Gymnastics is a critical component of CrossFit. It is one of the foundational modalities, along with metabolic conditioning and weightlifting.
“If gymnastics movements are performed properly, they influence every aspect of your life and have a dramatic effect on your fitness,” says the CrossFit training guide. (1)
(“If performed properly.” We'll talk more about that.)
Here's a not-so-well-kept secret: Gymnastic movements are performed improperly on a regular basis and not just by beginner athletes. Shocking, I know.
Cutting half the range of motion for your push press? It won't be tolerated by coaches or classmates. Pushing your chest forward as you lower into the squat. People will call you out on that. But default to the strong arm and zig-zag up through a pull-up, nobody says a thing. Poor range of motion, spinal over-extensions, splayed legs, lower-body dominated kip and other short cuts and weaknesses are commonly ignored or accepted when it comes to gymnastic movements.
Proper execution of gymnastic movements requires keen body awareness and the ability to focus on body positioning in time and space. Those are not easy skills to master (or to coach) and the consequence often is sloppy execution that may result in injury and will certainly result in lower competition scores and lagging progress.
CrossFit builds on a long gymnastics tradition
Gymnastics, in various forms, have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Ancient Greeks and Romans used gymnastics to prepare soldiers for combat.
Artistic gymnastics is the classic style seen every four years at the Olympics. Four events for Women: vault, uneven bars, beam, and floor. Six events for men: vault, high bar, pommels, rings, parallel bars, and floor.
In acrobatic gymnastics, gymnasts work on the trapeze or trampoline, sometimes using straps or ribbons, performing random balancing acts, dancing and tumbling set to music. This is what you see when you go to Cirque du Soleil.
Rhythmic gymnastics includes ribbons, batons, balls, and hoops as well as music in its movements.
Tumbling is a form of gymnastics performed without props or equipment. Also referred to as floor gymnastics. Common tumbling moves include flips, somersaults, tucks, handstands, and handsprings. These are often seen in sports like cheerleading
CrossFit borrows from all these traditions to create functional exercises that improve the ability to move and react during actual situations in day-to-day life, whether it’s taking care of a rambunctious toddler or scrambling up a rock face to get away from a bear on a hiking trip.
How do you define Gymnastics in CrossFit
For CrossFit, the gymnastics label is applied to any exercise where the body is moved through a range of motion (ROM) or extended range of motion (EROM) without an external load. Isometric holds like a plank or a wall sit are also considered gymnastics. Typical gymnastics equipment in CrossFit includes the floor, rings, pull-up bars, dip bars, and climbing ropes.
With its unique blend of strength, power, flexibility, endurance, and balance, gymnastics provides physical and mental benefits that can improve mobility and quality of life well into the senior years.
This is what the CrossFit Trainer manual says on the subject: “Gymnastics assist in the development of many of the 10 components of fitness: accuracy, agility, balance, coordination, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, strength, and stamina. Nothing beats gymnastics in terms of developing the four neurological components of the 10: coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. Furthermore, gymnastics training produces impressive strength gains without requiring an external load.”
Strength must be combined with flexibility
Strength is also a critical component of CrossFit, but, what is often forgotten, is that it needs to go chalked hand-in-chalked hand along with flexibility.
According to General Physical Preparedness (GPP), an athlete should strive for all-around fitness. Don’t become so dominant in one area, strength for example, that other areas of fitness, such as flexibility, are negatively impacted.
If you can deadlift more than anyone else, but you can't touch your toes, you may want to re-examine your training program.
The great thing about becoming more efficient at foundational gymnastics is that it won’t detract from other movements. In fact, it improves them, notably enhancing things like strength, control, coordination, and mobility.
Handstand holds or push-ups improve the athlete’s overhead pressing position. The L-sit, plank and back extensions contribute toward a strong core which is essential for lifting heavy loads. Improved body awareness and control benefit barbell and kettlebell movements.
Don't skip on the stretching
Too often stretching is seen as a few hamstring pulls, maybe a cat/cow and a poorly-executed pigeon pose that can be rushed through at the end of a workout or skipped entirely when in a hurry.
This attitude is a good way to sabotage an, otherwise, carefully scripted program.
Flexibility is vital in all CrossFit modalities. In fact, focusing on mobility often helps frustrated athletes progress when they have been stalled in a certain movement for a long time.
In gymnastics, poor flexibility affects our ability to hold positions and move through the full range of motion that many movements require if they are to be done correctly, especially under load or at speed. (And they should be done correctly, right? Because you want to avoid injury and you know that the mastery of basics will give you an advantage in competitions.)
Even the simplest gymnastic movements can be difficult and they become even more challenging when being attempted with tight tissues.
Mobility shouldn't be an afterthought. It should not be a collection of hastily compiled movements that you might, or might not do, depending on your mood at the end of your workout.
Mobility should be a structured part of your programming just like strength and endurance. There are many different methods of improving mobility (static stretching, dynamic stretching, joint rotations, loaded stretching, for example) and a wide variety of different exercises. What you do needs to be specifically tailored to your physical limitations and your CrossFit goals.
The Importance of Isometrics and the Arch and Hollow for Gymnastics
In isometric strength training, limbs and joints remain in the same position and tension is exerted on muscles without lengthening or shortening them.
This kind of training is one of the building blocks in gymnastics. Creating positions with your body and maintaining control of that position can be difficult, as anybody trying a wall sit for the first time will attest.
The arch and hollow are usually considered the most fundamental positions in gymnastics. It's necessary to master the static hold in these positions in order to be strong enough enough to maintain them when performing high-level gymnastics skills.
The competitive athlete must not only master these positions but also learn how how to effectively transition from one to the other. This provides vital power in explosive movements like pull-ups, toes-to-bars and muscle-ups, any of which could be encountered in a CrossFit competition.
The hollow hold exercise might look easy at first, but it’s actually can be an excruciatingly difficult, albeit rewarding, way of building ab/core strength. It is a key exercise that lays the groundwork for more difficult movements such as the handstand walk.
How To Execute the Hollow Hold + Arch Hold
A simple hollow hold exercise is to lie face up, arms stretched overhead, about shoulder-width apart, legs stretched with ankles touching. Suck in your stomach, drawing your belly button into your spine and then perform a minor crunch to lift your shoulder blades up off the ground. Keeping your biceps next to your ears. At the same time, lift your heels off of the ground about six inches to a foot. Stay as long and straight as possible. Make sure you’re doing it right. Lower back is pressed aggressively into the ground? Abs flexed? Shoulder blades off the ground? Don’t tuck your chin.
A simple arch holdexercise is to lie face down, arms stretched overhead and shoulder-width apart with legs also stretched out and shoulder-width apart. With eyes down, lift chest and thighs off the ground, trying to make your body u-shaped for as long as you can. Keep the neck in line with the rest of the spine to avoid straining. And don’t rush. You’ll get more out of the exercise if you pause at the top and slowly lower yourself.
There are many varieties of arch and hollow hold exercises. The key part of these holds is the trunk portion of your body from your shoulders down to your hips. Those pieces should always have a nice, regularly curved 'U' shape to them.
Yeah, whatever, I can already do a muscle-up.
Props to you. That’s quite an achievement. A muscle-up is one of CrossFit’s toughest gymnastic movements, requiring significant development of the latissimus dorsi, trapezius (upper and lower), supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis.
If you are participating in competitions for the atmosphere or working out to improve your general fitness level, being able to do a muscle-up demonstrates determination, dedication, and impressive physical skills.
However, be warned: if you are planning to be a high-level CrossFit competitor, being able to perform a muscle-up, or complete any gymnastic skill, will not be enough. The required gymnastic abilities of competitors has increased dramatically.
In the early days of CrossFit, simply being able to perform, however sloppily, one of the core gymnastic skills - muscle-ups, handstand walks or butterfly pull-ups, for example - could be enough to put you on the podium or at least in the upper echelons of competitors, but no more.
You need to have learned through constant practice how to efficiently move your body through time and space.
Going back to the beginning to learn prerequisite gymnastic movements can be frustrating and time-consuming, but it is critical. First of all, lack of proper technique makes you a safety risk. Secondly, as a competitor, your fortunes will rise and fall with your ability to master gymnastic movements.
Mastering prerequisite movements takes patience
Top gymnasts begin their training at a very early age, often before they’re even in school. They spend years developing body position, coordination, balance, and control through constant practice and drills. Those basic skills are firmly in place before they ever move to the rings or bars.
Those athletes who have been taught from day one how to understand their body and how to move it through space, the learning curve for CrossFit movements will be much simpler. For others, coming to gymnastics later in life, it can be a challenge, but one that can't be ignored.
For those coming to gymnastics later in life learning the basics often requires forgetting what they know and going back to the beginning to learn the basics. They often try to rush this step.
Finding a gymnastics coach
For competitive athletes, finding a good gymnastic coach can be a problem.
The level of training at most boxes will satisfy CrossFitters who are just interested in maintaining a healthy all-round level of fitness. In most cases, it will not be sufficient for an athlete wanting to test themselves at higher levels.
Hiring a personal trainer is very expensive and personal trainers, especially ones with a gymnastic background, are hard to locate. This has put many athletes at a disadvantage. However, that has begun to change as expert trainers begin to offer their services over the internet.
Remote trainers, like the ones you find here at Only Training, provide expert tutoring through video consultations and on-line consults.
If you are looking for a coach to help take your gymnastics to a higher level you have to do your research. Don't just pick somebody because of a random Instagram posting. Look at their qualifications and their experience in the field. Somebody who hasn't competed in gymnastics will have a hard time coaching it. Can they provide programming specific to your goals and abilities? Are they easily accessible? Approachable? Who else are they training? What kind of progress are they making?
If you are looking to take your gymnastics to the next level reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up right now for one on one gymnastics coaching.
Emily Tanner is a gymnastic specialist at Only Training. She has been involved in gymnastics or acrobatics or tumbling for much of her life, competing in grade school and for the University of Oregon and later coaching at Baylor University before switching to CrossFit.