Why Are Gymnasts so Jacked? Bulk up With Your Bodyweight!

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Gymnasts don’t spend a great deal of time bench pressing or performing lateral dumbbell raises, yet they often have impressive physiques that would fit right in at any bodybuilding gym. Their training is predominantly bodyweight-based, yet it gets results in terms of performance and aesthetics.

Here’s the science on why that occurs, and how you can include it in your own program…

Hyperplasia – The Science Behind Bodyweight Muscle Building

Hyperplasia is a method of muscle growth that occurs through the splitting of muscle fibres. In contrast to hypertrophy – meaning an increase in the size of muscle cells – hyperplasia refers to the increase in number of muscle cells. ‘Splitting’ of fibres is achieved through the stretching of a muscle.

Related: Vasky – The Scientifically-Dosed Leader in Non-Stimulant Pre-Workouts

The study of hyperplasia has been tested on birds, but this has attracted criticism from animal rights groups. One study in particular, by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, pinned quails up by their wings over a long period and found that the continuous stretch applied grew the wings tremendously.

This process was quite controversial given the distress birds endured, so it hasn’t been repeated very often. Nevertheless, the effects of hyperplasia can be observed in certain protocols, including gymnastics.

For training purposes, movement of the body through free space can illicit the same kind of results. This gymnastic approach differs from the typical split of moving through a fixed range of motion [bars, dumbbells and machines].

Bench Press

Comparing the Bench Press With Ring Push Ups

Let’s compare a couple of exercises:

  • Gymnastic Ring Push-Ups
  • Bench Press

The bench press is the go-to chest exercise for pretty much all gym users. However, the bar path limits the stretch placed on the chest, and so only a limited number of muscle fibres are used when actually pressing the weight.

This isn’t an attack on the bench as such – it’s a great show of strength – but there are probably better muscle-building exercises out there. The gymnastic ring push-up allows for a far greater stretch and tension to be placed on the chest.

If you couple this ‘stretch’ with a subsequent press, then this will provide greater grounds for growth. Far more muscle fibres are going to be called into action, and the stretching motion will increase the number of these fibres [through hyperplasia]. You can even add further weight by strapping plates, dumbbells or kettlebells to your waist.

Bigger Arms With Bodyweight Training

Want bigger and better guns? The same applies to bis and tris too…

Biceps: Instead of performing the standard 3 sets of 12 EZ bar curls, why not try including some supinated [underhand grip with palms facing you] pull-ups into your routine?

Triceps DipsCurls are still cool, but in order to keep your biceps under constant tension, form has to be spot-on. For that to occur you can never go too heavy as the swinging will take tension off the bicep.

Pull-ups allow you to maximise muscular tension but with your sheer bodyweight as resistance, while a supinated grip puts particular emphasis on the bicep. As well as bicep involvement, your lats are going to be firing too, so with this variation you are definitely getting the biggest bang for your buck.

Triceps: Dips are a useful addition to any routine and follow a similar principle to pull-ups. Whereas your current tricep session may consist of some pushdowns or rope extensions, parallel-bar dips allow you to place the triceps under constant tension with the backing of your full bodyweight.

If you find yourself able to smash out 25+ reps of the above exercises, just add weights to a belt and wrap it around your midsection. You may not see gymnasts perform specific sets of dips or pull-ups, but they constantly use the two for leverage in between performing more acrobatic movements, so the effects are still felt.

Isometric Pausing for Gains

Another gateway to gains is through isometric pausing – used by gymnasts a lot. An isometric pause occurs when a muscle is held under tension without actually shortening or lengthening. For instance, this would be achieved by holding the dip at the bottom, or the pull-up at the top position.

The isometric pause is great for mass gain as it places even further muscular tension on the target area, as a study conducted by McMaster University shows. It is also a useful progression tool for an exercise like the dip – some may find adding weight aggravates the shoulder joint. It can also aid your strength too – the more bodyweight reps you can perform, the easier you will adjust to adding more weight when you plateau.

Gymnasts move between differing isometric exercises in their events – but you don’t have to follow an entire Olympic-style routine for results [save that lycra for another day]. If you want to include isometrics in an existing weightlifting program, start by using 3-5 second pauses for each rep performed. Then, when you can perform whole sets in this manner, gradually increase the static hold to 10, then 20, then 30 seconds.

Gymnasts hold isometrics for a similar time – but to get the most out of the 20/30 second holds, they should be performed as a standalone exercise – not part of a wider set with a concentric and eccentric [shortening and lengthening phases].

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Name: Alex Roberts

Bio: Former fat boy turned fitness buff, contributes regularly to The Locker Room sports nutrition blog and has written for Men’s Health UK.