|Seven Fundamental Movements and Circuit Program Design|
Circuit training is an integral part of gymnastics conditioning at virtually all levels. The primary advantage of circuit training is time-efficiency. Well-designed and supervised conditioning circuits can achieve a large amount of physical work in a relatively small amount of time. Thus, circuit training has been a favorite conditioning tool of gymnastics coaches for many years (Sands, 1984; Sands & McNeal, 1997). Designing a conditioning circuit for gymnastics requires careful planning and some fundamental knowledge of the effects of training. Gymnastics conditioning circuits must be designed to meet the specific conditioning objectives.
One of the most important principles of conditioning is - specificity. The principle of specificity means that conditioning should involve similar movements as those commonly found in gymnastics skills. Specificity is sometimes "over-interpreted" to mean that the athlete should perform conditioning exercises exactly the same as seen in the actual movements, usually with added resistance. Of course, the only way to do a movement exactly the same is to do the movement itself. Adding resistance to sport movements may be appropriate at some times, but adding resistance to a skilled movement is usually not a good idea (Siff, 2000). For example, wearing ankle weights while tumbling may inhibit the normal neuromuscular stimulation pattern and thus harm rather than aid tumbling performance. Weights added to the ends of limbs changes the mass distribution of the athlete considerably, and thereby changes the movement pattern. Coaches should proceed very carefully when adding weight to a skilled movement in order to achieve skill-specificity.
In addition to movement similarity, it is very important that the conditioning exercises give the body an unambiguous message of how you want the body to change or adapt. For example, if you want the body to be able to run 26 miles, it is important that the training stimuli be similar to running for more than two hours. Performing handstand push-ups will probably not help a marathon runner (wrong muscles, wrong skill). Performing 50 meter sprints will probably not be of much benefit (wrong energy system, wrong pace). And, although 50 meter sprints will make you tired, the fatigue is of a different type than that experienced in long distance running. Rowing exercises may enhance endurance, but marathon runners don't row during their race (wrong skill).
Specificity penetrates skilled movement even more. Conditioning for particular gymnastics movements is specific to the range of motion of the limbs, the speed of the movement, the type of movement, the duration of movement, the tension type and so forth. This further amplifies the importance of movement similarity between conditioning and performance movements (Siff, 2000).
Circuit training has been used in athletic training for some time (Scholich, 1992). Circuit training involves conditioning activities with systematic movement of an athlete or groups of athletes from one conditioning "station" or exercise to another in a predetermined format. Circuit stations can enforce a certain number of repetitions, and thus time indirectly. Circuit stations can also enforce a certain amount of time for each station via a stopwatch or predetermined signal, thus ensuring a certain time per station directly. By manipulating the number and type of exercises, order of exercises, duration of work periods, duration of rest periods, and number of times through the entire circuit, the coach and athlete can exert enormous control over the nature of the training stimuli that are achieved and thus achieve control over training specificity.
Conditioning for any sport requires that the gymnast begin with simpler and easier exercises and progress to more difficult exercises. The circuit examples that follow provide exercises at three levels of difficulty or intensity. Again, these exercises are not all-inclusive. There are dozens of variations of these and other exercises that could be included in a well-designed conditioning circuit. The circuit exercises in Figures 2-8 are presented as examples of exercises that might be included in a gymnastics conditioning circuit. The actual selection of exercises and the conduct of the circuit must be driven by local concerns such as: age, training age, initial fitness, level of experience, current state of the athlete, training and competition calendar, available time and equipment, and other factors. No single conditioning prescription is likely to be effective for all athletes in all programs.
The order of exercises in a gymnastics circuit should permit the athlete to move from one station to the next without accumulating high levels of fatigue that reduce the effectiveness of successive exercise stations. There are a number of ways to combine these seven exercises, but the basic premise is that any particular muscle group that is fatigued in one station should not be involved in one or more of the following stations so that the muscle group has an opportunity to recover. For example, exercise order should not be such that jumping, squats, and landings occur in successive stations.
Exercise stations should permit each athlete to participate fully. If one or more stations require special equipment, the equipment should be plentiful so that gymnasts are not required to wait unless the waiting is built in as a rest period within each station's activity. For example, one athlete can hold another athlete's feet during an exercise and then the athletes can switch position within the circuit station. However, such approaches halve the amount of work that can be done at a particular station. Long waits to use a special piece of equipment dilutes the effectiveness of any circuit station and the time-efficiency that is circuit training's major asset.
The work period and rest period of circuit design should be carefully controlled. From interval training guidelines we find that circuits that are aiming at developing strength and muscular endurance should have work period to rest period ratios of approximately 1:3-5. That is, the gymnast should work for 1 period of time and then rest from 3 to 5 times the work period duration (Daniels & Scardina, 1984; Fox, Bartels, Klinzing, & Ragg, 1977; Fox & Mathews, 1974; Hullner, 1989; MacDougall & Sale, 1981; Peronnet & Ferguson, 1975; Thibault & Marion, 1999). As the goal of the circuit shifts more to endurance, the duration of the work periods lengthens while the rest periods shorten. This results in a more fatigued athlete who will "take" her fatigue to successive circuit stations. To foster strength development the athlete should recover completely or almost completely between stations. Of course, long rest periods mean that gymnasts are not active between stations. The longer the wait, the better for strength development, but the cost comes in making the circuit less time-efficient.
Circuits that do not afford the gymnast adequate time for recovery between stations do not foster strength development, but foster muscular endurance and/or cardio-respiratory endurance (Scholich, 1992). Simply, a fatigued athlete is not able to focus her efforts on the development of maximal strength and power (Siff, 2000). Again, the conditioning program must provide an unambiguous stimulus regarding the nature of the adaptation the coach and athlete desire (Sale & MacDougall, 1981). Because of the inherent conflict between time-efficiency and sufficient rest between stations for strength development, circuits are simply not a very good tool for strength development. Most practical conditioning circuits emphasize muscular endurance. However, the young gymnast who is not already highly fit will benefit greatly from muscular endurance training and time-efficient conditioning so that she has more time to practice skills. As gymnasts becomes more highly fit and accomplished, their conditioning emphasis will shift away from circuits and toward more specialized conditioning that emphasizes maximal strength and/or power production (Siff, 2000).
Typically, a gymnast will perform an entire circuit from one to five times per conditioning session. For example, a group of fourteen gymnasts is divided into groups of two with each group going to one of the seven stations. On a start signal from the coach, each gymnast begins performing the exercise for her particular station. The coach times 30 seconds for each work period. At the end of the work period, the coach signals to stop and move to the next station. The coach begins timing the rest period, which will last 90 seconds. At the end of the rest period the gymnasts begin to exercise at the next circuit station. And so on. In this example, seven circuit stations are used with 30 seconds of work followed by 90 seconds of rest. In this format, the gymnasts complete one circuit every 14 minutes. To go through the entire circuit twice will require 28 minutes. By manipulating the durations of work and rest bouts, the coach can achieve different conditioning effects while consuming different amounts of time for each full circuit. For example, a circuit with 15 seconds of work followed by 45 seconds of rest between stations may be more appropriate for very intense exercise stations that result in rapid fatigue. This circuit will be completed in seven minutes. However, circuit training and interval training are not quite as simple as just counting time and rotating to the next exercise station. Circuits also involve an "accumulation" of fatigue as the athlete progresses from one station to another. Thus, as the gymnast completes several exercise stations, she/he will perform more poorly in the latter stations due to accumulated fatigue. Each circuit program will result in unique and different training stresses. The coach and athlete should experiment with circuit program design in order to ensure that the desired training stimuli are actually being achieved.
Figures 2-8 below show adaptations of the seven fundamental movements of gymnastics and three intensity levels of gymnastics circuit exercises. The exercises were designed to require minimum equipment. In most cases, the difference in intensity is due to the difficulty of the movement. However, speed of movement and some position factors can influence the difficulty/intensity of the movement and are not depicted here. Gymnasts should begin with low intensity exercises and increase the intensity in conformance with typical periodization approaches.
Coaching take-home message: well-designed circuit training programs require appreciation of the limits of such programs and careful planning. The coach and athlete can manipulate the effects of the conditioning by selection of exercises, duration of work periods, and duration of rest periods. The exercises below should serve only as examples.