Gymnastics versus Weightlifting

Why do we spend far more of our training time weightlifting instead of gymnastics? If we consider this table from Lars Anders gymnastics plays a bigger part in CrossFit than weightlifting.

Credit: http://cfganalysis.blogspot.ie/

Credit: http://cfganalysis.blogspot.ie/

The answer, as far as I can tell, is that weightlifting deals in success, gymnastics in failure.

Let me explain. For weightlifting and weight training we can always find a weight that allows us to do the movement correctly. It mightn’t be perfect, but by and large it’s done right. We can pick up a 5Kg training bar, a 20Kg bar, or even a broomstick and practice the proper movement. Then we get heavier and heavier with the weight until it starts to break down, and (hopefully) stop just shy of technical failure. Victory and mastery all the way.

With gymnastics we’re stuck with our shitty bodies. So we’re dealing with ‘failure’. We’ll miss a pull up, fail to kick into a handstand, and not even attempt a backflip. So with gymnastics we’ve to go fail, fail, fail, shitty ugly half rep, fail, fail, shitty ugly rep, fail, fail, ooh kinda okay rep,…

So there’s definitely a more scientific explanation but the main thrust is this: The body is lazy, always looking to keep homeostasis. It’s easier for the body to exert effort against an external ‘force’ in weightlifting. But in gymnastics the body is fighting against itself. If it doesn’t hold a hollow hold nothing happens. But if it fails to push back against the bar on your back, you might be crushed to death! (Or so the body thinks.)

Seriously, if this guy stops exerting effort his body is just fine.

Seriously, if this guy stops exerting effort his body is just fine.

If this guy doesn't keep standing his body feels like it might literally die.

If this guy doesn’t keep standing his body feels like it might literally die.

Gymnastics also has the “flaw” that we’re far heavier we were when we were 4, we’ve engrained a whole host of poor movement patterns, and we’ve the fear factor we didn’t have when we were children. I doubt you’ll find a 4 year old kid who gets motion sickness when they do a tumble, but you’ll find a lot of adults who will not even attempt a rudimentary handstand.

Dealing with failure all the time is hard on the ego. It’s just not as intrinsically or immediately rewarding as hoofing around some iron. Because of the success/failure spectrum, we’ll gravitate towards the feeling of success weightlifting gives us (Get it, gravitate towards the weight?). I know I should hit more pull ups and certainly do more hollow holds, but that shit hurts. And pull ups don’t make me feel good. But, given the chance to snatch, I’ll hit that motherf*cker up any day of the week. Bad day, I can always drop the weight and get my victory in on percentage work. Bad day on the handstand push ups and I’m just left feeling weak.

Weight training also feels very different from gymnastics. The feedback we get from an external object has a different effect on our body. When we finish a heavy set of squats we know we need a break and take as long as we can before getting back under the bar. When we finish a set of handstand push ups there just isn’t that same feeling. It’s harder to quantify how much rest we need to take. You see this a lot in metcons as well. We feel good at the start of the workout and then are down to sets of one or two reps at the end.

I will concede that we’re all closer to the novice side of the spectrum on gymnastics than we are on weightlifting. On our first day, a reasonably healthy person doesn’t need much rest between squat sets, and maybe this is the case with us all with gymnastics?

Weightlifting is the sport of lifting shit. Technically it doesn’t matter how poor you move the weight as long as you meet the standards. It’s Kilos that count. Arguably, the better your technique the more weight you’ll lift. No one teaches this form (at least as far as I know)

Gymnastics on the other hand is the sport of virtuosity, how perfect can you do the movement, and how difficult is it to do perfectly. Because of the reasons I’ve mentioned above we start out ugly with our movements and aim to make them more efficient and pretty as we go on. We can’t feel the progress as easily as we can with weightlifting, and often the fixes in gymnastics feel harder at first. If you’re snatching wrong and a coach tells you to pull your elbows high to stop swinging the bar, the next snatch feels tighter.

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If your coach asks you not to separate your knees in the back swing/arch of your kip, this feels tougher and takes more effort. At least in the short term.

We often apply the weightlifting mentality to gymnastics. Settle for good enough as long as you’re getting reps in. Eventually they stall. They stall because although our inefficient technique has allowed us to get the first few reps in, this costs us in the long term. (Think knee swinging, air hump “kipping” versus controlled hollow & arch kipping.)

As an interesting note, Mike Poppa noticed that Emily Carothers was inefficient in her toes to bar in Regionals Workout 13.6. While she got all her 40 toes to bar done unbroken, it cost her quite a bit in the shoulder to overhead component afterwards. Inefficiencies may not hurt the current movement but can have a big impact on subsequent movements and metcons.

Another strike ‘against’ gymnastics is that places a lot of strain on our joints. I’m not saying weightlifting doesn’t, but you’re far more likely to get tendonitis from pull ups and handstand push ups than you are from lifting. This is observational and anecdotal so maybe someone out there can correct me?

Now, because weightlifting is ‘easier’ to adjust (in terms of reps, load, range of motion) in order to have success in it, you’re more likely to enjoy it. Therefore you’ll train it more often, and see benefits to it. So, given that we need to stay in any training program long enough to reap the benefits, I can see why we spend more time with the barbell and less time on the bodyweight.

My contention is that most workouts fail because of gymnastics rather than the weightlifting component. Note how I’ve cleverly ignored aerobic capacity for the purposes of this discussion.

In Fran, what fails first, the 45Kg Thrusters, or the pull ups? Amanda might be an unusual one but if you miss a 60Kg snatch, you probably won’t rest as much as if you missed a muscle up. Take Diane at the 2012 Regionals. Ain’t nobody missing no puny assed Deadlift. It was all about the handstand push up.

I'll bet none of these fools broke up their 21 Deads

I’ll bet none of these fools broke up their 21 Deads

For theses reasons alone, I’d argue that we would be better off investing more time in our gymnastics and body weight movements than our Olympic lifts.

So why does weightlifting get all the credit? Firstly, it’s cooler. But that’s not enough. It comes from about the 2011/2012 season when it was decided that in order to do CrossFit you had to be strong. In fact, back then, it was believed you could make Regionals with glaring holes in your game if you compensated by being strong enough.

So historically the expression has been that you need strength in order to be conditioned. This makes sense at the surface level so was accepted. So more time was spent on the barbell lifts. There’s an education component as well. More coaches will know how to snatch than they will how to develop a handstand. When our snatch stalls, we know what to do as well. We can go back to the hang, hit some powers. Or we can work on our snatch pulls or push presses to strengthen certain positions. Pull Ups stalled? Errrr, do more, I guess.

Now since the learning time for say the squat seems shorter than the learning time for the kip, coaches also know how to teach and program the weightlifting side of our sport better than the gymnastics component.

I’ll concede that weight training by it’s very nature could just take much longer to train to be effective than gymnastics. To hit your squats for the day, you need to warm up, then grab the empty bar, build up to your given percentages, and take longer rest (particularly as you advance towards your genetic potential brah.) This whole thing could take 40 minutes. 4 minutes of Tabata hollow holds might be all you need to elicit a training response, and needs zero warm up time.

Ultimately, train for what makes you happy of course. And I’m gonna be far happier hitting some back squats than I’ll ever be holding a hollow until my stomach cramps. If you’re training to excel at the sport, as I mentioned in my podcast (shameless plug) you’re going to have to invest more time and effort in the boring (cardio) and painful (gymnastics) side of things. And for that, I’d highly recommend following something like Outlaw Connectivity.

20 thoughts on “Gymnastics versus Weightlifting

    • Hey Kaitlin,

      Thanks for the offer. As soon as I get my affiliate back up I’ll be in touch to steal all your ideas. Or maybe we’ll get to work on a camp together sometime!

  1. this is pretty much a written account of how i feel when training on a daily basis. if its programmed that i have to go for a max effort set of some barbell movement, i’m happy to go all out and hit a goal. max effort hspu or t2b or c2b pullups though? that hurts in a different way, and i constantly wimp out a rep or two shy of actual failure.
    i appreciate outlaw connectivity as well. gotten better at some of it but its definitely easy to decide to skip the few drills i know i suck at because its hard to feel improvement in the same way we progress 5# at a time in weightlifting.

    • Thanks for the comment. Gymnastics for adults is a hard grind, and it’s a long time before you see results. BB movements give more immediate feedback and success.

  2. If only we could motivate athletes to understand this. When someone can do 15 shitty kipping pull-ups in a row all I get are blank stares when we work on hollow holds, quality swings, handstand positioning, etc…
    Good read.

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  4. I teach a class at CrossFit Body and Fuel in Beaverton, OR that combines gymnastics and weightlifting and focus on technique. I have found that improving gymnastics has a lot of carryover to improving weightlifting. For example, after working on handstands, we had many members PR on overhead squats and push press because they improved their overhead stabililty. When we worked on L holds, people did cleans better because they could keep a tighter core and not collapse in the bottom.

    Also, +1 for Outlaw Connectivity. I follow that too.

    • Totally agree Mike. I found that the more time we spent on hollow and arching (essentially bracing) shoulder injuries plummeted. Also, I know myself when I force myself to consistently hit my connectivity my snatch improves.

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  6. Excellent read, for me currently I’m addressing some of these weaknesses due to the fact that injuries and arthritis are taking over.

    Its good also to have a BB free week or two and just monkey about, stripping back, doing the progressions again and re-drilling the movement in gymnastics.

    Its a pity it takes something like injuries for us to get off our asses and improve on the gymnastics.

    Again quality read, keep them going! Deffo a talent you need to continue!!

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