Having a very small percentage of body fat definitely helps, but even so, how is it possible to do backflips etc. being so slim, while people with huge muscles can't even lift off the ground.

What kind of exercise routines do they employ and why do they not gain muscle? Do the existing muscles become stonger?

  • 1
    This just goes to show that thin, lean athletes have nothing to fear from the "buffed" guys at the gym, regarding strength
    – user12054
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 19:59

2 Answers 2


I have no idea where you're getting your body image from of male ballet performers (as an example) being anything other than powerhouses. They don't train for hypertrophy, but plenty of male dancers (contemporary, ballet, etc) have very muscular physiques.

I'd venture to guess that the guy below (a contemporary dancer) has far better strength performance and lean body mass then your typical goofball in the gym with a baseball cap on. Pound for pound, athletes that require lots of strength in various positions will generally optimize their power-to-weight as much as possible.

enter image description here

Most male gymnasts are short, but muscle and strength wise they are phenomenal. If you hang out with some contemporary dance guys you'll start noticing that the good ones are pretty damn ripped. Aesthetics matter in that field, so being fat-strong doesn't work, they dance for hours a day, and if they screw up a move they can hurt themselves or someone else.

enter image description here


There are many different variables at play here, and it's not just restricted to exercise routines...

Weight: It takes less effort to push a 110 lb body off the mat than it does a 200 lb body, so by having a leaner body they are more efficient with their muscles.

Practice: It takes practice to do complex moves, and flips are certainly no exception. Simply having an identical body type to gymnast does not mean you can backflip. More than anything you need to practice.

Muscle Density: I like to compare bodybuilder muscles to that of a peacock... large, beautiful, intimidating, but really just a facade. Contrast this with a strength trainer's muscles which are more akin to a leopard... lean, not very large, but powerful and deadly. Gymnasts fall into the latter category of having muscle that is small, but incredibly dense and powerful.

As for actual exercise routines? That I cannot attest to, having never been professionally trained as a gymnast. That said, it should adhere to a few basic principles:

  • Functional strength. You want to build a base amount of strength that is functional. For example, low rep high intensity squats/deadlifts.
  • Power. Strength is not enough to do gymnastic moves, you also need explosive power. Examples of good exercises to improve your power are push press and clean and jerks.
  • Practice. You need to practice the actual movements, the flips and the tricks.

I would place practice as the most important part of the regimen and certainly requiring the most time and effort. That said, strength and power are very important as they create the foundation upon which your moves rely upon.

  • 3
    Bodybuilders are strong, no doubt on that... saying that bodybuilders are just a facade is a joke. their training has nothing to do with "how to be a gymast".
    – e1che
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 12:07
  • 1
    A clean and jerk is not a gymnastic move. It's an Olympic weightlifting move. Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 14:15
  • Agree with both these points, however the main points of this answer are correct - weight and specific practice are key. I can speak as a former 200lb wanna-be gymnast (I was once the worst vaulter in the entire NCAA! :-))
    – G__
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 15:12
  • @e1che the comparison was really to illustrate the point that muscle size and strength are not 1:1. Can you be strong as a body builder? Absolutely. I'll concede that I understated the strength of bodybuilders to emphasize the underlying point that strength does not correlate to muscle size.
    – Moses
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 23:56
  • @DaveLiepmann Looking back at what I wrote, it was a grammatical ambiguity. What I was trying to express was that moves like clean/jerk will build power, and that power will be beneficial to gymnastic moves like flips. I reworded to remove this confusion.
    – Moses
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 23:59

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