Archive for the ‘Strength Training’ category

Coach Poll/Research: Wall Bars

December 23, 2011

Coaches: I need to build a new set of wall bars (or stall bars, depending I guess on what region you’re in?). I want to know if anyone has ever seen a style of wall bar that they think is both effective AND visually appealing (and accessible to all heights/ages of kids)? In other words, what’s the best design you’ve ever seen?

Bridges – How to spare the back…

March 5, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, a reader asked me to drop some comments on bridges.  It was asked something along the lines of why do coaches insist that gymnasts straighten their legs and keep their feet together when bridging?

I don’t know.

As I noted in my last post, repeated bouts of lumbar flexion are believed to be a potential risk factor lumbar spine disorders such as a herniated disk.  Just the same, the lumbar spine really is not made to excessively arch or hyperextend as is seen when gymnasts perform skills such as bridges, backbends, and back walkovers.  Aside from these skills, when does a gymnast actually assume this type of a position?

Quite honestly, I cannot think of any other skills in which a gymnast assumes this position with so much lumbar hyperextension.  Some may argue that this type of bridge development is necessary for a successful performance of a back handspring.  Or, that’s an argument that I’ve heard a few times over the years.  Is it really?  Below, are three screenshots taken from Shawn Johnson’s first tumbling pass at 2008 National Championships.  Notice that she never gets into the position that we see above and if she did, she wouldn’t be very successful.

Beginning of the BHS After the RO

Flight Phase of BHS - Just Before Hand Contact

During Hand Contact of BHS

Does any gymnast ever assume the position (as shown in the bridge picture above) in a back handspring or any other skill except for bridges, back/front walkovers, etc. ?  The important factor in bridge development is shoulder flexion or often – hyper-flexion.  In other words, we want the arms to be able to be lifted up by the ears or even past without the chest/ribs poking out.

As I discussed in an earlier blog posting, there are other factors that we must consider when a gymnast has “tight shoulders.”  Maybe the issue is not flexibility at all.  Maybe the issue is too much rounding of the upper back that which places the scapula in a poor position.  Maybe it’s a matter of poor scapular stabilization or an imbalance of the scapula musculature.  The key muscles that would limit shoulder hyperflexion are the latissimus dorsi and the pec major/minor.  There are other stretches specific to these muscles that do not stress the low back.

With that said, here is a better way to perform a bridge.  I first came across this suggestion from David Adlard in an old USAIGC publication called STEPing UP.  To minimize the excessive hyperextension of the low back, elevate the feet to above shoulder height and put the emphasis of the stretch on the shoulders.

In the picture below, a trainer colleague, Becky (who used to cheer and tumble in high school) demonstrates.  Thanks Becky!  She’s a little tight in the shoulders, but now this position can better emphasize the muscles that need to be stretched without putting the low back at as much risk.  Afterwards, she even commented something to the effect of – “Wow, that really stretched my upper back…it felt good…”

Feet Elevated Bridge

Do we really need to be doing sit-ups & crunches?

March 4, 2010

Dr. Stu McGill from the University of Waterloo in Canada has strongly advocated that repeated lumbar spinal flexion (i.e. rounding of the low back) may ultimately lead to a disk injury.  The question that remains unanswered is how many will it take to lead to injury?  That’s probably a question that is HIGHLY variable depending upon the individual.

Nevertheless, I have pretty much stopped doing crunch/sit-up-type exercises.  I feel that you can achieve the same effect performing core stabilization exercises such as planks.  The closest that I come to a crunch is a reverse crunch, which I feel is a lead-up to performing a candlestick/lever raise on the floor, hanging on a bar, on the rings, etc.

With that said, here’s a study that was conducted on US Army recruits comparing a sit-up training program vs. a core stabilization program on performance of the US Army Physical Fitness Test.  What was found was that –

“….there was a small but significantly greater increase in sit-up pass rate in the CSEP (5.6%) versus the TEP group (3.9%).”

CSEP = core stabilization exercise program

TEP = traditional exercise program

Effects of Sit-Up Training Versus Core Stabilization Exercises On Sit-Up Performance

Medicine & Science In Sport & Exercise. 41(11):  2072-83, Nov 2009.

What are your thoughts?

Plyometrics – An Explanation & Appropriate Usage…

January 22, 2010

Plyometric exercise refers to activities that enable a muscle to achieve maximal force in the shortest possible time.  The goal of plyometric exercises is to develop and/or increase power.  To understand plyometrics better, one must grasp the three different phases.  These are the phases that are outlined in the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd edition.  (Human Kinetics, 2008)

Photo from:  Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd edition.  (Human Kinetics, 2008)

Eccentric Phase:  In this phase, the muscle is being stretched and elastic energy is stored.

In the picture above, the calf muscle (gastrocnemius) is being stretched as the ankle moves into a position of dorsiflexion.  (Ankle dorsiflexion is an anatomical movement term reflecting the decrease in the angle between the foot and the shin bone.)

Amortization Phase:  This phase refers to the time between the eccentric phase and the subsequent concentric (“shortening”) phase.  During this very brief instant, nerves from the brain are sending signals to nerves that stimulate the muscles.

Concentric Phase:  In this phase, the muscle is now being shortened.  In addition to the muscle force being produced from the muscle itself and its contraction properties, stored energy from the eccentric phase is also released and contributes to the total force production.

In the picture above, the contraction of the calf muscle during the push-off phase (ankle plantarflexion) would reflect the concentric phase.

So, basically, the muscle functions much like that of a rubber band.  If it is stretched, it can produce additional force because it possesses elastic properties.

So, how do coaches often mess up the application?

The key component to plyometric exercise is ground contact time.  In other words, how fast can the gymnast get off the ground when they are performing these exercises?

What I see far too often in most gyms is that coaches prescribe too many of a plyometric exercise within a set.  As you see in the amortization phase, much of what we’re really training is the neuromuscular system.  By doing too many repetitions in a set, fatigue begins to accumulate.  However, depending on the conditioning level of your gymnasts, that fatigue may not be felt in the muscles.  But, the nervous system itself gets very fatigued.  And, as a result, the gymnasts slow down, ground contact times increase, and you’ve turned a power exercise into a conditioning circuit.

In typical strength training, power is developed by utilizing 1-5 repetitions per set.  I would apply this same concept to plyometrics since they are power exercises.  Total volume is based on the number of foot contacts.  If you desire 20 foot contacts of a specific exercise, then I would perform 4 sets of 5 and allow sufficient rest time between sets for neural system recovery.

While not an official term that I have ever seen in textbooks, if your goal is to develop power endurance (the ability to maintain one’s power over a particular duration), then I think that you have three options.  First of all, you can increase the rep range, but I would not exceed 10 repetitions per set.  Or, secondly, you could perform your plyometric exercises in a more fatigued state. (i.e. end of practice, following a hard strength training/conditioning session, etc.)  Third, you could decrease the rest periods between sets.

Developing power endurance may be useful for the gymnast so that they have enough reserve power at the end of a floor routine to make the final tumbling pass.

Hopefully, this gives all of you a bit more understanding of my opinion of how to best incorporate plyometric training into your strength and conditioning program.

Where To Place Your Strength Training During Practice…

January 9, 2010

This is a response to Lee’s second question…

Do you think conditioning should be done at the end/beginning of practice or included within the apparatus stations? I have made my gymnasts condition at the beginning (they are lower levels) as they seem to build more strength this way, though I should have tested this theory to confirm. I see conditioning as more important than most of the skills they are learning currently, and often include extra shape/handstand work in their stations.

My reply to Lee are the two most frustrating words – “it depends.”

Here is my opinion…I would put the strength/conditioning at the beginning of the workout during the off-season as you should be focused on building strength in order to both enhance and enable skill development.  To maximize strength development, it’s important for the gymnasts to not be fatigued.

During the season, I would put it at the end of practice.  By this time, your training emphasis will have shifted more to technical preparation and trying to make the routines as good as possible for competition.  By this time, your strength should be there and it’s the time to mostly maintain and depending on how you vary your volume/intensity, you might be able to increase strength a little.  In my opinion, the goal should be maintaining adequate strength and doing “pre-hab”/corrective exercises to prevent injury.

In terms of putting it in during an event – I still like having dedicated time.  I think that it allows for more focus and improved quality.  Plus, I feel that it is important to use event time for event training.  If you have no other alternative due to things beyond your control within your gym, then you have to do what you have to do.

If you are training elite athletes, this approach is going to be different because there is no real off-season in elite gymnastics. This is where block periodization becomes critical and is necessary to maintain the physical qualities of the gymnast.  I will elaborate more on my thoughts relative to this in a future post!

Should We Condition Body Parts?

January 9, 2010

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!

Super Tight Shoulders…We Must Look At Other Factors…

January 1, 2010

This is in response to recent comments by “Just Another Opinion.” I figured that I might as well make a blog post about it.

Yes, there are other factors outside of merely shoulder flexibility that dictate shoulder range-of-motion. Of particular importance is the position of the scapula as the scapula contributes to upwards of 60 degrees of arm elevation. Thus, when you lift your arm over your head, your scapula must move 1 degree for every 2 degrees that your arm lifts overhead – regardless of whether you are lifting it straight up (shoulder flexion) or bringing up to overhead from the side (shoulder abduction). This is referred to as “scapulohumeral rhythm.” The other 120 degrees of shoulder motion is contributed from the shoulder (glenohumeral) joint itself.

The scapula is controlled actively as it is supported by 17 muscles. Imagine a string that is pulling on an object in 17 directions. It is critical that those forces be functionally balanced so that it can be moved appropriately as the different forces act upon it. When you move your arm in an upward direction, the scapula should upwardly rotate, abduct, and slightly posteriorly tilt on the thorax. If you have certain scapular stabilizers (I won’t get into specifics just, yet…I will in future posts) that are not doing their job appropriately, you’ll get abnormal movement and this can dramatically effect how high one can lift their arm.

Secondly, the degree of “rounding” (thoracic kyphosis) in the upper spine can also have a dramatic effect. Increased kyphosis puts the scapula in the wrong positions and this, in turn, can affect upper arm elevation. Doing regular thoracic mobility, such as foam roller extensions, should be commonplace since gymnasts perform so many pushing activities (casting, pressing, etc.) as well as “hollowing.”

These types of movements really develop the front side of the upper body, but most conditioning programs fail to appropriately balance the upper back and scapular stabilizers. As a result, the kyphosis continues to increase.

Here is an example of thoracic extensions with a foam roller shown by Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.

Lastly, I will talk a little bit more about normal postural development in a future post. Sometimes, in younger children, the resulting kyphosis is a result of a compensation for excessive anterior pelvic tilt – which is actually very normal throughout postural development. In other words, as the child grows, some of those deformities will go away.

So, there is a lot more content on this subject forthcoming in the near future!