those include:

Kipping (Moving Arms from Overhead To Downward)

Casting (Moving Arms From Down To Overhead)

I would consider a press movement similar to casting and use these types of exercises within my “Casting” category.  Elements such as handstands or handstand push-ups, I’d put into the “Vertical Pushing” category.  Other static strength elements specific to gymnastics such as an L-Sit, I may put into a “Vertical Push” or even the “Cast” category if the exercise was to perform an “L-Sit Press to HS,” for example.

I would place hollow body holds, etc. into the core portion of the program.

So, how would I organize my strength program?  Since Lee mentioned that he works with his athletes three times per week, I would attempt to do a split as such:

Day 1 – Pick either Upper or Lower Body

Day 2 – Do whichever you did not pick in Day 1

Day 3 – Full Body

If you have the athletes more times per week, then do the split as such:  2 days of upper and 2 days of lower.  There is no need to exceed this for strength training.  If you want to do something on a 5th day, focus on preventative/rehab (“pre-hab”) and extra flexibility/mobility or corrective exercise.  Hence – very low-intensity activities.  Gymnasts train so much that most are probably overtrained as it is – particularly at the higher levels.  They need to recover!!!!!

Now, depending on your days, hours in the gym, you can adjust this accordingly.  It may work better to do the full body training on the first day of the week as opposed to the last day.  This is just giving you an example of how I’d split the strengthening of the movement patterns.

So, how would I break this down?  This will all depend on your resources, time for conditioning, etc.  But, I’ll offer up a general plan and provide more specifics later.

Upper Body Day (5-7 exercises in total)

  • Vertical/Horizontal Push
  • Vertical/Horizontal Pull
  • Kipping
  • Casting
  • Core
  • If you want to add in something – add another pulling exercise or some type of scapular/rotator cuff exercise – maybe do something with 1-arm instead of two.

Lower Body Day (4-6 exercises in total)

  • Hip Dominant
  • Knee Dominant
  • 1 – Leg (choose either hip/knee dominant, then do other during the full body day)
  • Core (maybe a couple of core exercises on this day)

I feel that it is harder for the lower body to recover.  So, as you increase the intensity, I see no need to go much beyond 4-6 exercises.  Performing exercises with just bodyweight might warrant a bit more volume.

Full Body Day (6-7 exercises total)

  • Vertical/Horizontal Push (Do opposite of what you did on upper body day)
  • Vertical/Horizontal Pull (Do opposite of what you did on upper body day)
  • Kipping or Casting (choose what you may be weaker in during this cycle of the program…maybe do other in the next phase)
  • Hip Dominant**
  • Knee Dominant**
  • Core

** For whichever you did 1-Leg on lower body day, be sure to do 1-leg on opposite movement pattern on full-body day.

I would work at doing a greater volume of pulling than pushing since gymnastics is largely a “push-dominant” sport.  If you recall, I commented about the over-development of the anterior musculature being a causal factor in thoracic kyphosis – which plays a role in not only shoulder flexibility/mobility, but also shoulder pathology.

That pretty much offers a breakdown of how I’d approach strength training these days.  All of these movement patterns have bodyweight variants that can be performed, which would be more specific to gymnastics.  As the gymnasts mature, I believe that doing a combination of weight training and gymnastics/bodyweight training would be beneficial.  Years ago, I would’ve been totally against weight training.  But, particularly for the lower body, I think that weight training is critical.  I do not think that you can load the lower body enough to prepare for the forces that these athletes sustain from landings, etc. with body weight training alone.

Lastly, in regards to doing the other movements prior to the core training – I will respond with this – “it depends.”  If your athletes are very weak in their core stability, it may be best to perform these exercises first.  If they are pretty strong, then I see no issues with them performing this at the end.  With the volume of exercises that I have suggested, I do not think that you will have as much muscular fatigue.  The fatigue will be mostly neural system-related assuming the intensity is high enough.

From my experience, most gyms do way too much volume and way too many exercises.  The volume is overkill and more often than not, the kids aren’t strong.  That’s not how you develop strength.  You develop strength by increasing the intensity, dropping the volume, and increasing the rest/recovery.  Strength is largely a neural phenomenon.

I will address Lee’s other questions/comments in future posts!  Thanks for the great questions, Lee!  Keep ’em coming!

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One Comment on “Should We Condition Body Parts?”

  1. Jess Says:

    I agree with the above article about how to condition but would also like to add a question/point to consider. I also think my point in question depends on what level gymnast we are talking about. I am talking about higher level gymnasts.
    When I started out coaching higher levels I found I had quite a few injuries–not major but ones I thought could be prevented. In a quest to prevent the recurring ones, I spoke with our physical therapist who argued that rather than spending a great deal of time doing conditioning moves that will replicate skills/drills, we should spend more of our time strengthening the areas of the body gymnasts DON’T spend a lot of time training in the gymnastics moves they perform. That is, instead of doing leg lifts on the bar, we should focus on oblique strengthening. Instead of cast handstanding (which they do quite a bit of during their 45 minute bar workout), we should focus on real deltoids & the muscles of the upper back.
    Many injuries (at least in my experience at the upper level) are from overdevelopment of certain muscle groups with significant weakness in other muscle groups. We focus a lot of our regular conditioning on strengthening those weaker groups that aren’t being strengthened in normal gymnastics activities. It has helped greatly in my program in preventing injuries in my upper level gymnasts without a drop in quality of their gymnastics.
    Just an idea to think about . . .


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