Olympic rings aren’t just for gymnasts. Suspension training has been around for decades, but in more recent years, it’s become popular in mainstream gyms. There are even entire facilities devoted toward suspension training classes.
Olympic rings can go by many names, including gymnastic rings, blast straps and “slings.” Of course there are also their more expensive approximations, in the form of the TRX trainer, Jungle Gym XT and the like. You’d be right in thinking that most of the information contained within this article also pertains to those implements, though there are some moves that can be executed on a set of rings that cannot be done on a TRX-style trainer.
Rings are one of those pieces of equipment you can sling up anywhere, use them to train and challenge your body effectively, then repeat for years on end without them (or you) ever falling apart. They can be a great beginner tool to reduce load, or a tool to add progression for more advanced athletes through increased range of motion and instability.
I do believe rings are best used as a complementary form of resistance training to a program that includes barbell, dumbbell and/or kettlebell work. But make no mistake—they are a great tool. The efficacy of training using unstable suspension straps has been validated for older adults (age 60 and over) (Gaedtke & Morat 2015), College-aged females (Bethany et al. 2011), College-aged males (McGill et al. 2014), and NCAA Division 1 athletes (Prokopy et al. 2008).
Positive outcomes have been shown in a number of studies, with very little in terms of negative outcomes. Reports suggest increased whole-body strength over the course of a training program, increased torso and extremity muscle activity, improved flexibility and better overall perceptions of well-being.
It’s important to note that all known studies have stuck to the use of basic exercises mimicking those that might already be performed in a strength training program ( Push-Ups, Rows, Planks, etc.). The role of strength training routines that instead try to mimic more gymnastic exercises (Muscle-Ups, Skin the Cat etc.) have not been validated, so we’ll not dive into those here.
The following exercises are not for someone who’s looking to be the next Olympic gold medal gymnast, but instead for those looking to complement their weight training with some effective bodyweight exercises. Exercise examples are provided for some key movement patterns, but it’s up to you to decide the applicability of that exercise according to the abilities of you or your athletes.
Upper-Body Ring Exercises (Pull)
There are some excellent upper-body pulling options available to you via Olympic rings. Movements are easily scalable with a simple change in torso angle or foot positioning changing the difficulty level. The main advantage to using rings is in their ability to freely rotate, providing a more ‘natural’ shoulder movement versus many other forms of training. This can encourage good scapula mechanics and activation of the shoulder and scapula stabilizers.
Due to the instability given during rowing movements, there may also be some additional activation of the posterior chain muscles. These exercises therefore train a large amount of musculature in a variety of ways, including some isometric and dynamic stabilization.
In the case of the Eccentric Chin-Ups shown above, straps provide an excellent tool to regress Traditional Chin-Ups, for those who struggle to perform the full variation using a bar. Some may also find this a nicer position for the shoulders and elbows here. If the rings are positioned high enough, you can also perform traditional Chin-Up and Pull-Up variations using Olympic rings, again potentially benefiting from the freely rotating nature of the implement.
Upper-Body Ring Exercises (Push)
Like upper-body pulling exercises, push exercises performed in the rings allow for a more “natural” movement of the shoulders. Many report pressing in a neutral grip position to be a little more “joint-friendly” for the shoulders.
A neutral grip position may be maintained throughout the press, but allowing some pronation and internal rotation while pressing can also assist with taking the pectorals through their full muscle length. For example, palms facing each other at the bottom of the press, and palms facing downwards (pronated) at the top of the press.
Performing fly movements using rings can also provide for a more “functional” form of muscle isolation training, and improve strength in an often weak position important for some sporting movements (for example, grappling sports or tackle sports).
By performing press movements with a set of rings, there will also be an additional challenge on the anterior core musculature. The One-Arm Push-Up is an anti-rotational core exercise, and one that cannot be replicated without a suspension trainer. While not demonstrated here, Ring Dips are another excellent way to train the upper-body with this tool.
Upper-Body Ring Exercises (Posture/Shoulder Health)
These are all great examples of accessory movements that can be performed using rings and work to improve posture, position and health of the shoulders. Particularly in those who overhead press and barbell bench press frequently.
Core Ring Exercises
Some research has indicated higher core muscle activation in Planks using suspension training versus when performed in the more traditional manner (Byrne et al. 2014). It would therefore not be too presumptive to suggest that this might also be true in many other core exercises involving a suspension trainer of sorts.
Research also indicates that movements like Pikes and Roll-outs provide some of the highest levels of core muscle activation seen amongst many other popular abdominal exercises (Escamilla et al. 2010).
More recently Cugliari & Boccocia (2017) showed high levels of rectus abdominis and external oblique muscle activation in the pike and bodysaw exercise while done in a suspension trainer. Performing these exercises in a set of rings can be a good core workout option for many.
Lower-Body Ring Exercises
The main advantage of using a set of Olympic rings for lower body training is in their ability to unload movements such as Squats, Split Squats, Lunges and even Step-Ups. This can be a great means of training for beginners or those who struggle with their full body weight.
Performing jump-type movements such as Jump Squats, Side Jumps and Split Jump Squats using rings can lower joint impact by unloading the movement to provide a safe metabolic style of training.
Performing these explosive movements for a lower volume of training with less fatigue can also provide a stimulus to develop sport-specific power. Since load is taken away from the body, this form of power training will emphasize the high velocity portion of the force-velocity curve.
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