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Gymnasts pack a lot of strength in small bodies.
And they do it without a weight room.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
Published August 16, 2004

Today – Men's team final, 1:30 p.m., WFLA, Ch. 8, taped in 8 p.m.-midnight slot.

Paul Hamm’s veins burst through his biceps, his forearms are massive and his shoulders are broad. The pride and joy of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics squad is chiseled, yet he isn’t huge.

In fact, he’s all of 5 feet 6 and 137 pounds.

But like most at his level, Hamm, the 2003 World all-around champion and a contender for gold in Athens, packs a powerful punch into a relatively small frame. And in this sport, that’s the name of the game.

“We like them smaller and strong,” said Yuan Xiao, an assistant at the University of Oklahoma, one of the country’s elite college programs.

Small and strong might seem like an oxymoron, but it’s attainable because gymnasts rarely train in the weight room. Almost all work with barbells and dumbbells is done either to prevent injury or help those recovering from one.

“We spend about 5 percent of our time in there,” said Ohio State assistant Doug Stibel, a member of the Buckeyes’ 1996 national championship squad.

The reason for this is simple.

Training with weights causes muscles to expand, and for gymnasts too much muscle growth can be problematic. Flexibility is crucial, and bulk hinders that.

“We’re trying to make sure they maintain range of motion and stay flexible,” Stibel said.

Thus, the goal is to gain maximum strength from minimum size. A gymnast must be strong enough to hold an Iron Cross for two seconds on the rings, but agile enough to maneuver his way through the pommel horse and parallel bars.

Because of this, muscles are strengthened on the actual events used during competition. It’s called specific strength training, which makes sense the more one thinks about it.

“If you want to learn how to ride a unicycle, would you practice juggling?” Michigan coach Kurt Golder said. “There’s nothing better for a certain skill, for example the Iron Cross, then doing the Iron Cross itself.”

At Oklahoma, where U.S. Olympian Guard Young is an assistant, the Sooners don’t have a strength trainer. Ditto for Michigan and Ohio State, also national powers. Quite simply, they don’t need one.

“A bench press will not hold a handstand,” Stibel said. “And doing a curl is not going to help hold the rings better.”

Strength comes from repetition.

Gymnasts start slow on apparatus like the rings, often with a spotter, and gradually develop muscles to conform to the event. It’s like any sport. The more the muscles get used to the motion, the easier that motion becomes. In time, athletes get stronger and their muscles become defined, not disproportionately large.

“When you first start on a skill, it’s a process,” Golder said. “In some events, you have to be spotted, but because you can’t be spotted in competition, you have to transition yourself. ... Gymnasts get stronger than most of the other athletes that are in the weight room. When I was coaching in high school, I had a kid in gymnastics for two years who weighed 114 pounds. The first time he touched the bench press, he could do 235 pounds. He was outbenching most of the football players.”

Because the upper body is crucial on the bars, rings and pommel horse, that’s the point of emphasis during training for those events. Floor exercise training centers on plyometrics, a type of exercise using explosive movements to develop muscular power.

“It requires patience since you’re not able to put on bulk and see it,” said former Oklahoma standout Daniel Furney, a nine-time All-American who learned the sport when he was 8. “It’s all about body weight ratio, and being able to hold your weight up against gravity. That’s why you don’t want to get too big. In some cases, it takes a good three to four years to be able to build strength and be competitive.”

A gymnast’s lack of size is deceptive.

Their training allows them to do things most cannot. A football player might be 6-2 and 225 pounds, but he likely doesn’t have the strength to do any of the things Hamm and other elite competitors can do.

“Some of the strongest guys I know are the smallest guys,” Furney said. contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 13, 2004, 23:23:25]

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