During winter 2016 and 2017 we increasingly included basic gymnastics, calisthenics and primal movement (crawling and animal patterns)  in our Athletics NI Youth Academy Physical Preparation sessions. I have specifically worked with young pole vaulters and javelin throwers on these routines. My interest in this type of work arose in 2015 when I was lucky enough to attend a coach development day in Birmingham where a number of throws coaches talked about the value of gymnastics in throws programmes and shared various routines by Thomas Rohler, Andreas Thorkildsen and other international athletes.

Whilst it was clear at the time that the coaches liked the idea of doing this work with their own athletes, and had good rationale for it, it wasn’t immediately apparent that appropriate progression of these activities had been considered or how they could be scaled back (regressed) to meet the needs of younger developing athletes.

On the boys side a number of throwers in Northern Ireland come from a Rugby background with a focus on muscular hypertrophy through the teenage years. The volume of pushing exercises often seems to outweigh pulling in the gym (in my experience.)  Normal thoracic flexion, extension and rotation, scapular control and a healthy glenohumeral joint with normal range of movement are all prerequisites for a javelin thrower but may be impaired by an unbalanced strength and conditioning programme or a mostly sedentary lifestyle with long hours in seated positions.

Whilst many boys in team sports are at least exposed to upper body loading through their teens (via strength & conditioning programmes,) girls and many others may be completely missing the opportunity to include any meaningful upper body loading and associated strength training adaptations. I would guess the percentage of girls in high school who can do a single bodyweight chin up or even hold their hanging bodyweight for 30 seconds is low.  Decreased time spent playing outdoors and an overly safety conscious, risk averse society won’t have helped.

Gymnastics clubs seem to be booming however and some parents speak about gymnastics in the early years as being fundamental to their child’s athleticism.  I agree, to an extent, but with my own role in Track & Field I think our sport and others should be finding our own solutions to enhancing overall athleticism and gymnastic ability of young athletes.  As an (almost) 50m javelin thrower I am ashamed to say I could not do a single chin up or handstand at the age of 18. My upper body strength relative to bodyweight was low.

I feel athletics needs to offer more, to not only attract children (and their parents) but to retain them through their teens. We will struggle to retain injured athletes though and well rounded physical preparation programmes will not only enhance the long term physical competency and performance potential of athletes but hopefully increase their robustness.

With all that in mind we began including basic rolling and handstand progressions with Youth Academy athletes during 2016 (with the support of a willing gymnastics coach at Ulster University who offered couple of mentoring sessions.)  Athletes enjoyed it, progression was clear and it was nice to offer more than a standard linear track based warm up for athletes (pole vault, multi eventers and javelin) who would ultimately have far more complex movement problems to solve.

Through 2017 & 18 I wanted to further enhance my own expertise. I created a progression model for each of our key rolling, crawling and handstand components and began training at Primal Strength & Movement myself. (Peaking at 13 unbroken chin ups only 10 years too late to improve my javelin!) This allowed me to build a relationship with Lewis Irwin (calisthenics and movement coach at Primal.) Bringing Lewis onboard at the Youth Academy allowed us to refine our approach combining my vision for physical preparation and knowledge of specific movement requirements for javelin and pole vault with his excellent demonstrations and technical understanding of gymnastics rings and parellete work.

Athletes like Ellie Mccartney (Pole vault) and Jack Magee (Javelin) have had break- through seasons in 2018 and enjoyed this type of training.  Specifically Ellie has increased her relative strength and improved her ability to control her pelvis and lower limbs in inverted positions aiding bar clearances.  We’ve trained inversions on parallettes and rings (e.g shoulder stands to L sit and tucked front lever progressions) using isometrics to increase her time under tension. The pay off in her pole vault has been evident.  Special mention to Ellie’s Pole Vault coach Jim Alexander for embracing this approach and guiding her to a fantastic vault of 3.90m this season!

 

 

 

Jack’s javelin has also benefited from enhanced body control and increased range of movement in thoracic rotation and extension this year. Scapular retraction, protraction and pelvic tilts in active hanging positions have also been staple exercises in his programme and these have primed ‘skin the cat’ and ‘lever’ progressions on gymnastics rings as well as handstand walks.

 

Progressions included above include: Passive hang>Active Hang>Front lever progression>Hanging pelvic tilt >Hollow body hold

 

 

Handstand progressions in the video above include: 45 degree hollow hold >Wall Walk >Crow Stand >Crow stand to headstand >Handstand against wall> Freestyle handstand

Asked about inclusion of gymnastics in his programme Commonwealth & World Shot Put Champion Tom Walsh from New Zealand said;

“I’m doing some gymnastics for balance stuff, body awareness and range of motion. It’s a bit of fun, and something different,” , joking “it won’t be long before he’s pulling off the iron cross.”

“There’s some ring work, core strengthening … If I’m going to be doing this for another 12 years I’ve got to enjoy it, which I am at the moment. Changing things up definitely helps.”

As well as working with our event specialist athletes in pole vault and javelin we have  prepared some basic primal movement sequences for all of our squad athletes on the pathway.  Small exposures have increased movement variety, enhanced mobility and introduced movement puzzles to be solved whilst increasing upper body loading and multi planar activity in the warm up.

 

Thanks to Lewis for his expertise and to Ulster University who have allowed us to improve our training environment this year by installing gymnastics rings and a raised horizontal bar trackside.  Hopefully the progression videos included in this blog have been useful. At Athletics NI we’ll be continuing our mission to develop the most physically prepared and robust young athletes in the UK.  Great advice I have been given along the way has included:

  • Be clear on your rationale for including any training exercise, drill or lift.
  • Establish a progression and regression model for everything you coach.
  • Remember that adaptation requires consistent stimulus.
  • Surround yourself with people who possess the expertise to help you move your programme forward.
  • Keep no secrets, the more open you are to sharing your work the more others will share with you and the better your programme and ultimately your athletes will become.
Laura Kerr MSc, CSCS, ASCC

Coach Development & Physical Preparation Lead

Athletics Northern Ireland