If you haven’t yet seen the denouement of the pommel horse competition in the recent World Championship, then head to Google now; you’ll see British duo Louis Smith and Max Whitlock going toe to toe for the gold medal and displaying mind-boggling feats of strength and endurance.
“It’s the result of years of work,” admits Whitlock, still delighted with his historic win weeks after the event. “The gymnastic sessions we do when we’re ten years old are all based on what the coaches think we’ll be able to do when we’re older, so there’s a lot of foundation work to get your body ready for what it needs to be handle when we’re older. When you compete on the bars, on the rings or pommel horse, there’s so much impact on your body, especially your elbows and shoulders, so it takes years to be able to handle it.” That’s not all, for while you’ll inevitably boost your power and strength by following Max’s mid-body workout (over page), it’s doubtful you’ll reach his levels, unless you’ve got a spare six or seven hours a day.
“We’re in the gym six days a week, and during the weekdays we’re training from about 12 until 7,” he explains. “Wednesday is the day we focus more on fitness, so we’ll do a three or four-mile run and then a bunch of big strength exercises to match the strength element of what we do. We’ll use the cable machines because they really suit the type of strength we need, and then we go back to the gym to do various exercises.
“Everything we do depends on the phase of training we’re in. So, if we haven’t got a competition coming up, then maybe we’ll go over the skills we need or learn new ones. As we get closer to a competition and move into the build-up phase we’ll try and add the skills in combination, and then it’ll be about getting the routine together for the competition. The routines are only short and snappy, but they take a lot of stamina.”
So, with just six months to go until the Rio Olympics, one would imagine Max is concentrating his powers on a pivotal summer. Whitlock was a double bronze winner in London in 2012 and has since added Commonwealth, European and World Championship golds to his mantelpiece. Olympic gold, though, is the one he craves.
“You’ve always got to be ambitious as an athlete and aim for the best you possibly can. And for me, every competition I’ve done, I’ve gone in striving to do my best. At the World Championship, my training
was geared to performing as clean as I possible could. That was my aim – to go there and do a clean performance. And if I can do that in Rio, hopefully my routine will be good enough to result in gold.”
The routine Whitlock describes was faultless, and it had to be. Louis Smith had already put himself into the gold-medal position when Whitlock, last to perform, was asked by his coach what level of difficulty he was considering. Whitlock knew then what he had to do.
“It’s a balance,” he says. “Usually I have three options of difficulty, with the lowest the one I should be able to do as cleanly as possible. The reason you don’t always go for your hardest option is the risk factor involved. While it might only be a tenth more difficult, you get penalized per mistake, and each mistake can be the difference between success and failure.
“I don’t tend to look at the scores, so I didn’t know the situation [in Glasgow]. My coach had watched Louis’ routine, and it was a good thing that he was on the floor with me because while he knows I don’t like to know what’s going on, he suggested I might need to risk a little bit more. We decided right there and then to crank the difficulty level by a tenth, and that was the margin I won by. It was the perfect decision.”
Max and Louis will no doubt resume their friendly rivalry in Brazil, but they do so as pre-event favourites rather than the unknown quantities that competed in London.
“I was only 19 at London 2012 and I didn’t expect to get a medal. Everything changed that summer and since then people have expected more. So, being more of a favourite is a different pressure, but it’s something we’ve just got to deal with. We’ve got to just stick with our routines and keep up the work in the gym, just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
“I’ll have two months to build up for the English Championship in January, then continue as we go into the Europeans in March. After that we’ll have a little break, but I’ll still be in the gym training and working on my routines. I’ll then give the body some rest before we start up again for the Olympics, and that’s the main one. We’ve been leading up to this since the day after the London Olympics, a fouryear plan for my coach and I.
“I train at the same intensity as I compete so that my body is well prepared,” he continues. “What I like to do is train and get my hours in a month or more before, so when it comes to maybe two weeks before the competition I can chill out a bit and do minimal training.
At that time you can’t do much more to get your body ready, so its just about getting the basics done and recovering.”
And studying his opponents perhaps?
“I know who’s out there, but at the moment I’ve got the highest start score in the world, and the biggest routine. So, they know what I’ve been doing and I know what they’re doing.
“For me, it’s about trying to do my routine as much as possible and making sure it’s spot on. If I do that cleanly, then hopefully I can come out with a big score. That’s what I’m working towards.”
Perform three repetitions in the position pictured, and hold for as long as you can. Try and build up the muscles in THIS exact position.
Place your feet on a surface, as pictured, and place hands into press up position, then raise your bottom so your arms are straight, back straight and legs close to a 90-degree angle. Hold for 10 seconds.
Lay flat on your side and do 10 leg raises, then 10 arm raises, and then 10 rocks, and repeat on the other side. Then lay on your front and do 10 arch rocks and hold for 10 seconds, and repeat, and then feet and arms up and down at the same time, like pulses, for 10 reps. The 10-second pause after each exercise is the killer because it creates the burn you want.
Get in a dish shape (lay on your back with legs and arms outstretched, make yourself as long as possible) and perform the following exercises; firstly, raise the shoulders ten times, then do it again holding the position for 10 seconds. Then do 10 reps of lifting legs, holding for 10 seconds again, then arms up for 10 reps, followed by 10 Dish Rocks – hold for 10 seconds again. Finally, perform 10 V sits: from the dish position, lift feet and hands and touch your toes at the top. Finally, do the twist – so a dish shape to a tuck shape, twisting the body. Finally, try this: lay on your back, lift your legs to a 90-degree angle, and lift just your bum off the floor – do that 10 times.
Assume the plank position but move your arms forward so that your elbows are off the floor. We call this the tension bridge.