Oh the “gymnast body”, the highly coveted physique supported by unwritten rules in a sport trapped in diet culture.
There is no one “gymnast body”. There is a lot of confusion about the gymnast body, especially the growing gymnast body.
A lot of career ending mistakes are made by gymnasts doing things with their training and nutrition in effort to achieve the “gymnast body” (which is arbitrary, just look at the body diversity within the last 3 Olympic cycles).
Here are 8 truths about the gymnast body that can give you insight and direction to help your gymnast be comfortable and confident in her (or his) body as it matures.
1. You cannot control how tall you'll get. Your "genetic height potential" is from your parents.
Gymnasts are often thought of as needing to be “short” and “light”, but this just isn’t the case anymore. The current Code of Points dictates such a high degree of strength and power that the focus must shift from aesthetic to performance. Additionally, there have been a number of recent elite level gymnasts are of average height for females- Nastia Liukin 5’4, Kyla Ross 5’7, Svetlana Khorkina 5’5, etc. So yes, tell me again why gymnasts should be 5’0 or less? No evidence to support this.
“When” a gymnast hits her growth spurt is highly dependent on genetics and energy availability. Many gymnasts are under fueled and suffering from REDS (relative energy deficiency in sport) and thus are not growing and gaining as they should. This can lead to very sudden gains in height and weight when injured or significant time off occurs. While this is quite normal, the rapid growth can be very unsettling and can lead to skill struggles in the gym that will resolve with time and properly fueling.
The best practice is to fuel the gymnast adequately so that she grows normally which can help alleviate some of the “surprise” and biomechanical struggles from rapid growth. Make sure your gymnast is growing along her “own curve” on the growth chart and have a discussion with your pediatrician about her “genetic height potential” and make sure she’s on track. If she starts to fall away from the curve, this is a sign you need to check in with a dietitian nutritionist to evaluate nutrition and possible a pediatric endocrinologist as other hormonal or genetic issues could be at play. This is not something you want to put off.
2. You cannot control your weight or how/when you gain weight as an adolescent.
The average female gains 5-7 lbs from ages 9-12, and up to 10 lbs a year around ages 9-10. Then from 13-18+ years the female can gain 20-40+ lbs as part of puberty. Again, how much and when weight gain occurs is very individual and largely controlled by genetics and energy availability. The body wants what it wants, and delayed growth and development will only lead to compromised health, more frequent injuries, and shortened longevity in the sport.
3. The start of puberty brings weight gain and an increase in abdominal fat. This has nothing to do with diet/exercise, this is your body doing its job. It will re-distribute to the breasts/hips.
Another unsettling aspect of puberty that our society makes a negative thing…body change. It is not normal to look like you are 12 years old when 18, and what makes the difference is a mature body with wider hips, fuller breasts, more muscle density, and more body fat (breast, hips, thighs, etc). This is all normal and healthy and needs to be normalized in the sport of gymnastics.
Unfortunately, the start of puberty can be somewhat awkward as the female body will accumulate abdominal fat in preparation for menarche (the first period). This fat will later redistribute to the breasts and hips and is all part of biological development.
This temporary increase in abdominal fat is often blamed on “diet and exercise” when really it’s just a biologically driven occurrence that needs to happen in order for the body to continue to develop.
4. You cannot control where your body tends to store fat. In females, this is largely controlled by estrogen.
See #3 and this article. This is why some females have larger breasts, some smaller breasts, more fat in their lower extremities versus upper extremities, etc. There is a certain amount of body fat needed for menses to occur, and a higher percentage for them to remain regular which is hallmark to the female’s health and wellness. I’ve written a lot about “missing periods” and this is not good when it comes to the gymnast’s bone health and performance.
5. 90% of females have cellulite and/or stretch marks. These can happen with periods of rapid growth. It's normal.
Another “taboo” topic in the gymnastics world. Often, parents and gymnasts will come to me wanting to “get rid of cellulite” or stretch marks that have developed in the glute, hips, breast, and sometimes arm and abdominal areas. There is no magical solution to these (despite what lots of spas, dermatologists, and “health clinics” advertise).
Cellulite is simply what happens when the skin over certain areas of fat is pulled onward into the tissues by connective tissue bands which creates an uneven surface.
Yo Yo dieting is one of the worst things in terms cellulite accumulation, and unfortunately a lot of gymnasts (and other women) start dieting from a very young age.
When you lose weight, your fat cells (adipose) empty of stored triglycerides. When you gain weight back (which 95% of people do, plus some) those cells not only fill back up with triglycerides but can also double in amount. This is why never going on a diet in the first place is always the better choice than trying to shrink a body to a place it doesn’t want be, genetically.
6. Underfueling is linked to higher body fat and unfavorable body composition. Starving to "get lean" is not helping you.
SO many gymnasts around 12-14 years old tinker with their first “diet”. They start to notice normal puberty related body changes and think this is abnormal and unwanted.
We know that athletes who under fuel can have higher bodyfat. Why? During calorie restriction (of any degree), the body sense “starvation” and downregulates a lot of things that are supposed to be helpful for body composition (thyroid, metabolic rate, muscle protein synthesis, non-exercise activity thermogenesis, etc).
“Within day” energy balance is really important. Athletes who stay in a calorie deficit most of the day tend to have higher body fat, even if technically they’re “eating enough”. If an athlete is going to 4 hrs of gym or 7 hours of gym with barely any breakfast, a measly lunch, and maybe a snack or two, that puts the body in “starvation” mode and it’s going to be stingy. It needs to be said that “starvation mode” doesn’t cause weight gain per say but can lead to unfavorable body composition changes for the athlete (more fat, less muscle) even when “working out a ton”.
To solve this issue, the athlete needs adequate energy through the day, especially in and around training.
7. No one food causes weight gain. Food is not magical. No food exists that "directly turns to fat", despite what you've been told.
It’s often thought in the gymnastics world (and our larger society) that certain foods cause weight gain more so than others, like white bread, sugar, fat, etc. This is why “clean eating” is so trendy, as it’s thought that if you stick to a diet of lean protein, fibrous fruit/veggies, “whole food carbs”, and healthy fats, you’ll somehow get leaner than on a diet of all the foods.
The irony is that “clean eating” is arbitrary and a guarantee for nothing. You can overeat, undereat, or not eat the right balance of nutrients while “clean eating” yet be blissfully unaware.
Yet again, another fundamental misunderstanding in the laws of thermodynamics.
A calorie is the amount of heat required to increase 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. To measure how many calories a food has, it is “blown up” in what’s called a bomb calorimeter and the heat produced is measured.
500 calories of any food produces essentially the same amount of heat, whether it’s from sugar or whole wheat bread. Yes, there are differences in terms of metabolism, some foods “cost” the body energy to break down (like protein) so you wouldn’t absorb all 500 calories from protein, maybe 450. This is called the “thermic effect of food”.
It’s one thing to try and quantify how many calories someone eats, it’s another to try and measure “how much” is actually absorbed in the body. This is why I do not have my athletes count calories or weigh/measure their food, it’s just not an exact science and every body is different. For most individuals, counting calories or weighing/measuring food is a fast-track to food obsession and disordered eating behaviors (along with underfueling), especially for the perfectionistic gymnast population.
I like to think of foods as “more nutrient dense” versus “less nutrient dense” instead of good or bad. This is an objective way to say “Yes, spinach overall has more nutrients, aka vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than sugar”. But, this doesn’t mean you can’t consume sugar in reasonable amounts.
What’s a “reasonable amount”? It’s all about “context”. A high-level gymnast can afford a much greater percentage of added sugar in the diet due to high energy need compared to a sedentary adult and still meet protein, carbohydrate, fat, and micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, antioxidant) needs.
We (as a society, and in the gymnastics world) need to stop demonizing certain foods and making them seem like they cause “weight gain” in and of themselves, this is simply untrue and flies in the face of physiology and physics.
8. It's quite unlikely your "weight" is causing you issues in the gym. It's much more likely a "lack of fueling" problem.
Ah, one of my favorites. I cannot tell you how many clients I’ve had that were told by coaches that they needed to “lose weight” to “flip better, higher, move faster, etc.” What really was going on was they were underfueled, and this was causing them to be slow and sluggish. To make matters worse, when an athlete is told to “slim down”, they restrict their food and now go into workouts underfueled, which only compounds their energy problem.
What if we fueled the gymnast and saw what she could do with a fueled body before resorting to blaming performance issues on weight?
Also, let’s consider the cost and risk of asking a growing gymnast to “lose weight” when really, their strength might just need to catch up (which can only happen when properly fueled) to their maturing body.
I’ve yet to have a client who was told to “lose weight” that could a) “keep it off” or b) not end up with a serious injury (physical or metabolic) that set them back significantly in their career. Asking a gymnast to “lose weight” is just not appropriate or worth the risk to their career. There are so many other ways to measure and improve performance outside of asking someone to restrict food and see the scale drop.
Of all the gymnast’s I’ve worked with that were told to “lose weight” at an early age (12-13 years old), their body composition would have been much better by the time they were 16-18 if they were just left alone and allowed to fuel, train, and grow as their body wanted. Instead, years of dieting, starving, binging, etc can easily push the body to a higher “settling point” and leave them feeling uncomfortable and stuck (which then perpetuates the cycle of underfueling, etc).
Gymnasts are not exempt from the normal bodily changes that accompany appropriate growth and development. It is not appropriate (or ethical) to purposely delay growth for the gymnast to keep them “small and light” nor is this necessary for optimal performance.
All high-level gymnasts would benefit from a check in with their pediatrician and a sports dietitian nutritionist to ensure they’re growing, developing, and fueling adequately for optimal performance.
If this sounds like something you need for your athlete, please reach out or check out my 1:1 gymnast nutrition coaching program- The Balanced Gymnast Program™.
Also, you’re invited to join me LIVE this coming Sunday February 7th for a FREE High Level Gymnast Masterclass!-3 Easy Steps Optimize Gymnast Performance and Longevity Through Nutrition