Gymnasts have the ultimate combination of flexibility and strength: they’re powerhouses whose bodies can do seemingly inhuman things. To explore what sets gymnastic training apart from more traditional strength training, Tim Ferriss called on Christopher Sommer, who spent 20 years coaching the U.S. national gymnastics team.
As a world-renowned coach, Sommer is known for building his students into some of the most powerful and resilient athletes in the world. More recently, he’s focused on GymnasticBodies, a training system he developed to help regular folks benefit from the same type of intentional, holistic training he brought to his athletes.
During his extensive 40-year coaching career, Coach Sommer took meticulous notes on his training techniques, his wins and failures. Those four decades of careful observation led to the birth of Gymnastics Strength Training™ (or GST), with which Sommer hopes to help athletes avoid chronic injury and train for longevity and functional fitness.
In an extended conversation for an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, Ferriss asks Sommer about his approach to training as well as the most common mistakes made by the everyday athlete. Below is an excerpt of their conversation, edited by Outside.
How would you define gymnastics strength training, or GST?
In a nutshell, it’s high-level bodyweight strength training. None of the technical training that we do for world class performance or the acrobatics or technical gymnastics, just purely the strength, joint prep, and mobility components.
You believe that many people make the mistake of training through injuries. What’s the right way to manage the pain of serious strength training?
We get people coming to us really beat up because we’re taught, “No pain, no gain.” We flip that around. We say, “No brain, no gain.” We’re not talking about the pain of fatigue. The easy way to know the difference between fatigue and injury is the sharpness of the pain and some experience. So if you’re feeling pain, and maybe it’s from a core workout, and you stop, if it’s fatigue, it’s immediately going to start to lessen. As soon as you stop, the pain starts going away. If it’s an injury and you stop, it’s immediately going to begin increasing. That’s your “oh shit” moment.
You also caution against overworking muscles.
Most beginners, they want to base all of their training off muscular fatigue. It’s problematic because muscle tissue regenerates about every 90 days from end to end, all of the cells. That’s fine. But connective tissue takes 200 to 210 days.
People can think back over all of the injuries they’ve had, and the vast majority of those injuries are joint related. It’s extremely rare for someone to have a muscle belly injury. Yet, their training, especially in the beginning, is all skewed just towards muscular development and not connective tissue development. And that’s where they get into trouble. So when they come to us, the first thing we like is for them to dial it back.
What’s the advantage to dialing back your training?
We get some people who are addicted to the adrenaline rush. They want to crawl out of the gym. And the problem with that is, if you’re a world class athlete, you can’t do that because you have to be back in the gym the next day and train again. There’s no amount of work you can do today that could offset the amount of progress you could have made throughout a properly structured week.
We tend to use two terms with our athletes. We have immature athletes and mature athletes. And it’s not an age deal, it’s an attitude deal. So an immature athlete is someone who wants what they want right now. A mature athlete is someone who is willing to do what needs to be done now to get rewarded for it later, delayed gratification. And it’s the mature athlete that, in the long run, always comes out on top. They’re always the ones with the greater longevity and the greater success. The other ones, the immature ones, if they’re really talented, they may stay ahead for a while.
But, eventually, you’re going to get so dinged and broken and beat up that they have to step aside. And the mature athletes, they’re just doing their thing day in and day out.
What are some good goals for someone who is 35 years old, does basic gym work, has an okay diet, but is new to gymnastics training? If you had to pick movements or exercises or stretches what would you choose?
So just for joints, I think we’d put Jefferson curl at top of the list. Remember, we have multiple sections of the spine. We’ve got the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. The Jefferson Curl is going to let us come through into glutes, down into our hamstrings, our calves. That’s going to hit our Achilles as well. That’s a lot of bang for your buck for one exercise. Even if that was all you did, you just did Jefferson Curl, a lot of aches and pains are going to go away.
One of the differences that you pointed out for me, which I really liked, was that, in the fitness world, it’s exercise and diet. Whereas in your world, it’s always been eat and train, right?
Eat and train. Because people are trying to stay ahead of a bad diet through exercise. And it can’t be done. If they somehow find this crazy combination of massive amounts of cardio, and they can kind of keep their weight in check, and then, they stop that cardio, they immediately start gaining.
Weight gain, weight loss, all of that should be separate from your conditioning. If your nutrition is dialed in, your body is going to find its natural, healthy weight that it’s going to operate at. Now, if you want to be the giant muscle guy, and that’s not your phenotype, your body type, tough shit.
Deal with it. It’s not going to change. You’re not going to change your phenotype. You’re not going to change your body’s genetic expression. That being said, you can maximize what your potential is. What we hammer through to our students is you’re not responsible for the hand of cards you were dealt. You’re responsible for maxing out what you were given.