The best combination to create a superior athlete

Between all of the possible combinations that can be used to create a superior athlete, there is nothing that can beat the mixture of gymnastics and weightlifting.

Born as sports in Ancient Greece, both of these sports came up as preparation for war. For example, one of the most popular events in gymnastics, the pommel horse, was born by inventing ways to get on a horse. Also, weightlifting was used as a way to test the maximal strength of men, giving place for modern competitions like Strongman, where in the Hercules Hold event, the men must hold the pillars of the earth with their strength.

The effectiveness of combining these two disciplines can be explained by their very nature. Every upper body movement must involve the shoulders (scapula), and every lower body movement must involve the hips (pelvis). Also, any movement that involves both the upper and the lower body, like most of the exercises, must involve the core, that is everything besides the extremities: organs, chest, back, spine and abdominals. Gymnastics is a practice centered around the upper body, and weightlifting is a practice centered around the lower body, both being known for giving incredible force in the abdominal area, normally related to the core.

Besides this, both the gymnast and the weightlifter have some grace when they move: their bodies are strong and lean, full of life and elegance. This is due to the fact that these complex practices require a body-mind that works as a unity, achieving a balance between various athletic qualities, like strength, balance, speed, coordination and flexibility.

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In gymnastics, it is not possible to have a pound of muscle if it is not strong, flexible and agile. A gymnast is, pound by pound, the strongest and most versatile athlete in the world. Their discipline includes events so disparate as the flips and tricks on Floor, the sprints and jumps in Vault and the inhumane strength and balance on Still rings. Besides all this wide variety of abilities, a gymnast must perform with technical perfection and artistic grace.

This is why practically all of the sports that use bodyweight are a deconstruction of the complex world of gymnastics. In countries like Russia, many gymnasts start the brutal training around 5 years old. Here, they train 5-6 hours divided in two sessions a day, 6 days a week. The compromise is so high that some gymnasts are not allowed to ride their bikes in cities where it is the main mode of transportation, due to fear of gaining unnecessary musculature. Around 25 years, their profesional career ends and they retire to sports like weightlifting, swimming or circus.

In his book Building the Gymnastics Body, Coach Christopher Sommer, one of the pioneers of promoting gymnastics as strength training in adults, explains how many of his students without having touched a bar in their lives, performed at their first tries lifts of 200 kgs on the Deadlift, 100 kgs on the Jerk and 150 kgs on the Bench Press. People get stronger overcoming a resistance, and it doesn’t matter if this comes from an exterior weight or our own bodyweight.

Nevertheless, the strength of the gym does not transfer itself to gymnastics abilities, something that does happens the other way around. If you take a gymnasts and put it into any sports, she will perform better compared to what any outsider would do in gymnastics. What are the reasons for this transferability? There are many factors, but in my opinion five are the main ones.

To start, we humans are made to move in complex manners, and gymnastics is the sport that better explores this facet. In sports like Athleticism or Pole vault, one can only increase the complexity to one point. Once the basic movements are covered, you can only progress by running faster, jumping higher or lifting stronger.

On the contrary, the main mission of a gymnast is to dominate his own body in space, something that has no limits, which is why their sport could be considered as a movement from the simple to the complex. This is why it is almost imposible to find a gymnast that still does push ups and chin ups. To progress, they first increase the complexity of the exercise, then the intensity and finally the volume. By developing their nervous system, which is the generator of strength, they rise to their potential the capacity to produce complexity, versatility and learning.

For example, in a list that qualifies the neuromuscular activity during different exercises, Charles Poliquin shows that some of the hardest movements in the gym do not even get close to very basic gymnastics. Exercises like the Power clean, which neurologically is one of the most complex in the gym, is a level below exercises like dips or chin ups on still rings.

To take it a step further, the union of a chin up and a dip, called a Muscle up, in gymnastics is not even considered in the code of points. The muscle up is just the way a gymnast gets on top of the rings, being analogous to the movement a cyclist does to get on top of the bike. The muscle up, which for many is a great goal that last almost three months to get, in the world of gymnastics is not even considered strength.

On the second place, gymnastics develops a type of strength that literally nothing else does. In any movement of the upper body, one can perform it with a bent arm or a straight arm. Disciplines like Parkour, Bouldering or Break Dance focus on the first one, movements like pull ups and push ups.

In contrast, gymnastics has movements where the arm must be totally straight, without any kind of flexion in the elbow. Movements like the Iron Cross, Victorian hold or Maltesse explore this type of strength. By straightening the arm, all of the surrounding muscles and tendons have to work a lot harder, which translates into more strength and an impressive physique.

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On the third place, the straight arm strength is mixed with a certain kind of exercises, called isometrics. In here, the strength is sufficient enough to only resist gravity, but not to beat it. Isometrics are exercises where we hold a position without moving, and it is this static efforts that generate a fibrous physique. If one thinks about it, to gain strength we must lift high loads, and isometrics use the highest one: one you cannot lift.

On the fourth place, gymnastics centers on closed kinetic chain exercises. The difference between this ones and the open chain ones, is that in closed kinetic chain exercises the extremities remain fixed to a point and the body moves around them, and in the open exercises is the contrary. An open kinetic chain exercise would be a byceps curl or a leg press, while an open kinetic chain exercise would be a squat or a handstand. Today we recognize that closed kinetic chain exercises are far better for increasing strength and functionality, as they train various muscles and joints at the same time, which is how humans move in the real world.

Regarding this, gymnastic rings are the apparatus that take this to the extreme, because the hands must fixed to an inestable surface. The definitive characteristic of the rings is their inherent instability, something that produces a perpetual movement towards the weak points in the kinetic chain. This makes that immense quantities of strength and concentration should be display to move oneself with ease between two rings. In the events of women artistic gymnastics, like uneven bars, this element is also present.

Finally, Ido Portal has said that the majority of the strength of the upper body comes from the surrounding musculature of the scapula (the other half is grip strength). The scapula is surrounded by 17 muscles that controls it. Human beings developed our arms to manipulate tools, something that meant hypermobile but instable shoulders. Gymnasts use this for their advantage and become masters of control and stabilization of the scapula in different positions.

Having said all this, what can weightlifting add to gymnastics? The key is in the development of the legs. Even though gymnast can usually jump pretty high, what they actually do is rebound in a floor that allows them to. The vertical jump has being considered the main test to determine the explosive power of an athlete, which means his or her capacity to generate force in a short period of time.

Contrary to our arms, our legs have carry us around all of our lives and are made to be strong and displace us. For this, training them with bodyweight will inevitable find a limit point, even though it can be taken very far away. On the contrary, weightlifters have some of the most amazing jumps between all of the athletes, without even training them. This is because olympic lifts could be defined as a jump with a weight.

How to combine them?

The ways we can combine gymnastics and weightlifting are infinite and subject to personal choices. As we are not going to specialize in any of them but to take the best of both worlds, we are not going to participate in the totality of the disciplines.

For example, gymnastics is as huge as all bodyweight movement. You can trace here origins of dance, calisthenics, parkour, capoeira, athleticism and just about anything that a human being can do with its own body. Inside artistic gymnastics, men compete in Still rings, High bar, Pommel horse, Parallel bars, Vault and Floor; in women’s category, they compete in Floor, Vault, Uneven Bars and Beam.

Even so, the person who do not wish to envelop themselves totally in gymnastics, may still benefit for its conditioning, as the majority of time in gymnastics is utilized in practicing routines and abilities that are specific to their sport.

On his part, Weightlifting is the origin of everything that human beings can do in relation to objects and tools. Lifting weights, shot put, running with a weight on our back and everything that involves something external to our weight and its dominance. In Olympic Weightlifting, lifters compete in the Snatch and Clean & Jerk.

There are less technical versions of each of this disciplines. For example, calisthenics or Street work out has taken some elements of gymnastics to create a type of urban gymnastics. Also, Strongman competitions are more based on the strength and less on the ability of the lifter.

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According to what was mentioned in the first part of this article, the most important aspects of gymnastics regarding strength conditioning are complex exercises, straight arms, isometrics, Closed kinetic chain and working the stabilization and control of the scapula. This would translate itself in movements in the Rings like the Planche and Front lever. Even though this is very advanced, we can work them at our level no matter which one it is.

On his part, for the exercises with bent arm there are more fun ways to work that doing countless push ups and chin ups. For example, for the pulling motion one could dedicate to explore all types of climbing: walls, silks, mountains, trees and ropes.

It is known that gymnasts after building a base with chin ups train all of the bent arm pulling aspect using rope climbs. This exercise gives enormous quantities of strength and coordination, and it even was an Olympic sport. For developing it, is possible to study what the Circus arts call Corde lisse.

Regarding all of the bent arm pushing motions, a very fun and effective way of doing it is through the art of Floreio. This branch of Capoeira has being adapted by Ido Portal to create a system where any element can be added, may it be from Break Dance, Parkour, Contemporary dance or Yoga. By joining this elements, we construct a wide vocabulary so we may create complex phrases, producing beautiful improvisation flows on the floor.

In weightlifting our main mission should be to develop strength and explosiveness. Explosiveness means the power to apply force in a short amount of time, like a jump. For this, we should build strength but also adapt it to fast movements.

This is why I recommend that you do some type of Plyometric exercise like a broad jump, followed by an exercise like the Squat or the Deadlift. You could even mix the acrobatic element of gymnastics, which is called Tumbling (or Tricking in a more Martial arts-oriented type training) and mix it with the use of weights, like the Olympics lifts. If there is one other element that add uniqueness to gymnastics is the plyometric nature of many of their movements, so we can use this to our advantage.

The following plan is just an idea of how we could combine both of the disciplines.

Day A (Weightlifting) Day B (Gymnastics)
Warm up Warm up
Power exercise Skill exercise (like a handstand)
Strength exercise Isometric exercise (push or pull)
Conditioning Climbing/Floreio
Stretching Stretching

There are various conflict that may rise from this combination. The first one is that a gymnasts cannot carry excessive muscle mass, specially in the legs, as every exercise would be harder. This is a problem when we mix it with weightlifting, where we use our legs for every movement. To avoid this to the maximum extent, we must center in few and fast repetitions with the weights (1-5).

On the second hand, the mixture of two taxing sports may not allow sufficient recovery between sessions. If this is the case, many things can be done. For example, one could perform the olympic lifts from a platform, or drop the weights and not take them back to the floor, as this two actions greatly fatigue the nervous system.

Another option would be to replace the full lifts (Snatch and Clean & Jerk) with simpler versions like the Full Clean, Power snatch, Power clean, Deadlift and/or Squat (in descendent level of complexity). This is highly recommended, as we want the weightlifting day not to affect the upper body, so a variation that focus on the legs would be ideal. Between the Deadlift and the Squat, it is more practical to do the Squat, as the Deadlift takes a long time to recover from, or to perform a version that utilize less weight than the Conventional Deadlift, like the Power Clean or the Stiff leg deadlift. According to Charles Poliquin, the lift that combines the best of the Squat and the Deadlift is the Snatch grip deadlift on a platform.

The home version of this could be with Calisthenics and with a Kettlebell, with the one you can perform certain explosive movements.

In the end, it’s all about finding the best tools to reach our goals. Most people entered the world of fitness expecting to do what most kids do: flips, handstands and bridges. Very few people would be more excited doing a Bench press than a backflip. Nevertheless, they thought that looking as someone who could move, they would have the ability to do so. If what they wanted was to move, why did they stayed in the eternal preparation? By training with machines, they sat in a gym to become a brute force, forgetting that humans beings are much more complex. In any way, if what you want is to dominate your body in space, there is no better formula than Ido Portal’s: “The scapula craves complexity; the hips intensity”.

If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Coach Christopher Sommer and Ido Portal


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