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!
Take your gymnastics practice to the next level: Making the complex simple
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!
Tuck/arch/tuck Rolls: Talk About A Functional Core!
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:
Tuck/Arch/Tuck Rolls Step-By-Step:
Sit on the ground with your knees bent and hold behind your knees with both hands
Tuck your pelvis under (scoop your tailbone) and roll back until you are resting only on your lower back. Your shoulders and feet should be off the ground.
Begin to roll to your left side. As your weight shifts onto your left hip, start to reach your arms overhead and legs out straight into a straight body position.
Continue rolling onto your stomach, but don’t allow your arms and legs to touch the floor! Try to keep your arms in line with your ears.
*This is the challenging part* Continue rolling in the same direction by lifting your left arm and leg toward the ceiling.
In the beginning, it’s acceptable to push your arm/hand or leg into the floor when rolling from front to back. Over time, try to roll without pushing against the ground.
As you build awareness and strength in this position, reaching to the ceiling will enable you to continue rolling onto your right side, arms and legs still extended.
As you roll onto your back again, bring your knees back in toward your chest but don’t let your shoulders touch the ground.
Be sure to work on rolling in both directions!
L-Sit – Tuck Position: Shoulders Of Steel
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:
L-Sit Tuck Position: Step-by-step:
Place two boxes, benches or parallettes wide enough apart that you can fit in between them.
Place a lower box or step in the middle.
Start by sitting on the lower box, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
Place one hand on each side, elbows bent.
Begin the movement by pushing the shoulders down away from the ears.
Keep your chest open by keeping the shoulders back.
Keep your core engaged to maintain and reinforce your position.
Once your shoulders are in place, push down to straighten your arms and lift yourself up off the box.
If you can hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds, challenge yourself further by slowly lifting one foot off the floor at a time.
If you can march successfully without losing your body position, try lifting one and then both feet off the floor together, keeping your legs bent. Try to maintain that good shoulder position!
Work toward holding yourself up (in any of these positions) for 15 to 20 seconds at a time.
Handstand Shoulder Taps: Going For Gold
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:
Handstand Shoulder Taps: Step-by-step
Begin in a downward dog position, with your hands on the floor, and your feet either on the floor or on an elevated box. Remember: start low and work your way up slowly!
Place your feet in a straddle position, a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. Avoid a narrow stance. The wider apart your foot placement, the more stable you will be and the better you can perform this movement.
Place your hands under your shoulders.
Push through both arms as if you were pushing something as high as possible over your head. This engages and stabilizes your shoulder girdle. This is your start position.
Once you’re in your start position, push through your left hand harder than your right.
If your left shoulder is stable and strong in this position, you should feel your right hand get lighter, to the point that you can eventually pick it up off the floor and touch your right shoulder.
It’s also OK to simply alternate pushing into the floor with one arm at a time until you are ready to pick up the opposite hand.
Be sure your hips do not shift sideways as you pick up your hand. Instead, move the feet lower in order to be able to maintain stability.
Return the right hand to the floor and repeat the process on the opposite side.
How To Add These Movements Into Your Training Program
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:
Tuck-arch-tuck rolls: 3-5 rolls in each direction
L-sits: 5-10 lift-offs, or hold 5- 8 seconds, three times
Handstand shoulder taps (feet on floor or low box): one set of 5-8 taps per arm
Tuck/arch/tuck rolls: 5-8 rolls in each direction
L-sits: Hold 10-20 seconds, three times
Handstand shoulder taps (feet on a box): one set of 10 taps per arm slowly
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:
Tuck/arch/tuck rolls: 2-3 sets of 3-5 rolls in each direction
L-Sits: 2-3 sets of 5-10 lift-offs OR hold for 5-8 seconds, three times per set
Handstand shoulder taps: 2-3 sets of 5 taps per arm
Tuck/arch/tuck rolls: 3 sets of 5-8 rolls in each direction
L-Sits: hold for 10-20 seconds three times per set, for 3 sets
Handstand shoulder taps: 3 sets of 10-15 taps per arm
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!
Note from GGS: No matter what your goals are, a well-rounded, balanced training program is one of the keys to seeing results. If you need some help getting started with a solid strength training program, we can help!
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About The Author: Ingrid Marcum
Ingrid Marcum, CSCS, is a successful multi-sport athlete with a great passion for teaching and coaching. Since 1997, Ingrid has been helping others reach their own fitness and athletic goals as a speaker, educator, strength & conditioning coach and movement specialist. To learn more about and from Ingrid, visit her website, and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.