As gymnastics coaches, sometimes we get caught up in sport-specific strength training because that’s what we know best. The belief is that if we strength train for sport-specific movements repetitiously, the gymnast will not only become stronger during those movements but will have less cause for injury. However, it is that frame of mind in which we fail as coaches.

Sport-specific strength training isn’t enough to produce a strong, skilled, healthy gymnast. Sometimes the cause of injury in gymnastics is trauma. However, in most cases, it can be boiled down to the early progressions of the gymnast’s career—the initial motor pattern development during general strength training.

Although they don’t like to admit it, most gymnastics coaches lack the background and knowledge in strength training and don’t fully understand why and what they’re training on general strength days. It’s time that we open our minds and educate ourselves in strength training outside sport-specific movements and make it a priority to teach it properly.

Incorporating Olympic lifting or Olympic lifting movements into general strength days is a great approach to increase body awareness and total body strength, amplify proper motor pattern development, enhance the gymnast’s ability to absorb weight in landings, and in the end, prevent injury. It can be integrated from day one of the gymnast’s career in the developmental program though their college bound years as a level ten gymnast. From their first squat jump when they are five-years-old to the first tkacheva that they throw when they’re 16-years-old, it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Olympic lifting is a sport for some and a type of resistance or strength training for others. It’s a skilled-based sport that requires explosive strength and total body effort to move heavy weight. It is performed in quick and powerful motions and is achieved in three movements—the clean, jerk, and snatch. Please take the time to read the attached index provided of the clean, jerk, and snatch before continuing.

Olympic lifting, like gymnastics, is based off of the two types of forces—push and pull. In Olympic lifting, you pull the weight off the ground and push or pull it overhead. In gymnastics, you pull or push the weight (the weight being your body) off the ground, over the vault, around the bar, or in rotation in the air. The similarities between Olympic lifting and gymnastics are extensive and can be long winded.

So where in gymnastics specifically do these common traits between gymnastics and Olympic lifting occur? Everywhere, but I’ll highlight the big ones.

Both Olympic lifting and gymnastics depend heavily on efficient motor patterns. Why? Because efficient motor patterns allow maximum gains in strength and proficient movement and a larger potential to increase skill ability. In order to achieve this, you must simply not fight the body’s natural way of moving. Coaches don’t often recognize this.

After having this debate several times with my supervisor, Todd Hamer, the head strength and conditioning coach at Robert Morris University, I was won over after he gave the following example:

“When an 18-month-old child bends down to pick up an object, what does he do? He bends at his knees with his feet flat on the floor, anteriorly rotating the hips, and picks up the object with an upright chest. Now, how do your gymnasts perform their squat jumps? I’m guessing that they perform them on their toes, bending at the knees with their hips posteriorly rotated. Why? Because that is a gymnastics specific way of moving. What muscles are the gymnasts using? Their quadriceps. What muscles are being used by the 18-month-old child? Glutes and hamstrings. Let me ask you this. What is the biggest muscle that we have as humans on our bodies? The glutes and hamstrings. Then, who has the more efficient motor pattern? The 18-month-old child because he is “unlearned” biomechanically.”

Now, do all gymnasts do this? No, but I’ll guarantee that the ones who do, do so because their coach told them to do multiple sets of high repetitions. As the gymnast fatigued, she started to squat with bad form to complete the movement, and therefore, learned a bad habit. When a bad habit is learned during squat jumps, the gymnast becomes quad dominant instead of glute and hamstring dominant.

A quad dominant gymnast has less powerful and dynamic tumbling and lower jumps and leaps whereas a glute and hamstring dominant gymnast can tumble higher and fatigue later. Why? Because she knew how to utilize her biggest muscles due to a well-developed motor pattern. This is why it’s important to make sure that, as a gymnastics coach, you have the proper education and knowledge when strength training your gymnasts so that you’re actually helping them, not inhibiting them.

Gymnastics has basic movements, as does the clean, jerk, and snatch in Olympic lifting. In Olympic lifting, the basic movements are the deadlift, power shrug, pull overhead, overhead press, overhead squat, jerk, and front squat. Each requires explosiveness, body awareness, range of motion, and coordination. These motions and the muscles utilized to do these motions directly correlate with that of gymnastics.

The front squat and jerk use the quadriceps as the primary muscle and the hamstrings, glutes, and plantar flexor muscles as synergist muscles to complete the movement. If the front squat and jerk are trained, they can increase the quickness of the sprint for vault; improve the power of the hurdle in vault, floor, and beam; and amplify the height of all leaps and jumps on floor and beam.

The power shrug, which is used in both the clean and the snatch, strengthens and increases the power of the traps. This can be of importance in all pushing motions through the shoulder, such as when blocking off the vault or snapping down on the round-off back handspring on the floor.

Additionally, the deadlift and overhead squat are the best ways to train the glutes and hamstrings. Both the deadlift and overhead squat are powerful movements using not only the hamstrings and glutes as primary muscles but integrating the use of the shoulder muscles—the scaps, deltoids, and traps—and also the trunk muscles to stabilize the weight. It depends mainly on the legs and the stabilization from the shoulder and trunk similar to the majority of skills in gymnastics. Increasing hamstring and glute strength will add power and dynamic to the gymnasts’ tumbling as well as any other skill requiring the legs. In the end, this will give them better tumbling skills, and they’ll be better skilled gymnasts.

To take the comparisons even further, basic bar skills, such as the kip and free hip, as well as more advanced skills, such as the tkacheva, imitate the exact motion of a snatch in Olympic lifting. The bar is pulled over the head in one fast, explosive movement using the muscles of the shoulder and the core to complete the skill.

I can also guarantee that the handstand, which is the most basic movement in gymnastics, will improve through training Olympic lifting. How? Because Olympic lifting uses body awareness, coordination, and strength and control of the provided weight, as does a handstand. So why not improve your gymnasts’ handstands by training the overhead squat?

The most valuable quality that Olympic lifting can teach our gymnasts is how to absorb weight, which will prevent injury, keep the gymnasts healthy longer, and permit them a greater window of success. As the bar is cleaned in an Olympic lift, the body needs to not only pull the weight but displace itself underneath the bar. When this occurs, the weight needs to be caught, which forces the body into a front squat, and the weight is absorbed. Additionally, when a jerk is performed, the weight is pushed over the head and the legs move into a split squat position. This movement requires the body to control the weight over the head, integrating stabilizing muscles of the core and the shoulder. As this happens, the force of the weight is transferred throughout the trunk and into the split squat stance being engaged in the legs.

This relates linearly to gymnastics. For example, when a gymnast lands a jump, salto, dismount, or vault, the body has to catch its own weight at the end of a skill and transfer the force to the ground. Most of the injuries that occur in gymnastics occur in the landings of whatever skill is being performed. For instance, when a gymnast under rotates a piked salto tsukahara, she lands on her hands and knees with the feet in forced dorsi flexion. This is otherwise known as landing “short.” This under rotation stretches the ligaments in the ankle and foot inducing injury. Not only do these motions in Olympic lifting strengthen the muscles in the legs, ankles, feet, shoulders, and trunk that are used to absorb weight, but they also carry the gymnast through a specific motor pattern, which will better prepare the gymnast for her landings and prevent injury.

Now, can you really teach a five-year-old how to Olympic lift? Well, as a coach, this is when your ability to break a skill down into progressions is tested. Yes, you can begin assimilating Olympic lifting movements into your pre-team’s strength training.

The first basic skill that should be introduced to a gymnast is a handstand. The ability to hold a handstand against the wall exhibits relative strength, body awareness, and control. Once a gymnast has achieved this, it’s safe to start incorporating Olympic lifting movements into strength training.

Because the gymnasts are still young, have short attention spans, and are still developing body control, their strength training should be creative and engaging. For example, after teaching the gymnast to sit down on a low box or mat with proper squatting form (upright chest, heels flat, posterior rotated hips), have them hold an object with some weight to it over their heads and against their chests while they squat on a box. Make sure that they pick up the object or deadlift it properly before doing so. You can also use this on the beam when they’re learning how to walk on their tip-toes down the beam forward, backward, and sideways as well when jumping off the end of the low beam. This will begin to teach absorption of weight. Figure 2 further exemplifies other strength training ideas that can be appropriate for the developmental program. It provides both a specific and a general strength day that directly relates to Olympic lifting and the level of skill progression in gymnastics.

You may notice that I included press progressions and toe raises twice in figure 2. The ability to do a press exhibits three main qualities ideal for gymnastics—relative strength, sport-specific strength, and body awareness and control. Like a handstand, gymnastics’ most basic unit, it should be trained every day. Toe raises are crucial in gymnastics because they develop strength in the foot and ankle as well as serve as the beginning part of the body’s kinetic chain. If there is a weakness in the beginning part of the body’s kinetic chain, the body simply won’t perform all other movements optimally. So don’t wait to start strengthening this part of the body. Do it now and start these young gymnasts out right.

Most importantly and especially at this time in the gymnasts’ career, their strength training requires your utmost attention and knowledge of technique. If you find that you’re short on time and can’t fit all of these exercises into your workouts, split it in half and alternate days/weeks. Just make sure that you teach it correctly and don’t let up on coaching the technique. Less is more at this age. The number of repetitions can start to increase in the compulsory age group.

The exercises in the compulsory team’s strength training should mostly be more difficult progressions of the strength exercises performed with the developmental age group. They should also be more specific to sport training and Olympic lifting. I still would avoid using dumbbells with the compulsory gymnasts because I believe most of their strength that still needs to be developed is relative strength. These exercises should use their own body weight and become specific to skills in their compulsory routines. However, I’ve started to include light medicine ball deadlifts, cleans, snatches, push-presses, and overhead squats with the compulsory gymnasts whom I coach.

Using a medicine ball to do snatches and cleans forces the weight to be close to the body because it’s a little awkward to hold. However, it also forces correct motor patterns during the movement of a clean or snatch. Medicine ball throw downs are also great to use in strength training with this age group because not only is it an explosive movement integrating the muscles of the core and shoulder, but it’s fun and challenging for them to do as well. These kinds of movements with the medicine balls are great ways to put the gymnast through the imitation of the motion of pulling on the bar during a kip, free hip, sole circle, or other similar movement.

Index: Olympic lifting movements


  1. Deadlift: Squat down with the chest upright, the back slightly arched, and the feet flat. Lift the bar by extending through the hips and knees and pushing through the heels.
  2. Romanian deadlift (RDL): Keep the chest upright, the knees slightly bent, and the feet flat. Slide the bar from the hips down the thigh to just below the knee. Return to the starting position by squeezing the glutes.
  3. Power shrug: Perform a RDL and stop at above the knee. Extend the hips and knees powerfully, plantar flex the feet, and shrug the barbell with extended elbows. Avoid hyperextension of the back.
  4. Hang cean: Perform a power shrug and pull the bar upward, close to the body. The elbows flex outward in shoulder abduction and external rotation. Drive the elbows under the bar to a front squat stance and absorb the weight. Avoid hyperextension of the back.
  5. Front squat: The bar is placed at chest height and held with the fingertips. The elbows are parallel to the floor. Flex at the hips with the chest upright. Return to original stance.



  1. Clean
  2. Overhead press: Press the bar overhead by extending the elbows. The arms line up with the ears.
  3. Split squat: The feet should be split. The legs are wide enough that the front knee doesn’t flex over the toes. Flex both knees deeply, extend the knees and hips, and return to the original stance.



  1. Deadlift: Squat down with the chest upright, the back slightly arched, and the feet flat. The arms are wide. Lift the bar by extending through the hips and knees and pushing through the heels.
  2. Romanian deadlift (RDL): Keep the chest upright, the knees slightly bent, and the feet flat. Slide the bar from the hips down the thigh to just below the knee. Return to the starting position by squeezing the glutes.
  3. Power shrug: Perform a RDL and stop at above the knee. Extend the hips and knees powerfully, plantar flex the feet, and shrug the barbell with extended elbows. Avoid hyperextension of the back.
  4. High pull: Perform a power shrug, pull the bar close to the body with extended elbows, and drive the body underneath the bar to an overhead squat stance. Absorb the weight.
  5. Overhead squat: The barbell is held in the hands and placed over the head. The weight is stabilized with extended shoulders and elbows. The hips flex and the weight is absorbed. Return to the original stance.

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