~ by Desiree Walker

Ever wonder why most gymnasts have 6-packs? … because they hang around bars! Well, I’m talking 6-pack abs of course, and as corny as it may sound, you can always find some truth in humor.

I was a gymnast for 12 years. My teammates and myself included – grew up with nice, lean defined, abdominal muscles, and in the world of high level gymnastics this is more the norm than the exception. It was not because we were all genetic freaks, or did thousands of crunches. In fact, we did NO standard crunches at all! But what we did do, strengthened our core and worked our bodies in such a way I believe contributed greatly to that to sculpted, quilted abdominal look.

Well, the great news is that you do not have to start gymnastics classes to get visible abs. But I do think every fitness athlete or enthusiast can learn something from their training and put to use a variety of these principles. So how does gymnastics core training differ from the standard crunch? The 3 major components that differ are:

1) full extension of abdominal muscle
2) isometric contractions
3) working the muscle in various planes of movement

Full Extension
– Muscles stretched with resistance through their entire intended range of motion (ROM), receive the most overload. I can remember way back to my gymnastics training days, where my coach would start and end every practice with 3 to 4 sets of hanging leg raises or leg lifts as we gymnasts called them. For these leg raises, we would hang from the high bar, with our body fully extended and lift our legs to meet our hands. Our coach was a stickler for form and – none of the reps would be counted if we used momentum and did not begin from a “dead” hang – with full extension. As young gymnasts, we knew it was harder to start from the “dead hang” fully extended position, but we certainly didn’t know “why” – but we did it anyway. You can incorporate the same movement into your own workouts – either grabbing onto a chin up bar or abdominal chair (Captain’s Chair), lifting legs (straight or bent). These devices can be found in just about every gym. The key is starting from that “dead” hang position – getting a full stretch in the abdominal muscles.

Isometric Contractionsof the abdominal muscle.  Isometric contractions are where tension is created in the muscle with no visible change (movement) in the joint angle. The muscle(s) is contracting without moving through a ROM. For this principle, the goal of course is not to achieve a full extension of the abdominal muscle but to hold and contract it in one position. So much of gymnastics is isometric in and of itself (balancing in a handstands, upside down or right side up positions with leg up/ leg down – you name it – we were probably required to do it)- so many of the drills we did to learn new skills isometric of isometric nature.

Planes of Motion is the third component vital to core training. In gymnastics, we flipped and twisted in all different directions. Even on the uneven bars, we had requirements in our routine for elements that contained a direction change. I remember really disliking this, because once you got going in one direction – you had to switch and go the other way – and have enough momentum, technique, and CORE strength to do so. Hanging windmills was one way we trained for this. It was an advanced version of the hanging leg raise, but instead of just going in one plane of motion- lifting your legs up to the bar and back down again, you lifted your legs in a circle in one direction, then switched directions the other way. It targets the oblique muscles, part of the abdominal core, responsible for rotation.

These powerfully effective “core training principles” will definitely produce results, however remember that nothing can magically transform your belly to a sculpted 6-pack – unless you are also lean enough for the abs to show, but that is another topic unto itself.  But hopefully it will give you some insight and ideas on building a better you. It was the American architect, Lois Sullivan who coined the phrase, “form follows function.” I am a wholehearted believer that quote is applicable to physique and athletic endeavors as well.  Just take a look at competitive gymnasts. We can learn a lot from them!

Desiree Walker is an IFBB pro fitness competitor and general dentist
practicing in Lumberton, NC. She shares her love for health and
wellness with her husband Ash and 2 crazy cats.
References: Abel, Scott. The Abel Approach. 2007