The concept of the core is something that pops up in almost every gymnastics discussion, due to its role in skill work. In every gym you step foot into you’re bound to hear someone talking about tight cores, squeezing the belly hollow, and “doing abs” for conditioning. Every current or former gymnast reading this can vividly relate to the amazing but awful feeling of the seal stretch after what felt like 2 hours of hollow rocks. Granted this type of strength is really important for gymnastics, there is so much more information to the core relating to injury prevention and skill performance. In the last 6 months I have read an incredible amount of literature and books discussing what the core does for our every day lives, sports, and ways to train for safe movement. I have spent a lot of time processing the information and brewing up ideas about these ideas may change the way some people think about core training in gymnastics. Last week’s article about how a gymnast’s core problem can look like hamstring tightness got the most attention out of anything I have ever published. I wanted to follow that up and write about where my brain has been the last few months for core training in gymnasts. I also wanted to share some of the ways I have put these ideas into our pre-hab/strength programming for coaches and gymnasts to try out.
As a quick note before I go further, I want to point out that the concept of core training is quite the beast of a topic to try to unravel. Some of the ideas I mention literally have weekend courses because of their complexity. I’m going to try to present some of it simply, but readers have to be aware of the fact that the discussion could be endless. Also, as I always try to highlight this information is based on of a lot of different work from various people in the medical, rehab, and gymnastics fields. These are just my opinions/thoughts on the matter based off this information, and how I try to use it to help our gymnasts perform at their best. Different chefs have different recipes, but the only way to learn is to research new things and see how they work during training. With that being said, here are some things to think about.
1) Core Control is Completely Different Than Core Strength
This by far is one of the most important concepts for gymnasts and gymnastics coaches to think about. The fact that a gymnast may have strong abs, or is really lean showing a 6 pack has nothing to do with how well they can control their core. Core strength looks more at force production of the different trunk muscles. Core control is completely different and relates more to the gymnast’s ability to connect the brain and the body during movement. It involves coordination, firing patterns, conscious/subconscious links, movement mechanics, and reflexive stability. Dr. Josh Eldridge, myself, and others I read from have all been advocates that core control is really one of the most crucial aspects to possibly decreasing a gymnast’s risk of injury and increasing performance.
Dr. Josh has some fantastic information and videos about how gymnasts and coaches can start to train control with their gymnasts (http://gymnastcare.com/if-you-want-to-be-a-better-gymnast-train-your-core). Below I am going to touch on some of the concepts, ways that we integrate these concepts into our training, and some other drills I have picked up that coaches might want to consider using. I wanted to give my two cents on why core control is so vital to gymnastics based on my experiences.
The first reason that core control is so important is because it dictates what the rest of the body will do. Readers who saw last weeks post got one small example of how it can affect how much the brain will allow the hamstrings to move. This happens with all sorts of other scenarios, and is likely contributing to many gymnasts who are “just not flexible”. It also directly affects how strong and powerful the rest of the body can be.
When the core is not working automatically as a stable base, it will directly affect the amount of work/movement the arms and legs can do kind of like a ripple effect. At one point in our lives, every person was once perfectly mobile and loosey goosey when they were a baby. We rolled, squatted, kicked and moved our arms just fine. Then as we got stronger we explored new positions, got up and started cruising around, and got stronger through what we explored. Our brains and bodies connected learning to control our joints in relation to gravity, and if our system wasn’t ready to handle it gravity pulled us right back down. Gray Cook calls this “earning your stability”. Due to how we move, conduct our every day lives, and activities we partake in (like gymnastics) people often acquire certain tightness, stiffness, stability problems, and imbalances if it isn’t regularly addressed. Dr. Perry Nickelston says it perfectly in one of his lectures saying
“Tightness and stiffness are often times a neurological compensation for missing some sort of underlying stability”
This is exactly the case with gymnastics, and is one of the reasons behind why I am such an advocate for integrating mobility/stability, and pre-hab work into daily practices. Often times the missing core stability and control start to spiral into other problems as the brain tries to keep the body stable and protect itself. These are obviously general statements and every gymnast is different. Certain areas of the body start to wind up and get tight from regular gymnastics practice (hip flexors, quad muscles, calves, lower back extensors, pec/chest muscles, lats, neck muscles). Certain muscles that are associated with the same areas often times become inhibited or weaker (deep core stabilizers, lower abdominals, deep hip external rotators, glute medius and minimus serratus muscle, middle and lower trapezius) Overtime this starts to really throw off the alignment and how joints coordination movement. I personally feel that these concepts along with many other things (like improper jumping and landing technique) are huge to think about. They tend to come together over time affecting proper movement patterns, and presenting as many common issues we see in gymnastics.
A few of these examples that I can say I have addressed as injuries in gymnastics include lower back pain, shoulder pain when reaching overhead, hip flexor pain, knee pain, and Achilles/foot pain. I can also tell you that a few of my gymnastics patients lately had many different injury presentations with similar overlapping components of altered stability/control. Many times the same faulty movement patterns can pop up in different spots, depending on what the “weak link” in the chain is and how the body has adapted to create faulty movement. The same lacking core stabiltiy and imbalances can create lower back pain in one gymnast, knee pain in another, and shoulder pain in another. It is all based off of the movements/skills that produce the issue and how the body adapts to it. A great way to be proactive about injuries like these is to address core stability and make sure it is practices properly throughout all your gymnasts training.
2.) Proper Core Control and Stability Is Crucial To Gymnastics
This type of information is what has been packaged so well by Dr. Josh through Gymnast Care, and it is one of the ways I teach the girls about core control. I completely agree with Dr. Josh on this topic, and we have spent a good amount of time discussing its vital role to both gymnastics performance and injury prevention. The basics of core control and proper progression can’t be stressed enough in their role for high level skill performance and links to common injuries, especially with landing and the lower body. Coaches and gymnasts might be amazed at how hard it is for an athlete to lay on their back relaxed, and engage their core without automatically hollowing, holding their breath, or compensating with other muscles.
We don’t want the gymnast to “squeeze tight” and automatically show a drastic hollow or extension of the lower back. These very flexed or extended positions get engrained as the default position. The drastic hollow or flexed spine directly affects the stability of th entire lower spine or “canister” when your looking at all the pieces. Although they may help to show certain skill shapes during gymnastics, they tend to show up during jumping/landing technique as well and not help force absorption. This can set up for the force of gymnastics to be over stressed on certain spots causing overstrain and possible injury due to the unstable core base leaning on some passive structures (like the spine joints and ligaments for example) to take on the extra slack. With a sport like gymanst that can exhbit up to 15x an athletes body weight, we certainly don’t want to send that force through the spine joints and create problems like stress fractures. They also set up for faulty mechanics down the rest of the arm and leg chain depending on what position the gymnasts are in due to the unstable core base not being able to provide good energy transfer.
The gymnast should be trained to engage their core muscles to a neutral spine position, while being able to take proper diaphragmatic breaths (breath holding is a common compensation for lacking stability). After training and mastering this type of concept, the position can be changed to be more demanding and the athlete can start to do arm or leg movements like the cross crawl (sometimes called bird dog), kneeling, lunging, standing, weighted, and dynamic movement progressions of exercises. The focus should always be on the same tight core with a neutral spine and proper breathing patterns while they move the arms and legs.
If you want a video version of these drills, here is the link to Dr. Josh walking one of the gymnasts at his gym through the progression There are thousands of good drills for this, but these are really good starting places. I will offer some higher level ones I find helpful below. I see this all the time in the gym when we train our girls, and I can also tell you that it is one of the first things I address with gymnasts who come to me as patients in the clinic.When done correctly these are enough to make many high level gymnasts sweat because of how much work the brain-body connection does to retrain problems.
A gymnast who is not injured will often lose some of this ability to use their deep stabilizing core muscles due to poor movement patterns, improper technique with skills, compensations, an inattention to using this concept during skill work, and a boat load of other things. Research supports that certain areas of the spine show increased forces through them with gymnastics skills, sometimes ranging between 11.6 to 20x an athletes body weight. The same research discusses how the majority of gymnastics injuries are of the lower body with some statistics saying 35.9% – 70.2% due to high force landings and jumping/take-off demands.Without going into too much nerdy detail, these is a very large link between these forces and how lacking core stability may be a contributing factor for many back and lower body injuries. A gymnast who does have nagging pain or suffers an injury in these areas will often lose this deep automatic stabilization due to the brain inhibiting certain muscles, using other muscles too much, and going into a sort of “survival” mode to protect itself. These concepts all contribute to why it is so important to integrate this type of core control into training to keep athletes safe, and help maximize their performance potential.
3.) Why Using The Basics Into Skills and Using Reflexive Core Stability Are Important
Now granted these basics are so important, I’m not saying that you should hold all gymnastics for the next week until every gymnast can do perfect basic core stability drills. The coach in me understands how that wouldn’t go over well. The realistic and best way I feel this is going to make a difference for gymnasts is to integrate the drills into your daily practices/training so that it increase the amount of carry over into gymnastics performance. Obviously it is really important to take time to explain this concept, and have your gymnasts critically think about this type of work while practicing it. It is important to highlight, however, that the basics have to be focused on with good control before the gymnast is thrown into some of the higher level drills. If the gymnast simply goes for the harder ones, they will most likely get overloaded and go to their “default” compensatory mechanism that got their problem to to come up in the first place. This will further train the problem into their movement, and we certainly don’t want that. We always stress quality and technique with the girls when they do this type of core stability work just as we would do with their gymnastics. You will see versions of exercises that are higher level and maybe not perfect. We are constantly giving the girls modifications when they show an inability to do a pre-hab or strength drill with correct form or compensation. It is the best way to really train, and it also is how you can see progress in the long run.
I personally feel as a Physical Therapist and Gymnastics coach, that there is one area we may be missing when progressively training the core in gymnasts, and I mentioned it briefly above. This is a concept known as reflexive stabilization, and deals with quick reaction, automatic, subconscious control. The concept of reflexive stability simply means that the brain and core are working together to response quickly and coordinate movement.
I heard the analogy once of a train on a set of rails, one of which is conscious control and the other is subconscious control. If either of these rails has a disruption, it can cause the core train to veer off track and cause problems. Many times in gymnastics we cue the gymnast to “squeeze the belly” or “stay tight”, they respond to our coaching cue’s conciously and then tighten up. When those cues are gone, when the gymnast is in a stressful/complication situation, or when the core engagement has to happen in a millisecond this is relying all on subconscious, automatic control. This is a completely different situation and many gymnasts fall apart in terms of skill performance when this happens. This is also a very common pathway to some injuries occurring, although there are many different factors going on like progressions and technique. This lacking core stabilization also starts the train to using compensatory muscles or, and creating false stability through other means.
The gymnast must be able to subconsciously, reflexively stabilize the core in a reaction type manner to handle the forces of the skill properly. Think about the few miliseconds a gymnast has to land in a handstand catching an overshoot , catch a back toss in a handstand on parallel bars, accept a large force tumbling pass landing, impact the vault table during and entry, snap into a proper flipping shape, or dial in a beam turn. This is where you want the gymnast to have automatic core stabilization (and whole body control/stabilization) in order to stay safe and also help the arms/legs work at full potential. Gymnastics coaches usually have a thousand great ab strengthening exercises, but the control and stability required is usually trained by just doing drills or the entire skill. I completely agree that the core control and stability should be practiced with really good technique and progressions, but many times there are more broken down drills the athlete can use to train this quick reaction training.
Putting in these types of drills really pose a challenge for many gymnasts when done right, and I feel are really worth the time. A lot of the drills that involve someone tapping or moving the gymnast have the cue “don’t let me move you” and help to make a gymnast response quickly to movement. Pending that your gymnasts can do them properly without compensations or technique falling apart, here are some examples of good reflexive and responsive core stability drills you can use.
Gently Tapping In Basic Positions
You can start by having the gymnast master the good cross crawl, then adding manual tapping to them while they hold. Make sure the positions are in a good line, and they aren’t holding their breath.
Dowel Drills with Partner Taps
This is a bit of an aggressive jump, but if the gymnast shows good control through many of the basic drills I like moving here next. A really great way to get at reflexive core stability can come from using a dowel and partner to help train different movements. These are by far some of my favorite drills to add into for this type of core work, all you need is a dowel and someone to tap. To help train some of these movements, I have had the girls do side stations during workouts for this type of idea that apply to the skills they are training. The core control must be trained for all motions it has to resist including flexing forward, extending backward, bending side to side, rotating, and any combination of these movements. Gymnastics is an entire body sport and because of this the skills demand very complex motions combing bending, extending, rotating, and so on. This is why encompassing all types of the core’s movement is so important to be successful in gymnastics, the core and all the muscles must be adaptable/prepared to be stable in all of these environments.
With all of these drills, the gymnast must be in a good neutral spine position, (not arched or hollowed too much), while not holding their breath, and making sure a perfect position is set up just like with the basic core control drills above. I had the gymnast put her hands up just to show the position. Also remember that for these it’s okay to not say anything say “don’t let me move you”, and just let the brain figure it out. That helps to drive the reflexive component, and make the brain body connection work to help the gymnast learn. The struggle of trying to work through the new scenario is all part of the good stuff we want.
Rotation Stability Drills – The motion of twisting happens all over the gymnastics, and often times requires really good combination of flexing and rotating stability along with strength.
One drill you can do is have the athlete go into a 1/2 kneeling position holding a dowel or pvc pipe. The gymnast must first make sure that they are in a properly squared lunge, with good square pelvic/knee/foot/trunk alignment.
From this good properly square position, the gymnast will hold the dowel out straight, and then a partner will lightly tap it. They can tap from either side, the top, the bottom, and so on. Mixing it up forces the gymnast to respond in all planes. You can do a handful of taps in both a right and left lunge, don’t be surprised if you see a huge side to side difference.
The gymnast can also tilt the dowel at a 45 degree angle and the same taps can be performed, this will help to get forward and rotating activation like twisting requires. This type of stability training is what gymnasts need to resist movement during pirouetting/blind changing, various tumbling skills, vault entries, and others.
Overhead Flexion and Extension Stability Drill for Bars & Handstands – I have taken a lot of the information I have been reading/learning about and applied it to some drills for handstands. One of these drills I mentioned in my overhead stability post, but it is a fantastic core exercise too. It involves kneeling down on one knee (easier and asymetrical stance) or tall kneeling (harder and asymmetrical stance) with a dowel overhead. It is very important to make sure the athlete is breathing properly, and they have a neutral spine with no excessive hollow/extending to compensate with bad positioning.
If the gymnast assumes this overhead position, they can then hold it while a partner lightly taps from the front or the back. Tapping from the front is a backwards motion that is seen in catching handstand movements, or resisting extending backwards. Tapping from the back is more like motions seen in gymnastics where the gymnast has to resist falling forward as in back handsprings and yurchenko vaults. Both are great for good reflexive stability that can hopefully carry over into drills like fighting handstand positions.
When done correctly these drills are incredibly challenging for most gymnasts, and our girls were really surprised at how much they struggled when I first showed them. Overtime they start to learn and respond better, and we have simply put them in as a side station for many of our bar workouts.
Stabiltiy Ball Work: I mentioned this drill a few months back but it is really good to work on coordinating the basics of the first drills noted above into more challenging methods. Many coaches are very familiar with stability ball work and use it regularly. The gymnast will lay on their back with their feet on a stability ball. They first must engage the proper neutral spine (no arch hollow) without holding their breath, then they lift their hips up without changing their shape. This can also be done with pike walk ins, press work, planks, and so on. The skies the limit usually on these types of drills, it just has to apply to the skill in mind. Like I noted above a coach can tap gently on the ball in different directions, so the gymnast has to quickly response to the movement and react to make sure they don’t fall. This is the type of reflexive stability that hopefully will carry over to skill work.
This can also be done with a floor bar and springboards to mimic good handstand positions for bars/floor, etc, as well as doing weight shifting in a handstand on an unstable surface like the springboard so the gymnast has to react and stabilize for the movement. A coach or partner can also give small bounces to the gymnast or boards to force the gymnast to adapat and stay tight. These are very tough to do right so if you see the gymnast holding their breath, loosing their neutral spine, or falling apart because of fatigue take a break or find a more appropriate exercise.
Weight Drills Overhead and Position Changing
Another very commonly overlooked benefit to core training is the use of external weights. This is not referring to the typical weighted sit up for strengthening. These type of drills have more to do with the fact that the core has to stabilize itself against the arm and weight moving in relation to the body. The moving object creates a situation where the core has to adapt and respond quickly or else the gymnast will fall out of of position. Here are some great drills I have picked up or created to help with some of this. The weight doesn’t have to be heavy at all, a little goes a long way for this. We want it to be challenging enough but not overwhelming for the athlete or they will likely compensate.
Overhead Weight Walking – This is an awesome drill because it allows the gymnast to think about the good neutral spine, breathing, and movement in an upright position with gravity involved. This is really tough to do especially if the gymnast is missing overhead mobility though, so keep in mind it might need to be modified if you see them arching their back. The gymnast will raise the weight overhead and find the good spine position, then walk up and down the floor length while keeping good breathing patterns. Along with being a good core drill because the weight is loaded on one side of the body, the upper body chain also gets good stability work that has carry over for pirouetting, and the important first lead arm during tumbling/vaulting. Much of mens parallel and high bar also involves stability through one arm which this can help with.
Loading one arm at a time is challenging, but you can also load them with both arms overhead or one up/one down to help challenge the core in different planes/motions.
Another one of my favorite ways to use this drill for another challenge is to transition between kneeling, 1/2 kneeling, and standing like with lunging or position changes. The movement of the body creates more instability that the core has to react to. It is great because we can train the body and spine to be stable around a fixed arm or leg point like is commonly seen in gymnastics. When done with proper technique these drills are challenging and fantastic. They are all components of a move called a Turkish Get Up, which is one on best overall functional stability exercises to use. It takes a bit of time to teach/implement correctly, and a trained eye to correct for so I tend to break it down into pieces for the girls. Here are some pictures from over head holding, lunging, and weight transitions that can be with a band for extra challenge.
Side Note – Another fantastic should and whole body stability drill that I think gymnasts would greatly benefit from doing regularly is a Turkish Get Up. This move encompasses various intersegmental mobility and stability like gymnastics skills require. However, this is a very in depth move with a lot of steps, so I’ll save it for another post down the road where I can get a few people to guest write.
Another drill I picked up from reading Dr. Larry Nassar’s work has the gymnast work on rolling positions between to mats. I mentioned this before but wanted to post it again because it is great for coordinated control and stability around and axis.
You may find that when gymnasts do some of these isolated reflexive stability drills correctly, they really seem to struggle. That’s okay, as long as they have proper technique. We want the challenge to be just enough to make the brain and nervous system figure out how to adapt and approach the challenge. This helps for the brain and body to connect and figure out how to handle this type of work. The more you train it and advance the progressions properly, the more you may be able to see their abilities increase.
A a whole, I think that this type of information can go a long way for the sport of gymnastics. I’m sure there are a ton of great programs and coaches who already using these types of drills in their conditioning. However, there is a lot to be said about the way we approach core training as a sport and what we need to look into further to help reduce injuries especially with our young developing gymnasts. This post is by no means meant to point out flaws or what may be right/wrong. These are my opinions based on what I have read and round working with gymnasts both on the PT and coaching side of things. As always, it’s just intended to make people think and maybe put some new stuff out they people can use to help their gymnasts be successful.
Remember that mastering the basics with good quality is the key, just as with all other parts of gymnastics. Once the gymnast can master these they can work towards the more challenging exercise and progress to certain drills that are higher level, specific to what their weaknesses are, or more specific gymnastics skills. All of the content that is available on gymnastics and injury prevention from many great people in the field doesn’t go anywhere unless people take the information and start building it into their programs. I encourage you to take some of this, play around, and see what works while trying to learn from it. Yes core strength is important for gymnastics, yes there are many more drills what I covered, and yes there is a ton more to what goes into this. However, I hope I have shed some light on some other areas that are just as important with core control and stability. By building off some off these ideas and creating some discussion, hopefully new concepts will start to emerge about how we can prevent injuries and maximize performance. More fun stuff to come related to this down the road, hope everyone enjoyed the read. Best of luck,
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