Sort by tags

Gymnastics & Callisthenics benefits to CrossFitters

Posted 20th March 2016 by Josh Schouten

CrossFit HQ openly advertises CrossFit as “constantly varied functional movements.” Many affiliates advertise CrossFit as a mix of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics and conditioning movements like kettle bells and box jumps.

Certain athletes and coaches will argue that you need to be strong and powerlifting should be the focus, others will argue that Olympic weightlifting is king, and then we see many of the top level CrossFit athletes come from a gymnastic background.  To be honest, they all have their benefits to the sport of CrossFit, although there are some significant benefits to each of them.  What are the benefits of working on gymnastics strength?

Core Strength

Lets get one thing straight, crunches and sit-ups will NOT build a strong core or give you a six-pack.  The core muscles are no different to any other muscle of the body in terms of what it needs to become stronger.  To improve muscular strength athletes need to continue to lift greater loads, the resistance needs to increase over a period of time.  This means no matter how many sit-ups or crunches you do, you will never get stronger as the resistance never increases.

In traditional bodybuilding the core is simply seen as a body part to be aesthetically improved.   However, in gymnastics and callisthenics the core plays a vital role and is not simply trained for aesthetics.  Bodyweight exercises require the core to keep the midline of the body absolutely stable.  For example the front lever requires the core muscles to hold up the weight of the legs and keep the whole body straight.  This is significantly harder than any weightlifting movement, any sit-up or crunch and will develop the core muscles to have an amazing level of strength.

The more advanced core exercises such as a half lever, are very common in gymnastics circles and build such huge strength that once perfected will make other core exercises seem like child’s play.  Athletes that learn to perform some of the advanced movements will be able to rightly claim to having one of the strongest cores in the gym.

Scapular Strength

The real home of upper body strength does not belong to big back and chest muscles.  Upper body strength is in the ability of a person to stabilise and control their scapulas (shoulder blade). The scapula is the bone that connects the humerus (upper arm bone) with the clavicle (collar bone).  The scapula is basically capable of 4 particular movements:

Elevation – when you shrug your shoulders up toward your ears

Depression – when you pull your shoulders down towards the ground

Prostration – when you round your upper back and push you spine and shoulder blades apart

Retraction – when you pull your shoulders back and puff out your chest

 If you can learn how to control the scapular movements and make them as strong as possible, your upper body strength will improve significantly.   Of all the body parts involved in gymnastics movements, the scapular is probably the most important, but least understood, component of strength.  The scapular is home to the rotator cuff muscle which is important for upper body movement and maintaining shoulder joint stability.   These muscles are also responsible for performing multiple shoulder movements including; abduction, internal rotation, and external rotation. 

Your success in upper body movements relies heavily on the ability of your rotator cuff muscles to stabilise the shoulder joint, allowing the other much larger muscle groups (pectoral, latissimus dorsi, biceps, triceps… )to do the actual work.  Without shoulder stability there is very limited strength and upper body movements are significantly weaker.

Straight Arm Strength 

Gymnastics and callisthenics place a heavy emphasis on a phenomenon known as Straight Arm Strength (SAS).  The most extreme example of this would be an iron cross or planche performed on the gymnastics rings.


SAS is exactly what is says on the tin; strength expressed with a locked elbow.  This puts an enormous strain on the connective tissue of the muscles in the arms, shoulders and wrists. This is one of the reasons why gymnasts have ripped arms.

Hand Strength

One unique aspect of gymnastics and callisthenics is that the hands are involved in almost every single movement.  Pushing, pulling and core exercises all use the hands to a large degree and build Popeye strength in the forearms and hands.  This is of great benefit to CrossFitters as they need their forearms and hands to be as strong as physically possible to hold onto kettlebells, pull-ups bars, rings, barbells and movements like rope climbs. This makes perfect sense if you stop and think about how often you use your grip strength? You could be one of the strongest members in the gym, but if your hands and forearms are “weak as piss” you’re never going to be able to transfer that strength and make use of it.

Learning to mastering bodyweight movements, to hold yourself off the floor and manipulate your bodyweight, gripping a pull-up bar, hanging from objects, and moving from one position to another using pure strength and not momentum (kipping) is the best way to build strength and improve movement efficiency.  All of these things rely on hand and finger strength and if you don’t have it, you will simply not be able to perform at your peak.  There are specific hand and wrist strength exercises that can help, but much of the strength needed can be gained by simply performing gymnastic and callisthenics exercises.

As we get older our ability to lift weights and move with explosive power starts to slow down.  Gymnastics and callisthenics is all about moving your body weight with controlled slow movements.  Gymnastics can increase the longevity and training age of any athlete.  The flexibility, strength and motor control needed to master gymnastics can be maintained into old age and offer continued health benefits. The hardest part is dedicating the time to learning and mastering bodyweight movements now.  Strength takes years to build and so does flexibility and motor control.  The only way to learn is to continually expose yourself to the stress of bodyweight movements and persist with it. Learning to move your bodyweight is not easy, if you dont start today when will you start?