I love Cirque du Soleil.
I have seen loads of Cirque shows in person. I’ve been known to spend hours swapping epic and amazing Cirque videos with friends. I watch these performances with my jaw on the floor. Every. Single. Time.
Why? Because acrobats are amazing. They are awesome. Most people watch an acrobat and say, “Wow! Incredible!”
But I hit this point in my life where I didn’t want to say “Wow!” anymore. I wanted to get up and do these awesome things. I wanted to stop saying that I wanted to be acrobatic. I wanted to just be acrobatic.
Maybe it was because I was finally hitting my stride with “fitness”.
Maybe it was because I had gotten over that initial hump (somewhere between Martial Arts, CrossFit and Parkour). You know what I’m talking about. The point where I realized how important movement is to my daily life.
Maybe I just hit a breaking point where I wanted to just freakin’ see what I could REALLY do.
Something just clicked. I was watching an acrobat and said “I’m going to do that”.
I had big plans. I sat myself in front of the mirror and said:
I’m going to stand on my hands.
I’m going to do a backflip.
I’m going to do a muscle up.
In a matter of a few years, I did all that and more. And, you know what? I’m convinced that many people want to do all of these things, and just never get started.
Luckily, I was in the right environment eight years ago. If anything were different, I wouldn’t have gotten past day one.
This article is the intro I wish I had back then. It will guide you through the challenges associated with three skills that all new acrobats and adult gymnasts should learn immediately.
So what is holding you back?
Fear Holds You Back
The single thing that holds people back is fear. It’s always fear.
After doing a lot of research, and working with a lot of people, I figured it out. Sure, no one comes out and just says “Oh no, I’m too scared!” They wrap it up with excuses. They say things like:
“That’s too dangerous.”
Fear: I’m scared of getting hurt.
But is adult gymnastics really that dangerous? Most gymnasts don’t do extremely dangerous tasks on a regular basis. The dangerous stuff is only for really advanced acrobats…and even then it’s only when they are putting on a death-defying performance. Despite popular perception, most acrobatic skills are pretty safe.
“That must have taken you forever.”
Fear: “I’m scared that I won’t have enough time.”
Adult gymnastics doesn’t take that much time. Most of the fundamentals is actually skill work, not strength work…and skills only require a minimum of a few minutes training every day. If you have taken the 28-Day Handstand Challenge then you know that building up to an impressive skill doesn’t take much more than 5-minutes-per-day. For most of us, that’s less time than it takes to run a mile, or do a couple of sets of weightlifting.
“I would look stupid trying that.”
Fear: “I’m scared of what other people might think.”
While some people may think what you are doing is stupid, you will find that most people are humbled, impressed and inspired when they see you doing something amazing like a handstand or a flip. And when some oddball decides to be snide (which isn’t that common) you gotta remember to ignore haters! You can’t please everyone – and if adult gymnastics and acrobatics makes you happy then you need to at least please yourself.
But there is one argument that I hear more often than any other. I hear it SO often that it gets super special attention…
“Don’t I Need to Start When I’m Really Young?”
NO WAY. You can be an impressive gymnast whether you start when you’re in your 20’s or your 60’s or anywhere in between.
Sure, you won’t be able to do the most advanced skills if you start later in life. Maybe you will never be the best gymnast in the world. But that wouldn’t happen even if you started training at a young age…unless your parents sold you to an acrobatic troop when you were two years old.
You can still be incredible, inspiring and impressive, all the same. Even just the fundamentals of acrobatics – the simplest of the simplest gymnastics maneuvers – are incredibly impressive to 99% of the general public.
On top of that, I honestly don’t believe that adults must learn slower than children.
Most people don’t believe that I have seen an adult learn to back handspring on a trampoline in 15 minutes. I’ll repeat that: I have seen an adult learn to back handspring in 15 minutes. And this person wasn’t some freak of nature. It was a 30-year-old woman who couldn’t perform a ten-inch vertical leap without falling on her butt. She could barely even keep her balance on the trampoline. She just had a good teacher.
I have personally worked with a 21 year old MMA fighter who achieved his first 15-second freestanding handstand in 30 days. Twenty-one is still pretty young? What about the 29 year old powerlifter who did it in 44 days? Or the 58 year old retiree who only needed 60 days?
A lot of people grossly overestimate the amount of time it takes to learn the fundamentals of gymnastics. You expect to take a long time…so it takes a long time! Or, even worse, you don’t start at all…
It also doesn’t help that most of the acrobatic and gymnastics training materials that exist today are based on progressions intended for children. When I was doing research for The 15-Second Handstand, I found one online handstand progression that actually said to have someone grab your legs and pull. You know, that way that you could feel yourself “getting longer”. Good luck doing this with a 235 lbs. weightlifter…!
But what are the challenges that YOU are facing:
Fear conquering is crucial, because fear halts progress for months.
You have a busy lifestyle, so gymnastics training needs to fit into your busy day.
Most adults can’t find a good coach, so a good adult’s program will minimize spotting.
When you take the right approach, the foundational gymnastics skills can be learned in weeks, not years. Yes, some of the more advanced skills will take several months, but the fundamentals don’t need to take forever — and the fundamentals open doors for impressive skills in the future.
Gymnastics Fundamentals – Two Step Skill Method
Gymnasts learn how to skillfully control and master their own bodies.
In other words, most of what you need to learn falls into the realm of skill training. You probably didn’t realize that strength is only a small component of gymnastics training…but in reality, once you have foundational strength, acrobatic feats just need to be practiced over and over and over again. They just take consistent practice to learn proper execution!
In other words, you first need to make your body strong, then you make it capable. First you prepare the body for the task, then learn you to perform it. I like to call this the Two Step Skill Method, because it makes it easy to remember that there are only two steps you need to hit any gymnastics or acrobatic skill:
- Get Strong: Build the foundational strength
- Train Skills: Use the foundational strength to practice relevant skills
Here, lets see a few examples:
60-second wall handstand
Relevant Skill Sets
The Cambered Hand Technique
10-15″ Vertical Leap
Relevant Skill Sets
Setting (Jumping) Technique
In these books and videos, I first provide a few key tips to help you build a training habit for consistent training. (If you aren’t consistent, then all of the training is for naught, so consistency is the absolute first priority.) Then, I make sure you have the pre-requisite strength by laying a path for you to build up to a 60-second wall handstand — the foundational strength requirement for the handstand. Finally, you just drill the skill over and over every single day. It’s fun and invigorating, since you already have a good foundation in place!
BOOM! Within a few weeks, you achieve your first handstand like these guys.
And then you apply that same process to many other skills…
Starting Your First Gymnastics Skills
So lets actually get started on being freakin’ incredible.
I prefer to keep things simple. There are only three skills you need to learn to start your gymnastics journey: the handstand, the handstand press and the muscle up.
These aren’t the only three skills that you should ever learn. No, there are dozens, if not hundreds of skills, transitions, flips, twists and holds that you can learn in your acrobatic training…but these skills provide a solid foundation for all gymnastics skill sets.
The strength and skills that you learn when conquering these three skills has significant carry-over to nearly all branches of gymnastics. That includes hand balancing and pole dancing; bar skills and rings skill; flipping and twisting; slacklining and jumping.
Once you master these three skills, you instantly open up a door into hundreds of impressive skills. Nearly every adept gymnast or acrobat, no matter their discipline, can perform each of these three skills.
And the best part? All three of these can usually be learned in under a year…and in most cases, one year is a gross overestimate. I have seen people get all three within two months.
Where will you be in your training next year? Did you ever believe that you could have three amazing skills under your belt within 12 months or less? I know it sounds bold, but its completely true: you just need to train consistently, and take the right steps.
The handstand is the gateway into all balance training including hand balance skills, transitions and variations. That’s why I focused my entire career on handstands. That’s why I wrote a book, and dozens of free articles on this one skill alone. It’s that important.
The handstand requires that you build solid shoulder strength, incredible core stability and whole-body discipline.
You start with training handstands directly.
60-second wall handstand
Relevant Skill Sets
To build the handstand’s foundational strength, you need to build up the strength for a 60-second wall handstand hold.
The best way to do this is to train wall handstands directly. You can start by doing a normal plank position next to the wall. If you can hold this for 60 seconds, walk your feet up the wall a little bit, and your hands closer to the wall. Work on holding this new position for 60 seconds. Repeat this over and over until you are about 12 inches from the wall, and then you have the foundational strength that is necessary to get started on freestanding handstands.
Once you’re there, you can transition over to training the relevant skill sets. The most important skill to achieve is the pirouette bail, which will help you get over fear….because fear is the #1 thing that holds most people back.
All of the other relevant skill sets, including the Cambered Hand Technique make finding your balance easier. Then it’s on to learning kickups, so that you can throw up handstands anywhere.
If you want more details on getting your first handstand, you can sign up for the 28-Day Handstand Challenge to get dozens of free articles that specifically discuss getting your first handstand as an adult trainee.
The handstand press is another gateway skill that opens up hundreds of handstand transitions. It allows you to enter the handstand in a slow and controlled manner, letting you perform handstands on unstable surfaces (like rings) or on sketchy terrain (like the top of a stairwell).
Yes, learning the handstand press does require you to learn the freestanding handstand first. But most people I have worked with have learned their handstand in well under 6 months. Routinely, the majority of my students get their first 15-second freestanding handstand within 40-90 days of consistent training. And once you have handstand under your belt, the handstand press takes balance, core strength and upper body control to a whole new level.
Now, there are actually dozens of handstand press variations, but we will keep it simple. Start with one variation, and expand from there.
You will start with the frogstand-to-handstand press.
15-Second Freestanding Handstand
Relevant Skill Sets
Controlled Handstand-to-Frogstand Negative
Harnessing Ideal Hip Position
The Frogstand-to-Handstand press, of course, requires you to hold at least a 15-second freestanding handstand. Any less than 15 seconds means that you aren’t competent enough in handstands to learn the skills associated with the press. In case you skipped it, you can build up to your first freestanding handstand using the methods outlined in the previous section, and it can usually be achieved in 4-12 weeks.
Also, you need at least a 15-second frog stand, which is the starting point of the frogstand-to-handstand press. To get started on the frogstand, just place your hands on the floor, and bend at the elbows. WIth both feet on the floor, bend your knees, and rest them just on top of your elbows.
Lean your weight forward gently, a little bit at a time. Your knees should feel secure on your elbows as you lean forward. Continue leaning forward until your toes are off the ground, and all of your weight is supported on your elbows and your hands. Congrats! You are in a frogstand…now build up to holding it for 15 seconds.
Below is an awesome demonstration performed by Ido Portal:
Once you hit these two goals to build your foundational strength, you’re ready to transition into skill training. That means drilling controlled negatives. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a negative, it just means doing the move in reverse. So, instead of starting in a frogstand and pushing up into a handstand, you start by kicking up into a handstand, and lower yourself gently down into a frogstand. Performing negatives like this teaches your body the skill at a rapid rate.
By repeatedly drilling negatives, you will quickly learn how to maintain balance; you will learn how your hips should move in relation to your hands; you will learn to master your own body.
It also builds a ton of strength, too.
In general, a muscle up is when you start in a hang from a bar or rings, and pull yourself up and over your hands into support. Muscle ups open the door to dozens of more difficult skills.
The strength that the muscle up builds can be easily applied to nearly every branch of acrobatics and gymnastics…not just the ones that require a set of rings or a sturdy pull-up bar. Advanced gymnastics, pole dancing, slacklining and flipping skills all benefit from the lessons learned through muscle up training.
The best way to train muscle ups is on a pair of rings. Rings can be purchased for as little at $50-60, or you can get wooden rings (my preference) for as little as $70-80. Rings make learning the muscle up easier; progress comes faster. You can hang them from a doorway pull-up bar, or from a tree branch outside.
Rings present so many benefits to gymnastics training, that its criminal to not have a pair if you are serious about undertaking gymnastics.
[I’m actually partnered with a few online stores that sell rings, so I could link to them here and get a cut of sales…but I would rather you buy a pair of rings because that’s what best for your training. I don’t want you to second guess their importance because you think I may be trying to make a quick buck on selling you rings. Seriously get yourself some rings! I never met a gymnast or acrobat that didn’t own their own pair.]
But, if you don’t have a pair of rings and want to get started, you can practice on a pull-up bar with clearance that allows you to get over the bar.
You start by working on big pullups and deep dips.
5 explosive chest-to-ring/bar pullups
5 chest-to-rings/bar dips
Relevant Skill Sets
Behind-The-Bar Pulling Technique
Muscle Up Transition
The muscle up is definitely more strength-oriented than the other two fundamental skills I mentioned…but the benefits of learning to muscle up are so amazing that it’s nothing short of necessary.
Of the three skills in the beginner’s gymnastics list, the muscle up is the most difficult, and will take the longest, but it still shouldn’t take longer than a year. Even if you can’t do one pull-up today, its entirely possible that you will have a muscle up within a year. Yes, it’s really true. Most people can get to 5 pull-ups within a few months. Going from 5 pull-ups to the muscle up is actually not that big of a jump!
While I would love to give you a step-by-step guide of training the muscle up, the main point in this article is to show you how to break down the most important skills into foundational strength and relevant skill sets. I would rather not reinvent the wheel and write my own muscle up tutorial here when Jim Bathurst of Beast Skills already wrote one of the best muscle-up guides available on the web.
Gymnasts and acrobats do flips! What about those!?
Flips are awesome too! And you should train them (so you can backflip after your TEDx talk like my friend Zac Cohn, obviously).
I love flipping. In fact, I learned my first backflip when I was 23, and built up to performing them outside — on concrete. I’m definitely not against flips.
Flipping is a skill that I classify as dynamic gymnastics — or a skill that requires fast movements, and quick adjustments. Other dynamic gymnastics skills may include things like jumping, vaulting, twisting, handsprings, flashy kicks or even swinging from bars like a monkey.
You don’t need to flip and jump around to be an gymnast…but if that’s what you want to do, then you should definitely go for it!
The problem with dynamic gymnastics is that it is very difficult to learn these skills (1) on your own and (2) without a gym. The good news is that if you want to learn dynamic skills, seeking out a gym is pretty easy (see the next section for more details).
And who will be in that gym? Other people who can help teach you these skills. Working on skills together in a gymnastics facility or circus school is actually an awesome way to make friends and speed up progress. You may even be able to pay for one-on-one coaching sessions, which is a lot better than any online tutorial.
That aside, I haven’t found a single online resource that teaches dynamic gymnastics in a manner that I consider safe or effective. I actually don’t think it’s even possible to learn dynamic skills from a book. It’s just the sort of thing that you need to learn in person. (If you know something I don’t, though, let me know!)
Where Can I Get More Info?!
If you’re looking to get more info on becoming a gymnast or acrobat, then I have a few resources to recommend.
Find other acrobats – I alluded to this a little bit already, but finding other like-minded gymnasts will greatly enhance your progress. I find that people at gymnastics open gyms, parkour meetups, and some CrossFit gyms tend to be acrobatically-minded. You may not even realize it, but a lot of cities have circus schools dedicated to teaching adults various gymnastics and circus arts. Lucky for you, I know of a worldwide circus school directory. If there isn’t a circus school near you (or if that sounds too intense), you can check out opens gym in your area. Just go to Google Maps and type in “gymnastics”. Most of the places that come up will provide an open gym session thats in the range of $10-$20/session (that’s about €7-€15 or £6-£12, if you live in Europe/UK).
Find a good instructor – If you are going to pains to find a good gym, and you have some cash in your pocket, then a good instructor can really help to accelerate your progress. A good instructor is invaluable when training dynamic gymnastics like flips and twists. Even though most of your static gymnastics training will be on your own, an instructor can give you great feedback on other skills like handstands in a weekly session.
Do some research – If you’re the bookworm type (like me), then you may find these books, blogs and articles useful for getting started for static gymnastics skills, like the three fundamental skills I list in this article. Some of these resources are paid, but all have some sort of free component.
The 28-Day Handstand Challenge – Yup, tooting my own horn here. I’m an acrobat and amateur gymnast myself, and have spent a lot of time developing a handstand program that gets people to their first handstand quickly, safely and effectively. It took me over a year to nail down my first handstand, so I know it can be intimidating. But with the 28-Day Handstand Challenge, most people make huge progress within the first week (it’s free, but it only goes into detail about building the foundational strength).
The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide – If a paid guide is more your thing, then you may be interested in a comprehensive step-by-step program. This guide takes the foundational strength of the 60-second wall handstand and teaches to achieve your first 15-Second freestanding handstand hold.
The Fundamentals of Bodyweight Strength Training – Easily the most comprehensive free article on bodyweight strength training, written by Steven Low. This article includes a ton of information on static gymnastics skills. This article teaches timeless lessons about building the foundational strength for nearly every static gymnastics skill out there.
Overcoming Gravity – If you want to read about bodyweight strength in a much more comprehensive book (over 540 pages!), Steven Low, covers hundreds of gymnastics skills and variations in his book, Overcoming Gravity.
Beast Skills Tutorials – Like short, step-by-step tutorials? Then Beast Skills is right up your alley. While some of the content hasn’t been updated in years, Jim Bathurst has written over a dozen tutorials on many gymnastics and acrobatic skills, including those covered in this article.
Drills and Skills – Despite the simple design, Drills and Skills has one of the most complete listing of acrobatics/gymnastics skills that you can learn on your own, at home. It even includes some dynamic gymnastics skills (but I still don’t think it’s anywhere near as effective as just finding an open gym).
So, what do you think?
The ball’s in your court.
Have you tried to learn acrobatic skills in the past? What was your experience like? Have a criticism of the method or skills I propose?
Think I am being too conservative on teaching flips through the internet? Do you have a resource I am missing?
Let’s hear about it!