MAX WHITLOCK: THE HISTORY MAKER
With the best ever medal record in British gymnastics, Whitlock is closing in on the world’s finest. MF charts his roadmap to win gold at Rio 2016
Age: 22 | Height: 1.67m | Weight 56kg
Disciplines: all-around, floor, pommel horse
Achievements (as of March 2015):
2014 Silver medal, all-around world, championships champion
2014 Gold medal, team, individual all-around and floor, Commonwealth Games
2014 Gold medal, pommel horse, European championships
2013 Silver medal, pommel horse, world championships
2012 Bronze medal, team, individual pommel horse, Olympic Games
At the 2014 World Championships in China, Max Whitlock equalled the best ever performance of a British gymnast in the all-around – the decathlon of the sport. But five days earlier it had all gone wrong.
Mistakes had cost Whitlock a place in the final, and mentally he’d checked out. “I thought I’d finished,” he says. “I let my diet go. I went to bed late. I just chilled out.” The next morning he woke to discover his team-mate Nile Wilson, who’d qualified for the final, had pulled out through injury and Whitlock was to take his place. “When you compete you get into a zone. But I was completely out of it.”
“It was difficult,” says his coach and former national gymnast Scott Hann. “He’d not experienced a bad competition like that. We discussed where it went wrong. Pressure and expectation had a lot to do with it. We had to readjust his mindset to get back to where he was before the competition.”
The team talk worked. Whitlock won silver, matching the success of fellow British gymnast Daniel Keatings five years earlier, and was less than 1.5 points off Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, the five-time consecutive world champion, whom Whitlock calls his idol.
“It’s been a learning process,” says Whitlock when Men’s Fitness spends the day training with him at the South Essex Gymnastics Club. “I’ve realised it’s all about mindset. I had to think, ‘I’ve done all the hard work. I’ve done the build-up’. I had to just forget about everything else and refocus.”
Whitlock showed composure when others could have crumbled, underlining his brilliance since clinching pommel horse bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. Now he’s set his sights on Uchimura, the world number one. In the world championships Whitlock came closer to Uchimura than anyone has. He scored 90.473 to Uchimura’s 91.965 in the event in which points are totted up for the floor, rings, vault, parallel bars, high bar and pommel horse. And he actually beat the Japanese gymnast 16 to 15 in the last discipline, his favourite.
“My target was 90 points,” Whitlock says. “I’ve hit it a few times. Now 91 is what I’m aiming for to beat Uchimura. Scott and I have been working on a four-year plan since 2012 and we’re on the right track for the Olympics in Rio. After London I wanted to prove myself as an all-round gymnast, so to stand on the podium next to my idol was a big achievement. Now I’ve got to add a few skills to my routines to get to the next step.”
MAKING A POINT
One such skill is the Maltese cross on rings. This event is his weakest, yet requires him to be at his strongest. “A perfect body type for gymnasts is a light but strong frame,” Whitlock says, between demonstrations of a move called the straddle front, in which he combines flexibility with awesome power and aggression to whip and then somersault his body between parallel bars. “You need to find a balance for the all- around. If you’re too muscular and broad you won’t have the upper-body flexibility for the pommel horse. A rings specialist will be a lot bigger so I need to work on my strength without adding size.”
Avoiding putting on muscle is something he gives serious thought to. The solution: disciplined rest periods. “By resting completely between sets we can build strength without size,” says Hann. “If you’re looking to bulk up you’ll only take 20 seconds of rest before the next set, but Max rests for up to two minutes, before he’s ready to go again. As a result he’ll be able to extend his career for a long time because his body is light and supple. The bigger, heavier guys will struggle because their muscles have to work harder.”
STRETCHING THE POINT
Whitlock says stretching has played a big part. “It helps my muscles recover and sets me up for a workout the next day, regardless of how much or little I’ve trained. Simply hold a stretch for ten seconds on each of the muscles you’ve worked in a session. Just remember to do it every day.”
Diet also plays a role in keeping Whitlock in shape, but he takes a surprisingly relaxed stance on it. “I do eat normally and I’m not teetotal but I’ll go for healthy choices,” he says. “It’s hard to stick religiously to a regime when I travel to countries like Russia and China where I’m not going to get the foods I’m used to.”
But he takes steps to ensure he eats properly. “When I travel, I’ll take a food parcel with me: tins of tuna, nuts, dried fruit, cereal bars, and for competition I’ll take protein bars. I’ve also started eating biltong – it’s great for recovery.”
Between hours practising routines and endless repetitions of planche press-ups and gymnastics strengthening workouts [see box on p124], Whitlock has been doing a 6.5km run once a week to improve his stamina. “The longest a routine lasts is 90 seconds,” he says. “So these runs are short and explosive. I sprint up hills between fast-paced jogs. Three weeks before competition I stop so my legs aren’t too heavy.”
BREAK WITH TRADITION
When Whitlock was younger, conditioning involved rope climbing instead of pavement pounding. “It strengthens your upper body and grip – something you especially need for the parallel bars and high bar. I used to do sets climbing up and down a 10m rope twice without stopping. Just make sure you climb down hand-by-hand rather than try to slip down if you want to keep the skin on your palms,” he says.
MF asks how punishing gymnastics can be. Is it the harsh, ultra-disciplined sport people often assume it is? “When you’re young it is strict, but it needs to be because it’s such a tough sport,” says Whitlock. “As you get older it becomes more enjoyable. If you enjoy it you do more of it and get better. I’d never be so strict on myself that I’m not having fun.”
It’s an outlook that perhaps explains the revival Great British gymnastics is enjoying since Louis Smith won pommel horse bronze in Beijing 2008 and the team took bronze in London 2012, both ending a century without a podium finish in their respective categories. Its popularity was recognised when Whitlock took seventh place at the 2014 Sports Personality awards ahead of household names Gareth Bale and Carl Froch.
“Max is a fantastic person. He’s very humble, very laid-back, very level-headed,” Hann says. “His success ultimately comes down to enjoyment. And that’s true of the national set-up in Britain. This is a professional business and it’s a tough one – we have to work hard and train hard. But the main advice I’d give to anyone is you’ve got to enjoy it.”
Photography Rupert Fowler. Published by Men’s Fitness in the March 2015 issue.