Powered Performance

A year after a three-phase strength-training program began, women gymnasts at Cornell University are turning out more winning performances with fewer injuries.

By Tom Dilliplane & Melanie Dilliplane

Tom Dilliplane, MS, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at Cornell University. Melanie Dilliplane is an Assistant Gymnastics Coach at Cornell and was the ECAC Assistant Coach of the Year for 2002.

Training & Conditioning, 12.5, July/August 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1205/powerperform.htm

Looking for a great example of how a well-designed strength-training program can benefit athletes? Look no further than the Cornell University women’s gymnastics team.

Cornell women gymnasts had their best year ever in 2002. In addition to winning the Ivy League title for the first time since 1988, the Big Red women’s gymnastics team also placed third in the ECAC and finished fifth at the Collegiate National Championships. While there were many factors that contributed to that success, one important component was a structured strength-training program that was implemented a year ago.

Cornell’s strength-training program for women’s gymnastics is split into three phases: preseason, in-season, and postseason. Each phase has a different overall focus that reflects a different volume of training (sets and reps) and intensity (weight) to adjust to the volume of gymnastics competition and practice time.

As in any strength-training program, overuse injuries are always a concern. Therefore, we make sure to have constant communication throughout all three training phases. For example, when the athletes have a particularly challenging practice or competition, we may lessen the next day’s strength-training workouts accordingly.

The preseason phase of the Cornell strength-training program lasts about eight weeks, with three days per week of training. It emphasizes the teaching of lifts and exercises and getting the gymnasts as strong as possible—absolute strength—before the competitive season begins. By increasing absolute strength in the preseason, the athletes’ muscles, tendons, and ligaments increase their integrity to prevent injury during the competitive season.

Cornell’s preseason workouts are also focused on strengthening specific areas where we have seen injuries in the past. For example, one common injury in women’s gymnastics is a strain or a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament and other supporting ligaments of the knee. To address this in the preseason, we include squats and Romanian dead lifts to strengthen quadriceps, hamstrings, and lower-leg muscles that stabilize and support the knee.

To address the stresses imposed by various landing positions that occur in gymnastics events, we add additional exercises to help develop knee-joint proprioception. These exercises include teeter-board squats and split squats. The program also includes single-leg squats and single-leg dead lifts to account for the significant loads placed on the gymnasts’ lead take-off leg when hurdling to the springboard or going into a tumbling pass. The development of single-leg strength also comes into play when a gymnast leads into leaps and jumps on the floor or beam.

All of the preseason workouts include core-training exercises. Typical preseason core-training exercises are power snatches, power shrugs and squats, and Romanian dead lifts for developing multi-joint, lower-body power and strength. Typically, these exercises are done in three to six sets of four to six reps each, at an intensity of 70 to 85 percent of one rep maximum.

Additional preseason exercises are mostly single-joint or basic upper-body strength movements such as weighted pull-ups, bench presses, low rows, lat pull-downs, plus triceps and biceps exercises done in three to four sets of eight to 12 reps. Rest periods between sets vary from one to two minutes for core lifts to about 45 seconds or a minute for the other exercises.

Cornell’s in-season program lasts about six months and involves two days of training per week. This in-season program is about the longest of any sport at Cornell, lasting from the middle of October to the middle of April.

Compared to the preseason regimen, the in-season program cuts back on the volume of lifting and allows gymnasts more time for recovery. The overall goal of the in-season program is to maintain strength that was developed during the preseason phase while focusing on injury prevention.

During past competitive seasons, there have been several incidents of torn or strained rotator cuffs due to the excessive forces involved when doing certain uneven-bar movements such as full giants. To prevent these injuries from occurring, exercises such as Cuban presses, internal and external rotation exercises, and various isometric holds such as V raises are used to reach all of the rotator cuff muscles. Movements such as crunches, twists, reverse hypers, and back extensions are also used to enhance core stability and back strength.

Core lifts used during the preseason phase are continued during the in-season phase, but the intensity (weight) and the volume (sets and reps) of all core exercises are reduced. A typical in-season set/rep scheme consists of four sets of three to five reps and a working intensity of 60 to 75 percent of one rep maximum. We recommend reduced rest time during this phase (30 to 45 seconds between sets) to help build endurance.

Also, preseason non-core lifts and injury-prevention exercises are “super setted.” A super set involves doing exercises back to back with little or no rest between sets. These super sets also target opposing muscle groups. For example, we will have the athlete perform a set of biceps curls followed immediately by a set of triceps extensions.

Time off between the in-season and postseason programs usually is between two and three weeks, depending on tournaments and academic exam schedules. The postseason program is designed to rebuild athletes’ conditioning after the rigors of the competitive season, to maintain strength, and to keep the athletes familiar with the lifting movements.

Given the dual roles of rebuilding and teaching, Cornell’s postseason regimen consists of only two days of lifting per week with an optional third day of lifting built into the program for those gymnasts who feel they need the extra strength work. The postseason program is 11 weeks long and is periodized into two back-to-back strength cycles that are four weeks each, plus a three-week power cycle leading into the preseason program.

Compared to workouts for the preseason and in-season phases, postseason workouts are characterized by more sets, fewer reps, and increased intensity. For example, during the preseason, athletes may do four sets of five reps in a squat at 80 percent of one rep maximum during a strength phase. During the postseason phase, the athletes would do six sets of three reps at 85 to 90 percent of one rep maximum. In addition, plyometrics such as box jumps and partial Olympic lifts are used in the postseason to rebuild lower-body power.

The Results
Almost a year after implementing the program, we compared women’s gymnastics injury rates from past years with this year. The results were compelling: There were no ACL injuries this year compared to two last year and three the year before. Overall injuries were also down compared to years past.

In addition to reduced injuries, the performance of the gymnasts was also greatly improved, both in practice and competition. They performed more individual skills and routines with less muscle fatigue.

Our athletes also had the ability to generate more speed during the running phase of their floor and vault runs and better eccentric muscle strength to absorb the force of repetitive landings. The increase in upper-body power helped the gymnasts to punch off the horse more quickly during their vaults and tumbling passes. These results indicate that, when properly planned and implemented, a sport-specific strength training program such as the one for women’s gymnastics at Cornell is a win-win situation that enhances performance while reducing the incidence of injuries.