All Muscle, No Iron

An Interview with Coach Christopher Sommer


It happens every four years. Bodybuilders and fitness buffs around the world marvel at the physiques of the male gymnasts competing in the Olympics. Those huge, muscular arms! Those broad shoulders! Those tiny waists! Those sexy, tight buns, like two bowling balls in a satin pillowcase... uh, um, let's move on, shall we?

And then we all think the same thing: "Hmm, wonder how those guys train? What kind of weight training do they perform?"

Well, the answers may shock you. T-Nation recently sat down with Christopher Sommer, a gymnastic coach who's responsible for building many of those amazing physiques you see on TV.

T-Nation: Coach, let's get started by talking a little about who you are and what you do. So, who the heck are you and what the heck do you do?

Coach Sommer: I'm a former competitive gymnast and for many years now my primary focus has been on preparing athletes for the USA Junior National Gymnastics Team. Currently I run the men's competitive program at the Desert Devil Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

T-Nation: Okay, every time the Olympics roll around, bodybuilders and fitness buffs go monkeynuts over the physiques of the male gymnasts. What's the biggest thing about their training that would surprise most gymrats?

Coach Sommer: That their training is comprised almost entirely out of bodyweight exercises.

Pommel Horse

T-Nation: Wait a sec, these guys with the killer biceps don't do barbell and dumbbell curls?

Coach Sommer: No, not a single one! In fact, their amazing biceps development isn't the result of any kind of curling movement at all, but primarily due to the straight arm leverage work which they do on the still rings.

The straight-arm work is enormously difficult and puts tremendous strain on the biceps resulting in incredible growth. The key to success is being able to approach these exercises in a safe progressive manner.

T-Nation: What do you mean exactly by straight-arm work?

Coach Sommer: By straight-arm work I'm primarily referring to the classic strength positions on the still rings (iron cross, planche, maltese, etc.) and the connecting movements between them.

Raj Bhavsar

Raj Bhavsar performing an iron cross in the 2004 USA Championships

Straight arm work basically means moving the body without the advantage of bending the joints. Essentially then, by increasing the length of the lever, we greatly magnify the intensity of the exercise.

A case in point would be a cross pull (basically a straight arm pull-up where the arms pull out to the sides) compared to a regular pull-up. The bodyweight is the same in both cases; however, the cross pull is several orders of magnitude harder than the pull-up, resulting in significantly higher strength and muscle gains.

Now consider that I had one teammate in college who could hold an iron cross with 60 pounds hanging on his feet and you begin to get an idea of the incredible strength of some of the high level gymnasts. By the way, this same gymnast had an upper body that was incredibly large and ripped!

T-Nation: That's impressive. I've heard stories that these athletes can lift a surprising amount of weight in the deadlift and other lifts, even though they never train these lifts. Is that true? And if it is, how's that possible?

Coach Sommer: Gymnastics training does indeed build incredible strength. For example, I was not a particularly strong gymnast, yet I was able to do a double bodyweight deadlift and weighted chins with almost 50% extra bodyweight on my very first weight training attempts.

One of my student's, JJ Gregory, far exceeded my own modest accomplishments. On his first day of high school weight lifting, JJ pulled a nearly triple bodyweight deadlift with 400 pounds at a bodyweight of 135 and about 5'3" in height. On another day, he also did an easy weighted chin with 75 pounds, and certainly looked as though he could've done quite a bit more. We'll never know for sure because the cheap belt I was using at the time snapped.

Why gymnastics training results in such high levels of strength is still unclear. My personal opinion is that the secret lies in the plyometric nature of the movements. In a way this reminds me of the results experienced by Adam Archuleta, with the exception that we're using bodyweight variations combined with straight arm work to obtain our results.

T-Nation: Most of the top male gymnasts are fairly light aren't they? With all that muscle you'd think they'd weigh more. Can a hopeful gymnast get "too big" for the sport?

Coach Sommer: Absolutely. World class performance is always easier to achieve with the correct phenotype. For example, most jumpers in track and field tend to be taller, while the marathon runners, for the most part, are smaller and lighter.

There are exceptions to be found in almost all sports. France's Dmitry Karbanenko is a "giant" in gymnastics (5'8", 170 pounds and unbelievably thick and muscular), yet he's one of the finest gymnasts in the world. Mugsy Bogues was only 5'2" and played in the NBA, but we all know that those exceptions are few and far between.

This isn't a cause for despair though. Remember that the importance of having a particular body type applies to world class athletes and world class performance levels. For the fitness enthusiast and the recreational athlete, gymnastics conditioning can be of huge benefit to everyone, regardless of their size or shape.

T-Nation: I've added a little gymnastics training into my personal program, but honestly, is there really any hope for an adult who wants to have a build similar to these guys? I mean, is it possible with normal genetics? And is it possible for someone who didn't start doing this stuff at age four?

Coach Sommer: Many weightlifters of the 1940's and 50's (the old Muscle Beach days) believed that a combination of weight lifting and gymnastics training was required to build the ultimate physique. One of the most famous of those trainees is Jack LaLanne, a name that all of your readers should be familiar with.

Jack LaLanne

Jack LaLanne in the 1940s

Many know of his reputation for incredible strength endurance records; for example, he performed 1000 pull-ups and 1000 push-ups in one hour and twenty three minutes! What they may not know is that Mr. LaLanne was also an accomplished gymnast and didn't begin setting his amazing records until he was 43 years old and continued until well into his 70's. In fact, not too long ago, at the age of 80+, I saw a picture of him performing one of the gymnastics specialty exercises that I use with my competitive athletes!

Also, the legendary rock climber John Gill credits his strength training on the rings for his boundary-breaking strength in the world of rock climbing. Interestingly, Mr. Gill didn't begin training on the still rings until his freshman year in college; yet in only two years he was doing crosses, levers and butterflies (a straight arm pull-up).

In fact, Gill became so strong that he could perform seven consecutive pull-ups with his right arm and five with his left. Yet remember, he didn't begin any organized athletic training until a young man in college.

John Gill

John Gill performing a one arm front lever in the 1960s

T-Nation: Let's say a person reading this wants to begin to do just a little of what these guys do. You say to start out with the "frog" exercise. What is that and why should we ironheads be doing it?

Coach Sommer: The frog stand is an introductory step in developing a planche, which is one of the gymnastic static positions. Basically a planche is a push-up position that's held with the feet off the floor. Think of it as doing a bodyweight bench press on a stability ball with your feet in the air and then multiply that by three.

frog stand

Josh West performing the frog stand

These static holds, in disadvantaged leverage positions and performing dynamic movements into and out of these positions, are the secret to developing the enormous strength of world class gymnasts.

Also, these types of exercises have a strong place in the history of U.S. weightlifting. First of all, it's important to understand that "iron" is simply one of a variety of tools available for athletics training. "Ironheads" have traditionally combined gymnastics exercises with their weightlifting; in fact, in the hey-day of U.S. Olympic Lifting, this was common practice. The great John Grimek could perform splits, handstands and back walkovers.

If you're only training to look good, then how athletic you are is of no importance. However, if you'd like to look good and be athletically functional, then you need more than just size and strength. Strength without balance, agility, coordination and explosiveness is strength that's athletically unusable. Integrating these types of exercises into your current workout will help to turn a strength athlete into more of an all around athlete.

T-Nation: You mentioned the planche and you've also written about the front lever. Give us the scoop on those please.

Coach Sommer: They're a lot of fun to work, require no specialized equipment and yet give enormous returns in strength. Basically these two exercises promote extreme strength and stability throughout the shoulder girdle both anteriorly and posteriorly. In addition, they'll trash your core and work your lower back/hips thoroughly.

Beginning the straddle planche push-up

Beginning the straddle planche push-up

Middle of the straddle planche push-up

Middle of the straddle planche push-up. Notice that only his hands are touching the ground.

Finishing the straddle planche push-up

Finishing the straddle planche push-up

Straddle front lever

Straddle front lever

As for their effectiveness, I've seen many gymnasts capable of planche push-ups do double bodyweight bench presses on their first attempts. Conversely, I've never seen a weightlifter capable of doing a double bodyweight bench press even come close to a planche push-up initially.

T-Nation: That's amazing. What's the secret of building substantial strength using these bodyweight exercises?

Coach Sommer: The secret is to continually progress to harder and more difficult variations of the exercises. The problem with this is that, outside of a small community, most people have no idea how to even begin training these exercises. Then once these are mastered they don't have access to the more advanced exercises.

Most people would be stunned at the enormous variety of bodyweight exercises which are available. For example, my athletes have access to over fifteen different varieties of dips, and that's just on the parallel bars.

We have a very fine former collegiate football player (6'5", 250) in our facility who's young, in shape, has benched 400 pounds and looks as though he power cleans the entire gym, yet he struggled with only 45 pounds on one of my parallel bar weighted push-up variations. One of my little guys weighing only 65 pounds also did 45 on this very same exercise!

This same athlete also struggled for about 45 minutes trying to complete just a single rep of one of my medium level bodyweight dips! And remember, that this young man is a very fine athlete in excellent condition.

T-Nation: Interesting. You once wrote that for maximum improvements, training to failure isn't necessary, but maximum contraction is. Can you elaborate on that?

Coach Sommer: For the competitive athlete or the real life athlete (military, police, firemen, etc.) training to failure isn't only unnecessary, it's counterproductive. An athlete needs to be able to successfully perform day after day, not just once a week. Can you imagine a soldier unable to chase someone down simply because his legs are fried from the day before?

For similar reasons, my athletes follow a very gradual training cycle where they encounter overload, then adaptation, then a recovery phase. For each athlete the cycle will differ somewhat in length from at least three weeks to as many as twelve weeks depending on their individual recovery abilities.

The ability to generate maximum contraction is another of the components which makes gymnastics bodyweight conditioning so effective. In fact, without an extreme contraction (every muscle tight and straining), the advanced bodyweight exercises are simply impossible to complete.

Basically, the harder the full body contraction required to complete an exercise, the more effective it is. This means that by choosing those exercises which generate the most complete contractions you'll greatly accelerate your training gains. I think this is why many weight lifters find heavy squats to be so effective.

T-Nation: What kind of lower body work do these gymnasts do? Is leg work all that important?

Coach Sommer: Leg work is very important for us. Without it, a world class gymnast wouldn't be able to jump ten feet into the air while performing multiple flips and twists. But remember, for gymnasts, it's important to build explosiveness and strength without large gains in mass, as this would have a serious impact of our relative strength-to-weight ratio.

As far as exercise selection, our leg training revolves around a variety of jumping exercises and weighted single leg squat variations.

T-Nation: What about targeted ab training?

Coach Sommer: We do quite a bit of core training, ranging from whole-body plyometric drills to heavy weighted hanging leg lifts. Primarily, I focus on working the core as a unit, rather than trying to work a specific area in isolation.

T-Nation: These top athletes, obviously they train hard and have dedicated their lives to this sport, but it's hard to compete at the world class level without using performance enhancing drugs, at least in many sports. What's the drug scene like in men's gymnastics?

Coach Sommer: To my knowledge, there's never been an incident of a gymnast testing positive for steroids. For a competitive gymnast, the extra size and bulk that steroids provide would be a decided disadvantage in a sport where the athlete with the highest relative strength (strength-to-bodyweight ratio) is often the one who comes out on top.

Also, steroid use would do nothing at all in helping a gymnast to learn a skill like a triple back somersault on the floor. That can only be developed through many years of correct and structured training.

T-Nation: True, but it's possible to use steroids and other performance enhancing drugs and not get bulky. Plus, there's a big difference between someone testing clean and someone actually being clean. So you're saying that world class gymnasts don't use performance enhancing drugs?

Coach Sommer: Of course I can't speak for all of the competitive athletes out there, but I can say that of all of the U.S. National Team, World Championship and Olympic athletes that I've known, trained with, and observed over the years, I don't know of any that have used steroids.

T-Nation: Fair enough. I understand you have a book coming out on all of this. Plug away!

Coach Sommer: Building the Olympic Body is the first and only book ever available which provides detailed descriptions and progressions to allow both the fitness enthusiast and the competitive athlete to develop the amazing physique and power of a gymnast.

In the same step-by-step progressions by which I teach the planche and front lever, I cover all of the basic foundations of gymnastics preparation and conditioning. It covers static strength positions, general physical preparation and gymnastics specific exercises. There's literally nothing else like it available anywhere.

In addition, I'll also have two other books following shortly. There'll also be DVDs available to support all of the books, plus my Cross Level training device should be available soon from Torque Athletic.

T-Nation: We look forward to seeing these. Stop back by T-Nation and let us know when they're available. Thanks for the chat today, Coach!

Coach Sommer: Anytime, Chris. I appreciate the opportunity.