Gymnastic Training and Hypertrophy: Bodyweight Is Not Always the Best

Two male gymnasts used to live in my home building. I had the opportunity to indirectly examine their progress when I was a child/teen. Unfortunately, at that time I didn’t know much about training and was not very interested in the ‘pumping muscles’ movement. I was about 120-125 lbs. and at least 5’10” tall. I was also a skater and did not care much about push-ups, dips or exercising in general. To me all of that looked like torture, although I believe  skateboarding is a very difficult sport and much more dangerous than gymnastics. It certainly takes many years to reach a decent level.

Anyway, those two guys appeared enormous. Their backs were extremely wide and the chests and biceps were bulging. Damn, I feel weird writing similar description, but this is how I remember them. Well, I also remember than one of them use to *** *** in the elevator, but that’s a different story.

At that time, I did not know they were gymnasts and part of it was me avoiding communication. Both of them were pricks, and I believe the reason why we had cockroaches in our apartment was that one of those muscle guys lived right next to us and behaved like a caveman. I would not be surprised if he was throwing food on the ground and leaving it there for days. Thanks man. I still remember the smell.


I learned many years later that the physical development of those muscle gangsters has been the result of ring training. Recently, I saw one of those guys in a YouTube video linking to his site. I watched many videos and realized one thing – he is not as big as I though. I was just too small at that time to realize it.

Today, I am more conditioned to process muscle appearance and those two guys who appeared to be enormous look normal. Both guys don’t look bigger than your typical “calisthenics guy” such as Zakaveli or Al Kavadlo. What’s interesting to note is that they are both quite short – 5’7” on a good day. I guess at that time similar stats appeared to be Ronnie Coleman level in my brain. After all, I was not able to do more than a few push-ups during this era.

Somewhat ironically, I am not the only victim here. The extremely developed upper bodies of gymnasts have been attracting the attention of many people for quite some time. However, there is one problem that promoters of gymnastic training rarely admit.

Well, I will tell you the “secret”.

Gymnastic Training Does Not Always Equal Hypertrophy

I love bodyweight exercises for the upper body. I even think that getting very proficient at dips and pull-ups is much better than playing around with exercises like the bench press. At one point, however, gymnastic training does no longer help your hypertrophy goals. It can even hinder them. Let me explain before getting angry.

There is a big difference between a skill and a hypertrophy exercise. The higher the skill level, the less hypertrophy friendly the exercise is. For example, pull-ups and dips are great for hypertrophy since they train primary muscles of the upper body through basic motions. You can add weight until the end of time. On the other hand, movements like the iron cross, the L-sit, the V-sit, flares and many other typical gymnastic drills may be very hard to learn but are not hypertrophy friendly. I would even go as far as saying that many would have happier lives without beating themselves over reaching advanced gymnastic tricks.

In general, the more stabilizers involved in an exercise, the less hypertrophy specific it is. For example, a one leg squat a.k.a. a pistol requires much more balance than a barbell squat, but it does not produce nearly as much hypertrophy. There are squatters with enormous legs who can’t do the movement at all. At the same time, there are pistol squat masters who get buried by 225 lbs. on the barbell. The pistol comes with balance requirements and places too much emphasis on stabilizers while the squat and the leg press allow the lifter to progressively overload his legs until the end of time.

The same is true as far as the upper body drills are concerned. The size of a gymnast capable of doing iron cross, maltese, planche…etc. can be reached by just doing heavy pull-ups and dips. Of course, the guy performing advanced elements will have other advantages and higher bodyweight skill level, but strictly muscle size speaking – he will not necessarily be bigger than somebody who does dips with 150 lbs. Not to mention the fact that gymnasts are essentially upper body specialists, which means that their glutes, hamstrings, and quads are underdeveloped. Find me a guy with big legs who can do an iron cross. You will be looking for a very long time. Thus, gymnasts avoid building bigger legs.

Gymnastics Is Basketball for Short People

Many people tend to forget the body type that excels at gymnastics. Most gymnasts are barely 5’6”. The typical gymnast does not weigh over 140 lbs. They train since the age of 3+ and work many hours a day. In other words, for many individuals gymnastic training would end up in frustration and unjustified self-hatred. It’s like a short guy trying to dunk a basketball. It does not matter how hard you try, the guys who are 6’7” will always be better and much more efficient than you. It goes both ways though. Imagine somebody as tall as Michael Jordan trying to perform a planche, iron cross, maltese or even just a front lever. For a guy like that gymnastic training should be limited to the basics.

I am not writing all of this to put down gymnastic training. I prefer bodyweight training for the upper body myself. I would often advise beginners to get their dips to 3×20 and pull-ups to 3×15 before adding other upper body exercises to their routines. When somebody can do the above numbers, you know two things – they have an upper body base and are lean.

You can try and do the following experiment. Go to StartingStrength.com, where 25% BF is considered low, and ask how many of them can do 20 dips. Most would say: “Barbell training is the most effective way to get stronger. The low bar squat works the most muscle mass and that’s why it’s the best. Drink milk if you are less than 200 lbs..blah, blah…” I would rather squat lower numbers and be able to do many bodyweight exercises than get fat simply to amplify some arbitrary barbell numbers, which will remain pathetic with or without me having a big fat gut.

In conclusion

Different people were born for different things. Trying to make a basketball player out of a gymnast is just not practical. I would rather be the one I was born to be instead of feeling miserable for things I cannot change. Everybody here has many lessons to learn. For me, one of hardest is to accept who I am. You may never be a muscle machine doing crazy stuff on the rings, but who cares anyway.

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