When done correctly advanced gymnastic/ whole bodyweight movements are made to look easy and effortless by those who are completing them. This gives the sense to the naked eye that they are simple to do and learn!
Most of these movements however are just the tip of an iceberg that is constructed of multiple methods of strength training split between general and specific exercises. Below we have classified the training of a bodyweight skill in a pyramid format:
So, what is the difference between general and specific strength in terms of bodyweight movements?
General strength is at the base of the pyramid and is the first and most extensive part of learning a whole bodyweight skill. In bodyweight movements general strength is necessary to protect the joints and give the correct muscle bulk/ mass needed to apply the required force to a resistance.
Specific strength comes next in the pyramid and its purpose is to bridge the gap between general strength and the whole skill by training the muscles that have been built in general strength to work in a desired way. This could be done in a static or active movement that is directly suited to the skill being learnt.
The final phase in the pyramid is the whole skill itself. After all the general and specific strength for that skill has been completed, the body and muscles are ready to attempt the skill in its entirety safely.
Let’s do an example and show the pyramid in action with a relatively simple gymnastic/ bodyweight movement, a handstand:
Working backwards we break down each movement from the top to the bottom of the pyramid. This is done so that we can construct a program to help teach the skill effectively from the beginning to the end. Suddenly a very simple looking skill such as a handstand becomes very complex.
Specifically, the handstand requires a straight line in the body shape held together with a tight core, balancing the whole of the body’s weight through the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
The body must therefore be trained specifically to recruit all core muscles together in a dish (hollow) hold position for example. The body must also be trained to align the wrists, elbows and shoulders correctly to balance for example in a box assisted tucked handstand.
Working further down the pyramid the specific strength required needs to be broken down further into more general strength-based exercises. This is to provide the needed joint protection and muscle bulk required as mentioned previously.
The dish hold requires strong abdominals and a strong lower back, so it is necessary to perform exercises such as crunches and deadlifts to a desired level before the dish hold can be completed correctly. In conjunction with this performing a tucked handstand puts a lot of pressure on the shoulders, elbows and wrist joints so a desired level of general strength around these areas needs to be completed before the tucked handstand is safe to try. Exercises such as bicep curls and push ups can help build the necessary general strength.
When designing a program, all the above factors need to be considered for it to be the most effective at teaching a selected skill. If any of the steps in the pyramid are missed or completed incorrectly simple bodyweight movements can become dangerous and complex bodyweight movements if attempted without the proper background training can be catastrophic.
Imagine an average Joe for example attempting a backwards sault, a very complex bodyweight movement without any prior training. We have all seen fail videos of how that can end up!
Vast levels of thought and a high level of overall knowledge of bodyweight movements needs to be present when constructing a program for technical skills. Its one thing to have the knowledge on how to program to adapt muscles in a general training sense but a whole other level when applying that further to specific training and skill training. If you want to learn a skill safely and correctly don’t risk following a mediocre plan made by someone with unsuitable knowledge.