Gymnasts have long been darlings of the Olympics. They captivate us with the power, grace, precision, strength, awareness and body control that define their performances and their sport—making the most difficult moves look effortless, all while wearing a smile!
We’re riveted by Cirque du Soleil performers and American Ninja Warrior competitors for the same reasons. These athletes accomplish great feats, all due to their mastery of movement and body control. After seeing such an amazing performance, do you ever think to yourself, “I could never do that”, or maybe even “I wish I could do that!” but have no idea where to start?
You can! And I’ll show you how to get started. You don’t have to be an Olympic-level competitor. Variations of many of these movements are accessible to almost everyone! Adding gymnastics-based movements to your training will get you stronger, introduce variety, and help you understand your body in a new way. You’ll also have loads of fun tackling new skills, and when you succeed, you’ll feel empowered through your accomplishment and achievement!
Gymnastics skills can be challenging and complex. Breaking them down into simpler variations or pieces of the movement lets you learn these skills safely and successfully, a little bit at a time. Mastering each one before moving on to the next instills confidence and builds the strength you need to successfully work toward more difficult progressions.
Whether you are just beginning, or are already working toward advanced skills like handstand walking or freestanding handstands, putting work into the movements covered in this article will create the control and stability to enable you to keep moving forward.
The following three positions are basic foundation positions that are also used in more challenging skill work. Including these in your training will make you stronger and more capable of one day mastering the “cool” moves! Of course, this article wouldn’t be complete without including attainable variations of some of the most desirable skills - handstands and L-sits!
This type of core movement helps build an amazingly strong, rock-solid midsection. It also introduces and strengthens two of the most important foundation positions in gymnastics, flexion and extension. Learning to move into and out of both positions with great body control is crucial for both safety and performance when moving on to more challenging gymnastics skill work. Before you try it, watch this video and review the step-by-step cues below:
L-sits (and their variations) are a great foundation for building upper body strength and stability. Learning to lift and hold yourself off the ground relying purely on your own strength is liberating! Talk about body control!
Hand balancing movements like these also help to build beautiful, strong shoulders and arms. These are a staple exercise in my shoulder stability protocol for my clients and athletes (individuals of all ages and abilities). When done correctly, they build tremendous stability, strength, and control in the shoulder girdle—the home of all upper body strength and movement! Before you attempt this movement, watch this video and review the step-by-step cues below:
The handstand is the gold standard of gymnastics skills, and arguably the single most desired gymnastics skill by those without a gymnastics background. Handstand shoulder taps provide a great starting point for everyone. For the beginner, this drill will enable you to get more comfortable simply being upside down. Those with more experience will build more stability and control for mastering advanced handstand moves like freestanding holds and walking.
For the purpose of this drill, consider a handstand a straight line from your hands to your hips when upside down. This means that a simple downward dog (yes, the yoga pose) can become a handstand drill. To advance the movement, place your feet onto a step/box/bench, etc. The higher the step, the more challenging the movement becomes. Eventually, you can perform this drill in a full handstand.
Until you are in a full handstand, the main rule to follow is that the only part of the body that should move is the hand you are picking up off the floor. Don’t allow the hips shift from side to side. When you maintain your position, you will greatly increase the stability and control in your shoulders—crucial to all handstand success. Before you attempt this drill, watch this video and review the step-by-step cues below:
Incorporating these gymnastics based movements into your training program gives you an opportunity to have fun tackling and mastering new skills, no matter where you’re starting!
Where in your program you choose to include these movements may depend on your current ability level. I include these movements in many of my clients’ programs as part of their warm-up. For some clients, I include them as part of their strength training, often coupled with another movement.
If performed during the warm-up, the volume is lower than for strength training, since you’ll be using it for activation and movement preparation. For warm up, I recommend different volumes for beginners and more experienced people. Perform one set of each:
When you include them in your strength training, follow a protocol similar to what you might do with other strength exercises. For example, I might prescribe a super set of Shoulder presses and handstand shoulder taps, like this: Shoulder Press for 5 to 10 reps, followed by Handstand shoulder tap for 5 to 15 taps. Rest and repeat for 3 to 5 supersets. I also like coupling shoulder presses and L-sits in the same way, holding L-sits for time (for example, 5 to 20 seconds, three times per set).
If you include them as stand-alone exercises instead of in a super set, try something like this:
With consistent practice, you’ll see good progress on each of these exercises, as well as increases in your strength, stability, body awareness and control. Don’t be afraid to get off the ground or upside down more often and discover life from a new perspective!
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