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Learning From Olympians

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Three-time olympian Dominique Dawes demonstrates elements from her fitness routine that can be used in an everyday workout. Video by Atkinson & Co.

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By Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dominique Dawes has three Olympic medals, one of the best nicknames in sports ("Awesome Dawesome") and the ability to sit in a split for hours on end. So what doesn't the legendary gymnast have? Weights.

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The same goes for Justin Spring, the 24-year-old Burke native who's one of the stars of this year's men's gymnastics team. The only weights he picks up during the season are teensy dumbbells for his shoulder rehab. "It's all body weight," he says. "That's what translates to what we do. You could bench press 300 pounds, but that won't help you on the rings. We're using the tiniest stabilizer muscles."

You might not be planning to dangle from rings anytime soon, but there's a lesson in this for all of us: Body parts can be even more effective than barbells for building strength. Balancing, hopping and holding are what Spring will rely on in competition in Beijing and what Dawes uses to maintain her physique in retirement. these are principles you can incorporate into what you do, too.

Dawes, 31, first learned this lesson at Hill's Gymnastics in Gaithersburg from owner Kelli Hill, who guided Dawes's career from 1982 to 2000 and coached the U.S. women's team for the 2004 Games in Athens. "Gymnastics is an incredible amount of work, and they make it look so easy," Hill says.

For the young elite gymnasts at Hill's, biceps curls aren't going to cut it. A handstand, however, will. "It requires a great deal of balance, shoulder strength and the ability to hold your body straight," Hill says. Another classic gymnastics move, the hollow hold, is killer for the core: Lying on their backs, they raise their legs slightly and roll their shoulders off the ground, so they're balancing on their lower backs -- and then, for the hard part, they stay in that position.

Both of those moves are part of the Dawes routine today, which is still grueling but more sane (and shorter) than her former exercise schedule. "I don't need to train like I used to. Many times now, it's only 30 minutes a day," says Dawes, who lives in the Maryland suburbs but flits about the globe giving inspirational speeches and conducting gymnastics workshops.

Yet just like in the old days, Dawes's personal workouts often start with her favorite form of cardio, skipping rope. "I don't think people jump enough," she says. Perhaps it's no surprise that a woman who spent her childhood leaping off springboards continues to carry a torch for jumping. But Dawes thinks folks who keep their feet on the ground are missing out on an activity that's portable, cheap and a guaranteed calorie scorcher. Once she segues into strength, she adds jumps to squats and lunges, too. Always landing with perfect form, of course.

She still does triceps dips (sitting with her hands holding the edge of a chair, she shifts her tush forward into the air and then lowers down with her arms), mountain climbers (in push-up position, she picks up one knee and brings it toward her head, then switches) and tricky pistol squats (lowering herself down on one leg, then sitting on her butt, rolling back and standing up on the one leg again). And she'll never stop doing back bridges, except instead of kicking her leg into the air for a back walkover, it's part of her yoga practice.

The one exercise from the past that Dawes won't do anymore is the rope climb. It's not that it was so tough -- even though Hill insisted she couldn't use her legs and had to keep them in a pike position. But Dawes has a fear of heights. "The first time I saw that thing hanging from the ceiling, I was like, 'No, that's not happening,' " she says. Plus, "when you weigh more, it's harder."

Spring, however, has to do all of the rope climbing his coach demands, because that's one of the ways he works the muscles critical for bar dismounts.

Most of the moves in his repertoire are ones the majority of humans could never imagine doing. Planche presses, anyone? That involves lying on your stomach and pushing yourself into a handstand. Spring also does leg lifts off a bar: From a hang, he pulls his legs up so his toes touch the bar, takes his legs back down so his body forms an L and then raises them again.

But there is a chance someone out there could want to copy the inverted sit-up, which is part of Spring's abs routine. He hangs upside down with his knees over a pommel horse and his coach holding his shins, and then pulls his torso up. And rebounding sounds doable with a lot of practice (and toppling over): Standing on one leg, hop so that the leg goes from the ground into your chest. He'll do that moving in every direction across the length of the floor.

Strength, flexibility and balance aren't just key for snagging those perfect 10s. Gymnasts need these sorts of abilities as a safety net. As Spring says, "You're hurling your body 18 feet in the air. If you catch the mat incorrectly, you'll break bones and tear ligaments."

That's the sort of thing Dawes thinks about as she adapts her exercise to post-Olympics life. She might not need to stick the landing to a win a medal, but no one wants to fall down while strutting along the street -- or in her case, the curb. "I walk on it like it's a balance beam and I'll start doing baby leaps without even realizing it," she admits.

It seems there's just one thing about her gymnastics training that she regrets. "When I was a young athlete, we didn't have time for anything else," says Dawes, who's now exploring cross-training by taking up golf. "I figure that's what people do when they retire."

And because it's a game that requires midsection strength, you'd think she'd be a natural after all those hollow holds, right? "I just need to remember to use my strong core," she says, demonstrating her swing.

So maybe another Olympics is out, but there's still the LPGA Tour to conquer. She is, after all, Awesome Dawesome.


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