Why Pilates is a gymnast’s best friend

posted in: Blog, Pilates | 0

US-trained physiotherapist and former gymnast, Kayleigh Lewellyn, is a specialist in clinical Pilates and competitive and recreational sports physiotherapy.
She’s a firm believer in the power of Pilates for overcoming and preventing some of the sport’s most common injuries.

I was a gymnast for 10 years before university and over the last decade, it’s really continued to receive a lot of attention, especially around the Olympics. It’s a sport that many think of as requiring a lot of flexibility, BUT flexibility is only as useful as the strength and stability that supports it. The sheer power demanded by the sport means that gymnasts must pay extra attention to strengthening and stretching in their routine. A strength and conditioning focus 2-3 times per week along with event and movement specific training is essential.

I’m a huge advocate of Pilates for gymnasts. The method was first devised by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, who sought to strengthen his body following bouts of asthma and rickets as a child. He studied yoga, martial arts, Zen meditation and Greek and Roman exercises and used his knowledge to help develop his method. Over the years, Pilates has become increasingly popular for building strength and aiding rehabilitation. Based on 50 simple, repetitive movements using body weight for resistance, Pilates can be adapted to be gentle enough to provide strengthening exercises or challenging enough to break even the most elite athlete out in a sweat.
For this reason, it’s hugely beneficial for preventing and managing some of the most common gymnasts’ injuries, including:

Back pain
This is very common due to the high level of flexibility required for the back, as well as compression from tumbling. Some key areas to focus on include:

  • Pay attention to separating lumbar and hip mobility to avoid compensation through the back if you’re working on hamstring or hip flexibility.  

  • Maintaining core strengthening is important to avoid injury and limit any compensation. Strong core muscles which support the back are vital to minimizing injuries. Remember to maintain some mild stretches at home between practice and keep stretches and new moves at mild levels for longer holds while your progress slowly.

  • Pilates is a great way to gain this understanding of your body and how it moves, and address control and mobility together.

Shoulder instability
Unlike the elbow or hip, the shoulder is not a very stable joint. Its stability is provided mainly by the muscles rather than ligaments or bones. This means that control of those muscles is vital.

  • Primarily strengthening the rotator cuff (the four muscles around the joint) can provide increased stability in the shoulder and prevent injuries.

  • It’s also important to ensure that compensation from the neck, upper back or chest isn’t causing increased pressure through the shoulder. 

  • Building core stability through Pilates with a professional can help prevent compensation through the shoulder or upper-back.

Wrist sprain
Wrist stability and flexibility are vital for all aspects of gymnastics but strength and grip are particularly important for the uneven and parallel bars.

  • Try this simple wrist stretch which is great for minimizing injuries: straighten the elbow and pull the hand/fingers up,
    (holding for 30 seconds – 2 minutes) and then repeat but pull down this time.  

  • Strengthening is even more important. Another really effective exercise is to support your elbow, while bringing the hand/fingers up and down holding a light weight.

  • Be sure to progress strengthening slowly. This applies not just to wrist strengthening but the amount of training on the hands as well – such as handstands. Pilates can be a great way to address the progression while incorporating flexibility, stability and control.

Ankle instability
Ankle strength is required regardless of the event focus in gymnastics. From running and jumping with vault to the power required for tumbling, having strength and control from the ankles is vital.

  • It sounds simple but practising standing on one leg is a great way to build ankle stability. Progress it by bouncing a ball or moving your leg out to the side while you stand on the other leg to make it more difficult. You can even balance up on your toes on one leg.

  • Ankle specific strengthening such as heel raises with weights and straight leg hops are great ways to gradually progress your strength. It’s imperative to gradually progress your resistance without overdoing it. Give yourself rest days between practice or exercises.

  • Be sure to stretch your calf after practice for 30 seconds to 2 minutes at a mild stretch.

  • Taking your time after a rolled ankle to see a physio and address a progressive return to sport is important to prevent re-injury. 

Pilates is fantastic for encouraging core stability and flexibility demanded by gymnastics and can help prevent and address the types of injuries described above. It focuses on strengthening while lengthening and increasing flexibility all within a controlled range. However, it is essential to consult an experienced, qualified specialist.
A one-to-one consultation at KTB will allow us to develop an individual plan to address any weaknesses or areas of concern in your training. 

Take a look at our group Pilates classes too, 1:1 or 2:1 sessions too.