Gymnasts use their abdominals, backs and glutes -- an area of the body collectively known as "the core"-- to gain momentum and stabilize their bodies during difficult skills. Developing a strong core protects gymnasts from injury and improves their athletic performance. Practicing gymnastics naturally develops strength in the core, but gymnasts do special core conditioning exercises to stay in shape for competition.
Sit-ups and crunches help train the abdominal and lower back muscles. Gymnasts practice regular sit-ups, starting with their knees bent and the soles of their feet on the floor before contracting their abdominal muscles to rise from the floor to a sitting position. Variations on sit-ups include "N-ups" in which the gymnast begins with her legs stretched out on the ground and then rises to a sitting position with her knees tucked in toward her chest. Reverse crunches, in which the athlete extends her legs straight up to the ceiling and then lifts her bottom off the ground, target the lower abdominal area.
Gymnasts may use weight machines, inflatable exercise balls or medicine balls to strengthen their cores. Crunches, sit-ups and other exercises such as planks using an exercise ball challenge the balance and stability of the core. Standing twists and squats performed while holding a weighted medicine ball can help a gymnast build power. Rowing machines are also a popular equipment choice for gymnasts. The pulling motion of the arms strengthens the upper body while the bending and flexing of the torso targets the core.
Pilates exercises on the mat or the Reformer are effective for core conditioning. Unlike crunches and sit-ups, which focus primarily on the external abdominals, Pilates training incorporates spine and trunk flexion exercises and focus on working the transverse abdominals, which can help protect lower backs from injury. Yoga's focus on balance can play an important role in helping gymnasts learn how to use those muscles for stability and balance on apparatuses such as the beam.
Gymnastics Apparatus Workouts
Using gymnastics equipment for core exercises helps train athletes to utilize the power in their cores when performing skills on the bars, vault, beam or other apparatuses. Athletes can practice sit-ups while hanging upside down from the uneven or parallel bars or they may dangle from the bars by their arms and lift their legs toward their head. Gymnasts also use the vaulting horse to do ab and core exercises. The athlete will lie down on the vault with her legs hanging off the edge, resting on her lower abs. She lifts her heels high while shifting her weight toward her chest before lowering her legs with control. This exercise, called "Gag a Giant," helps strengthen the glutes, spine and lower abdominal muscles.