Gymnasts must have excellent anaerobic fitness to perform brief, high-intensity routines, and are among the strongest and most flexible of all athletes. Gymnasts have great relative strength, meaning their strength is high relative to their body weight. Male gymnasts especially tend to develop considerable upper body strength.
Although gymnasts have good overall fitness, aerobic fitness is less important.
It is advantageous for gymnasts to be light and compact, but also strong i.e. they should have a high strength to weight ratio. Small size is less of a determining factor for male gymnasts, who are fairly muscular, particularly in the arms and upper body. In women’s gymnastics, where technical skill is more important than strength, small size carries an overwhelming advantage, and female gymnasts are typically slim and small, with short limbs, broad shoulders and narrow hips.
Artistic gymnastics requires fine-honing of technique; gymnasts are penalised for even minor errors. The routines are as follows:
- Pommel horse: a leather-covered apparatus, with two handles in the centre, 40-45cm apart. The routine consists of a series of continuous swinging and circular motions of the torso and legs, executed as the athlete moves from one end of the horse to the other, using only his hands for support. This requires upper-body strength, as well as an excellent sense of body awareness to maintain balance, and rhythm to maintain momentum.
- Rings: these hang from straps 2.75 m above the floor and parallel to each other. The gymnast grasps one in each hand to perform a routine that combines static positions with rapid movements that test strength and precision.
- Vault: this involves an apparatus called a horse, 1.6 m long and 1.35 m high. In the men’s event, the athlete approaches the horse from one end; the women approach it from the side. The gymnast runs towards the horse, takes off from a springboard, places both hands on the horse, launches over with an acrobatic flight and a controlled landing. In the women’s vault, the horse is lowered to 1.2 m. The vault requires a combination of speed, strength and agility. Height and length of the vault, as well as the performance of turns, twists and somersaults are all factored into the final score.
- Parallel bars: two flexible parallel bars, 42 to 52 cm apart and 1.95 m above the ground. This routine involves a series of swinging, balancing and airborne movements.
- Horizontal bar: a single bar 2.75 m above the floor. The routine requires continuous swinging motions around the bar with frequent changes in direction and grip. In the dismount the athlete launches off the bar, flies through the air, and must make a controlled landing.
- Uneven bars: two flexible, parallel horizontal bars of different heights, a maximum 1.435 m apart. The upper bar is between 2.35m and 2.4 m from the floor, the lower bar between 1.4 and 1.6 m from the floor. The routine requires a mount, continuous swinging, releasing and changing of direction over, under and between the bars, and a dismount.
- Balance beam: a beam 10 cm wide, 5 m long and 1.2 m from the ground. This routine, which is a demonstration of balancing skills, involves continuous tumbling movements, turns, jumps and leaps, with a mount and dismount.
- Floor exercise: a routine of acrobatic movements performed without apparatus on a floor mat about 12 metres square. The women’s floor exercise is similar to the men's, but is more dance-like and performed to music.
In rhythmic gymnastics, gymnasts compete on a mat about 12.5 metres square. Using rope, a hoop, a ball, clubs or a ribbon, they perform choreographed movements to music. Some acrobatic movements are permitted, but no leaps. Each competitor or team is judged on composition (the difficulty of the routine), and execution (how well it is performed). The aim is to move in harmony with the equipment to produce a graceful routine.
Contestants bounce on a trampoline while performing somersaults, twists and other movements. Gymnasts can bounce up to nine metres, and some can stay in the air for up to two seconds. Athletes are judged on the difficulty of each routine and how well it is executed.
Training takes up at least 20 hours a week, and focuses on improving all of the elements in a gymnast's performance: strength, rhythm, balance, flexibility and agility. Gymnastics works virtually every muscle in the body. In Eastern European countries, classical ballet based choreography training is often integrated into gymnastics training. About 45 minutes per day is committed to this training, six days per week.
Stretching is an important element in training, both as part of the warmup and to improve flexibility. Increasing flexibility is directly related to the ability to perform certain gymnastics skills, as well as the speed at which these skills are learned.
Knowing when and how much to rest the body is essential in preparing for practice and competition. Part of a gymnast’s physical preparation each day includes a deliberate rest period – perhaps a 45-minute nap. Each gymnast should develop an understanding of how much stress his/her body can endure.
Gymnasts have good levels of cardiovascular fitness, but this is less important than in the long-distance endurance events.
Speed drills are important for gymnastic events that require a run-up – most notably the vault, where energy for the take-off is transferred from the approach sprint.
Resistance training and muscles
Strength training is part of most gymnastic training programmes, and is particularly important for male gynmnasts. Circuit conditioning, a specific type of strength training, is often employed in men’s gymnastics. It is used to strengthen specific muscle groups while also increasing cardiovascular fitness. A circuit of about 13 minutes is performed three times a week, exercising the upper body, the lower body or the mid-section. The arm circuit, for example, may include about ten different exercises, such as rope climbing, with a short run in between each set to keep up the heart rate. Strengthening the upper body muscles is crucial because of their involvement in nearly every aspect of performance. Strengthening the legs is also important because of the tumbling exercises for floor and vault, as well as the landings gymnasts must perform in the other events.
Reaction time is of most relevance to gymnasts to avoid impending errors, and recovering from them when they do occur.
Endurance is not the main focus of training.
Good nutrition is extremely important for gymnasts, not least because they usually reach their competitive peak at a young age, and so have nutritional requirements for growth and tissue maintenance, as well as the additional energy needed for their sport.
As gymnastics involves short bursts of high-intensity activity, these athletes must keep their muscles well fuelled with energy from carbohydrates. In addition, gymnasts should eat a wide variety of foods that provide a balance of nutrients, including foods that are good sources of protein, vitamins and some fat. Intake of high fat foods should be limited. Nutritionists advise gymnasts to eat about six small, frequent meals and snacks spaced roughly three hours apart. Gymnasts should have a high-carb snack about one hour prior to practice or competition, and be sufficiently hydrated before performing. Gymnasts should also drink every 10 to 15 minutes during breaks in activity. Immediately after the workout or performance, the athlete should have a high-carb snack to restore energy to the body so the muscles are ready for more activity the following day. This is also a good time to drink plenty of fluids. Despite the importance of carbohydrate, carbo loading is not really as necessary as it is in endurance sports.
To keep a high strength-to-weight ratio, gymnasts need to maintain a low body fat percentage. But being small and light can be taken to extremes that are clearly unhealthy. The sport has at times been marred by eating disorders and health problems among some gymnasts, especially girls, who go on drastic diets to limit normal weight gain and growth. Extreme dieting may lower the rate at which energy is used, and can contribute to muscle loss and eventually an increase in body fat.
Visualisation and relaxation are particularly valuable in a gymnast’s mental preparation. Visualisation involves mentally rehearsing the skills or routines he or she will be performing in the competition setting. Gymnasts visualise the arena, the equipment, the crowd and what they would actually see while performing a routine i.e. as if they are actually performing it, not merely watching themselves perform. Many top gymnasts visualise their routines daily. By the time they reach the competition, the gymnast has repeated the physical movements in their minds many more times than in reality.
Learning to mentally relax in stressful situations can make the difference for a gymnast during a competition. Being calm allows the athlete to focus, make quick, sound decisions, and handle the pressure generally. It is also important for winding down after an intense workout, and for getting to sleep before a competition.
Drug abuse in gymnastics, while it does occur, is not as much of a problem as in many of the other sports. Steroids and stimulants, which can enhance performance in other high-intensity and strength sports are often detrimental to gymnasts, who must utilise strength and power with great control. Many drugs interfere with key aspects like balance and timing.