How we build gymnastics strength

When we train CrossFit, we aim to improve several areas in order to create well-rounded athletes. Many people (especially those new to CrossFit) are very taken by barbell strength – how much can I back squat or deadlift?! Rarely do they consider the importance of strength in gymnastics.

Over millions of years, our bodies have evolved to allow us to move as efficiently as possible through our environments; however, as modern technology has developed, we have begun to lose our understanding of how our bodies are designed to move. We use cars to get around, we sit behind desks all day, etc.

In its simplest sense, gymnastics is the ability to control our bodies through space: Walking, running, climbing, basic tumbling etc. Whilst in the athletic realm, gymnasts need to demonstrate levels of strength, balance, power and co-ordination that many of us cannot comprehend, for most of us, we just need to fall somewhere in the middle. We want to be able to stay fit and healthy well into older age. 

At CrossFit 1864, we value gymnastic strength on the same level as barbell strength. On our strength days we combine barbell strength work with gymnastic strength work.

This comes in 5 main categories:

  • Vertical Pull: Pulling in a vertical plane (up to down).
    Examples include chin-ups and legless rope climbs
  • Vertical Push: Pushing in a vertical plane.
    Examples include handstand push-ups and ring dips
  • Horizontal Pull: Pulling in a horizontal plane (front to back).
    Examples include ring rows
  • Horizontal Push: Pushing in a horizontal plane.
    Examples include push-ups
  • Midline: Training the stabilising musculature of the torso.
    Examples include hollow hold, planks, L-sits etc (static) or toes to bar, GHD sit-ups (dynamic)

When we train these, we focus on strict movement (no kipping). We place a higher value on strict gymnastics over kipping, especially for beginners and/or those lacking basic gymnastics strength. Besides the fact it is much easier to perform kipping movements if you can do the strict movement, it's also a safety issue. Developing strict strength before you go in to any kind of kipping will help prevent injury, long term or immediate. Let's use the pull-up for example... If your shoulders and surrounding musculature cannot support your bodyweight when it is moving in a slow, controlled fashion as it does when you are performing a strict pull-up, how is it meant to take the impact of nearly three times your bodyweight, produced by a fast, kipping movement?

Strict movement not only develops the large muscles that we are all aware of (lats, traps, etc), they also develop those smaller, stabilising muscles, such as the muscles that act as your rotator cuff, and your rhomboids. Developing the strength of these muscles gives your shoulders much needed stability for the dynamic kip.

Kipping movements still provide a great tool for teaching people how to move and control their bodies, when done properly. Kipping is not flailing around on the bar looking like a limp fish or like you are being tazered. Kipping, when performed correctly, is a great example of core to extremity movement.

Core to extremity movement

Everything we do, whenever we move, should be core to extremity. This sequence allos us to perform the most efficient, powerful and safest movements.

You can think of 'core' as your trunk / torso / spine and hips. When we move, we should start by engaging these muscles to create a strong and stable base. Our strongest muscles initiate the movement and produce the most power to get the object (ourselves, a barbell, etc) moving. Then our limbs (extremity) get involved to finish the task.

The below video, whilst obviously an exaggeration, is typically what people think of when they imagine kipping....

Wild, uncontrolled, unsafe, ugly ass movement. This is how you damage yourself.

The below is what kipping ACTUALLY is (2m 45sec in)....

Notice Carl's tight, straight body position. Everything is connected and he shows just how controlled kipping should be – a prime example of core to extremity movement.

...here is another example of core to extremity movement...

So, core to extremity movement is important to learn and kipping – when done correctly – helps us understand this. For this reason, we also teach our members kipping movement (primarily on skills and met-con days when we can devote more time to practicing the progressions).

Train hard to live life easy!

Our ability to control our bodies is a vital skill and strength we all must develop. Not only will we be able to handle our bodies and external objects better in the gym, but our quality of lives outside the walls of the box will drastically improve.