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Gymnastics, Posture and Injury

March 27, 2006 09:15 AM

It's one thing to be able to get into the body position your sport requires in order to compete well. It's another thing entirely to live there. This is especially true for sports such as gymnastics and swimming that require postures that are fundamentally opposite of those used in most other sports.

Both sports are "arm based" as opposed to the "leg based" sports such as football and basketball. The hunch back posture of gymnasts and swimmers is well known. In gymnastics it is called "hollowing out" and it considered proper form. If the athlete "lives" in that posture when they are not training it can be very hard to change and lead to serious knee, shoulder, neck, and lower back injuries.

In land based sports the correct posture is know as the "Fundamental Athletic Position" and requires a medium stance, hips back, chest and head up and stable spinal curves. This allows the athlete to move forwards, backward or laterally very quickly as well as jump while maximizing power from the legs, hips and back: the "power zone". It is also the basic posture for squatting, deadlifting and the Olympic lifts.

The only time gymnasts get this position is during landings (if done correctly). Gymnastics focuses on hollow chests, the forward head position, tucked hips and a flexed lumbar spine. Check the pictures of any top (or even beginner) competitors and this is what you will see.

This is especially problematic with young athletes who do ONLY gymnastics training and do so during the crucial developmental years from puberty through the end of their growth cycle. It is very easy to get "stuck" in that posture. And that can have serious side effects for life. Even the way gymnasts run, which is used during floor exercise and vault is different than most land based athletes.

This is also made worse by the lack (for most programs) of antagonistic programs to balance the development and postures created by gymnastics. Most strength and conditioning programs are little more than more gymnastics, strengthening the necessary posture and creating even more imbalance. This is even worse for female gymnasts where upper body strengthening seems to have been forgotten altogether.

I have worked with gymnasts for 30 plus years and I can't tell you how many Elite level girls can't do handstand pushups or hold a really solid handstand. Many clubs have also abandoned real flexibility training, or left it up to the girls themselves(same thing as abandoning it) and the results are horrific.

I have had direct experience with this. Gymnastics was my first sport, starting at age 14. Training was skill based and we attempted tricks right away without developing the necessary base strength or addressing inherent weaknesses. Since the sport requires landings to be "stuck" we ended up doing many, many landings with straight legs, bending at the hips to maintain balance. This resulted in a L5- S1 fusion which wasn't detected for many years. Lack of leg strength or proper lumbar curves also resulted in a full knee dislocation while attempting to "stick" a full twisting back.

Think if gymnastics training like this: climb to the top of your roof, jump off and try to not move when you land. Repeat hundreds of times per day, 5-6 days per week for many, many years. The impact forces are many times over bodyweight and the higher you fly the higher they are. Landing mats help but not that much. Add in floors that are essentially mini trampolines and allow little kids to get much higher in the air than they have any real business doing and it gets even uglier. Foam pits to take landings out of the equation only delay the athlete being able to control their body when they do have to land a big trick.

And if you don't have the leg, hip and back strength to hold the correct position the landing forces are absorbed directly into the joints and bones, instead of being dissipated.

This is one of the reasons you will be hard pressed to find an Elite gymnast, or even a lower ranked athlete without numerous debilitating, lifelong injuries.



In 1975 Mark was awarded a full athletic scholarship to University of Iowa. As a gymnast he excelled in the parallel bars and was team captain from 76'-78'.

WHAT TO DO?

In my opinion the most important thing for gymnasts, swimmers and other athletes whose sport requires these unhealthy postures is to develop a conditioning program that balances them out. Again, its one thing to be able to assume a positional shape for the sport, Its another to not be able to get out that posture the rest of the day.

FLEXIBILITY

It seems ridiculous to even MENTION flexibility when speaking about gymnastics training as they seem the most flexible of all athletes. But, if you look carefully they are usually only flexible in certain ranges.

ANKLES

Take the ankle range of motion. Gymnasts spend their lives pointing their toes. But ask them to do the opposite, dorsiflexion, and you will get a startling discovery. Most cannot even get to neutral position, much less the 10-15 degree considered "normal". This has serious implications; from the ability to run properly, to being able to stick landings more safely and better by allowing the knee to move correctly over the toes so that the hips and glutes can work.

Stretching the gastroc and soleus as well, as serious anterior tibialis strengthening will allow for better working of the ankle, less rolled ankles (a VERY common injury), more stuck landings and more power in general.

So what do most gymnastics programs do for ankle conditioning? More toes raises!!!! The exact opposite of what is needed. When you point and bounce off your toes five plus hours a day it should be enough.

HAMSTRINGS

This is a two-fold problem. Most of the female gymnasts I work with have VERY tight hammies. A stunning discovery to me until they told me most organized stretching was discarded years ago. A few minutes is all they get then right into training! So much of the tightness comes from the constant pelvic tucking they do on almost every skill. Bringing the origin and the insertion of a muscle closer together for many hours can result in adaptive shortening.

You can see this everyday with people who sit for a living. Both the knee flexor and the hip extender portions of the hamstrings can get very short. This can take the lumbar curve right out of the spine, which of course the gymnast is actually shooting for! Great looking for the judges; bad for power generation and your lower back.

Taking enough time to stretch the hammies both statically (hopefully with PNF techniques so as not to loose strength) and dynamically will go a long way.

The other problem is VERY weak hamstrings, especially at the hip/glute. Since gymnasts run, tumble and jump off their toes most of the leg development they get is quadriceps. Since what doesn't get work gets weak this is what occurs. Also, with the hips tucked under glute develoment, both maximus and medius get very little work. This leads to a very unstable hip area, which makes trying to stick dismounts from 20 plus feet in the air, much harder.

Since the glutes require a neutral or arched spine to fully extend the hip this hip tucked, round lower back further exacerbates the problem.

The Solution? Squats, kettlebell swings, snatches, windmills and deadlifts. All of these require and develop proper lumbar curves and strength relationships between the back, hips and glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. I also advocate use of the stability ball for basic stabilization and body control. One legged, no arm hip extensions show you very quickly if you have any upper hammie strength and stability.

But of course that would require enlightened, educated gymnastic coaches who knew more about the body than just how to do the latest release move. At the LEAST the use of the kettlebell swing or snatch would rectify many of these imbalances .

LUMBAR SPINE

Much of this was covered above but with the tucked pelvic posture you get a very serious imbalance between the abs and the spinal erectors as well. Constant trunk flexion without a concomitant amount of work on spine extension can really create serious back injuries and I see these every day with my gymnasts.

This could be alleviated with a commitment to a strength program that is based in solid fundamentals such as squatting and deadlifting. Think of gymnastics as one big, plyometric workout. Its been said that one is not ready to undertake serious plyo training unless they can squat double bodyweight! Well, if that's true none of these athletes are ready to do gymnastics. And a cursory look at the injury rate (which is CRIMINAL in my eyes) and you might agree with me.

Too many gymnastics coaches have done nothing but gymnastics themselves and when and if they implement a strength program it is usually a bodybuilding hypertrophy program, just the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. Gymnasts need a very high strength to weight ratio; very high relative strength. Low rep training on the basic movements will accomplish that AND get them leaner without the starvation and eating disorders that are RAMPANT in the sport. Add in proper kettlebell work and the fat will melt off!!!

When I've had the time and opportunity to strength train the gymnasts they take to it like ducks to water and realize the benefits immediately. They know how to be tight and generate max tension, they just need proper coaching.

SHOULDERS

This is a real problem area created by way too much hollowing of the chest, much too tight internal rotators (pecs, front delts, biceps, lats and teres major) as well as overtraining and development of the rectus abdominus. Add in very poor shoulder flexibility (especially the females) and almost NO external rotator work and you have a shoulder disaster just waiting.

So much of the "flexibility" work is done dynamically that many weaknesses are not exposed until it's too late. Do the stick dislocates slowly and just watch how tough it is for many.

This is less of a problem for the males as rings really open up the shoulders well but also creates its own set of problems with the EXTREME ROM required. Lot of rotator cuff work is required as well.

Both isolation rotator work (band and dumbell work in transverse, sagittal and frontal planes) and integrative work overhead kettlebell work) will help stabilize the shoulder girdle for the huge loads gymnasts put on them. LOTS of rear deltoid and rhomboid work will help counterbalance the gymnastics training and create a more balanced athlete, much less prone to traumatic injury.

I wish I had known this in 1977 when a full shoulder dislocation on the rings ended my gymnastics career and has plagued me for the last 28 years. I also wished my coaches had taken the chronic shoulder bursitis and tendonitis more seriously as well.

The old saw is wrong. Glory is temporary, pain is forever. So many "minor" injuries we incur when young don't really start showing up again in earnest until we hit the 30's and 40's. Lots of fun. Arthritis: it's not just for old people anymore.

CONCLUSION

The real key, in my opinion, is taking a more balanced approach to gymnastics strength training and conditioning. Instead of just doing more gymnastics specific exercises, hammering a nail that is already down, how about training the antagonists? When most gymnasts train 5-6 hours 6 days a week spending an hour a day or balancing their bodies doesn't seem like too much to ask, does it?

Testing and assessing, on an ongoing basis, where these kids bodies are, not just for gymnastics, but for healthy posture and physical balance should be a requirement. The drive to train everyone like they are the next Nadia Commenci is ridiculous.

Consider that 99.9% of these KIDS are not going to go to the Olympics or even do college gymnastics further proves the point. We are seriously injuring many, many of our sons and daughters FOR NO GOOD REASON. Gymnastic coaches need much more training on strength and rehab training methodology, anatomy, biomechanics, kinesiology and basic free weight strength training.

As well as the RKC. But hey, one thing at a time, no?


Mark Reifkind, RKC, has been a competive athlete,coach and student of physical culture for the last 34 years. A former national level gymnast he has trained Olympic gymnasts, was the World team Head Coach for team USA in powerlifting,and has written for Milo, IronMan and Muscle Mag International.A masters level rated powerlifter he now focuses his training on the kettlebell and the depth of its applications.

Rif is the owner operator of Girya Kettlebell Training, the first studio in the country to use the kettlebell as its primary method of conditioning. Girya offers private and semi instruction and classes as well as specific workshops, seminars and instruction for the Mixed Martial Artist. Visit GiryaStrength.com
 

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