I’m back with another installment of one of the hottest topics in gymnastics these days…that’s right, let’s talk more about puberty in the high-level gymnast, delayed puberty, and what’s normal and what’s not.
If you haven’t already, go check out Part 1 of Puberty and the High-Level Gymnast. In that article, I explain what’s “normal” in growth and development for females, the stages of puberty, specific concerns regarding gymnasts going through puberty, and the power found on the other side of menarche. Check it out and then meet me back here for Part 2!
Now that we’ve discussed what is “normal”, let’s address the other elephant in the room. Does gymnastics really cause delayed puberty? The simple answer is no, not by itself. There are so many factors that go into growth and development, and the more complex answer is quite nuanced.
Gymnast Delayed Puberty
What exactly is delayed puberty and what does it mean for a gymnast? It’s more than just not growing in height, contrary to what many believe. It’s defined as the constitutional delay of growth AND the absence of the start of sexual maturation at the expected time. For girls, this is the absence of breast development by age 12 to 13 or the absence of menarche (first menstrual period) by 15 years.
Delayed puberty tends to have familiar patterns of inheritance, a history of “late blooming” in family members, with an onset of puberty and pubertal growth spurt that are delayed compared to their peers.
But at the same time, there are so many gymnasts and other aesthetic sport athletes who experience delayed puberty due to underfueling.
What causes delayed puberty?
While there are some medical reasons a child might experience delayed puberty, lack of nutrition is a big factor for most. Especially gymnasts who by default usually aren’t adequately fueled for the sheer hours of training they do.
Plus, using family history of “late blooming” can be tricky or misleading when predicting a gymnast’s development and whether they are experiencing delayed puberty. Especially if mom was an athlete or underfueled (intentionally or unintentionally) as a teen.
What does delayed puberty in a gymnast look like?
Abnormal height growth could be any (or all) of following:
- Height: growth less than the 3rd percentile or greater than the 95th percentile for height.
- Growth velocity: decreased or accelerated growth velocity for age — “falling off the curve”
- Genetic potential: projected height varies from mid parental height by more than 2 inches
- Bone age: advanced or delayed by more than two standards
Weight Gain during puberty
Weight gain is a sensitive subject for most gymnasts and their parents. Or for any pre-teen/teenage female in today’s culture to be honest. A female going through puberty is going to experience weight gain and while it can be terrifying for some, it’s completely normal and necessary. We would expect to see a weight gain of 5-7+ pounds per year from 9 to 12 years old, and 15-40+ pounds throughout adolescence.
An 18-year-old gymnast should weigh more than the 12-year-old version of herself. That’s good and healthy. Cause for concern arises if a child/adolescent isn’t gaining weight or falls off their growth curve. The tough part in gymnastics is there are still a lot of parents and coaches out there who believe delayed puberty in a gymnast is good, that she is supposed to stay small and not develop. This is NOT true and will set them up for future injury.
What about the gymnast who seems to be gaining TOO much weight during puberty? Before you make a comment on their body that could stay with them for the rest of their lives, consider the following:
- They could be growing just right for THEM (all bodies are gymnast bodies, hello #bodydiversity)
- There “could” be some form of weight dysregulation (often due to over-restriction, history of underfueling and now catch up/weight over-shoot)
- Growth isn’t linear. There’s a reason we call them growth “spurts”
When Underfueling Interferes with Puberty
When I talk about underfueling in gymnasts, we need to take age, level, and hours into consideration. A seven-year-old, level 2 practicing 6 hours a week is not the same as a 15-year-old, level 10 training 25 hours a week. Their nutrition needs will be very different.
Most likely, for the lower level gymnast training less than 15 hours a week, they are meeting their minimum fueling needs with three meals a day and a few snacks when they are hungry. They may not be meeting their needs if there are extenuating circumstances like picky eating, appetite suppression due to medications, etc.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the gymnast training 20-30+ hours a week. Most parents continue to feed them 3 meals and some snacks each day, but more than likely they are underfueled for the amount of training and hours.
Then, as gymnasts get older and their bodies start changing into a more “womanly shape” they all too often become conscious and may start to restrict or manipulate their nutrition which further exacerbates the unintentional underfueling. Or they have a coach telling them they’re getting “too big” (whether in height or weight). What was once unintentional underfueling (just not knowing how much they actually need) becomes food restriction and RED-S.
And while it’s not gymnastics specific, the pressure of social media becomes rampant at this stage of development. It’s easy to look at someone on Instagram with their perfectly toned body and believe that following their “dietary recommendations” will produce similar results for your gymnast. Easy and dangerous as your athlete can go down the slippery slope of chasing an aesthetic that is not conducive to performance for her sport.
RED-S… what is it?
I have an entire article dedicated to explaining exactly what RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) is and educating parents on what to look for and how to help prevent it. Check it out here to learn more or listen to it on The Gymnast Nutritionist® Podcast here for a more in-depth conversation.
The bottom line, RED-S is a way to describe the physical and psychological effects of inadequate energy intake on athletes. This is what we refer to when using the word “underfueling”. RED-S can affect many of the body’s main systems with symptoms ranging from decreased endurance to increased injuries and/or increased irritability or depression.
This inadequate energy intake can initially lead to irregular periods and then complete cessation of them all together if the energy deficit is not resolved. Inadequate nutrition is one of the main reasons many gymnasts do not get their period until they are 16, 17, or 18+ years old. I can’t state it enough, this isn’t normal and will lead to issues with bone density, increased injury risk, and can negatively affect future fertility.
No Period, No Problem? Not quite…
Probably the single biggest fear many gymnasts face is something that is biologically so normal (and necessary) for females…menstruation. In the gymnastics world, it is often positioned as something to dread, fight off or prevent till the end of an athlete’s career. Hence why so many in the sport have the misguided belief that delayed puberty in a gymnast is a benefit.
It’s been so accepted as normal to not get your period as a high-level gymnast that even people outside of gymnastics assume these hard-working athletes aren’t “supposed” to get their period.
As a parent, have you ever posted a question on Facebook or asked other gym moms if you should be worried your 15-year-old hasn’t gotten her period yet? And what is the overwhelming majority response? Other parents, and sometimes even pediatricians will tell you, “oh yeah, that’s normal and expected”. Or, “of course, their body fat percentage is too low from all that working out to get a period”.
Wrong. Big red flag, huge warning, wrong.
That is your daughter’s body’s way of telling her that she is underfueled. A lot of gymnasts think, “yay, no period”, but there are long-lasting effects from amenorrhea. Especially when due to inadequate energy availability which is most often the case for high-level gymnasts. This “delay” in puberty can affect their bones for example and can lead to life-long struggles. Read up on bone health for the high-level gymnast here or listen to the podcast on this vital topic here.
Won’t birth control solve this issue?
Birth control does not protect the bones. The estrogen from birth control is metabolized in the liver and is much less protective. The estrogen patch and progesterone pill have been shown to help bone density in severe situations, however, they don’t address the underlying, low energy, underfueling issue.
Birth control doesn’t “jump start” a period. It’s just a withdrawal bleed that can provide a false sense of security for what’s really going on. If a teen gymnast doesn’t have the necessary energy (aka calories) to have a period, you can pretty much guarantee she doesn’t have the necessary energy to rest, recover and adapt to training.
I cover exactly what birth control does and doesn’t do in this Quick Tip Podcast about nutrition and growth spurts and why it’s not the quick fix some doctors or other parents may lead you to believe.
There is no one “gymnast body” type
So why all the fuss and drama about a preteen/teenage gymnast going through what should be a normal and accepted step of human development? Why does this sport glorify delayed puberty in gymnasts?
Historically, gymnastics has held tight to the belief that only small, pre-pubescent bodies can execute this sport at the highest levels. That lighter gymnasts “fly higher” (remember that catchphrase because we’ll be circling back to it).
The reality is, there is no one ideal body type anymore. Look at the last few Olympic cycles and you will see grown women in diverse bodies doing the dang thing. If smaller and lighter were truly the ideal, then I ask you how is the difficulty in the skills executed these days getting harder, not more watered down?
What determines body type
Our bodies are a result of many different factors. And most of those factors are beyond our control. Our genetics are responsible for height potential, hormonal fat patterns, growth patterns, and development to name a few.
Sure, you could try to diet to reach a certain weight or look (to an extent) but is that where your body genetically wants to be? Achieving a particular weight for this sport is no guarantee of performance. That lower number might give a specific look, but if it’s not the ideal body composition for your body, you won’t be able to perform at the levels needed to execute bigger and harder skills. And, given that 95-97% of diets fail and generally result in weight regain + some, it’s not a good strategy to try and improve performance (which isn’t guaranteed).
Weight vs Body Composition
Weight is a number. It can’t differentiate between bone, muscle, intestinal contents, water, or fluid. As stated above, it’s not reflective of performance. And quite honestly, it’s often higher in post-pubertal gymnasts than expected due to lean mass. Ever seen that demonstration where a pound of fat is compared to a pound of muscle? And oldie but it gets the point across.
Body composition on the other hand is muscle vs fat vs bone structure. It is largely determined by genetics, although it can be affected by:
- Energy availability – weight cycling and lower energy availability all tied to increased body fat
- Training + Nutrition – coaching and training methods can effect body composition along with nutrition
Body composition can change over time and can fluctuate. And that’s totally normal.
It should also be noted that BMI is NOT meant for growing and developing athletes. Maybe your pediatrician has even told you that your daughter is considered overweight due to her high BMI number. It does not take into consideration her lean mass nor should it be used to determine health in an athlete who by definition has a different body composition than the general public.
Is there an ideal body composition for performance?
Not necessarily. When we focus too much on an ideal number or size, we can count on the point of diminishing returns to exist. Think of the bodybuilder who diets down for a show and how lean they have to get to make the muscles “pop”. But they will tell you, it’s at that point they are at their weakest and least powerful due to the physiological suppressive effects of “dieting down”.
Focus on performance over a look or a number. Can she do the skills? Ok, but can she do the skills without looking like she’s going to keel over or crash? You wouldn’t tell a soccer player or a basketball player she needs to lose weight to kick the ball harder or shoot from farther away…so why would you tell a gymnast she needs to lose weight to be stronger?
What if you feel like she’s “too heavy” and it’s affecting performance?
The first question I would ask a parent, coach, or athlete in this situation would be, “Is this really a body weight issue”? More than likely, probably not. While going through puberty weight gain is normal and expected. What is an initial concern at 13-15 normalizes by 15-18.
Most likely, it’s more of a lack of fueling and time issue. I have gymnasts who describe their legs as “heavy” and it’s nearly impossible for them to run faster or punch higher, no matter how hard they try. Due to culture, they and their coaches/parents, just naturally think it means they’re too heavy. That they need to lose weight. Which leads to restriction and underfueling, and even worse results.
Without fail, when one of my gymnasts starts “fueling for the work required” (i.e. eating MORE not less) the opposite happens. All of sudden they’re flying down the vault runway, punching harder and whipping those double backs around.
Appropriate fueling and muscle gain (which might equal overall weight gain) provide the power and strength needed to support the more mature body.
If it’s still a problem for you…
If their weight gain really bothers you, maybe you need to take a step back and ask yourself, “why?”. So many parents are struggling with their own relationship with food and body and unconsciously put that on their daughters. But you have the ability and opportunity to break that cycle.
You don’t need to tell them they’ve gained weight. They know. Fat shaming hurts and it only takes one comment to send someone down a spiral. Instead, ask yourself what can you do to support them, what are they saying?
How to best help without harming? Work on yourself and your relationship with food. Maybe it means getting some counseling for yourself to work out issues in a safe space, rather than pretending it’s all in the past. Model eating a wide variety of food in balance and moderation. Invite them to join you in exercising or cooking and enjoy the time together if they take part.
Does Lighter Fly Higher?
Now that body weight and body composition have been broken down, we can circle back to the age-old myth, “lighter gymnasts fly higher”. Instead of just saying this is fake news and the research refutes it, let me break it down for you in the words of my good friend Dave Tilly.
To “fly higher” one needs more power produced/transferred. Power is force times velocity. More force requires increased strength. To increase strength, one must increase lean body mass and muscular cross-sectional area. To increase velocity, one needs increased speed and an increased rate of force development through new found strength and specific training.
It’s not some well-hidden secret. Fuel well so you can train hard. Which will lead to an optimized power to body ratio and protects the joints because more dynamic force is absorbed over passive joints/ligaments. Which all leads to improved body composition which enables you to, you guessed it, fly higher.
As a community, lets get to a place where we normalize body diversity in gymnastics. Our culture has historically idealized “thin, svelte” gymnasts, but the difficulty of today’s gymnastics demands a certain amount of muscle that looks different on different body types.
Gymnastics is no longer a “little girls sport”. By trying to keep young, high-level gymnasts small, we are hurting their performance and longevity in the sport. Delayed puberty in a gymnast isn’t the way to the top anymore (and never should have been in the first place).
Keep in mind these nutritional considerations as your athlete daughter goes through puberty:
- Adequate energy availability – ensure her body has what it needs to grow, repair, and recover
- Bone Health – What happens to her bones now could have lifelong ramifications
- Menstrual Cycles – Give the 5th vital sign the attention it deserves
- Performance Nutrition – the high-level, training gymnast needs more than just normal nutrition
How to help without harming
Seek out proper nutrition education for yourself and your gymnast. Schedule regular check-ins with pediatricians, pediatric endocrinologists, or specialized pediatric sports medicine physicians (who are familiar with growth/development, this is KEY). Question whether injuries are accidental vs overuse – is it taking too long to heal? Be prepared for food body struggles in even the most confident seeming gymnasts. Dietitians/therapists can help here.
Most importantly…be PATIENT. It may feel like puberty is the wild wild west with everything out of whack, but it is temporary. And if it’s a stressful time for you the parent, just imagine how your gymnast who is physically going through it feels. Patience, support and time will help you and your gymnast find the power and performance on the other side of puberty.
If you want to learn exactly how to fuel your competitive gymnast through puberty and level up her performance, enrollment for my VIP program is currently accepting applications.