I recently had the opportunity to go spend a couple of hours at a gymnastics facility and watch the girls run through an off season session. I am going to break down the common movement errors I saw, the good and bad of gymnastics training, and finish off with some preventative exercises I will recommend to gymnasts based on typical weaknesses.
Before I even arrived I started thinking about common injuries seen from gymnasts, those including ankle, wrist, back and shoulder injuries. And then I started asking myself, WHY are these so common? Here’s the short answer. Gymnastics can be a very one sided, dynamic sport. By that I mean, they repeatedly take off on the same leg, turn the same way, leap, hop and skip off of the same leg. That alone will cause strength differences from one side of the body to the other. Not to mention, the constant extreme pounding through all joints for 20+ hours a week. Most gymnasts have a sway back due to the repetitive arching required for many movements, and although they have strong cores, do not always use it properly. Lastly, gymnasts have GREAT body awareness that is developed at a very young age, but with this comes motor patterns that are so ingrained into their brain that correcting the way one turns their toe during a leap or lands with their knees in a poor position after a tumbling pass is very hard to correct after tens years of practicing that pattern.
That was my thought process as I stepped into the gym. Now here is what I saw… the demands of training can be overwhelming, so I was happy to see the girls warm up with a short game of soccer. Surprisingly, these girls were pretty aggressive when it came to kicking the ball through a small hole in the landing mats. But right away I saw some of the things I expected, hips were rotated in, there were obvious strength biases through one leg versus the other, and their knee positions were not ideal when kicking or making a quick turn.
Then they went on to a static stretch routine. I will not get into the topic of static versus dynamic warm up today, but I have previously touched on it here. Gymnastics requires such flexibility that the added static stretch is needed, but should it be before or after a training session?
Next, a more dynamic warm up was completed with a very well rounded routine. I did see a little non dominate strengthening here, which is great. One of my recommendations for preventative strengthening would be isolated single leg/single arm exercises ( squats, lunges, dumbbell presses, forward/lateral step ups, etc all with a focus on core control).
Two big things on the vault. Running mechanics and the shoulder block. To generalize what I saw, the girls had very low knees and a weak arm swing with their run, causing a very flat, hard landing and decrease in speed. Adding some running technique drills before a vault session begins can greatly improve mechanics allowing the girls to increase their speed into the vault and get more energy out of the movement. Next, almost all of the shoulder positions when they hit the vault were weak.
Not in full shoulder flexion reducing strength and limiting power at push off. To fix: get head between hands to allow for a more stable shoulder position.
Again, not in full shoulder flexion and unable to maintain strength at push off causes a collapse in the elbows and shoulders preventing power.
This is a great drill; however, I wanted to note the position of her arms in the handstand as she hits full shoulder flexion and maintains full extension through the block. This is the position needed as the hands hit the vault. Also in tumbling passes on floor and beam.
Again, shoulder position was one of the biggest faults I saw on the beam. Not getting into full flexion makes the block in a back handspring very difficult. You have to be careful not to overextend giving the illusion of full shoulder flexion because the motion is actually coming from the lower back. Beam also seems to bring out the biggest mental demons. All sports have a mental and physical component with the mental making or breaking a high level competitor. Visualization can help deter the mental aspect of the sport from ruining an entire practice. Self confidence and positive reinforcement can also help prevent some of these mental blocks.
I was not able to watch bars and beam, but these same faults probably ring true on these events, as well. Shoulder position in the handstand on bars, landing position from dismounts and tumbling, and maintain core stability throughout all of the events are keys to injury prevention!
Coach had some great questions including what to do for recovery (rest/ice/anti-inflammatories/etc). We discussed the importance of the bodies inflammatory process and not masking this repeatedly with ice and anti-inflammatories. The body will do everything to heal an injury. Especially in the off-season, taking extra rest instead of constant ice and anti-inflammatories will allow the body to naturally heal itself. Research has shifted in the last few years, mostly due to lack of sufficient evidence in whether or not you should ice or heat an injured area. From specifics about this read here. Since we cannot take everything we read verbatim without asking ourselves is this true for everyone, here is a good follow up article to DPT Kelley Starrett’s take on icing… read here.
It is necessary in all sports, for your weekend warrior, someone training for a marathon, or just your everyday person working out to stay healthy to do preventative strength training. I will spend the next couple of weeks working from the ankles up to give preventative exercises to incorporate into training regimens.
Ankle Up and Down with resistance
Toe Walks/Heel Walks… varying with toes straight/turned in/ turned out
Marble pick up with toes to improve intrinsic foot muscle strength.
Single leg wobble board for balance and increase in proprioception.
Increase in ankle flexibility post injury.
Any questions regarding these exercises, or for progressions please email me at pediatricandsportspt.com. Please look for follow up posts to include wrist, shoulder, low back, core (transverse abdominus activation), running drills, and posture correction exercises!