5 Leg Exercises to Build Explosive Power for Gymnastics
Explosive lower body power and the ability to dissipate high force are both crucial factors for gymnastics success. On the women’s side, 3 of the events are primarily leg driven with substantial benefit given to those athletes that express and absorb high force. On the men’s side, huge tumbling passes and notable increases in vault / dismount difficulty have demanded athletes develop more lower body power than years before. Around this time of year in the fall, many coaches are looking to increase power as competitive season gets into full swing.
Before I go on and offer some exercises I use, if you want a full guide to lower body strength training in Gymnastics, be sure to download my recently published free ebook, the “Gymnastics Strength and Conditioning Guide” here,
Keep in mind this is a monstrous topic. Rather than dive into the physiology of power development, plyometrics, and specific mechanisms of energy transfer, I will instead offer readers 4 great resources to check out. I highly recommend people look into them, as they have been essential in helping me learn more about this area. They cover important areas like fast twitch fiber type, contraction physiology, glycolytic metabolic pathways, neural motor unit recruitment, and more. It may seem a little dense, but understanding the physiology and mechanics directly relates to exercise selection, rep/set ranges, periodization models, and long term individualized progression/regression for athletes.
Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications 1st Edition
The Physiology of Training for High Performance
Strength and Conditioning for Sports Performance
Essentials of Strength and Conditioning Training : 4th Edition
There are many factors aside from exercise selection that go into increasing power output in gymnastics. Hundreds of other factors such as underlying strength base from a previous training cycle, skill technique, tissue quality, age/developmental status, nutrition, recovery, periodization models, and more impact power output. This must be considered when outlining power programs. Also, I certainly did not invent these exercises. Some come from multiple sources, and others are my own tweaks. With that said here are 5 exercises (and some variations) I program on a weekly bases with the gymnasts we coach or during advanced stages of training for gymnasts in a rehabilitation setting.
1. Single Leg Jumps From Box (no counter movement)
Following a strength cycle in the summer / early fall, usually my first go to type of exercise are jumps that start from a static position and have no arm counter movements or preloading swing phase. The main purpose behind this is that I want to focus on isolating the legs for power development, rather than allowing the upper body or momentum to assist.
In theory, this type of training forces the nervous system and muscle being worked to learn how to rapidly fire (through motor unit discharge) and create acceleration force relative to body mass. It is much more challenging at first and may not seem very explosive, but I feel it is an important building block to help newly created leg muscle learn to work in a faster, more coordinated manner.
I like to utilize an appropriate height based off the athlete, both from a forward and side position as seen below. Usually 5-7 reps are my starting point, with the athlete focusing on perfect movement quality, maximal height and power intention. In between sets they can do a few other exercises (core, upper body, etc) to allow regeneration of their legs before the next set.
Two legged variations can also be used and they can also be progressed to double box jumps.
2. Single / Double Leg Jumps with Whole Body Involvement
The natural progression of the first category of exercises is to start incorporating the whole body. Not only does this allow for more total body power output, it also teaches the athlete how to transfer energy efficiently through the legs, to the core, and out through the upper extremities. This is ideally what ends up transferring more fluidly to gymnastics specific power exercises and skills. As always, quality of the movement and proper technique under fatigue is the most important factor.
I will make an important note that the box level has to be appropriate for the athletes height / skill. I see all too often that athletes are using boxes that are way too high for their own good. It often leads to dangerous landings, and quite honestly takes much away the purpose of the power drill in my mind.
3. Kettlebell Swings
In my personal opinion, I think weighted hip lifts and kettle bell swings should be staples in every gymnast’s training program. The basics of these movements can be developed at a very young age (hip hinging drills, kettlebell deadlifts) and through progression benefits can still be seen for elite level athletes. First, gymnastics requires a huge amount of lower body hip extension power across many tumbling, bar, and shape changing skills that these exercises directly assist with.
Second, powerful hip extension is essential in helping de-loading the lower back against extension based pain during high force skills. This also links to the discussion on the ability to dissipate high forces during landings. Properly taught / programmed hip lifts, kettle bell swings, and squatting or lunging variations can help increase capacity to handle these forces and reduce injury risk.
There are a lot of coaching steps and technical aspects to doing a proper kettle bell swing, but I feel the return on investment is ten fold. The best thing a gymnastics coach can do is either hire a strength coach to teach these exercises, or invest in their own continuing education to become proficient in applying them. The other benefit to kettle bell training is that there is a world of beneficial progressions that can be used off of the swing when properly taught.
I feel the progression to a kettle bell swing is very important and needs careful teaching, but there are other regressions that gymnasts can use while they learn the mechanics safely. These include single leg hip lift jumps, as well as single leg hip lifts with an opposite leg kick to help transfer to jumps/leaps.
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Along with squats and lunges based patterns for hip development, I’m a huge fan of regularly using single leg end range hip hinging strength. I think this end range hip extension tends to be heavily overlooked in many gymnasts (I was very guilty as gymnast/ younger coach). It shows up as a lack of strength/explosive power into hip extension of tumbling, single leg jumps, and eccentric control of landings. Not to mention, this lacking glute motor control and strength at end range can be a huge issue related to the extension based back pain issue that is unfortunately a huge issue in gymnastics. Following the strength periodization phase of our strength, I’m a big fan of this single leg hip jump progression and kettle bell swings noted from last week for power development. Give it a try, and make sure to cue the athlete properly to avoid lumbar extension/hamstring dominant issues. #gymnastics #performance #injuryreduction #hips
4. Single Leg Bounding Jumps
Following more dynamic jumps or whole body drills, I like to start incorporating more ballistic bounding or plyometrics jumps. From running, to single leg hurdling, to floor tumbling or jump/leap connections, to the inevitable non symmetrical landings, training single leg bounding and plyometric training is a must.
I feel it must be done in proper progression, and also with the right periodization / dosage model to not risk overload based injuries. Following strength cycles, I like to put a lot more bounding and general plyometric training into preseason to help prep for more intense meet preparation. I try to start with static single leg bounds in place, and then move forwards (sagittal) sideways (lateral), and diagonal or rotational (transverse) type exercises.
5. Depth Drops to Max Height / Max Distance Jump
Another form of bursted plyometric training I like to use are depth jumps followed by max height / max distance jumps. I like these because they teach fast reaction off the floor, but also place emphasis on max effort and power output. These drills (along with many above) can help train both the neural stretch reflex and passive elastic tissue rebound for increased output.
Many gymnasts in circuits tend to have one or two good power jumps, then slowly fade off trying to survive metabolically as power drops off. I think it’s important we separate these two athletic components (power/rate of force development and metabolic capacity) to give them separate attention they need. It’s also important note to remember, factors like the box height, contact time, reps per set, days per week programmed, and total volume must be monitored. It’s very easy to let the volume spike up leading to overuse type soreness or a limited performance progress.
So, I hope that is helpful for people looking to get some new ideas. Many other great drills exist beyond this, as I continue to learn more each year. Until next week, best of luck.
– Dave Tilley DPT, SCS