Rubber Band Addiction
As a Fitness Coach, I have seen it many, many times. A gym-member wants desperately to get kipping pull-ups or a ring muscle-up and spends oodles of time with “skill-work” but doesn’t get anywhere. This is the beginning of frustration and a chronic addiction to large rubber bands.
Let’s use a hypothetical gym member named “Lonnie”. Lonnie has an elite engine because she is a former endurance athlete, but always struggles with gymnastics and this makes some workouts really frustrating. Before each class Lonnie is doing 30 muscle-up ground drills. Youtube has told her to work on exploding with their hips, and getting her head through. With drills from the ground she has this cased. After classes Lonnie has 3 different bands strung up on the rig and is working on her kipping pull-ups. With those bands on, her kipping pull-ups look great. Her head is through at the front of the kip, core is solid, toes are pointed. She could be a demo-girl. But as soon as she drops the band, she’s reaching with her neck, and just can’t seem to get her chin over the bar.
I have seen “Lonnie’s” do this skill-work, or use bands for 1-2 years and not progress an ounce. Usually these Lonnie’s resign to “not being meant” for such movements, give up and do something else, or continue through life with that nasty addiction to rubber bands.
Now before you get all ornery, I want to say that skill-work is important. Super important. Refining your technique so that you can move more efficiently is extremely important in the sport of fitness and GPP (general physical preparedness). It just is not where we should start.
My problem with seeing “skill-work” being promoted as the answer to gymnastics issues is that it comes from a fitness model that wants to include everyone in movements. This model is too scared to say, “sorry you are not ready”. It is harder to sell and more uncomfortable to have to tell someone they are maybe 2-3 years of consistent work away from being able to properly do kipping pull-ups. It’s easier to grab another band and say, “you’ll get them soon, pull harder”. And I've been there as a coach as well.
Okay, my skills are dece enough, why am I still stuck?
9 times out of 10, the people who are wasting their time on skill-work are simply missing one thing. The required strength to perform the movement. I will repeat that…Your skill is likely adequate, you are simply not strong enough to perform the movement. All the skill-work in the world is not going to help until you are strong enough. It is like spending thousands of dollars on the lightest, most efficient Dog-sled, but then not having any dogs to pull it.
Your ability in gymnastics is much more influenced by your upper-body pulling and pushing strength as compared to your body-weight. Skills only come into the picture after you are strong enough. Gymnastics requires a lot of strength, and that strength takes years to build. Gymnasts are super-strong, because the movements require them to be able to “toy with” their own body-weight.
Gymnasts have a certain build that is the result of the immense strength requirements of their sport. And that is why people generally don't confuse gymnasts with marathon runners. (Sorry guy on the left)
This is also why someone who is strong from bodybuilding or something else can have horrible/no technique but walk into a crossfit box and get a muscle-up on their first day. They have pre-built the required strength, so skill-work is appropriate for them.
Here is an example of both sides....
A year ago I was at a Crossfit box in Norway and there were some gym members trying to get ring muscle-ups. One of my remote coaching clients was struggling, and unable to get a muscle-up. There was nothing wrong with her kip as she is naturally athletic and coordinated. But, since she wasn’t strong enough, there was nothing I could show her, or tweak in her technique, to help her get a muscle-up. Seeing her disappointment, I wish I had the cue that replaced 3-5 years of consistent strength training, but I haven't found that yet.
Then a young guy at the gym who had only cross-fitted for a month or something tried a couple muscle-ups and failed as well. But, this guy was a literal brick-layer and had some seriously developed arm strength. He looked like Pop-eye. Guys like this can make a coach look like a genius. I gave him two tweaks to try, and bang he got his first muscle-up. He had the required strength, so technique changes were effective. My aforementioned client did not have the required strength, so tweaking her technique wasn’t going to do a damn thing until she had put in the time to develop the required strength to complete the movement.
So, what's the fix?
Well, take another look at the gymnasts arms (I'm sure you won't mind). His biceps have freaking biceps. His scaps are massive and his lats flare out so far they may allow him to take flight. If you want to be good at kipping pull-ups, or pull yourself high enough to do a muscle-up you are going to have to be able to handle your body-weight. This means your upper-body pulling strength needs to improve significantly. You need stronger arms, shoulders, scaps, and lats.
Unfortunately skill-work does not provide enough of a stimulus to the muscles to make you significantly stronger. If you are doing ground drills for muscle-ups there isn't enough of a load, and if you are doing kipping pull-ups there isn't enough tissue under tension because it is mostly swinging. Sure, eventually for some people this approach may work, but it is just not an efficient way to get things done and in my experience usually does not get the job done.
If you want to develop strength for gymnastics, you need to develop your pulling muscle-group. To keep it as simple as possible, this involves your biceps, lats, and scapulas. I have included two different sample workouts of some extra pulling work that you can sneak into your warmups, or your cool-downs if you go to group classes. You could perform something like this 2-3 times/week (A/B/A, then B/A/B).
Sample Upper-Body Pulling Strength Supplemental Program.
-If you are unsure of a movement ask a coach at your gym to help you out. Or refer to youtube.
-It is more important to perform the movement with strict and slow technique than it is to go heavy.
-This may not be appropriate for your level. It may be too advanced, not advanced enough, or not address specific imbalances, injuries, or issues you may have.
-Following the tempo is of the utmost importance. So stick to the 3 second eccentrics/negatives even though it is hard, and will limit the amount of weight you can lift initially.
-It would be wise not to perform this in a warmup before a group class which involves a lot of pull-ups.
Skill-work only matter whens you have the required strength to perform the movement. Gymnastic movements require a lot of strength. Unless you have an extensive and/or related training history which involved pulling things or lots of upper-body work, you will need to put time into developing your upper-body pulling strength. This isn't a thirty day fix. This may take years of consistent effort. The people who do these movements easily generally have a related training history, or learned the language of the movement at a young age. If you want to get better at gymnastics, it is time to start rowing, curling, and working on your scaps. It may not be as fun doing bicep curls as it is swinging on a band, but it is the work that will actually help you reach your goal.
I apologize for the tough love and feel like a bit of a bully in this post. Honestly, it is hard to tell people that they aren't ready for something and that it might take years to get there. But, in the case of gymnastics you need to give due respect to the craft and not expect to be able to do in six months what takes people years to develop. This is like buying a guitar and practising once a week for six months and then being disappointed with your guitar-teacher because you aren't ripping out solos like Brian May. Again, the long-range view of fitness is important here. Are you only after some result because you were told it is a display of fitness, or are you part of the journey and giving into the process of learning and mastery. The latter is where the beauty lies.
Grit Human Performance