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Muscle: Fact & Fiction (Part 2) By Mike Gillette

Posted on 7/18/2019

[This article is the second in a three-part examination of physical training as it relates to ‘tumbling-based athletics’. Specifically, it is a discussion of the integral role that strength-training plays in optimizing the performance of technical skills.]  

Strength. The single most fundamental attribute of athletic performance. In every sport. Strength is the elemental root of speed, power and explosiveness.

But when it comes to sports training, strength seems to get assigned a much lower priority than the more technical aspects. In almost every sport. We see swimmers swim, skaters skate and golfers golf. We don’t usually see these same athletes spending much time on non-skill-specific training.

So how important IS strength training? In gymnastics, perhaps the greatest strength-to-weight ratio ever seen belongs to Simone Biles. Technique and work-ethic aside, Simone is also physically stronger than her competitors.  

Likewise, the speed of Usain Bolt, the world's fastest human, is ultimately possible because he is strong. While Bolt’s physique may not suggest it, his running stride, as measured by computer, has been mathematically verified as the strongest in the world. 

In short, strength begets speed, power and above all… control. And all gymnastics skills are optimally launched from a platform of exceptional control. 

So, if strength is the bedrock attribute of athletic performance, why does it seem to sit so low among the perceived priorities of most coaches? There are several likely reasons… 

While a reasonably high level of technical expertise can be found in most realms of gymnastics coaching, the actual process of strength-training is far less understood. Prevailing opinion favors the assumption that any gymnast is "strong enough" simply because they are a gymnast. 

And this assumption might also persist because a certain amount of “ambient” strength development does occur in athletes simply through withstanding the daily rigors of gymnastics training. By way of comparison, if an athlete makes even rudimental progress as a gymnast, they’re still functionally miles ahead of most other athletes in most other sports. 

Another reason strength-training can be de-prioritized is that it is generally not considered to be an interesting topic in the first place. Coaches in all sports like to solve technical riddles and prescribe sophisticated-sounding solutions. We are all fascinated by things which are complex in nature or artful in execution. Strength-training does not fit these criteria. And when it’s considered in the context of female athletes, strength-training may be viewed as an inelegant and less important pursuit.

And if something is not regarded as particularly important, the attention we give it will reflect that fact. This is how we get gymnasts who end up doing the same sorts of conditioning programs, over and over. For years. And while this familiar routine might feel comfortable for coaches, for the athlete, progress in this scenario will ultimately be compromised. 

And this is where things can get a bit confusing for coaches. Strength, like any favorable physical adaption, has to be programmatically "imposed" upon an athlete. It won’t happen consistently or predictably without a specific plan and regular testing. So how can something as seemingly simple as strength be so elusive? Because the human body seeks homeostasis. In other words, it doesn’t want to change.  

What this means is that all physiological changes, even positive ones, are initially resisted by the body. And that is why, when it comes to gymnastics conditioning, the idea that you can do 'more of the same' while expecting a different result, ie: improved strength, is physiologically impossible. Adding more of the same stimulus does not produce a favorable adaptation. It only produces fatigue. And, eventually, creates overuse injuries. 

So is there an answer? Something that works but will also coexist harmoniously with critical skills training? Something that will enhance safety and promote recovery without adversely impacting limited training time? 

There is. And I’ll break it all down in Part Three of this series  in next month’s newsletter.