Artistic Gymnastics vs. Crossfit Gymnastics
This post delves into the fundamental difference between Artistic Gymnastics vs. Crossfit Gymnastics. This post will hopefully give you an insight into how the two must be trained differently and how to ensure you keep your training sport specific.
Gymnastics is a great way to build a bullet proof foundation through the development of strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, balance and many other skills over an array of movement patterns and range of motion. It teaches you discipline, dedication and determination. It is, however, of paramount importance to ensure your gymnastics work meets your sport/training specific requirements.
This article is going to delve into the differences between Crossfit Gymnastics and Artistic Gymnastics aka what you watch in the Olympics. I hope this post will give you enough specific detail and reasoning to make some good judgment and stem some ideas in terms of how you can adapt your training and optimize your performance.
Caveat – Before you read the below, please understand that I’m not for one second implying that being good at Artistic Gymnastics will not help you at Crossfit specific Gymnastics. It is, however, important to understand the differences and how to apply your new found knowledge to training.
The Objectives are completely different
In Crossfit competition, you are typically completing as many reps as you can or a pre-defined number of reps as fast as you can in any given time, but usually between 5-20 minutes. In Crossfit the gymnastics skills are very basic and typically allow kipping. You are rewarded for your speed, endurance and capacity.
Gymnastics in Crossfit can pretty much be summarized by the efficiency of your technique in combination with your muscular endurance, aerobic (and lactate) capacity across repetitive low skilled movements.
Don’t be disheartened by me saying the movements in Crossfit Gymnastics are low skill if you haven’t got them all yet, but in reality, compared to a Gymnast, they are very low skill.
In (artistic) Gymnastics competition, you are typically performing a 90 second highly skilled routine scored on difficulty and form. These highly skilled routines are across multiple apparatus, of which most are not used in Crossfit.
Artistic Gymnastics is very much about your ability to endure and control your bodyweight under tension in high skill movements, and is primarily anaerobic.
If we look at the list of Crossfit skills (strength, power, speed, balance, accuracy etc.), things like balance might be on the list but in reality, if we’re honest, when has anything requiring significant levels of balance arisen? Whereas in Artistic Gymnastics it is a very common occurrence and definitely something that needs to be mastered.
So, lesson number 1 – be aware of the goal and demands of your sport (in this case Crossfit) and train appropriately. Joining an adult session at your local gymnastics club certainly won’t do you any harm, and if you have time, then by all means do it. However, it certainly shouldn’t be the priority if you want to get good at Crossfit specific gymnastics.
Straight arm vs. bent arm strength
Artistic Gymnastics is primarily straight arm. Most high skill movements require a tremendous amount of relative* straight arm strength. Even the less advanced skills such as front and back levers, planches, presses to handstands, manna – they’re all straight arm.
There is plenty of bent arm work but the majority is straight arm.
Crossfit specific Gymnastics is primarily bent arm. For example, HSPU, burpees, pull ups, muscle ups, dips etc.
*relative strength, simply put, is your pound for pound strength so is often to referred to with bodyweight movements such as pull ups and press ups – although, these examples are not strictly accurate as they involve endurance as opposed to pure strength but for the sake of this article serve well as examples. Absolute strength is the maximal amount of force one can exert irrespective of bodyweight i.e. a 1RM back squat.
Anyway, back to straight vs. bent arm strength. This is where problems can potentially unfold in Crossfit and sometimes lead to injury. Bent arm strength is far from the best approach to develop shoulder stability (rotator cuff and scapular stabilisers) and develop strong connective tissue (tendons, ligaments etc.). Bent arm strength is only really good for muscular development unless time under tension is added via tempo eccentrics (lowering phase of the movement) e.g. lowering down from a pull up or isometric holds e.g. a chin over bar hold (top of pull up). But again, this still isn’t the best way.
Shoulder stability is fundamentally the ability of the rotator cuff and scapula stabilisers to work together to ‘stabilise’ the shoulder. They must work together and be in balance, if one is significantly stronger than the other it will cause an imbalance which creates another issue within itself. A couple of examples of great exercises to help improve shoulder stability, particularly for Crossfit, are ring support hold and swings, and Turkish get-ups. Both straight arm movements. Straight arm strength also hands over well to bent arm strength, but unfortunately not so well the other way around.
Straight arm work also tends to be the best way to strengthen connective tissue. It takes connective tissue much longer to adapt and develop than muscular tissue. This means it also takes longer to break down than muscular tissue so you tend to be able to hammer away at connective tissue for longer but eventually you will run into problems including potential injury, which will take much longer to heal. As muscle develops much quicker, it also means that creating an imbalance between muscle and connective tissue strength is easily done. This is one reason you never hear much about steroid use in Gymnastics. The obvious reason is that steroids don’t improve your level of skill. Secondly, they only strengthen muscular tissue and not connective tissue, and as Gymnastics puts lots of pressure on connective tissue it would be a very unwise decision.
So, if you haven’t guessed it already, for Crossfit athletes it’s important to include some training dedicated to building the necessary shoulder stability and connective tissue strength through straight arm work. Remember, that it takes time and also longer to heal so consistency is much more important than intensity. One session every week dedicated to straight arm work would be ideal to compliment your additional training.
Aerobic vs. Anaerobic and Endurance vs. Strength
I’ve touched on this above and I feel it’s reasonably self explanatory so I won’t go on for too long. Okay, I might do because I can’t help myself, but I’ll try not to…
Crossfit Gymnastics = primarily aerobic and primarily endurance based.
Artistic Gymnastics = primarily anaerobic and primarily strength based.
In Crossfit, having the capacity to produce multiple powerful bursts of energy in order to perform highly skilled movements often requiring significant levels of strength becomes less important. Instead, building a huge endurance capacity across basic movements is much more important. It doesn’t matter how good you are at Gymnastics, if you’re gassed, you can only push so far. Let’s say I can do 50 unbroken bar muscle ups, but let’s say before that I went too hard on a big set of thrusters, my unbroken set of 50 doesn’t mean much anymore because whatever you might think I will likely be doing very small sets until I have recovered.
How do you build this capacity with Crossfit Gymnastics? Volume and intensity, but with gymnastics more so volume.
The reason being is that with these basic movements it’s very hard to increase the intensity. Increasing the intensity basically means moving faster. On the rower you can increase the intensity by going faster or I suppose by increasing the drag factor (use a higher damper setting). With these basic gymnastics movements you can’t do that. You can add weight or increase the difficulty of the skill but then you start to realm into the area of building strength as opposed to endurance. You can’t really go faster either, marginally maybe, but not in the same way as you can with endurance sports such as rowing, running, cycling. So in order to build this capacity, you simply need to build lots of volume in the movements.
Ever wondered why there seem to be some movements that you have to do regularly in order to not lose them? For most people it is skills like HSPU – if you don’t do them once a week, or more, you start to lose them? Gymnastics works best when you build volume. I don’t propose you go and do 500 pull ups for time because you need to know your limits and be reasonable, I also usually prefer the approach of consistency so instead of doing a skill once a week with a stupendous amount of volume, do it two or three times a week equalling the same volume. I say usually because, to some degree, it really does depend on the skill (I wouldn’t want you developing some nasty tendonitis from doing too much!), but for the most part this is my recommendation. That being said, it is important to schedule deload weeks where you significantly reduce the total volume. This isn’t as much important for muscular development, but it is important to give your connective tissue a break and a chance to recover.
Acyclic vs. Cyclic, Planes of Motion and why you (might) walk around like a duck
Cyclic is repetitive movement, for example running, rowing, cycling.
Acyclic is the opposite, so varied movements that are not repeated over and over.
Artistic Gymnastics is very much acyclic. There are many, many different skills of varying difficulty. This means artistic gymnastics tends to cover many different types of movement across many different plans of motion such as; horizontal, vertical, transverse. In other words they move twist, turn, push, pull in all sorts of different directions.
In Crossfit, not just in the gymnastic movements but in general, almost everything is pulling or pushing across a vertical plane of motion (up and down). For example; snatch, pull up, clean & jerk, muscle up, handstand push up, squat, deadlift … this list goes on.
In many ways, I am very much of the idea that to get good at something you should just train it. There are a million fancy accessory exercises for the squat, and they have a place, but most people with a huge squat will tell you that to get good at squatting you just need to squat heavy, often. Accessory and progressions are, in my opinion, more important for gymnastics but never-the-less if you’re unsure where to start and you want to get better at muscle ups, you should probably just go and do muscle ups. That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it but hopefully you get my point.
Rich Froning, “The Fittest Man in History”, makes it pretty clear that he basically just does Crossfit. Maybe it’s all a lie, but I honestly don’t think so and there’s a lot to be taken away from that.
What I’m trying to say is, if you want to get good at Crossfit then it makes sense to just spend a lot of time working on the typical movements that come up in Competition. Even at the Games, they’re really good at surprising people and creating events people wouldn’t have tried before, but 80% of the events still involve all the typical Crossfit movements that we see year in, year out in The Open and at Regionals.
The problem, however, are these movements neglecting certain fundamental movement patterns and muscular / connective tissue potentially leading to imbalances and problems later down the line. For some people, usually high level athletes, this isn’t so much a problem because they have trained for many years in different sports prior to Crossfit so have developed a better ‘foundation’ or ‘base’, and some people will just be lucky enough to never have problems. BUT, ego aside, are you really that person? Who knows but it’s probably not worth the risk.
Let’s look at Posterior Pelvic Tilt as an example…
”Posterior pelvic tilt when the front of the pelvis rises and the back of the pelvis drops. This happens when the hip flexors lengthen and the hip extensors shorten, particularly the gluteus maximus which is the primary hyperextensor of the hip.”
- Thanks Wikipedia
Not being good at maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt probably isn’t dangerous but it serves as a good example of how neglecting certain areas can make other movements difficult which in turn affect certain skills, in this case handstands and create a general lack of ability to stabilise the core. Posterior pelvic tilt is fundamental in order to further develop your gymnastics which is also why I am using it as an extensive example.
When I first started coaching gymnastics for Crossfit, one thing I couldn’t understand was why people struggle to grasp such a basic movement / exercise, the posterior pelvic tilt. I mean, there’s a lots of different cues people like to give but the fact of the matter is, if you just stand on two feet and really, properly squeeze your glutes, it’s actually very difficult to NOT fall into a posterior pelvic tilt. So why can people still not do it in practice?
It’s crucial for many reasons in gymnastics but primarily in Crossfit for its ability to keep the core activated and ‘tight’ (in other words, stabilise) without putting pressure on the lower back and to keep good alignment in handstands to avoid the shoulders / back tiring too quickly.
The posterior pelvic tilt requires the glutes, hamstrings and abdominals. Now, although Crossfitters tend to have a problem activating their hamstrings and glutes, instead being very quad dominant. I don’t believe this is the issue, as posterior pelvic tilt doesn’t actually require much strength as these muscles are so big anyway. Remember, that I’m asking you to perform posterior pelvic tilt with just your body, I’m not strapping heavy weights to you or anything crazy like that so the strength required certainly isn’t excessive.
I believe the problem is caused by two things; a) tight hip flexors and b) weak abdominals (specifically transverse abdominals and the obliques).
Tight hip flexors – Crossfitters squat a lot. Back squat, front squat, clean, snatch … they’re always squatting. This usually significantly tightens the hips.
But let’s take a closer look at the latter – weak abdominals…
In Crossfit we rarely turn, twist and side bend which means we rarely use the obliques and we rarely use the transverse abdominals. The transverse abdominal is good for two things; 1) Providing thoracic and pelvic stability, 2) Helping a pregnant woman to deliver a child. The obliques also do two things; 1) Act as an accessory muscle for respiration , 2) Rotates and side-bends the trunk. So, really what I am saying, is that these muscles are paramount to properly stabilise the core (and make child birth easier – if you’re interested.)
The problem is that Crossfitters don’t rotate, twist, side-bend much (because everything is “up ad down”) creating weak transverse abdominals and weak obliques and as a result we struggle to stabilise the core and movements such as the posterior pelvic tilt become almost a foreign exercise to the body. This is also why many Crossfitters walk around with a constant anterior pelvic tilt aka looking like a duck (big belly, bit butt, arched lower back syndrome).
SO. Based on the above, I will conclude what I believe to be a few intelligent next steps for Crossfit athletes:
- Understand the objective and goal of your sport. Higher skill attainment and maximal strength has a place but increasing endurance and capacity across basic skills will hand across much more to Crossfit.
- With Crossfit specific Gymnastics, generally perform each skill little and often, to build consistent volume and develop specific endurance.
- Build a strong aerobic base. It doesn’t matter how good your gymnastics is, if you blow out, you’re in trouble.
- Develop shoulder stability and strengthen connective tissue by implementing straight arm and accessory work once a week (but remember consistency over intensity – this takes time). Remember to also deload every 4-6 weeks to give connective tissue time to repair – as mentioned above the adaption cycle is much longer than muscular tissue.
- Train Crossfit to get good at Crossfit but equally don’t neglect fundamental movement planes, particularly with core training, they might have a much bigger impact than you expect. There needs to be some variety to keep your body happy and healthy.
- Fix your anterior pelvic tilt and strengthen your posterior pelvic tilt. This is fundamental to improve your gymnastics and develop a good base.
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