Posture and Gymnastics
While football and basketball are “leg based” sports, swimmers and gymnasts have assimilated a decidedly hunchbacked posture because of the “hand based” orientation of their particular athletic activities. The hunchbacked posture in gymnastics is part of the sport’s proper form and is known as “hollowing out”. Constant training in this posture can lead to the athlete’s assuming the same form in the daily course of his or her life, which is potentially a cause for serious injuries in the knee, shoulder, neck and lower back.
The Fundamental Athletic position in most land-based sports requires the athlete to assume a medium stance with the hips back, and the chest and head aligned with the spinal curves. This posture enables swift movement forward, backward or sideways. It is the basic position assumed for squatting, dead-lifting and executing Olympic lifts, as well as to maximize leg, hip and back power during leaps and jumps.
A gymnast assuming the proper position hollows out the chest, pushes the head forward, tucks the hips in and contracts the spine. The only instance when a gymnast takes on the fundamental athletic position is during landings or dismounts.
Athletes beginning their gymnastics training
at a very young age while their bones are still undergoing
growth and development will encounter problems with the
gymnastic posture. This is especially true when they reach
puberty and the end of their growth cycle. The “hollowing
out” posture, and even the specific manner gymnasts are
required to run, can become a fixed posture for young
gymnasts, and this can cause serious and long-lasting
side effects when they are older.
Former parallel bars gymnast, Mark Alexander, having worked with fellow athletes for more than 30 years, has observed that most female gymnasts from the Elite level are unable to perform push-ups or maintain a sturdy handstand. Most gymnastics clubs have misguidedly neglected to encourage flexibility exercises among their gymnasts, instead leaving them to fend for themselves.
Alexander’s first sport was gymnastics, and at the age of 14 started a mostly skill-based training. He remembers having experienced mastering tricks before being aware of any inherent weakness, and without even attempting to develop basic strength. The sport principles require that a gymnast lands and remains grounded, or “stuck” in the same landing position. For this reason, most gymnasts executed landings with rigidly straight legs, bending only at the hips to establish balance. The result of this is an L5 – S1 fusion that could go undetected for a great number of years. Because of a lack of leg strength or proper lumbar curve positioning, dislocated knees were a frequent occurrence during attempts to “stick” a full twisting back.
As an analogy, consider gymnastics training as jumping off a roof and landing motionless with legs straight. Jump over and over, dozens of times each day, six days a week, over a period of several years. The impact generated by these landings is way beyond the gymnast’s body weight. And the higher the altitude of the jump, the more force is involved. Landing mats are a mere token, and seldom help. Floors in gymnasiums act as mini-trampolines, allowing young athletes to soar to ill-recommended heights. Although there are foam pits available to cushion landings, they prevent the athlete from actually learning how to steady their bodies for an actual competition.
Without the needed leg, hip and back conditioning allowing a gymnast to assume the correct position during landing, instead of diffusing, the impact is centred into the joints and bones. This is the explanation behind the never-ending injuries sustained by Elite and lower-ranked gymnasts. Most of these injuries last long into retirement.
Mark Alexander specialized in the parallel bars and was awarded a full athletic scholarship by the University of Iowa in 1975. He was captain of the University gymnastics team from 1976 – 78.
Due to the unhealthy postures called for by sports like gymnastics and swimming, it is extremely crucial for athletes to establish a strengthening programme to balance out their bodies. This will enable them to return to a normal and healthy body position after having temporarily assumed the required stance during practice and performance of their sport.
General Flexibility Is A Must
Looking at gymnasts perform, one would think that they are among the most flexible humans on earth. This is a misconception. Upon close observation, one will find that only certain body parts that they frequently utilize in the sport are flexible, and only so to a certain degree.
Much like ballet dancers, gymnasts spend most of their waking lives on their toes. This has an averse affect on the ankle’s range of motion. Most gymnasts are unable to perform dorsi-flexion, or being able to bend their ankles the other way. Much worse, many find it impossible to get their ankles to assume a neutral stance, which is considered the normal position for ankles. This poses a serious complication on the ability to run well, and to perform safer and better quality landings through the proper movement of the knees over the toes, allowing the hips and buttocks to work as they should.
Stretching and strengthening exercises performed on the gastroc, soleus, and anterior tibialis will result in better ankle conditioning, less ankle injuries (e.g., rolled ankles – a frequent injury); more stuck landings, and improved overall performance power.
Unfortunately, the answer that most gymnastics programmes have for ankle conditioning is to require more toe raises, greatly conflicting with gymnasts’ need for safer strengthening programmes. Five to six hours a day of pointing and leaping off one’s toes can exact a heavy toll in terms of injuries.
Taut And Unstable Hamstrings
Apparently, stretching exercises have all but been discarded by most gymnastics programs. Only a precious few minutes of stretching is allowed before launching into the proper training. It is for this exact reason that female gymnasts have very tight hamstrings. This is caused by the continuous pelvic tucking present in each gymnastic activity. In doing so, they are in effect shortening the muscle by bringing its origin and insertion closer to each other for several hours each day.
The same is true for people who sit for a living. The knee flexor and hip extender portions of the hamstring are shorter in people who maintain long sitting positions everyday. Being in a sitting position the whole day takes the lumbar curve off the spine – the primary aim of every gymnast. It’ll score well with the judges, but spell disaster for performance power and the lower back.
Static and dynamic hamstring stretches, especially using the PNF techniques will add strength and enhance performance power.
Conversely, weak hamstrings are another problem, particularly the portions near the hips and buttocks. As most gymnastics moves involve tumbling and jumping off the toes, a greater portion of leg power develops at the quadriceps. Not using a muscle causes that muscle to degenerate, and this is what happens to the underused hamstrings. A gymnast’s hips are also frequently tucked under, and this leads to very minimal activity for the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius. As a consequence, gymnasts have a harder time executing stick dismounts from a height of 20 feet, due to a very unstable hip area.
For the hip to extend fully, the muscles of the buttocks
require a neutral or arched spine. A tucked hip and a
round lower back eventually leads to weak glutes.
More importantly, a coach is needed who is cognizant of the risks of gymnastics-related injuries, and is educated enough to advocate the use of stretching and strengthening exercises. A lot of injuries and physical imbalances can be corrected if a coach is concerned enough about conditioning gymnasts’ bodies instead of pushing them to learn the latest release moves.
Working The Spine
One of the causes of abdominal and spinal erector imbalance is a constantly tucked pelvic posture. A warm-up of spine stretching should counteract frequent trunk flexion common in a majority of gymnastics manoeuvres. The absence of spine extensions will result in grave back problems.
Instituting an effective strength training program tuned towards the basics of squats and dead-lifting will minimize most back injuries. Consider viewing gymnastics as a series of plyometric exercises, and before performing any of them, appropriate warm-ups, like squatting double bodyweight need to be executed. Looking at the injury rate in gymnastics, one might be of the opinion that none of these athlete’s bodies are ready for gymnastics at all.
The problem lies with the fact that most gymnastic coaches are former gymnasts themselves, and the system they use to train their athletes is the very same system by which they were trained. If and when they do implement strength conditioning exercises, it typically involves using a bodybuilding hypertrophy program, which is something that gymnasts do not need. Rather than allowing them to achieve their desired athletic goals, it impedes sport development and leads to higher injury risk. A gymnast needs an exceptionally high strength to weight ratio and great relative strength. To accomplish this end, low repetition training in the basic moves will strengthen their fundamentals and actually allow them to lose weight without having to starve themselves. As previously mentioned, eating disorders are prevalent in this sport. Supplementing their training with correctly performed kettleball swings will also help to work off any excess weight.
After using this technique, gymnasts realized how well this benefited them and adapted this method immediately. As they have already mastered the art of tightness and how to achieve maximum tension, all they need is the proper coach.
The problem with habitual hollowing of the chest is that it causes very tight pectorals, front deltoids, biceps, lats and teres major. Apart from the excessive training and overdevelopment it gives the rectus abdominus, poor shoulder flexibility in female gymnasts and zero external rotator work can lead to bad shoulder injuries.
Focusing more on dynamic “flexibility” training offsets the possibility of discovering shoulder limitations until the injury actually occurs. One solution to avoid shoulder injury is to perform slow stick dislocates to condition and add shoulder flexibility.
For male gymnasts, inflexible shoulders are not the main concern. Training and performance on the rings opens up the shoulders, but this can bring about totally different shoulder problems relating to extreme rom and excessive rotator cuff motion.
A male gymnast performing on the rings puts a huge strain on his shoulder girdle. Doing isolation rotator training with bands and dumbbells, working the transverse, sagittal and frontal planes, will help in stabilizing the shoulders. Adding exercises targeted at the rear deltoid and rhomboid also aids in counterbalancing gymnastics training and lessens the risk of injury.
Speaking from his experience as a gymnast during the 1970’s, Mark Alexander remembers acquiring chronic shoulder bursitis and tendonitis, before fully dislocating his shoulder while working the rings, effectively ending his gymnastics career. He recommends that coaches take injuries more seriously, as a lot of the injuries in young athletes show up later as arthritis in their thirties and forties.
The solution to a more balanced gymnastics programmes lies in strength training and conditioning, instead of concentrating on gymnastics specific exercises. Constant evaluation and assessment of young gymnasts’ bodies will afford them a better foundation of healthy posture and physical stability.
While striving to train the next Olympic gold medallist is a lofty aim, pressuring athletes to conform to rigid and risky standards is not only unreasonable, but also dangerous. Less than 1% of young children who begin gymnastics training make it to the Olympics. Exposing thousands of young bodies to the risks of injury and long-term affliction makes no sense given the statistics.
Finally, gymnastics coaches need to be re-educated on
new training methodologies involving strength and rehabilitative
training, and equipping them with more knowledge of anatomy,
biomechanics, kinesiology and basic free weight training.