When the Olympic Games begin in Rio we will marvel at world-class athletes showcasing their skills as they compete for kin and country, medals and glory. The last few weeks brought the U.S. Olympic trials in gymnastics, where we got a taste of the strength, power, grace, and athleticism by our men’s and women’s gymnastics teams that we’ll see in Rio. 
As with every Olympic year, interest in gymnastics and gymnastics-based fitness will peak. Gymnastics skills and strength are sexy, but do not rush straight for the rings or the bars. High-level gymnastics strength begins with a strong and stable core. If you want to move like a gymnast, you must have a strong hollow body position.

What Is the Hollow Position?

Those committed to functionally-driven fitness programs know the hollow body position. For those less acquainted, and to ensure we agree on the finer points, I offer the following definition:
Hollow Body Position: Characterized by a shortening of the anterior (frontal) portion of the torso and posterior pelvic tilt. Contraction or shortening of the abs (think navel closer to your sternum), and hips rocked under (think pubic bone up toward your navel or imagine pouring water out the back of your pelvis if it were a bowl). A full hollow body position requires the arms extended straight overhead squeezing the ears and legs extended straight out with toes pointed and heels hovering inches off the floor. 
Adult athletes and youth gymnasts perform this position wrong on a daily basis. Simply holding your arms and legs off the floor while lying flat does not, in itself, make your body hollow. To master the hollow body position, re-frame the position in your mind. Hollow body really means hollow torso. The magic happens between your shoulders and pelvis. Your extremities serve only to add loading to the position.

Building the Hollow Position

Lie flat on your back and slide your hands into the void between your low back and the ground. You will aim to fill this void during your hollow position.
Bring your knees over your chest and notice how this void disappears - your low back is now flush with the ground. Bringing your knees over your chest brings your pelvis into posterior pelvic tilt. Remember this position and the feeling of your low back on the ground. Your goal in hollow body position is to maintain both.
With your arms down by your sides, lift your head and shoulders off the ground so that only your mid and lower back touch the ground. Congratulations, you’re in hollow body. Feel free to load this position by both extending your legs out straight and your arms over your head. Maintain your low back on the ground and your head and shoulders up. If you feel your low back arch or your ribs point up toward the sky you have extended too far and broken hollow. Play with extension and pay attention to where you break position. You can periodically return to this test to measure your progress.
If you have difficulty determining when you break position, use a friend or a prop to give you feedback. Place something flat under your back (t-shirt, belt, stretching band, martial arts belt, etc.). Ask a friend to gently tug on the belt as you extend from your tuck into a straighter hollow position. When you break position the pressure on the belt will decrease allowing your friend to pull it free. You can perform this test solo by pulling the band yourself. A blood pressure cuff also provides great feedback. Tuck the slightly inflated cuff under your low back and observe the needle for a decrease in pressure.
pommel horse gymnast
You can't have moves like this without first building your core. [Photo courtesy Pixabay]

Strategies for Training Hollow Position

Give Plenty of Time to Scaled Versions

Train the bent hollow position to excess before progressing. Recognize that the value in the hollow position happens in your torso. Choose versions that you can maintain for extended holds.
Even after you have a well-trained and strong hollow position, the earlier versions serve as a great warm up. Your body can handle much longer holds and extreme versions after working up to them. Think of these easier versions as analogous to the lighter warm up sets you would perform with a barbell. Simply because you are not using external weights does not mean that your system does not need ample time to adjust to intense loading.

Practice Humility

Extended hollow body holds and high-repetition hollow body rocks serve you well to develop high-level core strength. However, I have met very few bodies, including well-trained athletes and gymnasts, who can maintain a perfect hollow position for long.
  • Coaches: Consider the hollow body position an extreme load for any client or athlete until you have tested the early variations.
  • Athletes: Yes, this means you. Unless you have specifically trained it, you probably have a weak hollow body position.
When beginning to train this position forget about creating that beautiful straight line. Emphasize perfect form in your torso and understand that scaled versions offer the best method to train it.

Scale Back Intensity and Increase Volume

If you can achieve a perfect, straight-line hollow but break down after less than one minute, you need to train easier variations. Shorter bouts of a fully extended hollow offer a great opportunity to reinforce the ultimate position, but apply the same strategy to training hollow as you do to barbell training. Occasional loading at the peak of your strength provides a necessary stimulus and vital information, but the real gains of the program come from the repeated, high-volume, sub-maximal loading of each training session.
Let a 1-minute perfect hollow hold be your goal for proficiency. After a warm up of easier variations, train 5 sets of a 1-minute hold. Select a variation that you can maintain a perfect torso position for the full minute but requires the peak of your strength to do so. This variation will likely become slightly less intense in your later sets as fatigue sets in. The hollow body position is infinitely scalable by adjusting your arms and legs. Adjust accordingly to maintain perfect form as you progress through your sets. Slowly work your way flatter and straighter as you progress from one training session to the next. Let your goal be to achieve 5 sets of 1-minute, perfect, flat, straight hollow body position.

Accessory Work and Breathing to Round Out Your Sessions

One-minute hollow holds are quite taxing. Allow several minutes of rest between sets. Use any relaxation and breathing techniques you know between sets. Box breathing, a simple and effective technique, offers recovery and relaxation.
Lie on your back and take a long inhale through your nose. Push the breath down into your belly (a hand resting on your stomach provides excellent feedback). Hold the inhale, then slowly release and fully exhale. Hold again before beginning the next inhale. Make each phase of this breath - inhale, exhale, and both holds - at least 5 seconds and up to 8 seconds if you can achieve it.
Lengthy hollow body holds create high blood pressure and intra-abdominal pressure. Hollow body position requires full body engagement with no movement to drive circulation. Do what you can to fully release this tension between sets. Athletic movement requires an extremely strong and stable core. However, training smooth, rapid cycles of full release and tension builds true athletic prowess.
The hollow body position primarily engages your body’s anterior, or frontal, half. Hollow body training pairs well with posterior-focused movements. Supermans offer a great reciprocal position to hollow body. Deadlifts and kettlebell swings also provide a great posterior stimulus. Hollow body training also pairs well with movements that require strong core stability while moving. Use bird dogs or similar to train core stability with movement from your extremities.
Here is a sample session that incorporates anterior and posterior stimulus, and breathing exercises for recovery:
5 rounds:
  • 1 minute hollow body hold (whatever variation you can maintain)
  • 10 Supermans with 3 second hold at the top
  • 10 Bird dogs to each side
  • Rest 2 min or 5 rounds of box breathing

Master the Hollow Body

A strong hollow body position is a vital piece of every athlete’s training, especially those who desire high-level gymnastics strength. Understand that the fully extended position creates a load too extreme for most people, possibly even you. Prioritize perfect form and long holds in the scaled versions to build a strong and stable core, which is the foundation to skilled athletic movement. You'll be moving like a gymnast in no time.
Is your core getting stronger, but your back still hurts? It might be your breathing: