Gymnastic Rings Won’t Kill You: The Risks & Benefits of Rings Training

Training on the gymnastic rings can be dangerous, and you will eventually die.

…I mean, you are gonna die someday, but I sincerely doubt it will be from strength training with rings.

Unfortunately, there’s a common tendency to demonize unorthodox movements without critically thinking about the context and the person doing the exercise. Generalizing any exercise activity as “bad for you” indicates a willful ignorance about both the adaptability of the human body and exercise training itself.

In this post we’ll discuss the typical risk potential and benefits of physical activity as a whole, and how to determine where a chosen movement lies on the risk/benefit spectrum for yourself. It’s yet another generalization to say “everyone is different,” but figuring out where on that spectrum you are gives you a better understanding of what will be best for you.

Analyze the Risks vs. Benefits of Your Training Program

Weighing the risks and benefits of any activity comes down to YOUR strengths/weaknesses and YOUR needs.

For every choice we make there is an inherent scale of how risky it is at that moment.

Some are more risky than others of course – jumping out of a moving car is not a great idea and neither is kicking a hornet’s nest.

These are very obvious situations of risky activities and might not seem relevant to exercise. But looking more specifically at these examples, what if the car was moving at one mile an hour? Or the nest was old and not full of hornets? Then you’d say that wasn’t as dangerous.

Proper decision making requires context.

For health care providers we are taught of Absolute Contraindications, actions and interventions that should not be done for the individual based on the danger and very poor risk/benefit ratio. Examples include medicine combinations that can be deadly, or full weightbearing after fracture repairs.

Then there are Precautions, in which the risk to benefit of your intervention is dependent upon your assessment of the individual and what you judge would be the outcome.

Your Particular Risks and Benefits

You can see that we’d like to approach the choice of which exercises and activities would work best for you based on a critical analysis of your own particular strengths and weaknesses.

And you can do that by analyzing your current condition of Strength, Flexibility, and Motor Control. An honest assessment of those three fundamental aspects of your physical capacity will do more for you than simply ascribing an exercise or tool as “good” or “bad.”

As we discussed in this previous post, good form on an exercise is dependent upon your physical structure and your particular ability in the various movements.

Assessing Your Strength Readiness for Gymnastic Rings Training

Considering the rings in particular, one of the issues cited are the peculiar dangers of performing dips on the rings.

It’s said that the increased range of motion that it allows is of particular risk to shoulder ligaments and other soft tissue. And yes it is, if you are not strong enough to handle that range of motion.

But just as in any other exercise activity, why would you think it’d be good to perform a variation that you are not capable of doing safely? Opponents of the ring dip seem to presuppose that there is only one way to do it, with full body weight at the extreme stretch position at the bottom.

Even with a cursory examination, it’s clear that you can adjust your performance of it by reducing the range of motion and your body weight by lowering the rings (or standing on a sturdy elevated surface) and adjusting the force through your legs.

The same goes with push-ups, pull-ups, and various other exercises on the rings or suspension device. Any of these exercises can be adjusted as needed to fit your current level of strength.

How to Address the Strength Challenges of Rings Training

One of the relative difficulties with bodyweight training exercise in contrast to weight training is that an incremental progression of force and stress requires more forethought and concentration.

But that is not a drawback, rather it can be a benefit if it encourages you to be more mindful of your training.

So perhaps the first factor to consider if rings training is appropriate for you is whether or not you can appropriately scale and adjust the ring exercises to your current strength level. This may require some thoughtful planning if you are designing your own routine.

It simply makes sense that you should begin and progress at the proper point dependent upon your capabilities.

Then why should ring training exercises be any different than acknowledging that you shouldn’t squat with 500 pounds on the bar if you aren’t ready for it, but squatting with your bodyweight or just the bar is just fine?

Because for some people it’s easier to decry something as dangerous than to think about something carefully and rationally.

Assessing Your Flexibility Readiness for Gymnastic Rings Training

Another, and in my opinion perhaps a more appropriate concern for most trainees is whether your current flexibility is at a level where you can safely train on the rings.

It is fairly common to have a tight shoulder girdle, especially if your work requires you to be at a desk for most of the day. The cliché “use it or lose it” is too often said simply because it has so much truth. Our bodies take the path of least effort for maintenance because it is efficient and energy sparing.

This is true with muscular development and flexibility, unfortunately quite markedly as we age.

A lack of flexibility then becomes quite an issue for those positions on the rings that require not just normal flexibility levels but ranges that go beyond that of an average person.

Movements such as the “skin the cat,” the transition point of the muscle-up, and the bottom position of the dip, can be too much if you are dealing with decreased range of motion. Add in a strength deficit and now the ring training naysayer’s concerns become more credible.

But again this implies that you will be just jumping into the exercise with no heed to your own senses. As if you would blindly follow GPS directions and turn into a lake because that’s what it’s telling you to do. I believe you are smarter than that.

How to Address the Flexibility Challenges of Rings Training

If you know you have shoulder issues, begin a good flexibility regimen to address those concerns, this post on shoulder mobility is a good start with some simple exercises that you can do every day to help yourself. And this doesn’t mean you should do only stretching and aren’t allowed to do any ring work. Instead, work on the rings with exercises that are appropriate for you.

Work on exercises such as the Top Position hold, pull-ups, tuck hangs, push-ups (and yes even dips) in a shorter range of motion, and a dozen other such movements that don’t require you to be at extreme ranges. Until you are ready.

Apply your own sense of what you can safely do on the rings. You know more about yourself than you think sometimes.

Assessing Your Motor Control Readiness for Gymnastic Rings Training

Here, we have an issue that will affect likely 90% of people who first try the rings, and that is the inherent instability of the rings causing new trainees to shake and wobble like they are in a hurricane.

We’ve had so many clients tell us they can do dozens of reps of push-ups, dips, and other exercises on the floor or parallettes, but once they tried the rings they were nowhere close to doing the same amount.

Besides the talk of “stabilizing muscles” and such, it is simply a matter of practice.

Unless you have some experience with a similar type of training stimulus, exercise on the rings is utterly unique and requires a bit of time to increase your comfort level and literal stability on the equipment.

How to Address the Motor Control Challenges of Rings Training

Once more, a lack of control only means that you should approach the exercises in a thoughtful way and temper your progression. When you start on ring training, work with lower count repetitions. End well shy of “failure” and keep the quality of your exercise performance as high as you can.

Choose and adjust the exercises so that you can end the repetitions at any point safely and you’ll be able to continue practicing and improving your control on the rings.

This will minimize the risks and also keep you gaining strength and flexibility as well as control.

The Specific Concern of Elbow Tendonitis

In regards to the opinion that a period of several months is needed to condition the elbows to “protect” against tendonitis (medial or lateral) before even touching the rings, this again shows a shortcoming in understanding how to adjust training stimuli to the individual’s needs.
The primary cause of a tendonitis is a repetitive strain that outpaces your soft tissue’s recovery ability.
As we’ve talked about above, this is a direct relationship to your strength levels and the amount of work you are able to perform.

It’s not that the tool is the problem, it’s the improper use of the tool that is the issue.

This happens when you are stuck in a rigid and uncompromising regimen that requires the same arbitrary sets and repetitions and hold times for every trainee. And one that has no proper sense and strategy for the auto-regulation that needs to happen to train consistently and well for long periods of time.

In my experience over the last 17+ years of treating patients, the trouble begins when people ignore the obvious issue that there is a difference between “normal” people and those that have and are able to dedicate several hours a day to training.

So when a person with real life responsibilities and time constraints attempts to follow the program designed for a very different kind of athlete, it should not be a surprise when injury eventually occurs.

Rather than attempting to prepare yourself to be such an athlete, doesn’t it make more sense to follow a different program? One that is much more appropriate for you and takes into consideration all of what we’ve said here, a properly sequenced and adaptable system that doesn’t force a square peg into a round hole?

If you already know your elbows may be vulnerable, or you’d like to get ahead of it, read this post for an overview of the contributing factors to elbow strain and how to avoid and address them.

Think Critically and Use the Tools That Will Help You Reach Your Goals

It really is the easy way out to condemn something without critical thinking and analysis of the concerns raised.

Assuming the worst is fine, but only if it leads to something productive such as alternative practices that provide benefit and help us to learn and grow. Dismissing a practice out of hand as dangerous without proper reflection is useless and does nothing but create fears and anxiety.

Safety first of course, but don’t be so fearful that you don’t leave your house.

Above we’ve outlined how to check the current state of your strength, flexibility, and control with simple ideas on how to adjust the performance and execution of ring exercises to best fit your condition.

When you begin and tweak your own routine, keep these in mind and you’ll find the rings to be safe and productive.

If you’d rather start on a proven program, look at our Rings One course which, since its release several years ago, has led hundreds of our clients from scratch to a full rings routine. It provides detailed exercise instruction as well as a sensible and proper progressive plan that takes into account the needs of the average trainee to develop strength, flexibility, and control safely.

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