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Gymnastics Tension Exercises

June 3, 2002 05:07 PM

One of the most important elements in gymnastics conditioning is body tension or "body tightness". Gymnasts can control the action of their body more easily (in static strength positions as well as in movement) when their body is held tight than when it is a loose collection of individual parts. A person's weight is much more difficult to handle when their body is relaxed than it is if it were held tight. This is why demonstrators at a protest will relax their bodies (go dead weight) when the police are trying to escort or carry them away. By learning and practicing these tension techniques many advanced bodyweight strength movements will become much easier to accomplish.

The majority of the gymnastics tension techniques apply to two gymnastics positions: the arch and the hollow. I will describe some of the tension exercises that gymnasts use and provide a guide to working up to three different gymnastics strength moves: the planche (arch), the front lever (hollow), and the iron cross.

I trust that all comrades know their bodies and will not attempt any of these exercises if they feel that they might lead to injury.

Hollow Position

To experience the hollow position, lay down on your back on the floor. Tuck your pelvis forward with your lower back maintaining contact with the floor. Lift your straight legs slightly off the floor. Extend your arms up straight beside your ears and raise your head and shoulders slightly off the floor. The hollow is an effective body position for the handstand, front lever, back swing on parallel bars, dragon flag, and the bottom position of the wheel.

Exercises for Strengthening the Hollow Position

  1. Get down on the floor as if you are about to do a set of push-ups. Push hard into the floor with your hands to depress your shoulders and hollow out your chest. Tuck your pelvis, squeeze your abs, and tighten your legs. Make your entire body tight. Now attempt to maintain the hollow position while lifting one leg off the floor. Put that leg down and lift the other leg. Your training partner can test your body tightness by applying moderate pressure to your upper back and your glutes. Maintain the hollow position under this pressure. Have your training partner adjust the pressure according to your confidence in this position.
  2. Lay on your back in the hollow position with your feet together lifted six to eight inches off the floor and your arms extended beside your ears. Tightly tuck your pelvis and squeeze your abdominals and glutes. Squeeze your feet together (you can squeeze a tennis ball between your feet for more tension) and make your legs tight by consciously pulling your kneecaps up. Keep your lower back anchored to the floor throughout. Have your training partner apply moderate downward pressure to your ankles (attempting to push them down to the floor). Leg weights can be used if you workout alone. You can also hold weights in your hands for a greater challenge.
  3. Assume the push-up position and have your partner lift up your feet to the point where your body is parallel to the floor. Apply some downward pressure to your partner's hands with your feet while maintaining the hollow position. Your partner will let go of one foot at a time. He/she will not tell you when or which foot he will release. Maintain a very tight hollow position. If you are training alone you can place your feet on a chair or a Swiss ball and lift one foot at a time but you will lose the benefit of the unexpected release.
  4. Hollow Rocks- Lay down on your back in a tight hollow position with your arms extended beside your ears. Rock back and forth. It is essential to keep your pelvis tucked and your lower back curved in order to rock smoothly.
  5. Wall Handstand -A good handstand is one performed with a very tight, rigid body with your hips tucked in. Stand with your back up against a wall. Place your hands on the floor and walk your hands toward the wall and your feet up the wall. Bring your hands as close to the wall as possible. Focus on holding the abdominal muscles in and extending through the shoulders (by pushing the floor away) making your body as long as possible.
  6. Handstand Lowering Drills-Kick up into a handstand and have a partner catch your legs. Have your partner lower your body (your stomach towards the floor). Keep your body hollow and rigid and maintain the handstand position throughout. Your partner can support your weight near your thighs or closer to your feet (closer to you feet demands greater strength and tension). Your partner will lower your body until your feet nearly touch the floor. If you do not have a training partner, you can do a similar exercise by assuming the Wall Handstand position described above. Take a small step away from the wall with each hand. Your feet will naturally slide a little down the wall. Keep taking small steps down the wall until you reach a point that you can no longer hold this position or your lower back starts to sag. The ultimate goal is to have your feet a few inches off the floor while holding the handstand position (your feet will be pressed flat against the wall at this point). This is a very challenging exercise!
  7. Superman-From a push-up position, slide your hands forward and your feet backwards until your stomach approaches the floor. Maintain the hollow position with your arms straight and your pelvis tucked. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
  8. Dragon Flags-You know the drill.

Arch Position

Lay down on your stomach with your arms by your ears. Lift your heels a couple of inches off the floor. Maintain straight legs and slightly lift your straight arms that are extended and beside your ears. Slightly lift your chest, shoulders, and head as well. Focus on the tension in your glutes and your lower back. The position is a very slight arch.

Exercises for Strengthening the Arch Position

  1. Lay flat on your back with your feet supported approximately one foot off the ground. Extend your arms straight beside your ears. Tense your glutes and push your heels into your support to lift your body off the floor. Push the back of your hands into the floor. The only point of contact with the floor should be your hands, arms, shoulders, and the back of your head. Notice the tension in your glutes, lower back, and shoulders. As you gain strength, your shoulders will gradually begin to lift off the floor also.
  2. Maintain this same position except have a training partner hold your feet. Your partner will let go of one of your feet without telling you when or which foot. Strive to maintain the tight arch position. If you work out alone, support just one foot while maintaining the desired position and then switch feet.
  3. Arch Rocks. Lay down on your stomach on the floor. Completely extend your body with your straight arms extended beside your ears. Squeeze your heels together and lift them a few inches off the floor. Squeeze your glutes. Lift your arms, head, shoulders, and upper chest slightly off the floor. Now rock back and forth maintaining a tight arch position.

Combination Exercise (arch and hollow)

Lay on your back on the floor in a hollow position with your arms extended over your head. Squeeze a piece of cloth between your feet and try not to drop it. Keep your hands, arms, shoulders and legs off the floor throughout this exercise. Hold this position for 15 seconds. Slowly roll to your right side so that your left hip faces the ceiling. Continue squeezing the cloth and maintaining a rigid body. Keep your right shoulder, arm, hand and leg off the floor. Hold for 15 seconds. Roll over to your stomach and hold a rigid arched position for 15 seconds. Roll over to your left side keeping your left shoulder, arm, hand, and leg off the floor. Hold for 15 seconds. Reverse direction if you wish.

Gymnastics Strength Moves

I will now provide a guide to learning three gymnastics strength movements and describe the specific muscles that must be tensed. A lot of the following tension techniques are not specifically taught in gymnastics. However, gymnasts develop an intuitive understanding of them. Many of these techniques are direct from Pavel. I think that the gymnastics community could benefit greatly from the study and application of Pavel's works.

Front Lever

The front lever is a strength move that is performed on the still rings. It can also be practiced at home on a pull-up bar. The position is very similar to the dragon flag except you are hanging from the rings or a bar. Begin from an inverted hang (you hang upside down with a straight body with your hips by your hands). Make a very tight grip, tuck your pelvis to assume the hollow position, squeeze your abs and glutes, tighten your legs, and point your toes. Begin to slowly lower your body maintaining the hollow position and keeping your arms straight throughout. Consciously tense your armpits and isometrically (without any actual movement) pull downwards (towards the bar or rings) and inwards (towards the front of your body) with your hands (activating your lats and your chest). Your upper body will naturally shift backwards to establish your center of gravity. Begin with a small range of motion and work towards holding a horizontal position.


A planche is a strength movement where you assume a push-up position with your feet off the floor (feet parallel to the ground or higher). The gymnast holds his body in this position. This movement can be performed on rings, the floor, or parallel bars. I would suggest doing this on rings or bars because of the strength enhancing effects of gripping the apparatus and it is not as hard on your wrists. It will also allow you to hold the planche in lower positions as you are working up to parallel or higher. Begin by holding yourself up on rings or bars. Squeeze the rings or bars and lean forward. Assume a slight arch position by lifting your heels, tensing your glutes and your lower back muscles. This will help raise your lower body to the proper position. Lean as far forward as you can without falling. While lowering yourself isometrically push your hands upward (as if you are trying to raise your straight arms over your head) and outwards (away from your body) tensing your shoulders, upper back, and chest.

Try this exercise to help you understand the muscular feeling that you are striving for. Stand on the middle of a resistance band and grab the two ends with either hand. Turn your palms away from your body and pull upwards with straight arms. Adjust the tension where you experience great resistance when your arms are perpendicular to your body. Study the tension in you shoulders, back, and chest.

Methods of working up to the Planche

  1. Initially perform in tuck position with your knees pulled to your chest. Straighten your legs a little when you are able to hold the position for 10 to 15 seconds. The progressions can be: tight tuck, partial tuck, straddled legs, and legs together.
  2. Begin in push-up position with your feet supported by a chair, step, etc. that is the same height or higher than your shoulder. Lean forward employing all of the tension techniques. You will begin to feel the pressure of your feet on the supporting object decrease. The goal is to lift and hold the feet completely of the object.

Iron Cross

Begin in the support position on the rings with the rings turned out and your elbows held close to your body. Crush the rings with your grip and squeeze your glutes and abs. Keep your wrist from bending throughout the movement. All of your kettlebell work will help with this. Roll your shoulders forward when you begin lowering to the cross position. (Stand up and do an experiment real quick. Place your arms to your sides with your palms facing your legs and lift your arms laterally up through the cross position and continue until your arms are reaching up to the ceiling. Notice how there was minimal restriction of movement. Now place your arms by your sides and roll your shoulders forward with your thumbs beside your legs. Perform the same movement. Notice how the flexibility of your shoulder decreased significantly. Also notice the tension in your traps. Take advantage of this by rolling your shoulders forward). Slowly lower towards the cross position. During the descent, isometrically pull down (towards the rings) and in (towards your body). This pulling should produce great tension but should only control and not stop the descent. Stop the movement when you get to a position where your arms are nearly perpendicular to your body. Once you are able to hold this position, you can hold it for time or you can do reps by lowering to cross position and then raising back up to support position.

Methods for working up to the Iron Cross

  1. Hold either end of surgical tubing with your hands and get into support position on the rings. Your hands should hold the tubing on top of the rings. Place your feet on top of the band that will be hanging down between the rings. The resistance of the band will make the iron cross easier to hold and will allow you to gradually increase your strength in this low leverage movement. The tension of the band should be adjusted so that the exercise is challenging but achievable. Hold for time or do reps. Adjust the resistance of the tube by increasing it's length to make it more difficult as you gain strength.
  2. Periodically test your strength by adjusting the length of the chain that the rings are hanging from to the point where a perfect cross position with no slack in the chain allows you to stand on a bathroom scale that is on the floor. Attempt to pull yourself just off the scale and hold the position. The weight that you see on the scale will give you feedback on how close you are to an unaided iron cross.
  3. If you do not have a set of rings, you can perform crosses on chairs. Find two chairs whose seats are the same heights. You will need to tuck or hold your straight legs out in front of your body. Place the chairs so that they are facing the same direction. Start with the chairs close together (just wide enough for you to fit your upper body between them). Place your upper arms on the chairs and lift your feet. Gradually increase the difficulty of the exercise by moving the chairs further away from each other. All of these will be done in the final position of the cross.

Good Luck!

Brad Johnson