In 2004, Christopher Sommer posted an article on Dragon Door that introduced the fitness world to the benefits of gymnastic-style training.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this article and his similar post on T-Nation are partially responsible for the current interest in the use of gymnastic type movements for exercise in the mainstream.
But was that really where this all started?
Bodyweight training has been popular for a long time. Bodyweight feats of strength were a mainstay of old-time bodybuilders’ routines and perfomances. We just sort of “forgot” about them in the 80s, what with all the spandex and all.
Building The Gymnastic Body
At any rate, Sommer’s book, Building the Gymnastic Body, was the first book to really show the average fitness enthusiast how real gymnasts actually train to build their incredible skills and strength.
Over the past couple of years since GMB released Rings One, I’ve had quite a few people ask me what I thought about Sommer and his Gymnastic Bodies programs.
To tell the truth, I haven’t really wanted to comment, mainly because I haven’t used the program. I spent a good portion of my youth training with my own coach, Mark Folger, and I learned many of the moves in BtGB well over twenty years ago. Some of the methods we used were similar, and some were different, but that’s not grounds for reviewing Sommer’s work.
So I just kept my mouth shut, pretty much… Until now.
Why The Change?
The fact is, people have been comparing GMB vs Gymnastic Bodies for quite a while now.
And they’re going to continue to do so. That’s because it’s natural to scope out the landscape before you make a commitment to follow a particular style of training. Not only that, but people deserve to have all the information they need to make informed choices.
So far, we’ve left it to others to make these comparisons, because… well, we’re biased.
It’s not that we think we know what’s best for everybody. I said we’re biased, not delusional. But we do have a very specific idea of what we’re trying to achieve, and we work extremely hard to make sure our programs meet our own requirements.
And it would be unfair to judge somebody else’s program by our own biased requirements.
Yet, I still get more emails and Facebook messages about this every week, and if I don’t go on and address it, I may never see an empty inbox again. So here we are.
A Quick Aside
Before we get going here, I also want to say that I really have no opinion of Christopher Sommer as a person. We’ve never met, and my only personal contact with him was a snide email he sent a few years ago, but maybe he was having a bad day. Or maybe that’s just how he is.
I know that he was a very successful boys’ gymnastics coach, and that’s about it.
It’s important to mention this because I know that, when somebody critiques my work – even when it’s almost entirely complimentary – I take it personally. After all, it’s my livelihood and something I care deeply about. I wouldn’t want anybody to get the idea that I’m trying to smear a guy for sharing his knowledge.
Coaching experience is a precious commodity, and it’s something we should value.
I have a lot of respect for anyone who shares their knowledge and passion so others can benefit from it.
My Gymnastics Experience Was Just The Beginning
One thing we say over and over again here at GMB is that we don’t teach gymnastics.
None of us are gymnasts.
I used to be. And I was pretty good, too. Not great, but good. When I was a young gymnast in Kansas, I learned from Coach Folger and competed around the Midwest.
(You can read more about my early training and how a stupid injury ended my gymnastics career if you’re interested. It’s not really relevant to this article, but suffice it to say that I spent a good number of my formative years immersed in gymnastic sport.)
But that’s not all…
After gymnastics, I spent many years competing in martial arts. Then I learned and was certified in hatha yoga. Then I became a personal trainer and learned how to adjust “ideal” exercises to meet the abilities and goals of individual clients.
Only after all of that did I start GMB along with two partners who each brought just as much and just as varied experience to the table. We know a few things about how people train in various sports, and we’ve honed the craft of presenting effective methods in a way that people can easily understand.
So no, we’re not gymnasts. We’re teachers.
Gymnasticbodies.com Critiques GMB
As I wrote above, I’ve never felt comfortable giving an opinion on Sommer or GB since I’d never known anybody who really followed it for very long. To be honest, most of the feedback I’ve personally heard is from people who couldn’t figure out how to get started with it, which led them to GMB.
Which makes sense. Gymnastics is a demanding sport, and you can’t just learn it in three or four short sessions a week.
It requires a lot of in person, on the spot feedback, and a lot of repetitions after that feedback. And let me tell you, I remember when I was practicing gymnastics that it seemed like the bad days outnumbered the good!
But a few months ago, despite my reticence to comment on BtGB, it was brought to my attention that there seem to be a few people in Sommer’s crew who feel qualified to comment on GMB.
GymnasticBodies.com has a pretty active forum where people that have read the book and are working through the program can go and ask questions and seek help. One member apparently finds GMB “lacks the depth” of his system and “not as methodical” as many adult gymnastic programs.
That’s really interesting to me, since I can’t find his name in our client records.
Sure, he downloaded one of our free programs once, and maybe he saw a couple of the many free tutorials we put up on our blog, but judging our entire system on the basis of a single freebie program is like measuring Eddie Van Halen’s entire career by his solo on Michael Jackson’s Beat It.
Sorry dude, but you don’t get to comment until you’ve at least listened through 1984 and 5150 (though you can totally skip the Sammy Hagar stuff).
The variety of people online teaching bodyweight and gymnastic skill for strength and conditioning these days is huge. Some of my favorites are Beast Skills, Al Kavadlo, Eat Move Improve, BarStarzz, and The Strength Project. These guys are not ripoffs of anybody. They are the culmination of each person’s experience in their own training and in teaching others.
No one owns the quest for strength, health, and fitness.
And that variety is a good thing for you, because it means that you get to explore and discover what resonates with you.
There’s Really No Competition Going on Here
GMB has grown so much over the past two and a half years, and I think we can be rightfully proud of it.
What began as a way to share my return to the training of my youth has turned into a wonderful community of people seeking vitality and self expression through the discipline of exercise training.
We’ve shared how we started GMB and how it wasn’t just our company that has progressed in this time, but myself as well. I returned to this type of training just a few years ago and am very happy to say that I’m continuing to progress from where I was in demonstrating Rings One to this year’s Level Two programs.
I think it means something when the developer of programs actually continues to progress. It’s not just what I’ve done, but what I’m continuing to do.
Over the years of working with so many different types of people of all levels of ability, we’ve been able to ferret out the most efficient ways to train for the “average” client.
No, we aren’t in the business of creating gymnasts.
We’ve always said that if you want that you should go to a gymnastics center. We are in the business of providing quality information and programming for people that would like to be stronger, move freely, and have fun along the way.
We choose skills and exercises that seem just out of reach and work steadily towards them.
Why a Pure Gymnastic Program Isn’t Right For Everyone
A pure gymnastics based training program will definitely lead to very good gains in strength, flexibility, and body composition. You only have to take the quickest glance at competitive gymnasts to see that this is true.
But do you really need a Jr. National Team coach? Why not just go the whole nine yards and find an Olympic coach?
We all know that’s not necessary for general fitness purposes.
Nobody learns to drive from a Formula 1 racer – well, not most people anyway. And there are still a lot of perfectly capable drivers on the road. (Except in LA, NY, and ATL…)
Training Context Matters
The fact is that Christopher Sommer is an excellent coach. He’s great at training young boys to become fairly high-level gymnasts. He can predictably achieve these kind of results in only 20 hours a week for five to ten years.
Seriously, that’s a great record!
But that’s not the situation most people I know find themselves in.
Methods Must Match Goals
The protocols and methods you use to train a young athlete on a 20-hour-a-week schedule is not going to be the best fit for an adult with work and family commitments. It just isn’t, and we all need to stop pretending that we can follow the same programs as high-level athletes. Or even that we need to in order to make good progress.
Yes, many of the skill progressions are the same. The progressions shown in BtGB are perfectly workable for almost anyone. They make sense, and they get results.
But they’re not the only way to skin a cat. (Skinning the cat… get it? Ha. Haha.)
Anyway, there are other progressions that could work just as well. In fact, for many people who lack an athletic background, a different progression is necessary – one with smaller jumps from one skill to the next.
And it’s not a matter of “gymnastic coaches know better than fitness coaches” either.
Don’t forget that I also trained under a great gymnastics coach for years. I didn’t reach the same levels as Sommer’s best students, but I did well, trained for many years, and I remember how I trained to get there.
I’m also still in touch with Coach Folger and talk to him periodically.
Not every gymnastics coach teaches the same way Sommer does. That doesn’t make him wrong, but it shows that there are other perfectly good methods to achieve these skills. You don’t have to follow the lead of just one person.
Quality, Quantity, and Appropriateness
Here’s the thing: Gymnastic Bodies is a good resource for anyone interested in learning how gymnasts train. Sommer shows clear progressions that seem to work for some people.
And if you’re lucky enough to be one of them, it might be perfect, but if you’re a beginner and you just want to get started right away, you’re likely going to find yourself frustrated after a few months when the progress slows down.
GMB doesn’t have the number one, ultimate path to gymnastics mastery.
But we do have clear and detailed video tutorials of every single exercise and explicit charts that explain what to do every day of the week. We have programs for beginners and intermediate trainees.
“Intermediate,” in our case, means somebody who is able to perform the routines that we teach in our Level One programs.
Of course, all of this is still very solidly in the “beginner” category for a gymnast, but that’s okay since you probably aren’t going to train 20 hours a week. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
I’m very happy that our programs have been well received by tens of thousands of people in the last few years. Not too shabby. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and am very gratified to hear from people that we’ve given them their zest for training back.
And all without the need to feel like you’re beating yourself up or that you’re on a ceaseless quest to attain “elite” status.
So, which one is better?
If you’ve read this far, you probably won’t be surprised that I think this is the wrong question to be asking. A far better one is this:
Which is a better fit for your needs?
GMB isn’t like most companies that try to convince you they have all the answers. We aren’t “fitness gurus” on some kind of infallible mountaintop of perfection.
And if you’re ever uncertain, all you have to do is get in touch. We’ll shoot you straight.
In fact, we’re fairly well known for recommending that people NOT buy our programs if we don’t think it’s a good for their personal needs and goals.
Competition and an “Us vs. Them” mentality is a very natural part of being human. It’s understandable. It’s nice to go to a place where we know everyone will agree with us. It gives us validation and a sense of comfort to feel that the group we are in has the keys to the kingdom and that everyone else is less than.
I can’t really blame people for wanting to compare, but it can be a limiting mindset.
Instead, why not appreciate what everyone has to offer, while still feeling good about what you are working on yourself? It’s not a competition. It’s not even a competition with yourself.
Interestingly, Coach Folger wrote about this recently as well.
Finding Your Own Right Path
Ultimately, in the bigger scheme of things, this is all just small beans. What I care about is people improving their strength, movement, and health in a way that’s fun yet challenging and sustainable.
Can we do this for the rest of our lives? Because that’s what it’s really all about.
So whether you feel what we are providing is best for you, or some other method, as long as you are feeling good and happy about it, that’s all that matters.
These days, I have much less of a compulsion to compare myself to others. To me it seems healthier, and leads to more sustainable progress with less potential for burnout and a self-punishing attitude.
GMB has never been about telling you what to think.
What are you looking to get out of your training? We hope that it’s being the best you can be for yourself, and not for others. We all have to make a choice regarding which attitude we are going to have about life. Whether to fund our self-worth in comparison to others, or to go beyond that and do what’s right and appropriate for ourselves and our lives.
We’ve got a variety of programs to help you get what YOU want from your training.