Progress in gymnastics is not only within reach of most people who can walk but, with proper coaching, can be the most rewarding sport you train for. It’s addicting. The health benefits of a more limber and lean body are self-evident, though I’ll provide more evidence just in case. And no one but other gym rats care what you bench; even the most basic gymnastics element makes heads turn.
You should find your nearest gym and ask about dropping into a supervised open session because:
Gymnastics transfers to every other coordinated physical effort of your life.
Whether it’s for other sports or merely getting around the house, furthering your gymnastics ability is commensurate—synonymous—with increasing your range of motion, coordination, and strength. The sport places a premium on body control, especially at the highest levels, and is the fullest full-body workout humans have conceived of [citation: watch the Olympics]. Weight training, even with free weights, doesn’t challenge myriad stabilizer muscles like free, unisolated body movement does. If you don’t believe me, take a weightlifter and have him do a bodyweight dip on the rings. If they can even manage to stay upright, you’ll see the rings shaking like it’s their first day at the gym.
Gymnastics improves lean body mass.
Practicing individual gymnastics techniques on the different men’s and women’s apparatuses (such as floor, beam, or the still rings), and stringing them together into routines, is essentially a form of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. HIIT was given its most forceful boost from sports medicine when, in 1996, a Japanese physician-researcher named Izumi Tabata published a his famous study on the effects of variable intensity on physical fitness. He found that a group of athletes on stationary bikes exercising in a pattern of 20 seconds at maximum exertion, followed by 10-second rest, for just four minutes, four times a week, saw gains to their aerobic system similar to a control group that performed low-intensity training for an hour per session, five times a week. Furthermore, the HIIT group of athletes increased their anaerobic capacity while the low-intensity group did not. Other researchers have observed the body’s tendency to burn more fat for hours after a HIIT-session.
Gymnastics training simultaneously gases your cardiovascular system and strains your muscular endurance to failure. As you drill your skills—such as assisted circles on a pommel horse trainer, or forward rolls, cartwheels, or more complicated tumbling passes on the floor—you’ll find yourself breathless and dripping in sweat. As your abilities progress, you find yourself leaner.
Gymnastics is less injury-prone than many other sports
Despite what you would imagine seeing triple back-flips on the floor, gymnastics is much safer than what many people think:
- Gymnastics training is all about drilling, drilling, drilling, until mastery of more basic elements enables progressively more difficult ones. Simply put, the gymnast does not attempt anything dangerous without due preparation. High-velocity skills are a ways off for the novice. All the while, a coach provides direction, feedback, and provides spotting until muscle memory takes hold and the athlete feels ready to try it herself—and always on plush mats for added safety!
- Gymnastics stretches and strains muscles you didn’t even know you had. The body recovers from this stress—which you’ll feel a lot of in the early weeks and months—by repairing and strengthening connective tissues, joints, and muscles, accustoming the body to better bend and support itself and prevent injury (an instance of Nassim Taleb’s antifragility; things that gain from disorder).
- The vast majority of sports injuries come from poor form. This is true not only for the gymnast who injures themselves by “chucking” a skill and hoping they land it, but the weightlifter who cheats on his deadlift and pulls his back, or the CrossFit athlete who pushes through fatigue by sacrificing form. Often in gymnastics, good form is the safest, most effective, and easiest way to perform a skill. You can’t do a big enough swing on the high bar to peel off if your back is arched or your arms bent (examples of poor form that make the skill much harder).
Gymnastics is intrinsically motivating.
I’ve heard that having self-discipline is preferable to motivation because the former attribute is “process-oriented” that, with enough time, inevitably leads to good things. Motivation, however, is an ephemeral feeling that you can’t rely on for durable change in your life. That sounds easy—just load up on “having self-discipline”! But how do you start? We’re back to motivation, which we know is fickle. Here’s why gymnastics is great:
Gymnastics can reliably motivate you to get to the gym.
The sport has three intrinsic motivators:
- There are countless skills to learn. The most complicated routines are built upon a mind-bogglingly large pyramid of more basic elements, all the way down to the most rudimentary movements like stretching and shaping your body. I’ve been at the sport a few years, and I still learn of new movements I’ve never heard of before. That means you can start at any level, and there will be no end to what you can tackle next.
- The sport epitomizes what I call the drive to solve-the-puzzle. Once you see a skill you want to try—and are coached as to how to approach it—you won’t want to leave until you make progress. What makes successive progress so thrilling is the body experiencing never-before-felt sensations as it gets closer and closer to execution. When you almost make your first cartwheel, back tuck, or handstand—but don’t—you immediately try again.
- Which brings me to the third intrinsically motivating aspect of the sport: It looks cool. At some point, I have to come out and say it. A handstand, a back flip, a planche, or an iron cross look impressive. There’s the obvious strength that these body movements communicate, but there’s a grace, coordination, and commitment that you simply can’t fake. People pick up on it. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that gymnastics is the most popular sport at the Olympics for precisely these reasons.
The first few practices might be humbling. You might be sore in places you didn’t you know had muscles. Your wrists, after a lifetime of typing, might rebuke you for your cartwheels. But the learn-something-new, solve-the-puzzle, razzle-dazzle drive of the sport take hold and next thing you know, you’re addicted to training.
And after enough times of showing up to the gym, you find yourself with something that resembles a habit. Or even approximates self-discipline. Plus you can now do something cool next time you see your friends.
In a later post, I can outline the eight unique apparatuses gymnasts train on—men train the still rings, parallel bars, high bar, and pommel horse, women the uneven bars and beam, and both train the vault and floor—as well as point towards low hanging fruit to set your sights on.