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Gymnasts vs. Shoulder Injuries

**If you want more info and specific answers about shoulder injuries in gymnasts, register for a FREE live webinar on October 28th here.**

Shoulder injuries used to be a problem mainly for high level gymnasts on the mens side only. However, with the increasingly difficult skills, long training hours, and poor positioning outside of practice (read more on that here) they are becoming more and more commonplace on both the mens and women's side at lower and lower levels to the point where any optional level gymnast is 50-100% more likely than age matched peers in other sports to sustain a shoulder injury.

In my opinion, this comes down to two factors - Strength and flexibility. Now, before you start going crazy, yes I know gymnasts are very strong and flexible. But that doesn't matter. What matters is if they are strong ENOUGH to withstand the forces applied? Are they flexible ENOUGH to get into the positions required without compensation. Let's think about this outside of gymnastics terms. We can probably agree that someone that can lift a barbell that is 500 lbs is pretty strong, right? But its reasonable to say that if we asked this person to lift a 1,000 lb barbell, that they may not be able to do it, and if they did they may get hurt.

Let's bring this back to gymnastics and start by looking at the strength piece. Forces through the shoulder joint in gymnasts can be over 6x body weight on bar skills (traction) and ~4 times body weight on tumbling (compression). Yet, many gymnastics programs still use primarily body weight conditioning as their main form of strength training. When we compare their threshold based on conditioning (1x body weight) to their actual load (4-6x body weight) the math doesn't add up. (read more about this here in my popular post gymnastics vs math).

So, how do we fix this? Do we give our 100lb gymnast a 400lb barbell and say "put this up overhead" or a 600lb barbell and say "pick this up?" Well, no, but I think there is some happy medium between this and what is often done now (push ups, pull ups, dips, etc).

A properly designed and implemented progressive overload based strength and conditioning program can definitely bring our gymnasts' threshold closer to their actual load, and that can definitely decrease risk of injury. We need to make sure our gymnasts bodies are prepared to handle these loads in a stable environment (flat ground, slow pace) before we ask them to do it in an unstable environment (tumbling on floor, swinging on rings or bars, etc.) For more information on my perspective on strength and conditioning in gymnastics, click here.

Let's look at the second part of the equation - flexibility. While gymnasts are overall some of the most flexible athletes on the planet, there are certain areas they struggle with, and again we need to compare their abilities to what is being asked of them. Think - a gymnast that has average flexibility compared to their team is still flexible, but if we asked them to do circus tricks they may struggle! Again, we do not need to do circus tricks in the gym, but we do need to ensure the gymnasts have enough mobility to do what is being asked of them.

For example, ask your gymnast (or yourself) to sit with their back flat against the wall and make a field goal position with their arms, then ask them to raise their arms overhead without letting anything come away from the wall - see below.

Can they get their arms overhead? In most cases I have seen, probably not. WELL THEN HOW ARE THEY HANGING ON THE BAR?!! AND DOING A STRAIGHT BODY HANDSTAND?!! This are great questions and ones that need to be addressed! If they cannot get into a straight body upright, then in order to do everything they are doing in the gym they must be borrowing mobility from somewhere else in the body. And that mobility always comes at a price - whether that be wearing down somewhere else or wearing down in the shoulder joint, it doesn't come for free.

Aside from looking at our strength program, it is important to look at our mobility program. It is more than just general flexibility training. We need to look at the demands on each individual joint of what we are planning to do that day and match those demands with preparation. If you need some help looking at your mobility program and ensure that it is meeting those demands, email me at

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**If you want more info and specific answers about shoulder injuries in gymnasts, register for a FREE live webinar on October 28th here.**

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