Tom Beach from GymSmarts caught up with Mas Watanabe for this interview to discuss working the Strap Bar. In this interview he talks about how much more can be done because of the Strap Bar. If you would like more information on Mas Watanabes’ coaching, GymSmarts carries an extensive DVD library of his training methods that are available on line.
GS: In your gym, it seems like the strap bar is full all the time. You have two strap bars and there’s almost always somebody on both strap bars.Mas Watanabe: Well, as I explain on the Working the Strap Bar DVD, the strap bar is the probably easiest and safest place to teach any skill on the bars.Â Obviously you cannot do 100% of the skills on the straps but you can do most of the essential skills. I’d say that 80% of the essential skills you can teach on the strap bar. There are several reasons the strap bar is so effective, the most important one is the safety and reduces fear for the gymnast. Also there is less friction on their hands so they can do more repetitions, and the diameter is so much smaller so it fits the younger gymnasts hands so much better. You are working with young children and of course naturally they don’t have big hands so they feel so much easier for them to hang onto the bar. Even though you are strapped onto it, but still should feel the control in your fingers, in your grip. The feeling of security is extremely important. So there is no question in my mind that the strap bar is the easiest and simplest place to teach skills.GS: So you believe this is the place to start because you can take the younger gymnasts and do so much with them there.
Mas Watanabe: Right. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much more you can do on the strap bar. It doesn’t matter what they can do on the bars right now, because once the skill has been learned on the strap bar that means you have developed the movement pattern, the body positions, timing and rhythm, all the essence of the skill. Once the skill has been mastered there, then it can be repeated on the actual bar. Of course it will take a little longer to transfer it to the actual bar because it’s harder to create the momentum, harder to hold onto the bar, and of course, the mental aspects of coping with fear. You have to overcome all of that, but once the movement pattern has developed, it is much, much easier for you to transfer a skill from the strap bar to the actual bar.
GS: It’s almost like you’re comparing strap bar to the uneven bars as you would tumble track to tumbling.Â
Mas Watanabe: That’s exactly right. So this two step process makes learning and reaching the final goal so much faster.
GS: Yesterday you mentioned Tracee (Talavera) when she was younger. Did she work a lot of strap bar?
Mas Watanabe: Actually we used the men’s low horizontal bar with regular grips, a high bar lowered down, because we didn’t have a strap bar then. Yeah, I did that because I realized that Tracee was very young and has small hands and that was the safest way for her to hang onto the bar. So I spent 70-80% of the time on the men’s high bar, single bar, teaching the skill there and then they may go over to uneven bar and play with those learned skills. Just to play with as much as they are able or capable of handling in terms of the fear and the momentum issue. I had them do it by themselves and I did not necessarily push the kids to do those skills in the beginning stages. So those transitions came to them pretty naturally because they did not push themselves beyond what they can handle.
GS: Their physical capacity?
Mas Watanabe: Yes. So that way they learned it pretty naturally, pretty easily.
GS: So the majority of the skills that she had, she was already doing on the men’s low bar?
Mas Watanabe: Yes, already on the low horizontal bar.
GS: If you knew about strap bar you probably would have done that.
Mas Watanabe: Oh, if we had the strap bars then we would have gotten to the harder skills much quicker and efficiently. There’s no question about it. Now these days we do use the strap bar all the time so we are quicker.
GS: The variation of skills that the gymnasts are doing, especially the younger ones, is pretty impressive.
Mas Watanabe: It is pretty amazing. If they have developed essential strengths, such as plange strength and good straddle press strength, then they can apply to the skills and they can learn or pick up the skill quite rapidly. In this plange strength exercise, a female gymnast cannot hold the position by herself, so that the coach should spot her and lifts her up to the proper handstand position while she is maintaining the hollow body.
GS: Because you’re not doing just doing giant swings but also the clear hip circles, endo and stalder shoots.
Mas Watanabe: Right. They work on most of the inbar type skills and of course, any type of giant such as forward, backward and “L” grip giant as well. So the children are able to pick up all those type of skills onÂ Â the strap bar, quite easily.
GS: So you’re looking at, if they have the proper straddle press to handstand and the plange press strength (with a spot) you can apply their body position easier on the strap bar.
Mas Watanabe: Yes, for instance, the straddle press to
handstand, that pressing part of the strength is used in the Stalder circle and it is an essential part of the body position in the skill. So if they can do the press that means their body can maintain shape and maintain that control. That is essential for the skill. Of cause, the plange press handstand strength will be for the clear hip circle to handstand. If they too can do these exercises properly, they can apply the body position and the strengths to the actual skill. It’s so much easier to do it on the skills on straps because the strap bar has such a less friction.
GS: And it’s easier to create those positions with the speed?
Mas Watanabe: Right, and of course then you’re talking about the shape of your body position and not the timing of the skill.
GS: So the timing and rhythm of the skill doesn’t change too much going from the strap bar to the actual bar and it’s just a matter of confidence and hand size.
Mas Watanabe: Right. So that’s why the strap bar isGS: Do you go any particular order when you are working on strap bar?
Mas Watanabe: I do, usually the order comes from the actual routine development. For instance at the very early stage, you do need to teach the clear hip circle because most of the kids learn back hip circle very early, at the compulsory level. So that move has already learned so going in from a back hip circle to a clear hip is a very small step. Whereas playing with the sole circle for instance, it is more complex even with the bent legs. Going around the bar backward or forward and going up toward the handstand from the toe on position. It requires a little more strength as well as good body control. So that’s why naturally we start from an easier skill to a little bit more complex skill and in order. But once they have good strength and a good handstand position, there’s not much difference between most of the in-bar type of movements. So, for example, I have a ten year old who already can do most of the skills that I mentioned, the clear hip and sole circle, forward, backward and stalder circle. Also they are doing the giants forward, backward and even the L grip giant. They can do it very safely on the strap bar which is remarkable. If you think about that ten year old, can already simulate, or actually execute, some of the skills that the level 9, 10 or elite gymnasts are doing on the bar.
GS: So right now, they’re competing as first year level 8’s and they’re already doing all those skills.
Mas Watanabe: Not all of it but some skills. So when you look at that, it is amazing what you can do with the strap bar. So you really can’t afford not to have the strap bar set up in the gym and not use that device to teach the skills because this will make the teaching process so much easier.
GS: What do you look at in terms of repetitions?
Mas Watanabe: Well, this is another advantage that you have using the strap bar. Basically you eliminated most of the hand problems because there’s no friction, your hands are not scraping every time directly onto the bar. You are just hanging onto the PVC pipe and the wrists are strapped on so you have virtually no problem with the hands and you never develop the problem with the hands. Sometimes the kids develop wrist problems because the straps actually rub into their wrists so they need to wear a very thick wristband. Sometimes even with a thick wristbands, it creates a little bit of a problem of soreness on the skin or develop a little bit of soreness in the wrists. So that itÂ a create a problem by overdoing it. But that would be a very, very minimal problem. It’s very seldom we have a problem actually overworking on the strap bar. They can do many, many, many repetitions. It’s unbelievable. That’s why they are able to pick up the skills so much faster because they are capable of doing maybe five, ten times the amount of repetitions they might be able on the actual bars with the grips.
GS: So as they are developing they can do more repetitions. It looked to me like the ultimate for these in-bar skills is to repeat it precisely from handstand to handstand several times in a row.
Mas Watanabe: Right. Of course, you know, you are strapped onto the bar so the variation of the skill is limited obviously. You can’t do any pirouetting, dismounts or release moves. But you can do timers for some of those skills, say for example a Tkatchev, so you can develop the exact pattern of the swinging part of the movement. So working the action using that strap bar is very, very effective. Many of the level 9, 10 and elite level gymnasts, when they learned the release move or the tap for the dismount, they do use the strap bar in the beginning stages. Once the pattern for the body movement is developed, then they can transfer very quickly from the strap bar to the regular bar and the actual skill.
GS: You’ve even talked about L grip giants on the strap bar. Do you find it that much different when they’re doing L grip than when they’re doing the regular giant?
Â Mas Watanabe: I think if you really to understand the good front giants, particularly the front giant with a tapping action, it is very similar. The shoulder extension and how it should come down from the top to the bottom should be identical. The tapping action through the bottom and the lifting at the end of the swing prior to the handstand is no different other than the shape of the body in the second half. The inverted giant will have more pronounced hip pike compared to the front giant. Obviously the other major difference is the grip. So first of all, gymnasts need to have good shoulder flexibility, and also good wrist flexibility to be able to get into that support and be able to push in a handstand. So we did initially lots of drills on the floor bar, for example, kicking up to a handstand with that inverted L grip position. We made sure she can hold a in a straight position. Also, she worked many repetitions of handstand, pike down and open back to straight handstand while pressuring the bar. That type of exercise is done quite a bit as a preparation. We also worked lots of flexibility for dislocating shoulder in and out to develop greater flexibility in shoulders. So, those preparations are done prior to the inverted giant. Then teaching how to swing from the bottom of the swing, under the bar first, and then gradually develop the height of the swing. Then working on how to push the bar once the body goes above horizontal, because as they go up higher, the pressure on the bar becomes greater. So you must actually teach how to push in that position. As they come close to the handstand, the pressure increases so they need to develop the feeling gradually from the lower angle to the higher angle. As their body rises up close to the handstand, you can spot them and lighten the pressure a little bit by holding their body slightly up, so that they can develop the feeling of that pressure gradually as their swing gets bigger. It is a very natural way of teaching, very similar to the front giant so I don’t see that it’s such a drastic change from that position, from teaching giants to inverted giants.
GS: Should they do the inverted giant with the tap swing or just straight giant swing?
Mas Watanabe: I prefer a tapping action. This is a more dynamic movement and also the tapping action would teach them a few things. The tapping action itself through the bottom transfers to different movements later on. Also, tapping actually forces them to extend their shoulders more and it helps them get into the inverted support position, in an L grip. So it makes the turning of the wrist and shifts the wrist on top slightly easier. Naturally, you can do the very same thing without the pronounced tapping action, but the extension and the shift, would be a little more subtle.
GS: Great, thank you.
About Mas WatanabeÂ
For over 38 years Masayuki Watanabe has been at the cutting edge of both men’s and women’s gymnastics.Â As a coach for may national & international champions and Olympic gymnasts, program director for USA Gymnastics, and world-wide gymnastics consultant, he is one of the most respected leaders of our sport today.Â Mas Watanabe has many DVDs available from GymSmarts, on Coaching, Tumbling, Bars, Vaulting and Strength. Visit his blog at GymSmarts Community.com