To begin with, I will say that I have not touched any free weights in the better part of a year. Despite this, I have gained more muscle mass than ever before, and acquired more of an actual increase in strength – all of which I have received through the practice of rudimentary gymnastics. When I use the term ‘gymnastics’ I am not referring to the kind of actions you see a gold medal Olympian performing, but the basic strength and co-ordination exercises that build the skill necessary to progress to the more aerial techniques. That said, these basic positions are more challenging and frustrating than any other work out I have ever attempted.
There are several advantages that gymnastics has over weight training. First of all, there is the fact that it does more than simply strengthen your muscles; it teaches you how to balance and move. While using weights may make you stronger, the majority of lifting routines are essentially teaching you how to stand still. Some forms of lifting involve a step or pivot, but for the most part the person lifting is performing a static manoeuvre that is contracting only a few muscle groups at one time. Gymnastics, on the other hand, trains a person to move from one position to another with perfect poise and balance, while also stressing the maximum amount of muscle contraction possible.
Gymnastics also using another technique that makes it more challenging – many of the positions are performed at increasing angles of disadvantage. That is to say, the better a person gets at the exercises, the more they move into a position which is putting as much leverage as possible against them. So while building strength in this way will not make you significantly larger, as seen in bodybuilding, it will make the muscles significantly stronger and denser. It will also build the ability to use your muscles in conjunction with each other more efficiently, building more agility.
I’ll use a planche to demonstrate what I mean. (I like using planches as examples, because I still can’t do the bloody thing.) First of all, there is the fact that the hands are placed at the centre of balance, just above the level of the hips. If you imagine bench pressing your own body weight by lifting the bar from your hips, that would be fairly challenging in of itself. However, that is only the beginning of what makes this relatively basic move so difficult. The second point is that you are lifting yourself up in the air, as opposed to lifting a bar while lying on your back. This means that your upper back and shoulders are now required to contract just as much as your chest and arms. Finally, there is the fact that the body and legs are held straight out behind you. Now you have your abs, lower back, and legs struggling to contract into a solid position as well. So, if anyone thinks they can gain this kind of strength and co-ordination from weight training alone, feel free to give it a try and let me know if I’m incorrect in my assumptions.
Even though learning how to perform moves such as a planche is a long process, the time you spend slowly building up to it is still an incredible work out. Using a scale of 1-5 for the difficulty of these basic routines, I average at around a 2 for most of them. (Planche being my weakest, some days all I can manage is about a 1) Despite my novice status as a gymnast, the difference I have seen in my strength, agility and performance while fighting has been remarkable. This especially impresses me because I am only spending perhaps three hours a week actually performing these positions. When you compare that to the results a person would get from three hours a week of casual weight training, gymnastics seems to come out on top.
So if you are looking for a work out that is good for muscle tone, co-ordination, core strength and durability, (Not to mention time efficient and relatively inexpensive) then basic gymnastics with give you more immediate results than weights or calisthenics. Think of it like Yoga times twenty.
For those interested, I think I might start to write some instructional posts on how to do the simple beginner positions.