Watching the female gymnasts of Team U.S.A. fly and spin across the TV screen, they look solid—the definition of strength and power. But in reality, those tumbling gymnasts are really, really tiny, and not just in terms of height. The average gold medal-winning female gymnast is 5'1" and 103 pounds; Gabby Douglas, the reigning Olympic champion, was just 4'11" and 90 pounds when she clinched her title.
They might be little, but thanks to rigorous training from a young age, they’re crazy-strong and insanely flexible. In order to flip and twist their bodies in the air during floor, parallel bars, or vault routines, they need to have serious upper body strength. And to stick every landing, core strength is key.
For today’s Olympics-inspired workout, we’re taking a page from the likes of Douglas and her teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. We’ll focus on building a solid core, perfecting body-weight exercises, and improving flexibility. Start off with an easy 5-minute jog to get warmed up, and then try these moves.
Hollow body hold
The hollow body hold is one of the first things aspiring gymnasts learn. Every handstand uses this bracing technique, which keeps the core muscles tight and flexed in order to maintain balance. Oh yeah, and doing the move is an insanely effective ab workout in its own right. Laying flat on your back, contract your abdominals by pulling your belly button back towards your spine. As you tighten your core, raise your arms and legs off the ground. Keep your neck long and legs straight. Hold for 30 seconds, then release back down to rest for 10 seconds. Repeat four times.
Those awe-inspiring backbends and backflips you see during floor exercises require a ton of flexibility, yes. But every arching leap also takes a lot of strength, especially in the muscles that run parallel to the spinal column—the erector spinae. To work them, start with back extensions.
Laying flat on your stomach, rest your hands at the nape of your neck, with your elbows to the side. Brace your core (like in the hollow body hold), and lift your chest off the ground. Pull your shoulder blades down your back as you lift up, and try to arch at your thoracic spine—the place where your bra-line hits—instead of your lower back. Hover above the ground for five seconds, then release back down and rest for two seconds. Repeat 15 times.
Standing side jump
Gymnasts make those jumps and flips on the balance beam look effortless—but jumping high enough to catch air from a static, standing position is incredibly difficult. To improve their hops, gymnasts work on plyometric work. Plyometric exercises require muscles to exert maximum force in short intervals of time, in turn increasing power and strength. Try the standing side jump: Stand directly to the side of a plyo box or bench that’s about 18 to 24 inches high. With feet together, bend the knees and jump laterally on top of the box next to you. Hop off, and repeat. Then switch to the other side. Do 15 reps on each side.
Ready for your first handstand? Don’t worry—you get to use a wall for a little extra help! Start with your hands about six inches away from the wall, and kick your feet over your head to get into your starting position. Hold here; remember to keep your core tight (hollow body hold in action again!) and breathe.
Hold your handstand for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds. Repeat three times.
Slowly build up to holding your handstand for longer intervals with shorter breaks. When you’re feeling really strong, try it away from the wall.
Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t stretch before your workouts. The best time to work on your flexibility is when the muscles are already warm and more malleable—this prevents injury and helps you get deeper into the stretch. The splits are challenging, but a necessary stretch for Olympian gymnasts. Ease into it by starting in a half-split—kneeling on one leg, with the other extended straight out in front of you— and slowly lowering and extending both legs straight. This is one exercise that you definitely don’t want to push too much; only go to a place where you can comfortably remain in the position for 30 seconds.
No big deal if you don’t make it into a full split—the goal is just to get a good inner thigh and hamstring stretch. When you’re done, switch to the other side.
Made it through the whole thing? Refuel your body with a beautiful tropical turmeric smoothie. You deserve something gold.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho