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I was working with our grandson, Asher, in our gym the other day. I had him doing box jumps onto and off of our plyo box, working on his coordination, technique, and balance. He’s become a really good downhill skier in his first two seasons, and now that he’s hitting jumps on the trails, I wanted to help him develop better jumping technique and body awareness. We have him workout in our gym as often as possible, doing a combination of bodyweight and some dumbbell and kettlebell exercises. At eight years old, I need to help him develop the right movement patterns while also maintaining his attention and focus on the exercise he’s doing.
As I was training him, I started thinking about other ways he could develop functional movement skills outside our gym. He’s clearly developing them from skiing, but as I was considering this question, my mind wandered to gymnastics.
I spent my junior year of high school at Northern Michigan University. They had an Olympic Training Center there, and I was chosen to attend as part of a small group of ski jumpers for the first year they offered the program. As part of our dryland training, we got to work out at NMU’s gymnastics facility, doing tumbling exercises, working on the trampoline, and learning to do various flips into their foam pit.
Not only were these training sessions a lot of fun, but they also improved my strength, power, and spatial awareness tremendously. It’s one thing to learn to move your body while connected to the ground. It’s quite another to learn to do so while flying through the air. That’s a skill needed in ski jumping and enhanced through gymnastics.
Gymnastics and Functional Skill Development
Few activities develop physical strength, stamina, and power while improving spatial awareness and reflexes the way that gymnastics does. Surprisingly, it’s a rare form of sports activity in the United States. And, if people are involved in gymnastics, it’s usually for kids and far less common for adults to participate.
Functional training has been a buzzword in the fitness world for at least the past 20 years. Functional training programs attempt to train people for the physical experience of everyday life. Bending, balancing, lifting, jumping, stretching and reacting to an unexpected environment.
FMS (functional motor skills) include locomotor skills (e.g., run, gallop, hop, leap, horizontal jump and slide); object control skills (e.g. catch, kick, overhand throw and dribble) and body management skills (e.g., balance, climb and forward roll) and provide a base for more advanced motor skillsFundamental Movement Skills Development under the Influence of a Gymnastics Program and Everyday Physical Activity in Seven-Year-Old Children1Culjak Z PhD, Miletic D PhD, Kalinski SD PhD, Kezic A PhD, Zuvela F PhD. Fundamental Movement Skills Development under the Influence of a Gymnastics Program and Everyday Physical Activity in Seven-Year-Old Children. Iran J Pediatr. 2014;24(2):124-130.
It’s important for children to develop these skills early on, but as adults become more sedentary, it’s easy for them to lose these skills and develop bodies that are pretty dysfunctional. Squatting, bending, getting up off the floor, or jumping onto or off a box become awkward, injury-risking activities. Because your nervous system controls and coordinates movement, and it only retains abilities to do things that it regularly does, you have to use functional motor skills throughout your life, or you lose the ability to do them.
Although a fitness professional can help guide a client through movements that improve their movement skills, most people who hire a trainer or strength coach want to use their time to develop strength, power, and lean body mass. Taking 20 minutes out of a 50-60 minute workout session to work on balance and stability can affect the results of the overall program, not to mention that many of these balance and stability movements are pretty dull. In essence, it’s an attempt to train someone for everyday life as well as possible, given the environment and equipment available in a typical gym.
I’m not saying that gym-based functional training is a waste of time. It’s just not the best use of time and effort for improving functional abilities. A gymnastics facility, on the other hand, is the ideal setting.
My point is that participation in a recreational gymnastics program would benefit people of all ages. Unfortunately, facilities and access are limited across the country, which, in my opinion, is a big opportunity for a fitness company to capitalize on. It would make sense to initially create a strategic partnership between a gym and a gymnastics facility where people could complete traditional strength and conditioning sessions at the gym and participate in recreational gymnastics sessions on other days.
At a time when kids don’t learn fundamental movement skills, and adults have lost most of their skills while working in sedentary jobs, participating in gymnastics a couple of times per week, and traditional strength and conditioning sessions three to four times per week seems like a powerful combination for optimal health and fitness.
Health and Fitness Benefits of Gymnastics
Gymnastics movements develop muscular strength, power, and stamina. They also enhance bone density, stability, balance, coordination, and mobility. Because the movement patterns in gymnastics vary so much, they likely offer a superior form of functional training for both youth and adults of any age.
And, although incorporating some calisthenic and gymnastic movements into a gym workout can be better than never doing such movements, it still isn’t the same as participating in a legit gymnastics program, in a facility designed for such exercises.
Surprisingly, there isn’t much research comparing the benefits of traditional strength and conditioning workouts against gymnastics sessions. In my opinion, the two would be more complimentary to one another as opposed to competing with each other.
The following are some of the health benefits of gymnastics exercise researched in youth and adults.
- Bone density: Gymnastics movements can increase the load on the skeletal system by up to 15 times bodyweight, making them significant stimuli for bone density.2McNitt-Gray, J L et al. “Mechanical demand and multijoint control during landing depend on orientation of the body segments relative to the reaction force.” Journal of biomechanics vol. 34,11 (2001): 1471-82. doi:10.1016/s0021-9290(01)00110-5 A 2011 study found that low-level gymnastics with about 1.5 hours of participation per week significantly increased bone density when measured in the femur compared with other sports.3Erlandson, M.C., Kontulainen, S.A., Chilibeck, P.D., Arnold, C.M. and Baxter-Jones, A.D. (2011), Bone mineral accrual in 4- to 10-year-old precompetitive, recreational gymnasts: A 4-year longitudinal study. J Bone Miner Res, 26: 1313-1320. https://doi.org/10.1002/jbmr.338. This study agrees with another study that showed girls participating in recreational, artistic gymnastics had improved lumbar spine density.4Laing EM, Wilson AR, Modlesky CM, O’Connor PJ, Hall DB, Lewis RD. Initial years of recreational artistic gymnastics training improves lumbar spine bone mineral accrual in 4- to 8-year-old females. J Bone Miner Res. 2005 Mar;20(3):509-19. doi: 10.1359/JBMR.041127. Epub 2004 Nov 29. PMID: 15746997. Another study found that ex-gymnasts had 12-22% greater total bone content than non-gymnasts.5Erlandson MC, Kontulainen SA, Baxter-Jones AD. Precompetitive and recreational gymnasts have greater bone density, mass, and estimated strength at the distal radius in young childhood. Osteoporos Int. 2011 Jan;22(1):75-84. doi: 10.1007/s00198-010-1263-9. Epub 2010 May 11. PMID: 20458575.
- Improved function in other sports or activities: Gymnastics requires a greater variety of movement types than almost any other activity. Being able to swing, jump, tumble, and flip in multiple different planes of motion challenges the neuromuscular system in ways you wouldn’t be able to in other sports or activities. In this regard, it could be considered the ideal “functional exercise.” For example, when our grandson wants to learn to do 360s or backflips on skis, if he first learns how to do them and how to land when he does them incorrectly on dry land, he’ll be better prepared to master the skills on skis. The neuromuscular skills developed through gymnastics would have a carryover to almost any other sport or activity of daily life.
Gymnastic experience during childhood seemed to benefit the development of proprioceptive reweighting processes in children, leading to a more mature form of coordinating and controlling posture similarly to adults.Gymnastics Experience Enhances the Development of Bipedal-Stance Multi-Segmental Coordination and Control During Proprioceptive Reweighting6Busquets, Albert et al. “Gymnastics Experience Enhances the Development of Bipedal-Stance Multi-Segmental Coordination and Control During Proprioceptive Reweighting.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 12 661312. 15 Apr. 2021, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.661312
- Increased flexibility and mobility: Gymnastics requires repeated, loaded movement of a muscle through its full range of motion. Though weight training does this as well, it does so with less frequency and a slower movement pattern. Both would improve flexibility and range of motion, but gymnastics exercise would likely lead to greater and faster improvements. In everyday situations, this could lead to less joint discomfort or pain and a reduced risk of injury.
- Effects of Pregnancy: Pregnant women participating in a gymnastics program experienced less of an increase in stress and anxiety, and “restless sleep, snoring, diurnal tiredness, and excessive daytime sleepiness” compared to women not participating.7Kocsis, Ildikó et al. “Effect of a gymnastics program on sleep characteristics in pregnant women.” Taiwanese journal of obstetrics & gynecology vol. 56,2 (2017): 204-209. doi:10.1016/j.tjog.2017.02.001
- Aging: Post-menopausal women participating in recreational gymnastics programs display better muscle strength and power, agility, and balance than those who do not participate.8Uusi-Rasi, K et al. “Long-term recreational gymnastics, estrogen use, and selected risk factors for osteoporotic fractures.” Journal of bone and mineral research : the official journal of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research vol. 14,7 (1999): 1231-8. doi:10.1359/jbmr.19126.96.36.1991 9Uusi-Rasi, K et al. “Long-term recreational gymnastics provides a clear benefit in age-related functional decline and bone loss. A prospective 6-year study.” Osteoporosis international : a journal established as result of cooperation between the European Foundation for Osteoporosis and the National Osteoporosis Foundation of the USA vol. 17,8 (2006): 1154-64. doi:10.1007/s00198-006-0108-z In women over the age of 65, three weeks of gymnastics has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.10Veri, Nora et al. “Regular Gymnastics for Three Weeks Lowers Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels in Older Women.” Medical archives (Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina) vol. 76,1 (2022): 45-48. doi:10.5455/medarh.2022.76.45-48 Another study showed that older women participating in recreational gymnastics were 30% less likely to experience falls that caused significant injury in everyday life.11Uusi-Rasi K, Karinkanta S, Kannus P, Tokola K, Sievänen H. Does long-term recreational gymnastics prevent injurious falls in older women? A prospective 20-year follow-up. BMC Geriatr. 2020;20(1):37. Published 2020 Feb 1. doi:10.1186/s12877-020-1428-0 Gymnastics exercise also enhances cognitive function, which means it can be highly beneficial not just for physical well-being throughout adulthood but also for mental well-being.
Gymnastics and Gym Workouts
Undoubtedly, a small percentage of people who read this have easy access to both a gymnastics facility and a fitness center. If it’s possible to get to both during the week, I’d recommend two days of a gymnastics program and three to four days of traditional strength and conditioning workouts at the fitness center. This would be a perfect combination for developing peak health and fitness for young to old adults. For kids in other sports, a couple of days per week of gymnastics would undoubtedly make them better overall athletes, as well.
For the rest of us who don’t have a gymnastics facility available, or a facility that offers programming for all ages and skill levels, you can still improve your stability, balance, movement coordination, and mobility at the gym. It just isn’t as fun and engaging as tumbling on a gymnastics floor or jumping into a foam pit.
Perhaps, someday, as fitness companies look to add new and innovative programming to their facilities, they’ll consider the fun, functionality, and fitness benefits of gymnastics