Gymnastic Bodies with Coach Christopher Sommer

Gymnastic BodiesGymnastic Bodies with Coach Christopher Sommer

Every once in awhile you’ll come across someone that will completely reshape the way you think about things, and you’ll walk away feeling amazed and wondering why you never saw things in this light before.  I’ve felt this when I’ve encountered the works of folks like Tim Ferriss, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, John Kiefer, Dave Asprey, and Jimmy Moore.

The most recent guy I’m adding to this list is Coach Christopher Sommer, who is a coach for the US gymnastics team, and appeared on a couple of Robb Wolf’s podcasts (Episode 213 and Episode 230).  Just check out some of the amazing stuff his athletes can do!

Everything this guy said just made so much damn sense, especially with regard to proper progression and injury avoidance.  Needless to say, this caught my attention given my recent spate of injuries (here, here, here, and here).

I listened and re-listened to these podcasts and took extensive notes…. only to find out that Robb Wolf actually offers complete transcripts of all of his podcasts on his site (transcripts for Episode 213 and Episode 230).

Oh well, I decided to try my best to organize my notes into separate sections.  Imagining that if Coach Sommer’s had written a book, this is sort of how he would organize things (in fact he actually already has a book out called: Building the Gymnastic Body: The Science of Gymnastics Strength Training, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading).

Once my schedule calms down a bit I plan purchasing at least one course from his Gymnastic Bodies site and mess around with it.  Of course I’ll write a review also!

Hope these notes help you as much as they’ve helped me.

Background:

  • Coach for USA gymnastics, preparing the athletes as high a level as possible just before the Olympics.
  • Became famous and wrote an article that went up on Dragondoor in 2002-2003 (here and here)
  • Everything coach does is pragmatic, it’s to get a result which is to have superior physical performance which is to make national team, to get to olympics, and then to win the olympics.

Benefits of Gymnastics:

  • Gymnastics fantastic for building strength.
  • For adults, great for mobility
  • Gymnastic athletes on first day dead-lifting can do triple body weight dead-lift or double body weight squats on first time touching weights
  • Barbell training is simplistic, isolated muscle group makes training much easier.
  • Training in gymnastics is much harder.
  • Gymnastics strength training just uses body.
  • There is a false assumption that using body is just playing with a fixed load, but this is completely wrong.
  • The two things that gymnastics strength training that offers that nothing else offers is the plyometric work on body, the tight joints, the rebounding and repulsion work, AND straight arm strength
  • Coach’s athletes out jump everyone else.  Only two people have out jumped coach’s athletes, and these people trained olympic lifting AND gymnastics.  He thinks this might be the sweet spot if done correctly.

Whats Wrong with Modern Adults

  • Current adults have no mobility, because are crushed by desk work.
  • Adults are so fragile now with lack of mobility, like almost made of glass
  • In his experience, the stronger an athlete, the more brittle, and the less mobile they are, the more prone they are to injury.
  • Connective tissue starts to decondition
  • Especially with Crossfitters, they need to be handled with ‘kid gloves,’ because they’re just an injury waiting to happen.
  • For most adults, there is huge discrepancy between pressing and pulling strength, with pulling strength typically stronger.
  • With adults, very important to separate strength preparation from movement training.  As kids we were able to bounce off everything and did whatever we wanted, with strong matrix of general movement
  • As adults we are mistakenly trying to do specific training without background outside matrix of general movement.  Collagen is breaking down, body is not prepared to move, muscle tissue breaking down, range of motion is gone, strength is gone.
  • What adults manage to continue to do is strict barbell work, which helps them to be strong in a narrow range of motion.  But they are also rigid and brittle.  They can generate enough force that if they get outside of their range of motion, they can break themselves.  “Weekend warrior syndrome.”
  • Coach clarifies that he is not against barbell or weight training, as long as it’s done in the right time.  For example, if people don’t have enough knee mobility, ie if they haven’t mastered single leg squats, he doesn’t understand why they’re putting weights on their backs at all!  IF you haven’t mastered a rope climb with no legs… why are you adding weights to your pull-ups?
  • According to Coach – Kipping pullups should not be done by beginners because taking someone who is not strong enough to do a dead hang pullup, at bottom movement, hit that point at 2-3x body weight, their muscles are not strong enough to handle load, so they’re bouncing off of their connective tissue in the shoulders.  When this happens in someone who is tight and brittle, this will force shoulders to go too far past their range of motion.  And when we put them in high volume and high intensity.  This is recipe for injury.
  • For a lot of older people, mobility work should be their only work out.  Gymnastics mobility work is active flexibility, where everything is strength related, which is what 70% of adult population needs
  • With active flexibility, this is what allows people to increase their athleticism.

Rebuilding Adults:

  • Younger athletes are physically in perfect balance.  Mobility, dynamic strength, ability to jump and move.
  • With young adults, can train everything at the same time.
  • Adults have tons of imbalances everywhere.
  • First need to begin with introductory bent-arm work, and then introductory straight-arm work.
  • With adults, have to rebuild.  First with mobility, then foundational strength.  Rebuild shoulders then hips and then knees.  Once this is done, then can progress to ring work.

Non-negotiable Biologic Limits:

  • There are biologic limits to what we can adapt to.
  • Muscle tissue replaces itself every few months, bone tissue replaces itself every few years.  There’s nothing we can do to speed this up.
  • Metabolic rate of tendons and connective tissues is 1/10 of muscle tissue
  • So people will go and climb rope, their muscles will be fine, but their joints are overloaded.  Lot of people complain about elbow pain while trying to climb rope, and coach will tell them to stop climbing the damn rope, to allow for tendons and connective tissues to adapt.
  • Coach says people need to de-load if feeling joint pain or tendonitis.
  • Once you have tendinitis, need to ride it out.  If it’s a muscle injury that would take 1 month to heal, for a tendon/connective tissue it will take 10 months to heal.
  • Cannot speed up healing.  No therapy or supplements.  Limited by metabolic rate, and connective tissue requires 10x amount of healing time as muscle.
  • Best way is to do it right, straight from the beginning so you don’t get injured at all!
  • Best way to strengthen tendons and connective tissue is very short and very high intensity micro bursts of load.
  • According to Coach, most people structure their training incorrectly.  They structure training based on how quickly it will take for muscle to adapt to the new load rather than how quickly it will take for their connective tissue to adapt.
  • Muscle takes about 90 days for increased strength and replacement of the molecules in muscle tissue
  • Connective tissue takes about 210 days for all the molecules to be replaced
  • Bone takes 2 years to replace all the molecules
  • If we keep riding the edge based on muscle tissue, and we keep increasing the load nonstop, there will be a larger and larger gap between how quickly muscle tissue is strengthening and adapting vs how long it takes connective tissue to strengthen and adapt.
  • This is why people who do this always end up getting hurt.  It’s not the muscle tissue, the muscle tissue is fine, it’s the connective tissue.  Always manifests as joint pain.  They’re in too big of a hurry focusing on muscle tissue at the expense of giving connective tissue a chance to catch up.
  • If start by building up connective tissue, then muscle tissue is EASY to develop.
  • If start by focusing on just muscle tissue, you really increase your chances of getting hurt… and once you get hurt, you’re dead in the water.  So in the long run, there’s no benefit to trying to rush things
  • Need to look at training in one year blocks to allow for proper adaptation

Coach Sommer’s views on proper progression:

  • Coach Sommer is very conservative about progression, and does it extremely slowly
  • There is a big difference between gains as a raw beginner vs gains as a seasoned athlete.
  • The more higher level of training the less times they can peak throughout the year for competition
  • Coach Sommer can peak an athlete maybe 1 – 1.5 times per year.  If he tries for more, it doesn’t work because the body will blow up
  • With current Crossfit athletes, who push themselves too fast/far, will burn themselves out, with joint issues, central nervous issues, adrenal issues, etc.
  • For Barbell press progression, he would find someone’s max, then drop them to 70%, and then add 3 lbs per week over 12 week training cycle.  If for strength will do 2 sets of 2 reps.  If for middle of the road, then will do 5 x 5.  If for more mass, will do 3 x 8., for 2-3 times per week.
  • Cannot increase intensity and volume at the same time.  If you do this, it is just an injury waiting to happen.  It’s inevitable.  Russian roulette.
  • Looking for 4-6 year window for iron cross on rings or planche on rings.  This is about how long it takes the body to adapt to the physical demands placed on it.
  • Coach’s preference to advancing load to enable connective tissue to adapt: Working with a fixed load until it becomes easy before advancing the load.
  • Want to go through three phases overload, load, and then underload.
  • When you start a cycle with an athlete, you want the particular exercise to be difficult for him.  Force him to bust his balls at this point.  But don’t change the load or the volume.  Force him to ride this cycle of adaptation.  Usually for about 8-12 weeks, where things stay exactly the same.  The recovery happens at the point of underloading, when the athlete feels like this is too easy, like they don’t even feel the weight anymore.  That’s where most results come form, but this is the phase that most people cut short.
  • Most people preemptively try to add load.
  • Once they complete the cycle and the body has adapted, they will set a new load.  Sometimes they will advance the next load level quickly, like by 50 lbs.  And then ride this new cycle for another 8-12 weeks, allowing the connective tissue to adapt.
  • His athletes have to BEG him to add weight.
  • If people change their programs too often, even though muscle tissue will grow, it doesn’t give the connective tissue a chance to adapt.
  • That’s why Coach places his athletes on year-long programs
  • Regarding the 10-15x body weight forces gymnasts under go when flying through the mats, repulsion work helps get things strong.  But first have to accumulate time to allow connective tissue to adapt.  Start easy, and then work way up to explosive strength… and then to next level of repulsion
  • Coach’s opinion is that not following this protocol is why there were all those achilles ruptures in Crossfit.  They pre-fatigue the achilles by doing high rep deadlifts, and then went to box jumps where people were jumping off and then bounding back up immediately when they hit the ground.  So they were taking people whose connective tissue weren’t ready, and were already fatigued and exposing them to 2-3x body weight forces.  A gymnast who is used to 10-15x body weight forces wouldn’t even notice this, but for your average joe, this is recipe for disaster.
  • Jumping rope – is awesome exercise.  They’ve found that this also increases bone density than from lifting weights, in older women.

Best Exercise For Shoulders: Weighted Dislocates

  • Weighted dislocates are best bang for the buck as a single exercise to build shoulder strength, mobility, and mass
  • Coach uses these in both warm up and cool down phases.
  • In some people with extreme shoulder mobility (frequently in women), but only partial range of strength.  This deficit increases their chance of injury!
  • Dislocates using a dowel – grab it double shoulder width and rotate it over the head back to the hip and then back to the top.  Coach has found that adding load, 2-3 kg on the bar.  Slow controlled 5 second reps.
  • Over time, period of months, will bring the hands in so they can get just a hands width out of shoulder width.  Once they can do that, bring the hands out again and increase the load.  This is THE BEST shoulder exercise bar none.
  • Coach sometimes does dislocates with a supinated grip
  • The weights in the weighted dislocates are used to help stretch connective tissue and muscle, and build strength at the same time
  • There should be no pain, clicking, or grinding when doing shoulder dislocates.  Slide grip out as wide as needed for shoulder to pivot smoothly.  Start with minimum of 2-3 lbs.  The muscles need to be loaded and active.  Gradually over time work the grip in so that the hands are ultimately just one hands width outside of the shoulder.  Do this for as long as it takes.  We are not in a hurry.  If it take a couple weeks great.  If it takes a couple months, no problem.
  • Once hands are at ideal position, one hand width outside of shoulder and can pivot smoothly with no grinding or clicking, and no changing in posture.  Once we are at this point, then add some weight, and then slide the hands out wide again to reset.

Knee prehab, rehab, strengthening

  • These things can be boring, but Coach is here for results and not to entertain!
  • The knee series that Coach employees was taught to him by the bulgarian women’s olympic lifting coach.  The knee series specifically conditions ACL, MCL, and menisci.  He also has a calf series for people with achilles issues.
  • These series drive orthopedic surgeons crazy, because they are most happy if you can die with pristine joints that have never been used.
  • Orthopedists also say, if you want to use your joints, to use them as if they are in a static environment.  Knees always track over the toes.  No lateral movement.  Unfortunately, this is never the case in real life.
  • Inside squats, twisting squats, skiiers, all of these designed to strengthen the dynamic pivoting of the knee
  • Many adults just focus on squats so all the primary movers are extremely strong, but the supporting structures have never been worked on, so the supporting structures are always the first to get injured.
  • Same thing with the weighted dislocates in the shoulder, which help the rotator cuff.
  • The first thing to get injured is always the weak link, so it is important to strengthen these weak links so when they encounter load, they are prepared, and thus will not suffer a catastrophic injury.
  • When we squat and deadlift, everything is in one plane, with no lateral movement.  This is not how things work in real life.
  • Best demonstration is watching super slow mo videos of Barry Sanders, the running back and watch how angulated his knee moves and the wide range of motion it goes through as he’s cutting through the field.
  • As kids, when we’re running and jumping around and climbing and raising hell, this naturally strengthens are knee.  But as we get older into adulthood and get sucked into desk patrol, and then for exercise just doing squats, never anything for lateral motion, until we go out and we try to play, and these supporting connective tissues have not been strengthened or conditioned, then we get the weekend warrior syndrome!

Low Back prehab, rehab, strengthening

  • For lower back always use Jefferson Curls – stand up tall on stable elevated surface like a bench, with weighted bar, chin comes down, keep pelvis tucked under, think of vertebra like string of pearls curling forward, to at least hands under the feet, and then curl back up again.  Start very light, like with 5 lbs, and build up to minimum to half body weight.  Coach’s preference is to build up to body weight.
  • Coach doesn’t understand why therapists are trained to tell their patients to always do things with a neutral spine.  There aren’t any athletic events that can be performed with a neutral spine.  Those joints are made to move all around!  If you don’t train them, it’s like you’re voluntarily putting yourself in a body cast, so of course you’ll get hurt.
  • The Jefferson curl will work all of that connective tissue between the vertebrae!

Some Nitty Gritty Details of Gymnastics:

  • First start with movements that have the best leverage, once master these, then decrease the mechanical advantage/leverage.
  • Lot of people injure themselves trying to jump immediately into an iron cross, because they don’t understand that there are specific physical structures that need to adapt to these movements.  The brachialis is usually the weak link.
  • What he has found in the past is that the stronger the guy, the more out of balance they are.  They have no mobility.  They have no straight-arm strength.  No proprioception.  Need to progress in baby steps.
  • Straight-arm strength is anything performed with arm fully locked.
  • When he first started working with adults, he was surprised at how out of shape people were.  How little core strength people had.
  • They rate strength elements A to G (G being most advanced)
  • Front lever is rated an A
  • Back lever is rated A
  • Planche is barely a B
  • Muscle up isn’t even considered strength, but is considered an introductory movement
  • His ideas of beginning strength is probably more than most peoples:
  • If you can’t climb a rope without legs, or you can’t do a hollow back press to hand stand, then lower to bent arm planche, and then press back out.  This means you’re still a beginner in terms of gymnastics strength
  • Despite rings becoming so popular in the past 15 years, people don’t have jack in terms of ring strength because of lack of knowledge in proper progression
  • Some people will copy what the senior athletes are doing in terms of 4-6 hrs per day, and will assume all that time is strength training, but that is not the case.
  • Even at a world-class level, athletes are only doing 8-9 hrs of strength training/preparation per week, with the rest of the time is spent on skills work.
  • People mistakenly make programs assuming it’s 4-6 hrs of day on strength training per day and base their programs on this false assumption.
  • A single back handspring, when legs punch off the ground into a back flip, will generate forces that are 14x body weight.  And have to do this over and over and over again.
  • The muscular training in gymnastics is secondary as far as athletics are concerned
  • The biceps development in his athletes is all from straight arm strength
  • Pre-strength workout – lower level exercises to prepare body for working out, rope climb, swing dip to handstand, weighted shoulder dislocates, hanging leg lifts

Gymnasticbodies.com

  • Foundations course alternates half mobility and half strength work
  • Time commitment for Gymnastics Bodies course is minimum of 2-3 hours per week, spread out over couple of days
  • There are 4 ring courses being released.  Rings 1 (first course) is out now.  But this is NOT an introductory course.  Must have progressed through the foundations course at a moderate level before doing rings!
  • Foundational fundamental movements:
  • Fundamental Bent Arm strength – Pressing, hollow back presses, hanging on rings to rope climbs
  • Fundamental Straight Arm strength – Focused on developing planche, side lever, front lever, manna.  These are introductory.
  • Fundamental Leg Strength
  • Do it right or you fail.
  • Gymnastic Bodies – You need to give 12 weeks through the program to see results.
  • First book out in 2008.  Coach mistakenly thought things that were second nature to him were also second nature to other people.  That’s why they are now releasing 16 new courses
  • Separates strength training from skills training.
  • Robb asks if there is a basic program minimum for people who like to do Crossfit and bounce their workouts around.  Coach says, yes, their Foundations courses.
  • The Foundations courses take about 20 minutes to get through a workout.  A lot of people who start it don’t feel like it’s not enough for them.  As long as they get the Foundations stuff down, they afterwards they can go and do whatever they want.
  • A lot of people don’t “feel” like they’re doing hard work, but what they’re doing is actually building the connective tissue, the structure that allows them to actually get results.
  • The hardest part is getting people to stick with it long enough to get these results.
  • Most adults get excited when they see new exercises and want to jump right in, but they have very compromised shoulder mobility and thoracic mobility.  They’re basically frozen in place.  So first have to repair these people.
  • The Foundations, the 20 minutes a day is repairing these things, so body is no longer fighting itself holding itself back.

20 Responses to Gymnastic Bodies with Coach Christopher Sommer

  1. Damon Amato says:

    I’ve been doing foundation 1 and handstand 1 for about 12 weeks now. The progressions are indeed very slow and methodical, but for good reason. I had no idea how awful my shoulder mobility was until I started this course. Very humbling for anyone, even athletes.

  2. Robert Mellqvist says:

    Me and the wife have just started doing Primal blueprint and now I saw this. Seems like a good way to exercise.

    Although I’m wondering at what point of fitness could you start gymnastic bodies, Couchpotatoe as well?

    Would appreciate your feedback, anyone.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      I’m honestly not sure, since I haven’t picked up the program yet. Once I do I’ll be sure to update.

      At least with regard to the shoulder dislocates, it seems like anyone should be able to do it.

    • Damon amato says:

      Anyone can start it, and the forums are a great resource if you get stuck or are overwhelmed.

  3. Tong says:

    In the very first section titled Fundamental Static Positions, which lays the foundation for the book, the author states “A caveat is required here; training the support static strength positions can be quite taxing on the wrists; especially without an adequate developmental foundation. The wrists consequently require special physical preparation to be able to adequately handle the new training load. As mentioned previously, the wrist specific preparation series that I use with my athletes is quite extensive and is covered in great detail in the Gymnastics Bodies volume, Liquid Steel.”

    The book Liquid Steel doesn’t exist!! So now an essential component of this training program and a good 30 pages of the book are dependent on information that hasn’t been provided in the book and which apparently is only available in a phantom volume.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Interesting. I didn’t realize this… but I’m glad you brought it to my attention. I wonder if he just never got around to finishing it.

      In your experience, does it feel like your wrists really needed the extra prep work?

    • Euan says:

      Yes, they have been released. It is in the handstand one course with shoulder mobility and handstand progressions. The books mentioned in BtGB will be released as courses in the future not books. Probably better with videos tbh

  4. Ruse says:

    I would like to make a suggestion. By the list of names you start the article with, I see you are getting all of your information from pop fitness bloggers. Big mistake. The only legitimate source of information on there is Chris Sommer (maybe Kiefer, maybe not).

    Instead of reading blogs, you should be reading actual sport science. I would suggest Supertraining (anything by Siff/Verkhoshanksy), Science and Practice of Strength training, Michael Yessis…

  5. I think “man up” is a typo, it should be “manna”.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Thanks for the catch!

      As you can probably tell, I’ve never done gymnastics before… so this is all super new to me!

  6. Brandon Green says:

    Hello

    Very impressive. I am an aspiring Masters Oly lifter but i think
    that much of this will be applicable to me. Especially interesting is
    the knee-prehab. This along with a one legged squat would prepare
    me for a Olympic High bar full squat with reduced injury risk.

  7. Brandon Green says:

    Hello

    You know what i think i will.The thing is i am not
    a gymnast nor do i plan to be but it might be worth it.

  8. Aki says:

    Excellent write up!

  9. Miguel says:

    After hearing coach sommers on the Tim Ferris Podcast I bought the FUNDAMENTALS,Foundation One, and the Full Stretching series. It has changed my conditioning regimen for the better.

    The increments are small yet challenging. Its not the exercises that get you its the sets and reps. Its easy to do 30 russian twists but it gets much more difficult to do 5 sets with mixed mobility.

    Its even made me rething the purpose of conditioning and exercise.Training for seemingly ( at least for me ) impossible feats in such a way that they seem evenually duable is a great credit to coach sommer. Sorry to fanboy all over your blog. Good entry.

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Thank you!

      I also have the Foundations One and the Front Splits courses and was doing them… until the move. Then it all came apart. Your post has inspired me to get back on it!

  10. Jamie says:

    I have been training using exercises like HSPU, single leg squats, natural hamstring curls, dips and various pull ups for 8 years. I started training using gymnastic bodies methods from the book two years ago and it just opened my eyes to the amount of straight arm strength I was lacking and general mobility issues. My core strenth for example was great, but put me on stall bars and I noticed I lacked active compression. Foundation exercises are rebuilding strength and motion I never thought I was capable of.

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