Applying Gymnasts Progressions To The Lower Body

by: Kelly Baggett

Loaded heavy bodyweight movements like chin-ups are staples in every good strength training program because they carry-over so well to real life activities. You won't ever hear a good strength coach tell you that a lat pulldown is better than a chin-up.

It is rare to see an experienced gymnast who doesn't have very good relative body strength, body control, and stability. The way gymnasts develop these attributes is by progressing through exercises that involve manipulating their bodyweight through harder and harder basic pushup, pull-up and dipping variations. Here is an example of what I'm talking about:

Planche Pushup

Planche pike

A lot of gymnasts can go directly into the weight room without ever touching a weight and throw up a double bodyweight bench press easily. Upper body progressions like chins and dips clearly offer impressive strength benefits to the athlete as well. However, most common sports like football, basketball, track, and volleyball are lower body dominant. Many team sport athletes perform lower body resistance training, yet I do not see most of these lower body dominant athletes utilizing their legs as efficiently as gymnasts use their arms. So, I asked myself, what would happen if I used a series of progressions for the lower body similar to what gymnasts use for their upper body progressions?"

It is simple to take a beginner and immediately start them out on loaded movements like squats, deadlifts, and lunges. The problem with this is the same problem we encounter when we compare movements like lat pulldowns to chins and dips. Without the ability to first manipulate bodyweight effectively, the other exercises don't work quite as well.

Try this: Take 2 young athletes at the same relative strength levels. Place one of them on a program of bench presses, rows, lat pulldowns, and curls. Place the other one on variations of chins and dips. At the end of one month see which one improves strength the most. Now does that mean I'm saying to kiss the weights good-bye? No! Not at all. I'm just saying that your useable strength will progress much quicker if, when possible, you get strong by mastering your bodyweight either before, or at the same time, you get strong with common weight training movements.

So for strength development, in addition to a focus on getting athletes proficient on pull-ups and dips (which many good coaches already do), what I do with young athletes is introduce a series of progressions that ultimately leads to them being able to perform a single leg deadlift and a single leg perfect squat.

Single leg deadlift

Single leg pistol squat

This does a few things:

1. There are a multitude of smaller muscles that stabilize the hips, knees, and ankles. Think of the "rotator cuff muscles", but for the hips and legs instead of the shoulders. These muscle are hit hard by single leg resistance variations, yet so are the prime movers (the quads, glutes, and hams). Strengthening these muscles in conjunction with the prime movers seems to give the athlete an increased efficiency when it comes to gaining strength. When they do begin to focus more on loaded movements like squats, their strength quickly shoots up through the roof.

2. For the same reason that a chin-up not only builds strength quicker and builds more transferable strength than a lat pulldown, it enables them to develop useable strength that much faster.

3. It ensures the athlete can properly stabilize their bodyweight through motions that take place over a greater range of motion typically encountered in sport. This may help prevent injury.

Females in particular will readily improve their athleticism as they improve their ability to control their own bodyweight. I have seen very few females that can do a proper single leg squat, pullup, dip and single leg deadlift. I also haven't known a single one who can accomplish those tasks who isn't in probably the top 1% of all females from an athletic standpoint.

I believe the single leg "knee to the floor" deadlift is the most under-rated strength training movement there is. It requires a great degree of glute strength, which is where it's at if you wanna be powerful. The pistol squat is like doing a bodyweight front squat on one leg and requires a great degree of quadricep and glute strength.

Here are some progressions for the movements:

Single Leg Deadlift

Single leg squat

Movement Efficiency

Work through the above progressions until you can do a full single leg deadlift touching your back knee to the floor and a full single leg squat without a box. Couple the above with proper movement efficiency and that will vastly improve the athleticism of just about everyone. How do I ascertain and develop proper movement efficiency? Well there are many ways but here a couple of easy ones: First, stand on one leg and hop back and forth over an imaginary line for 5 seconds. If you can't move smoothly and need to pause and reset yourself you need work.

Single leg lateral hops

To improve it simply practice the drill. Next, take a low box or stair about 6-8 inches high. Stand on one leg and jump up on it. Then off. Repeat with the box to your right side. Then left side. You should be able to hop on and off the box without stumbling or using the other leg for balance.

Single Leg Box Jumps

A Program

A simple way to put together a program for the squat and deadlift variations is to start at a progression and perform 2-3 sets of as many reps as possible 3 days per week. Two days per week will also work. Once you can get more than 10 reps on a progression with both legs, advance to the next progression.

Perform the movement efficiency drills first in each workout. Use sets of 10 seconds on the lateral hops and sets of 3 each direction on the box jumps.

In addition to these, I would also add in some pushup and chinup progressions. What I would like to see is at least one full range dip and one full range chin-up. (This works great for females) The typical progression for each, assuming one is initially quite weak, might go:

Dip progression:

pushup on knees (get to where you can do 10 before moving onto the next progression)

regular pushup

feet elevated pushup

negative dip (lower on a 5 count with assistance on the way up)

full range dip

Chin-up progression:

inverted row

Image Hosted by

pullup hold top position (hold the top position for 10 seconds)

negative pullup (lower on a 5 count - use partner assistance on the way up)

full range pullup

So a simple workout would look like this:

lateral hops: 2-3 x 10 seconds/leg

single leg box jumps: 3 x 3 forward, left, and right per leg

single leg squat variation: 2-4 sets x as many reps as possible (not more than 10)

single leg deadlift variation: 2-4 sets x as many reps as possible (not more than 10)

Dip progression movement: 2-4 sets

Chin progression movement: 2-4 sets

There you go. Another benefit to this is it really requires no equipment whatsoever. Now what if you can already perform all the aforementioned movements? Well, then you've passed phase I of my strength development standards. That's when you'd focus on driving up movements like squats, bench presses, deadlifts, split squats, and loaded chin-ups.

If you found this article helpful please pass it along to every athlete, coach, and anyone else you feel might benefit.

My Products