Now that the 2012 Olympics are in full force, we’re all reminded of the astonishing level of development the human body can achieve. You only need to look at the physiques of the gymnasts for proof. The guys who perform the rings and pommel horse events have the most impressive muscle development I’ve ever seen on natural athletes.
If your muscle-building efforts have come to a halt, I’ll bet that you’ve been searching for the latest program to get you out of that rut. Maybe you think you need more volume or a higher training frequency or a new set of exercises? Those elements are important, but most likely, that’s not the problem.
For the last few years I’ve spent most of my own training time around future Olympic gymnasts. Each week while training to improve my rings technique, I observe athletes of all ages: from 5 years old through high school teenagers. One thing I’ve noticed is there’s very little variety in their training. They don’t perform dozens and dozens of different exercises with varying sets, reps, and tempo. Instead, they focus on a handful of exercises on the rings, parallel bars, pommel horse, etc. However, their level of muscle development at such a young age is impressive.
Here’s the key: as these young athletes improve their technique with better control on the rings, etc. their muscle development also improves. How? Because it’s takes greater muscle activation to perfectly control a movement.
This is similar to Olympic weightlifters who compete in the snatch and clean and jerk. They don’t perform a lot of different exercises, either. In most cases they just do the two Olympic lifts along with a few assistance exercises. And man do those Olympic weightlifters have impressive physiques: especially in the lower weight classes where their body fat must be kept to a minimum.
How do gymnasts and Olympic weightlifters achieve head-turning muscle development with such little variety in their training? Because they constantly focus on achieving perfect technique with every rep.
So what is perfect technique? It’s when you maintain perfect control of the movement and your posture. This allows you to achieve the highest levels of muscle tension and motor unit recruitment. Unfortunately, there’s minimal focus on technique these days and that can lead to three problems: less muscle, less strength, and a higher risk of injury.
Take a typical YouTube video of the muscle-up, for example. You’ll often see kipping and a forward head posture to pull off the move. Kipping became a necessary aspect of the muscle-up because people weren’t strong enough to pull their body into the correct position. And the abrupt forward head posture is a neural reflex mechanism that can mess up your neck, shoulders, or both.
I mention the muscle-up for good reason. It’s an advanced exercise that people attempt to pull off when they’re not ready. One of the reasons I started my Rings and Power seminar is to teach athletes and trainers how to “peel back” the advanced rings exercises. There’s a strong emphasis on perfect technique, right from the start, and then the moves become more complex over time. When you focus on perfect technique you gain three benefits.
More muscle: controlling the instability of the rings requires intense focus between the mind and muscles. This enhanced mind-muscle connection increases motor unit recruitment so you can build muscle faster.
More strength: rings and other body weight exercises require you to slow down the movements and focus on high-tension muscle contractions to stabilize and move your body through space. These high-tension contractions recruit your largest, strongest motor units.
Lower risk of injury: when you perform exercises with your glutes and abs activated, and when you keep your neck packed (chin tucked and head neutral with the spine), your spinal column is in its ideal position to release the most neural input to the muscles while minimizing stress to your neck and shoulder joints.
So each time you perform an exercise, imagine you’re being tested on it. Keep your core and glutes activated, keep your head neutral with the spine, and focus on achieving as much tension as possible in the peak contraction phase.
Now, I know that perfect technique can’t be taught in a blog post, but when you learn how to do challenging exercises such as the muscle-up and handstand push-up from the rings with control, your muscle development will reach a new level.