Gymnast Fit: An Olympic Coach’s Workout

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By most measures, male gymnasts are the strongest athletes on earth. A basic tumbling pass on the floor— roundoff, back handspring, back tuck — requires sustaining an impact to the hands, wrists, and shoulders at up to 14 times a gymnast’s body weight. The iron cross on the rings? Those guys are enduring as much as 4,000 pounds of torque.

Most of us don’t have access to gymnastics equipment, nor are we capable of throwing a roundoff, let alone a roundoff back handspring back tuck. But that’s not what’s keeping us from achieving a gymnastic body, according to Coach Christopher Sommer, former U.S. Junior National Team Coach. It’s the mobility deficit we accrue from years of sitting in desks and cars.

Casey Patterson of United States dives for the ball during the Men's Beach Volleyball preliminary round Pool F match against Robin Seidl and Alexander Huber of Austria on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Beach Volleyball Arena on August 8, 2016.

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“Gymnastic strength is functional strength,” says Coach Sommer, “which is different than the strength you achieve at the fitness center doing bench press and squats, which are in a single plane of motion using primary muscle groups.” This means that before any of us can get close to achieving a gymnastic physique, we need to reclaim our range of motion. “I’m not even talking a gymnast’s range of motion,” Coach Sommer says. “I’m talking about getting back the normal range of human motion that you’re born with.” Here are four moves Sommer thinks every man should add to their routine.

1. Scap Shrugs

Most adults aren’t aware of the fact that their shoulder blades, aka scapula, are supposed to move — so much that you should be able to pinch them together behind your back until they literally touch. If that seems like a pipe dream, you’re in need of scap shrugs. Get down on all fours, on your hands and knees. Make sure your hands are shoulder width apart, and your knees hip width. Keep your neck neutral and your arms straight. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, imagining pinching a penny between them. Now protract your shoulder blades, rounding them forward like you’re trying to bear-hug a telephone pole to your chest. Repeat for 30 reps. Progress to being able to do 30 reps while in a plank position.

2. Shoulder Extension

Shoulder pain is one of the most common complaints, even from guys who lift regularly. The problem is that the most common shoulder exercises are either in front or overhead, both which are anterior positions of shoulder flexion. The muscles on the back, like the rhomboids, are completely neglected. Add in hours spent behind a computer, and most adults have a very narrow range of motion in the shoulder. Incorporate shoulder extension to help correct the imbalance. Do this exercise while standing with a barbell. If a barbell is too heavy to start (and it most likely will be), begin with as little as a three-pound dumbbell in each hand. Ideally, the hands will be shoulder-width apart, and behind the back with the palms facing down. If that’s too narrow, start with twice as wide as the shoulders, progressing to 1.5 times as wide, then finally shoulder-width. Keeping the arms straight, lift them behind the back. It’s typical at first to only be able to lift a couple inches off the low back. Work up to lifting to 90 degrees, so the hands are horizontal with the shoulders. Do five lifts, holding the fifth lift for five seconds. Build up to 10 lifts, holding the last one for 10 seconds. Coach Sommer’s elite athletes work up to being able to do should extension with about 45 pounds.


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3. Jefferson Curl

The Jefferson Curl restores mobility to the back and spine, especially the lower back. Stand on an elevated surface, like a box or bench. Choose a lightweight dumbbell or kettlebell. Let it dangle in front of your body with straight arms. Stand tall with the feet together, tuck your chin, then slowly flex your spine (round your back), one vertebrate at a time; think nose-to-knees. Be sure to keep your weight balanced on the balls of the feet. If you have to lean back to counter the weight, you’re going too heavy (remember, this is a mobility exercise, used to improve spinal articulation and flexibility in the hamstrings, glutes, lumbar fascia, and even the low traps, not a strength and conditioning exercise). Go as far as you can while still keeping your legs straight, then reverse the movement, uncurling the spine one vertebrate at a time, and finally untucking your chin to return to standing tall. Repeat for a total of 10 reps. Increase weight slowly, building up to half your body weight over 12–18 months. Coach Sommer’s elite athletes work up to their full body weight. 

4. Hollow Body Rock

Core strength is key to a gymnastic body, and this exercise, also popular in CrossFit, helps the oft-neglected obliques, extensors, and lower back muscles catch up to the front abs (which, let’s face it, are what guys mostly train). Lie on your back and assume the hollow-body form: arms extended overhead as close to the ears as possible, legs straight and pressed together with feet lifted off the ground and toes pointed, lower back and butt in contact with the floor, pelvis tucked, back rounded. Now rock back and forth while maintaining the hollow-body form. Note that it’s not uncommon to need to begin with perfecting the hollow-body form before progressing to rocking. Work up to three sets of 60-second-long rocks.

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