Gymnastics…a word used for a variety of movements determined by the athletic field you are in. When asked about gymnastics an individual will normally either relate the word to the Olympic style gymnastics which we have seen on TV for many years or if they come from a functionally training background movements performed within their gym such as Kipping Pull ups and Toes to bar. The difference between the two is significant in some areas but extremely similar in others.
A lot of the coaching cues and drills used by a CrossFit coach to improve an athlete’s performance have been adopted from gymnastic coaches throughout the years. The difference between the two is clearer when you watch the two performed side by side. The Olympic style of Gymnastics normally involves movements that are completed in short time periods with maximal strength requirements. In comparison, CrossFit is primarily ‘low’ skilled, muscular endurance focused movements (in the eyes of an Olympic gymnast). However, for the purpose of this article we will stick to what we know and focus on CrossFit specific gymnastics. Throughout the article we will deep dive into the different phases that should be completed in an athlete's attempt to achieve and maximise performance when acquiring a skill.
Phase 1: Laying the Foundation
When an athlete says they want to acquire a particular gymnastics skill it is important that they understand the different phases they must go through to acquire this skill. Looking at the phases in the form of a pyramid we would see strict strength at the base of all skills.
To be good at the basic gymnastic movements it is vital to have a good level of strict strength as a pre-requisite.
Without this baseline level of strength you are more likely to get injured as your body is just not prepared for the force that will accompany some movements.
Without the necessary pulling and pushing strength, learning the higher skilled gymnastic movements will be extremely hard, if not impossible.
Therefore, a phase which should never be overlooked when acquiring a gymnastic skill is the ‘foundational’ phase. For example, an athlete enters the gym and wants to learn to perform kipping pull ups. To ensure no phases are missed we would first get this athlete to perform a series of strict strength tests, specifically a max strict pull up test. From these tests we would then be able to identify immediately the phase that this athlete should start into with it being normal that most athletes need a bigger base to begin their gymnastic journey.
Note: Many forums give a baseline number of +5 strict pull ups to learn kipping or gymnastic movements however, this is just a generic figure. We always recommend that athletes continue to develop their strict strength all year round as it will lead to improved performance along with stronger connective tissue and joint stability. Click here to learn how to build your pull-up strength.
Phase 2: Skill Attainment
In this phase an athlete will spend time building the necessary skills needed within CrossFit. This will begin with the most basic floor drills to build better shapes before moving through a series of exercises to achieve their desired skill. When aiming to attain a skill it is extremely important to not skip any steps within the process as this could lead to bad movement patterns being developed.
Think about it like this... every time you perform a gymnastic skill the less efficient you are the more energy it takes. Therefore, perfect technique leads to better capacity within movements as it will reduce the volume of energy being used.
In this phase an athlete will continue to develop their strict strength levels while slowly introducing more complex drills to supplement their attainment of a specific skill. We recommend when you are moving through this phase of learning to perform a new skill that you record every drill and repetition you perform so you or your coach can review your movement to ensure that technique is not being sacrificed.
Remember practice doesn’t always make perfect – instead PERFECT practice makes perfect.
Phase 3: Capacity Development
Within gymnastic biased workouts it is normal to see a high volume of repetitions for one movement. As a result, it is important to remember that having one or two repetitions of a gymnastic movement is more than likely not enough if your goal is to perform them within a workout. In Phase 3 an athlete will build capacity in a movement. They have attained the skill (meaning they can do at least one repetition) and now they must build the volume of reps which they can do.
In this segment we go against the CrossFit style of programming which emphasises intensity over volume. Instead, we want athletes to have a bias to volume over intensity as this will allow them to build a bigger capacity within a movement without the accompanying fatigue. Along with this an athlete can also focus more closely on their technique so they don’t move inefficiently just to get the work done which is normally seen in a workout format.
An example of a session which we would program for our athletes to develop their capacity would be:on the minute every minute for 10 minutes complete 2 toes to bar. Over the course of the 10-minute window an athlete will accumulate 20 toes to bar while also having enough time to recover as this is a single element session. From there it would be a simple process of progressive overload from week to week trying to accumulate more repetitions to therefore, improve capacity.
Phase 4: Workout Capacity
This is the final phase in our gymnastic programming. This phase is dedicated to developing your capacity in gymnastic movements while under fatigue to better replicate a CrossFit class. In this phase we will identify how effective you are at cycling through high rep gymnastic movements while having a high heart rate from either monostructural or weightlifting movements.
An example of how this would be programmed for an athlete is: 3 rounds for time: 500m ski and 10 toes to bar. In this workout the ski is added to this couplet to introduce an elevated heart rate and some shoulder fatigue to challenge your capacity in toes to bar. A couplet is the easiest workout format to adopt to introduce the capacity building and from there this can be progressed to bring in more interference work.
Quite simply, the goal of this phase is to replicate a CrossFit class and make you as efficient as possible in your specific skill so that when it comes up in a workout it can be performed under fatigue and to a high level.
To conclude, gymnastics is extremely difficult due to the high volume of skill required to be efficient in each movement. However, with a structured plan that has solid, linear progressions that build the necessary strength and skill should over time lead to you achieving your desired gymnastic goals.