If you’ve tuned into any of the 2016 pre-Olympics coverage thus far or checked out our feature on some of the fittest Olympians, you’ve probably noticed that the male gymnasts in particular are a bunch of pretty jacked dudes.
What you may not have realized—until you saw the photo above showing the 1984 team alongside the 2016 team—is that male gymnasts weren’t always so “big.” Don't get us wrong: the guys in 1984 were absolutely strong and obviously fit (see photo below) but muscle size wasn't as neccessary for the sport back then as it is today.
“The sport has changed, and it really takes somebody physically strong to do some of the things that you’ve gotta do,” says Tim Daggett, a member of the U.S.'s 1984 gold-medal winning men’s Olympic team and a gymnastics analyst for NBC. “When I was competing, you had to do one strength part on rings. Nowadays, the majority of the elements that give you the higher potential score are strength elements, so you’re seeing guys who are doing four, five, or sometimes even six strength parts,” explains Daggett. The changing of the rules—which happens every four years—really dictated the need to get stronger, he says.
“There were a lot more swinging elements, rather than strength,” adds Jake Dalton, a member of the 2016 Olympics men’s gymnastics team. “On top of that, we have a lot of other upper body events like parallel bars where you need some strength for doing what we call upper arm skills—where you’re swinging from your arms, doing a flip and then catching again,” he says.
The supplemental workouts of modern day gymnasts may not look too different from the ones you’re doing yourself in the gym.
But they certainly are way different from anything that Daggett and his teammates were doing back in 1984. “We didn’t lift weights at all back then,” he says.
Today, male gymnasts are pumping iron (Dalton weight trains about twice a week) in the gym we’re more familiar with—one that doesn’t have parallel bars and balance beams but instead is filled with barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. They’re also seeking strength coaches: Male gymnasts are consulting with strength coaches at a higher level now than they were even 30 years ago, a spokesperson from USA Gymnastics told Men’s Fitness. Gymnastics coaches are looking outside of the sport—to a strength trainer who could suggest exercises that aren’t necessarily gymnastics bodyweight ones.
“In gymnastics, you are using so many different muscle groups at once to help yourself through, and I think that’s where the weight training has helped me to isolate specific muscles that were weak before,” says Dalton—just as a basketball player might do lunges or squat exercises to strengthen his vertical leap, or a soccer player might do single-leg hops to increase his shooting power.
“I don’t necessarily max out, but try and exhaust certain body parts,” says Dalton. The bench press a crucial exercise for a gymnast focused on rings, although Dalton cut it out now that he’s getting so close to competition and more intensely training for a gymnastics routine. “The free-weight bench press helped me with some strength exercises on rings because it helped me strengthen my pecs,” Dalton says, noting that nailing it takes a strong chest to really nail these maneuvers. But he’s sure to work on that symmetry, just as a bodybuilder—or any guy looking to perfect his physique—might do. “On chest days, I’ll make sure I throw one or two back exercises in there so I’m not overloading myself on chest,” Dalton says.
Here’s what a circuit workout might look like for Dalton in the lead up to the Olympics:
-Bicep Curls with EZ-curl Bar
-Seated Arnold press
What’s missing? “I actually don’t do any squats or legs exercises. I have pretty big legs for a gymnast anyway, so I’m not trying to gain size for those,” he says.
It’s not just Dalton who hits the weights on the regular.
“He’s massive—one of those guys who just naturally is a beast,” says Dalton, of Donnell Whittenburg, an alternate for the Olympic team.
“Alex Naddour, my teammate on the Olympics team, has figured out what works best for him. He’s one of our best pommel horse guys but he’s extremely strong on rings as well. He’s one of the biggest, bulkiest guys, but he’s still super flexible and strong," says Dalton.
“One of our strongest and biggest ring guys is Brandon Wynn—He’s able to put the strength elements on rings because he’s had years and years of weight training in high school," says Dalton. Wynn didn’t make the Olympics team this year, but Dalton says he’s just taken strength to another level. “He’s so strong that he can maybe push through a few extra skills or things that other guys couldn’t,” says Dalton.
As any fit guy knows, you are—literally—what you eat.
You know you have to get in certain macros if you want to put on muscle. So do the guys on the 2016 Olympics team. “We’re paying more attention to what we’re eating—along with our training—that helps us increase muscle size as well,” confirms Dalton. But the guys in 1984? Not so much: “The only thing we ever worried about was what we were going to eat the night before the meet. A lot of people wanted to eat a huge carb dinner just because that’s what we thought was supposed to help us. And where did we learn that? Just anecdotal evidence, people talking, it really was incredibly unsophisticated,” says Daggett. That’s not to say it was “bad” at all—that was just where the latest in science and high performance research was then. The 2016 guys are lucky in a sense, but just wait until 2048. We can only imagine what insane science will be available then to guide athletes in training and nutrition. It’s almost certain that what we’re doing now will seem quite unsophisticated as well.
“The Olympians today have experts that are guiding them, whether it’s resources like Men’s Fitness or at the Olympic training center, having a nutritionist on staff at the individual colleges—they’re just so much further educated on that,” says Daggett.
Dalton, for one, takes full advantage of the resources available to him, planning out every last gram of protein, carbs, and fat in his day. Here’s his daily macro and calorie breakdown:
200 grams of carbs
170-180 grams of protein
65-70 grams of fat
“Sometimes, if I am dying of hunger, I will up the intake of carbs and protein, but I try to stay around there because what I’ve noticed is that keeps me around the weight that I want where I’m feeling pretty strong,” says Dalton who likes to maintain his weight at 145 to 146 pounds. “I’ve noticed that those macros for me have been a great combination of getting enough food in my body not to be starving all day.”
Here’s what he looks to for those macros:
7:30AM: Fasted workout. “I go in fasted because, especially when we have a heavier strength circuit, I feel like I’m going to get sick if I eat before, so I go in fasted,” says Dalton. [Read more about the benefits of fasted workouts here.]
8:30AM (post-workout breakfast):
-Egg white omelet with mushrooms.
-One slice toast
“The macros on those are pretty good, with a little bit of fat, some good carbs and protein, and not too much sugar,” says Dalton.
-Egg white omelet with mushrooms (yes, again)
-1 cup oatmeal
Post-workout meal / First dinner:
-6-8 oz chicken
-Salad or Brussels sprouts
-Rice cakes and PB2
-Repeat first dinner OR: Egg white omelete with mushrooms if he’s “over” on carbs.
It is still—appropriately—a delicate balance between getting enough muscle to help you in the areas where it can help you—but not so much to where it inhibits your flexibility. “Our entire sport is about being as strong and as flexible and as light as possible. You still want to be light and flexible, but you also want to be strong,” says Dalton.
(There are some events such as pommel horse where, if you are too bulky, you don’t have enough flexibility to swing with your arms behind you.) Still, as these guys clearly demonstrate, muscle mass isn’t just for the guys competing in the obvious muscle sports this year. These male gymnasts have added something we at Men’s Fitness know and love—weight training—to their already near-perfect formula for gold-medal success.
We can’t wait to see how these guys perform in Rio.