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Why is Gymnastics so Important?

Yes, this statement is true, you should never skip those days in the gym where gymnastics is part of the WOD. Gymnastics is something that CrossFit incorporates a lot of, and its important to understand that there are more than just physical benefits to doing these movements, there are mental benefits as well, most importantly spatial awareness and motor control. My personal view on gymnastics is that its just as important as lifting, and if done right, the movements can translate into lifting.

The Brain and Spatial Awareness

There is a lot involved in spatial awareness, but the two most important areas are the hippocampus just below the cerebral cortex and the vestibular system. We will go over the vestibular system first because this is talking about the physical part of spatial awareness. The vestibular system consists of, you guessed it, the vestibule in the inner ear that is responsible for balance and how you process where you stand in space. There are two types of balance that the vestibular system processes; static balance and dynamic balance. Static balance is associated with the utricle and saccule of the vestibule. This evaluates the position of the head relative to gravity, although the system also responds to linear acceleration or declaration, which means an increase or decrease in speed. Probably the best example I can give of this type of balance is a backhand spring or backbend kickover. It takes speed to do a backhand spring in relation to gravity. Force from the quadriceps pushes the body back, then as the body changes shape it increases speed, once the athlete blocks at the bottom with the hands, there is another change in shape (head is down at this point), which increases speed again to get the athlete back upright. Then there is dynamic balance, which is associated with the semicircular canals. The semicircular canals are placed at nearly right angles of each other (amazing right?), which then corresponds to the transverse plane, sagittal plane, and frontal plane. This ingenious set up is involved with evaluating the movements of the head. Probably a good example is a handstand. Now, in a static handstand the head is in-line with the body (looking forward), but if you choose to handstand walk, your head has to move so you can see below you, not in straight ahead.

The Hippocampus is a curved band of grey matter that is also involved with recognizing new experiences, learning, and memory, especially in the short term in relation to recent events. In regards to spatial awareness, the hippocampus is composed of a set of modifiable neurons that receive input from the cortex and represent what is going on in the current environment. It evaluates if you are sitting, standing, inverted, or whatever event you so happen to be doing. So something interesting about gymnastics is that many feel that complex gymnastics movements like the muscle up, if not practiced, can be lost. This is where the hippocampus plays a role in the memory of movements. If the process of forming a memory is involved in the actual representation of the experience itself in the cortex, then this experience is sent to the hippocampus back to the cortex where the memories become stored in the associated areas. With continuous rehearsal of a specific activity it will reverberate back and forth between the cortex and hippocampus, modifying the neurons in the cortex itself so that it can reproduce the activity that was originally associated with a person’s experience. So since this region is associated more with short-term memory, if you don’t practice the technical gymnastics movements that memory can become lost because the initial experience can be a bit hazy for the athlete, which can make it harder to go back to the movement. Not to say oh no I will never be able to do it again, but it does mean you may have to retrain just a little bit to get the memory back into full swing. For example, I was a gymnast as a child, but then came back to it as an adult. At first, it was not easy, it was like everything I did I had forgotten, but with continuous practice those association areas began to recall back, and it was a very smooth transition back into the sport again. So you can say that more repetition of the movement will make you better at it. As your body finds tweaks and gains more motor control, you will continue to make gains in gymnastics but the key word is practice.

Benefits of a Regular Gymnastics Practice

It’s important to mention some of the brain benefits to practicing gymnastics regularly (and correctly I might add). Studies suggest a link between a well developed sense of spatial awareness and artistic creativity, success in math and analytic skill that aid in problem solving tasks. The ability to organize and classify abstract mental concepts is related to the ability to organize and classify objects in space. Studies find that a strong sense of spatial awareness can aid in the development of short-term memory. Gymnastics and spatial awareness is a fundamental brain function that informs all higher-level cognitive activities which then requires that we integrate information from all our senses. These reasons listed are many of the reasons why parents bring children into gymnastics because of its mental and physical benefits to the child. Adults can have these same added benefits as long as we practice the movements.

Gymnastics and Lifting

Many people do not realize how gymnastics can make an impact on lifting. Motor control is one of the foundations of gymnastics and you need the same for lifting. With gymnastics you can gain a lot of that motor control lifting your own load or bodyweight, which can be prime practice for when you are lifting more than just your load. If you look at the translations, a handstand pushup is really similar to a strict press. When you do a kipping pull up (and do it right), it’s the hollow and arch, which can translate to a hip drive in a snatch or clean. Many coaches can see when certain people don't have much control of the body when lifting. Many of the lifts look a bit all over the place in the more complex movements meaning slow and uncontrolled (now I am saying while training). When doing gymnastics, you develop the control over the body to keep the lift tight and fast, and when dropping under the bar for a squat clean or snatch, you know where you are in relation to the bar. Many people who practice gymnastics skills can feel and see when the bar becomes weightless after the pull because in certain movements like kipping (once you have all those strict movements of course!) they can feel their bodies weightless and if you practice hand-release kipping you can really feel your own weightlessness. Gymnastics develops the smaller muscle groups especially in the shoulders so you also gain the benefits of protection in joint areas.

Now I do mention kipping, but I will give you my stance on kipping. Never kip unless you have the baseline strength to do so. If you do not have a strict pull up, do not attempt a kipping one. This also goes with handstand push ups, ring dips, and muscle ups. Learn the movements strict first, and your goal should be 5-10 strict of any gymnastics movement before pressing forward into a kipping motion. If you want to feel the movement of the kip and use that translation into lifts, practice hollow and arches.

Bottom Line

I really can go on and on about the benefits of gymnastics. I think it can be something that is overlooked sometimes in preference for Olympic lifts, but BOTH are needed to be a well-rounded athlete. You may be better at one than the other, but the key is to practice both. CrossFitters, remember, its important to stay open minded and know that both modalities can and will build strength.

Why is Gymnastic Important? | Wodnut

References

  • Hatfield, Rudolph C PhD. (2013). The Guide to the Human Brain. Avon, MA. Adams Media.
  • Parker, Steve. (2007). The Human Body Book. New York. DK Publishing.
  • Tate, Philip. (2012). Seeley’s Principles of Anatomy of Physiology. New York. McGraw Hill Companies.
Guest Post Amber Larson from www.massageandhealthbyamberkim.com

Amber Larson

Amber Larsen is a Biologist, Licensed massage therapist, registered yoga teacher, CrossFit Level 1 trainer, CrossFit Gymnastics trainer, and kinesio tape practitioner. Amber has been an athlete all of her life, playing soccer as a child until she finished college. She was also a gymnast and track and field athlete. Her career in fitness started in coaching as an adult after she graduated from college. She soon discovered a love for kinesiology, human anatomy, and physiology, and decided to go back to school to become a massage therapist. She later went back to get her second degree, which was a Bachelors of Science in biology with a specialization in human anatomy and physiology from the University of North Carolina. In 2012 she became a registered yoga teacher as well as a CrossFit level 1 trainer. In 2013 she earned her CrossFit Gymnastics certification. Amber currently trains at her local CrossFit Gym and owns her own massage practice in North Carolina. She is always learning, and goes to trainings as much as she can in not only CrossFit but massage therapy and biology as well. In her spare time Amber enjoys doing CrossFit, adventure races, spending time with her husband, and gymnastics floor tumbling. Website: www.massageandhealthbyamberkim.com

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