Can someone give me some idea of how much strength training a 14 year old competitive gymnast (who does gymnastics training for 17.5 hrs per week) needs? Within the last eight months, she started working with a new coach who does mainly stiff leg jump work with her. Because of this type of focused training, she is losing leg strength, upper body strength and core strength. I need to know if this girl is over training (I think she is, but she has been doing gymnastics since she was two years old). If I train her once per week to help her build up her upper body, legs and core strength, which specific exercises do you recommend?
Training a young gymnast can be a very challenging proposition. If she averages three to four hours per day working on her vault, beam, uneven bars and floor exercise, adding any additional training could be considered overtraining if it’s not done properly. The most important aspect of any training program for a 14 year old female athlete will always be her sports nutrition. She should see a specialist to learn about getting the correct fuel for her body. Without optimal nutrition, training in the gym will not make a difference.
To design a correct training program for this sport, let’s analyze the components. The energy systems used for gymnastics range from a creatine phosphate system to an anaerobic glycolysis system. Each of the four events involves a different training stimulus. The vault event involves nothing but explosive power and solely uses the creatine phosphate system for energy production. The gymnast needs total body power and control for a landing. Uneven bar routines are not timed, but many last up to 60 seconds. This event is no different than holding an isometric contraction of your entire body for that duration. The beam and floor exercise routines both are around 90 seconds in length and use a combination of the creatine phosphate and anaerobic glycolysis systems. The athlete needs single leg body control above all else for the beam. Floor exercise incorporates elements of dance and tumbling passes, which are all power-based movements. Lastly, every event of the four requires supreme flexibility.
If you are going to be training this girl one day a week, you have to look at the recurring theme with gymnastics, which is increasing total body power. If you say that she is losing upper/lower body and core strength by working on stiff leg jumping, you incorporate those elements into your program. Be careful about using the term “strength” with a gymnast. Their strength is all relative to moving their bodies. They do not need excessive strength to be able to lift something very heavy one time. They need to be able to put forth the greatest amount of energy in the shortest amount of time. In that case, she should train for upper/lower body and core “power.”
Plyometric exercises that isolate body parts as well as corrective exercises would be your answer for the one day per week with your gymnast. Put the athlete through a complete functional movement screen and kinetic chain assessment. Take note of any weaknesses that you can correct with inhibition and muscle activation. Spend the first part of your session working on those corrections. Isolation of power is a great alternative to what your athlete does every day in practice. For three to four hours each day, she trains using her total body, so in your one session per week, you will isolate. Train every major muscle for increased power.
For upper body pushing, pulling and pressing power, a combination of plyometric push ups with a medicine ball or Bosu ball, wall handstand presses and traditional pull ups are just a few exercises. For lower body power, nothing beats jumps, hops and bounds, but in this case, we want to isolate the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings for power. The focus for a 14 year old female athlete should be on using the hamstrings and glutes for deceleration and not being so quadriceps dominant. Therefore, increase the volume on the hamstrings and glute work. For increasing core power through rotation, flexion and extension, I recommend plenty of medicine ball and convert-a-ball work. Another great device to use is the Keiser Functional Trainer. Because of the air resistance, it allows the athlete to use maximal power through a full range of motion. Standing chest presses, shoulder presses, pull overs, and all spinal movements can be done to train those explosive muscle actions. With foot attachments, you can even isolate the quadriceps and hamstrings for power on the Keiser FT. The general rule of thumb for training gymnasts is to never isolate, but if you’re concerned about overtraining and only have one day per week with her, make it something different than what she does every day in practice!
If you had three to four days per week to work with your gymnast, I would recommend training her for a specific event that uses a different energy system and muscle fiber recruitment than what she practiced that day. For example, on days the athlete works on her floor exercise, train her with vault-specific exercises. Again, always incorporate an element of correction into every workout before focusing on event specific drills. When she practices that day for an event requiring more type IIa muscle fibers (like the floor exercise), you will train her type IIbx muscle fibers. This will ensure a well rounded workout routine, without overtraining any one component. Good luck!