Editor’s Note: A few months ago we interviewed Coach Sommer about how male gymnasts build their amazing physiques. What we learned was that most trained with no weights and built amazing biceps with no curls. It was fascinating stuff. In the article below, Coach Sommer provides a peak inside this unique style of training and teaches the average reader how to take advantage of it. This isn’t your typical bodybuilding article, but we think you’ll find it interesting.
Simulated Gymnastics Training
The benefits of ring strength training are easily observed by even the most casual eye. But are these skills only attainable by elite athletes, or are they approachable by those of us who possess more modest athletic abilities?
While the ring strength of an Olympian is far beyond the grasp of most, surprisingly the basic positions and movements are accessible by a wide range of athletes. In the past however, most people have simply not had access to the coaching needed to develop these skills.
Note the heavy forearm development in addition to the arm and shoulder hypertrophy. An unforeseen benefit of ring strength training is that it also makes substantial demands on the forearms as they assist in stabilizing the elbow joint.
The strength element which is considered to be the very epitome of men’s gymnastics is the iron cross, an almost magical skill where the athlete seems to defy the laws of gravity by suspending himself in midair with seemingly impossible strength. Everyone recognizes it, regardless of whether or not they follow gymnastics.
The iron cross, like most classic ring strength skills, is unique in that it works almost your entire upper body at the same time. No single body part is truly isolated during its execution. Due to the support being out to the side and bisecting the torso, both the lats and chest work extremely hard during an iron cross.
The shoulders and traps will be straining while trying to stabilize the shoulder girdle, while the biceps and forearms are completely fried trying to hold the entire body up while in a disadvantaged straight-arm position. Also, note that the pectoralis and latissimus are both “fanlike” muscles which contract across a broad range of angles. Training these straight-arm movements allows you to hit the muscles in ways which could never be duplicated with bent-arm exercises.
In developmental terms, there are actually several other positions that we should’ve addressed prior to beginning iron cross training, however, the nature of the progressive resistance inherent in weightlifting (rather than having to manhandle one’s full bodyweight) allows us a great deal of flexibility regarding the order in which we approach these skills.
What Will I Need?
In this article (and perhaps more to follow) I’ll discuss in-depth several of the most popular gymnastics strength elements and skills, and provide you with ways to train them safely and progressively outside of a full blown professional gymnastics school. You may either select one of the movements to focus on and easily build it into your current workout, or you can focus exclusively on building gymnastics strength through a variety of different movements.
To begin this training, you’ll need access to a chinning bar, a bench, adjustable dumbbells, a variety of small plates, some fractional plates and, in the case of the iron cross, perhaps some gravity boots or simply the ability to ignore the discomfort of hanging by your knees on a bar for set after set. For years I used these enormous one-fourth pound washers I bought at a nut and bolt supply company, but these days I use Iron Woody fractional plates.
Are the fractional plates necessary? In my experience, absolutely. I’ve seen 250 pound athletes with 400 pound benches get completely crushed by 20 pound dumbbells simply because their elbows have never been exposed to stress in this extended, straight-arm position. If they were to try to increase their resistance by the traditional five pound increments of standard dumbbells, they’d quickly stall their progress, incur injuries or both.
By utilizing the Iron Woody fractional plates, Plate Mates, or any small weight, you’re able to increase your training load in small enough increments to protect your elbows. Remember, no quick fixes are possible in gymnastics training; months of work will be required to make significant progress on these elements. The fractional plates will help to ensure that you make that progress steadily and injury free, albeit slowly.
As we’re training the iron cross using alternative equipment, it’ll be necessary for us to train the cross in the inverted position. To that end, you’ll find it most comfortable to train this movement using gravity boots or an inverted sit-up station. Lacking either of these options, you may also train by simply hanging by your knees. Set the bar to a height where, when hanging upside down with your arms extended overhead, you can just reach the dumbbell handles with your fingertips.
The Basic Position
There are two positions for basic iron cross form. Neither is more correct than the other; simply choose the one that best reflects your individual strengths. If your shoulders are stronger than your lats, perform an iron cross by “rolling” your shoulders forward as you descend into position. If your lats are dominant, pull your shoulders back and contract the lats strongly while going into the cross.
The exception is if you’re training to pull from a cross to a higher position (Maltese, planche, etc.) in which case the shoulder forward version will be necessary to allow you the leverage to complete the movement.
Shoulders rolled forward vs. Shoulders rolled back
Regardless of which position you prefer, when performing an iron cross, it’s important that you’re able to just see your hands out of the corner of your eyes. Don’t turn your head to check position, but rather use your peripheral vision. If you can’t catch a glimpse of your hands, then they’re too far back behind your shoulders. If you can see them clearly, they’re too far forward of your shoulders.
Look for your hands out of the corners of your eyes.
Focus on keeping the elbows completely extended during the iron cross. Instinctively, most of us will bend the elbow, both to protect the joint and to make the load more manageable. This will result in short term ability to train with a heavier load; however, it’ll severely handicap your long term ability to ever perform this and other more advanced strength positions correctly.
Additional postural details for a correct iron cross include keeping the head neutral, the wrists straight, and allowing no arch in the lower back. Also make the extra effort to keep the dumbbells parallel with the ground; try not to allow them to tilt one way or the other. This will become quite important if later you try to transfer your newly developed iron cross ability to the still rings themselves.
Proceed slowly and patiently when first beginning to train these straight-arm exercises. When an athlete feels undue strain in either the elbow or shoulder joint during iron cross training, it’s usually the result of either training too often, with too much resistance, or with improper form.
Statics and Pulls
When doing ring strength training, regardless of the element involved, you’ll either be doing “statics” or “pulls.” Statics are simply nothing more than holding the body (or the weights in this case) in an unmoving position for a period of time. Pulls are moving the resistance through a designated arc of motion. Both are necessary for the complete development of any still rings strength element. Statics develop over-strength and stability in the designated position, while pulls develop to ability to maneuver in and out of that static position.
I recommend that you focus on one or the other for any given training day. Your ultimate goal for each of these movements is to eventually build to using half-bodyweight in each hand.
The Static Iron Cross
In order of difficulty, the movements that we’ll discuss in this article progress from static holds to cross pulls to butterflies. For iron cross static holds, it’s easiest to get into position by first pulling the weights up to your hips with bent arms and from there lowering to the iron cross. Remember to place the dumbbells where it’s possible to see them out of the corners of your eyes.
Iron Cross Static Hold
Also in the beginning, it’ll be helpful to either use a mirror or an assistant to make sure that your cross position is level and not too high or too low. At the completion of your timed hold, simply lower the dumbbells overhead to the ground.
When working the iron cross on rings, there’s no issue with maintaining a complete muscular contraction throughout the upper body, as the failure to do so will quickly result in your landing on your backside staring up at the top of the ring tower. The difficulty of controlling and stabilizing your entire bodyweight while in a ridiculously precarious position on an unstable platform, which can and will shift at any moment anywhere within an arc of 360° (and always toward your weakest area), is guaranteed to keep your undivided attention!
Unfortunately, the same isn’t true when initially working with the dumbbells, especially the light dumbbells which will be necessary in the beginning. You’ll need to consciously tense and contract your entire upper body prior to lowering the bells to the iron cross position.
To develop static strength, I recommend 2-3 sets of 10 second static holds.
The Cross Pull
For the cross pull, as with the static hold, begin with a completely contracted upper body in an inverted position with the dumbbells next to the hips. From there lower the bells out to the side and down to the cross, then return back to the starting position.
Cross Pull performed with gravity boots
Cross Pull performed hanging by knees
Make sure that the dumbbells descend in line with the center of the body, striving to achieve a position which is neither too far forward nor backward. Keeping sight of the dumbbells with your peripheral vision will aid greatly in achieving this proper arc of movement.
Cross pulls may either be performed as a dynamic-only movement, or with the addition of a three second static hold at the cross position. The bells should be lowered in a slow deliberate manner, although I’ve found it to be quite useful to attempt to achieve maximum acceleration during the concentric (lifting) portion of the movement.
The butterfly is by far the most demanding of the three movements. It’s essentially a full range, straight-arm pull-up. Begin with the bells hanging over your head. With locked elbows, pull the bells up to your hips and than return to the starting position. My personal preference is to add a three second cross static hold on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the butterfly, although it’s also fine to train this as a dynamic-only movement.
Butterfly with gravity boots
Butterfly performed hanging by knees
You need to build a reasonable amount of strength first in the static cross and cross pull before spending a substantial amount of time training the butterfly. In the butterfly it won’t be possible to use the same amount of weight as in the cross pull as this movement is severely lacking in leverage during the first half on the concentric phase. Unbelievably, there are actually people who can perform several reps of a butterfly on the still rings, using their entire bodyweight, without any assistance whatsoever.
To develop pull strength, I recommend performing 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps of your chosen exercise.
I’ve found it beneficial to use tempos to control and focus on building different aspects of these movements. A tempo is simply a way of measuring the duration of the eccentric (lowering) portion of a movement, the pause or static hold portion, and the concentric (lifting) portion of the movement and then combining them into different variations. It’s generally expressed by a simple three digit number with the first digit representing the eccentric, the second the static, and the third the concentric.
An example tempo for a static cross hold could be 190. This would entail a 1 second eccentric phase from the hips to the cross, followed by a 9 second cross static hold. In this movement there would be no concentric phase as the weights are simply lowered to the ground. When focusing on static strength development, there’s no need to spend additional energy beyond the absolute minimum needed on either the eccentric or concentric portions.
For cross pulls and butterflies, I’d recommend any of the following tempos: 301, 303, 333 or 331. These in turn vary from focusing on a controlled eccentric and explosive concentric with no static, to a controlled eccentric and concentric with no static, to a controlled eccentric static and concentric, to a controlled eccentric and static with an explosive concentric.
In my experience, the static hold followed by an explosive concentric is particularly beneficial for developing limit strength.
You may train these elements on an almost daily basis (static holds are particularly amenable to daily training) or simply insert them into your current training program. Depending on which area you’d like to emphasize, iron cross work could be inserted into your weight training on either back or chest day. Either option is fine.
For those of you on a full-body training schedule, Monday, Wednesday and Friday works quite well and allows for a balanced split between static and pull work. Simply set up your training to follow an alternating two week cycle of statics and pulls:
- Monday: Static holds
- Wednesday: Pulls
- Friday: Static holds
- Monday: Pulls
- Wednesday: Static holds
- Friday: Pulls
In my own athletes’ training, I’m not concerned with hypertrophy in and of itself, but with the development of a powerful, explosive, flexible, stable physical structure specifically designed for gymnastics. For us, hypertrophy is simply a fortunate side effect of building the correct physical platform with which to pursue high level technical elements. We focus on the development of various limit strengths, active flexibility, and an ever increasing level of general physical preparation.
To this end, for ring strength development, my preference is for a four-day-a-week schedule. This schedule maximizes the amount of exposure to the training elements while at the same time allowing for substantial recovery.
- Monday: Static holds
- Tuesday: Pulls
- Thursday: Static holds
- Friday: Pulls
For advanced athletes, Wednesday and Saturday may be either rest days or light days depending on their level of fatigue experienced during the training week. If you choose to have a light day on Wednesday and Saturday, simply use 50% of your normal training weights.
What’s The Best I’ve Seen?
With consistency and dedication, it’s possible to build nearly superhuman strength in this extremely challenging position. You’ll like what it does to your physique as well!
One of my college teammates was capable of holding an iron cross with an additional 60 pounds hanging on his ankles! Coincidentally, he also spent a great deal of time supplementing his ring strength conditioning with weight training. His upper body looked like the proverbial genie in a bottle: huge, symmetrical, and ridiculously defined.
In his case, the pairing of ring strength training and weights was a potent combination indeed. It can be for you too!