My Story: Fat to Acrobat

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Hi, I’m Chris.

If you don’t know me, this is my website.  I love hand balancing and gymnastics. I love moving and being active.

But I wasn’t born that way, and a lot of my readers ask about my story. “How long did it take for you to master handstands?” they ask, “Did you ever put your personal story out there?”

Up until now, I haven’t revealed a lot about my own story…mostly because I thought it would just sound like I was just tooting my own horn.  I realized later that many people want to know my story because you are facing the same challenges I conquered…or I am still conquering them myself.

I also realized that there are a lot of adults who want to start gymnastics training, but they don’t know how to get started. There are few people who understand the challenges that adults face when starting gymnastics or acrobatics training.

I want trying to dispel the myth that you need to be young to start training these impressive skills.

You see, the first impressive skill I ever trained was the handstand at the age of 23.  Since then I have advised other people, aged 20 to 70, on how to hit impressive goals like the handstand for the first time.

Skills that help you master your own body are not as demanding or difficult as most people think.

When I started, I had no idea what I was doing and still hit my most impressive goals within the first 5 years of my training.  From the time I trained my first handstand attempt at age 23, it only took me three years to hit incredibly impressive skill milestones like:

Now, I’m not listing these achievements to show off or something.  I am just trying to show you what’s possible with consistent training. You can make amazing progress towards things that you never thought possible.

It only takes consistent practice and small changes – one at a time.

My path wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as people think.  I’m not a super special case.

This is my story.

Rocky Roads and Chubby Beginnings

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I started training in things like handstands and flips when I was in my twenties…but surely I must have been really strong and fit before that.  I probably had good genes, right?  It must have been smooth sailing for me!

Well, it definitely wasn’t smooth sailing.

The thing is…I was a pretty chubby kid when I was growing up.  OK, that’s a lie.  I was definitely a fat kid.

That picture is me at 18 years old – 2 years before I started any training.  I was 40 pounds overweight.  (Also, you have my permission to make fun of that ridiculous haircut.)

It all started when I was 13.  See, that’s when I hit my breaking point.  I was tired of being fat and out of shape and the butt of every other fat joke.  I had serious body image problems.  I begged my parents for help and advice on losing weight.

My mother gave me diet advice…but I didn’t take it.

She bought me a weight set after I begged her for weeks…but I never used it.

I even started looking up breakdancing tutorials online (keep in mind, this was 1998 and YouTube didn’t exist!)  After my first handstand attempt left a huge hole in my mother’s basement ceiling, I flat-out gave up.

It wasn’t until three years later (at age 16) that some friends got into weight lifting. I started going to the gym with them.  We had no idea what we were doing, so I just did some random workouts on various machines.  I started to see some progress…but I created some major muscle imbalances in my shoulders.

Within a year of starting weight training, I had caused both of my shoulders to dislocate.  And it wasn’t just a single shoulder dislocation.  Oh no, my shoulder’s were completely ruined.  They would dislocate several times every day.  I couldn’t reach into the back of my fridge without a shoulder popping out!

I gave up working out for a few more years.  By the time I was nineteen, I had two shoulder surgeries, and neither of them worked.  Yup, I went under the knife two times, and my shoulders still dislocated several times every day.

So when my friends got involved in martial arts and asked me to come along, I had my reservations.

     What if my shoulders dislocated during martial arts classes?  
     What would people think if I wasn’t any good?  
     What if I embarrassed myself by even trying?

And then I saw the membership costs: $360 for three months.  I was a poor college student.  This was a lot of money for me.

But obsessing about the cost was just another fear creeping up on me.  I mean, if I joined the classes and actually went then I would get so many benefits.  I would be spending time with my friends, would learn to be a better fighter, and maybe even finally lose weight.  The benefit would definitely be worth $360.  After all, some people spend $400 on a treadmill they never use, or on workout DVDs that turn into door stops.

The real reason I didn’t want to join was fear.  I was scared that I wouldn’t go and lose my money.  I was scared that I would fail again, like I had so many times in the past.

My friends were supportive though, and I wound up paying the fee.  For me, spending the money actually strengthened my commitment.  Now, I was paying money for these classes, so I was going to make sure I got my money’s worth.

And that was when everything changed.

Small Changes Create Success

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Once I started, I was in the zone.

I went to my martial arts classes every day, 6 days a week, for three months straight. I would show up early and leave late, sometimes spending as much as 4 hours a day training martial arts – but it was all mindless.  I only made ONE CHANGE: show up for classes and do as I was told.

Within the first month, I experienced dramatic weight loss, and it made me consider my diet.  After all, I was turning my body into a machine, and I needed my diet to be the best fuel possible.  Since my exercise program was dialed in, it freed up my brain to research changes to my diet.

Taking the same approach, I made one change a week to my diet.  One week it was to cut out anything that came in a crinkly bag.  The next it was to remove vegetable oils…and so on.

I would systematically make one change at a time to cut out “bad things” and introduce “good things” – but only ONE THING AT A TIME.

By the third month, I had so much confidence it was coming out of my ears.  I attempted some aerial cartwheels and even a handstand or two, even though I had no idea what I was doing.  But before I made progress on these gymnastics skills, I stopped my martial arts training…

See, I had to go back to college which was 400 miles away from the martial arts gym I joined.  When I finally settled back into schoolwork, I practiced what I could in my apartment, but realized that I didn’t have an instructor telling me what to do anymore.

I would need to take matters into my own hands.

I started using the gym that was included with my college tuition just to keep active.  I didn’t know what to do, and was getting bored and frustrated.  (And my shoulder’s still weren’t fixed yet. I didn’t want to make them any worse.)

I kept going to the gym, through the frustration.  But I ALSO started to read my first anatomy and physiology textbook.

I told myself that my next ONE SMALL CHANGE was to read at least one page in that massive textbook every day.  I started with the chapters that covered muscles and joints, and I took it from there.

After six months, this one small change resulted in me reading an entire 500 page anatomy and physiology textbook from cover to cover.  I also changed my minor to focus on biomedical sciences.  I was starting to find that I knew more about muscle and exercise physiology than some medical professionals.

I continued with my ONE SMALL CHANGE method to get through two more (successful) shoulder surgeries and learn as much as I could about exercise physiology.

If there is one thing you should take from my story so far it’s the fact that ONE SMALL CHANGE, taken one at a time, can significantly impact your training and life in the long run.  (That is the whole reason why I am telling you this story!)

The Final Key: Safety Nets

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I was well into a “fitness lifestyle” when I started working on skills that most people consider dangerous or impressive.  For the first 18 months of my training lifestyle, I had barely even started messing around with bodyweight skills or acrobatic.

Then I found CrossFit, which introduced me to more regimented handstand training.  As soon as I started CrossFit, I really wanted to do handstand pushups.

But, since CrossFit isn’t the best for learning handstands, I had no idea how to get away from the wall..  I was throwing up wall handstands every day at work, at home, and at the gym.

Even with so much handstand training, I was stuck against the wall for months! No hope of progress was in sight.

But through all of this, I continued reading more textbooks, more medical journals, more books on training, and more articles.  I came across one that really struck a chord with me.  Another small event that changed the entire course of my training, and my life.

This article changed everything: “Parkour Basics” by Jessy Woody.

See, nothing in the article was particularly revolutionary – but it opened my eyes to parkour.  I fell in love with the idea of moving through an environment safely and efficiently.

By September 2007, about 18 months from starting any fitness program at all, I started going to several dozen parkour meet ups.  I was learning new skills like under bars, kong vaults, lazy vaults and speed vaults.  But I was about 7 months into handstand training, and was still stuck against the wall.

Randomly, someone approached me at a parkour meet up when he saw my shoddy freestanding handstand attempts.  He introduced me to the pirouette bail which is very different to the rolling bail technique I was using at the time.

The pirouette bail is a much better way to bail.  By learning it, I could effectively train handstand kick-ups ANYWHERE.  Before that, I had to be on a soft surface and couldn’t train in most places.

The pirouette bail was the perfect safety net.  It completely removed fear from the equation.

Now I was attempting handstands every five minutes instead of just a few times a day.

I went form 7 months of no progress to my first 5-second freestanding handstand within one week.  Within two weeks, I was up to 15 seconds.

This is why I emphasize the pirouette bail so much in my book.  I learned that safety nets like the pirouette bail are crucial to removing fear.  The safety net concept has greatly impacted my success..and not just in acrobatics and gymnastics…

Safety nets have made me more bold in any situation where there is fear and perceived risk.  That’s true in all of my training and many other aspects of my life (like dropping my entire career to focus on getting people to hit amazing fitness goals, or moving to another country).

Lessons Learned

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It’s been about 5 years since I held my first handstand for 15-seconds, performed my first handstand press, and executed my first muscle up.

Since then I have used that time to continue to work towards the other goals that I have achieved.  Those other goals weren’t without their challenges, either.

I hit many road blocks, like a two year bout with knee tendinitis, a separated shoulder and a dislocated elbow.  I had to take several breaks from training to let my body recover.

I had to start and restart training – getting back into the habit – several times in my 7 year fitness journey.

I need to learn new tricks, and learn more about my mind and body every time I do it.

Getting into the habit is difficult each and every time.  

Great lessons come from these experiences:

Good direction is worth the cost: Before I got started, I struggled with a decision to spend $360 on martial arts classes.  That one small decision changed my life.  A few years later, other small changes dramatically improved my training – like a single article on parkour and a random tip to learn the pirouette bail.  That’s why I created The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide; I wanted to create the guide that would have saved me years back when I started.

Fundamentals come quicker than you think: Before I started learning handstands and flips, they seemed incredibly difficult and nebulous.  It seemed like attaining these skills would take ages if you didn’t start when you were a child.  I really want to dispel that myth.  My handstand and flipping journey took a long time, but I have seen a 30-year old get their first back handspring in 15 minutes, and a 58-year old (who was using The 15-Second Handstand) get his first handstand in 60 days.  Sure, the more advanced skills will take years of training, but you can nail the fundamentals in less than year. (If you have good direction).

Small, single changes are key: Hitting more advanced skills will take time, but you can work up to them – one small step at a time.  By focusing on ONE SMALL CHANGE you can consistently feel successful and make huge progress towards your goals.  Maybe its just five minutes of handstand training.  Maybe its just deciding to focus on one super important goal.  Thats why my book focuses on only one goal: getting your first handstand.  My method breaks the handstand into distinct challenges that you overcome, one at a time, without any distractions.  Ask yourself this: what is the one small thing I can do today to make myself feel like I hit a small success in my training?

Fear holds you back: Fear is natural, but a lot of our fears are irrational.  Fear is what holds people back from even “normal” workouts at the gym (“What if I look stupid?”), let alone more advanced training like acrobatics or gymnastics (“What if I hurt myself?”).  Once you identify the fears that hold you back, you can put in the steps to conquer them, one small change at a time.  That’s why I cover fear conquering in most of my book, including a whole step in the progression focusing on mastering bails.

Safety Nets remove fear: Things like handstands and backflips are scary when you are new.  But there are ways you can eliminate the fear, like pirouette bails and foam pits.  Once you recognize your fears, you can identify safety nets that completely remove risk while you build your confidence.  When you perceive that the risk is minimal, you can unlock your true potential.

Perception is more important than programming: If you don’t perceive that you are successful every day, then you will lose motivation and eventually just stop training.  If you perceive that everyone is judging you, then you will feel awkward in the gym.  If you perceive that you can’t achieve an awesome skill, then you will never get there.  Managing your perceptions of the situation, making sure you always feel that you are moving forward, is much more important than a magical progression or workout plan.  The best plans are those that constantly make you feel like a success…and that’s just what each challenge of The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide has done for Sam.

What do you think?

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What are your thoughts on my training experiences?

Do you think my story is useful?  Or am I just a fitness dope, droning on and on about myself?

Do you have any questions about how I achieved certain skills?

Let me know what you think!

11 Responses to “My Story: Fat to Acrobat”

  1. ... February 2, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

    how can i train for the straddle planche indirectly? ive heard pf people working on levers and handstands and handstand pushups and just getting it. should i do that? i have wrist pains which is why i dont want to focus on it now

    • Chris Salvato March 7, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

      Straddle planche is a very difficult skill, and there are a lot of ways to work on it. The best way to get any skill/movement, though, is to work on it directly at least every other workout session.

      The other workouts you do should have a high translation over to the planche though. This includes movements like weighted dips, handstand presses and, believe it or not, the Back Lever and Iron Cross.

      If you have wrist pains, you can always use parallettes to sidestep that problem.

      • ... June 1, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

        i waited until the wrist pains went away before directly training for the planche. im going to my 5th week of planche trainig and 4 weeks ago, an advanced tuck planche seemed impossible! paralettes are worse for me at any time, but thanks for the tips!

  2. Ben S March 17, 2014 at 7:16 pm #

    Great post. I’ve purchased Overcoming Gravity months ago but really haven’t delved into it (one excuse after another). I like your idea of “one small change”, that’s kind of how I went from not really knowing much about diet to (nearly) ditching all junk food and eating all my own home cooked meals (slow cookers rule!).

    I’m in a similar boat, though started later. I’ve always been interested in fitness and exercise but never really took it seriously until a couple of years ago. I did a little weight lifting when I was younger, did the Body-for-Life program while in college, and followed the Convict Conditioning books religiously for a couple of years before I got bored. Then, October ’13, I discovered Jujimufu and tricking. Since then I’ve been working to clean up my diet and practice tricking. I’ve been going to a gymnastics place for their adult tumbling classes since August and I’m SO close to having my back tuck on the floor.

    My next goals are to sink my teeth into Overcoming Gravity, though I’m getting hung up on estimating how long certain skill will take. I have a decent starting level for strength but I really have no clue how long these skills will take to attain. I noticed in another post of yours that one can only expect to get proficient in skills at level 3 after 2-4 years, which puts it into some perspective, but are one handed handstands, planches, and levers realistic for a 230 lbs, 15-20% body fat 25 year old?

    If there’s a better environment for these questions, let me know!

    Great post!

    • Chris Salvato March 18, 2014 at 7:04 am #

      Hi Ben,

      In short, you get better at what you train. With 1 year of solid training, you can get to level 4 on any one skill on that list (here)…but getting to level 3 for EVERYTHING will take 2-3 years of work.

      You are focusing on very high level skills. Some people, because of anthropometrics, can NEVER achieve the planche (but even getting CLOSE to the planche will put you in a ridiculous level of strength). At your weight, if you’re tall, full planches and levers may be impossible for you. If you’re 6′ or less, then they are possible, but you probably need to cut about 50#.

      Don’t let that put you off, even just working on these skills makes you really strong.

      OAHS is something everyone can do, really, so long as you put in a TON of work. That skill will likely take 3 years or so on it’s own, depending on how good of instruction you receive. It’s also one of the most rewarding skills to finally nail. (I currently hold my OAHS for 3 sec on one arm and I don’t work on it all that much. It’s a really thrilling 3 sec, though).

      -Chris

  3. Justin July 17, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    Hey Chris awesome article! How many goals do you think I should focus on at one? Free handstand, floor l-sit, front lever, planche, and pistol squats? is this too much? are there a couple I should focus on at first? thanks man!

    • Chris Salvato July 18, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

      I always pursue one push goal, one pull goal and one legs goal at a time.

      I normally do exercises for 2 push goals, 2 pull goals, and 2 legs goals, so that I can alternate them in my workouts, but only intently focus on one goal for each with maximal, laser focus.

  4. Abani May 31, 2015 at 10:59 am #

    I am 16. I love Nightwing and Robin and am inspired by them to learn acrobats and gymnastics but i have no idea what to do.
    Really liked your story it motivated me !
    And can you give me some advice ?

  5. David September 11, 2015 at 10:31 pm #

    Hello my name is David. I’m 17 6ft. 3 and am about 160 lbs. I love Nightwing and was inspired by him to start learning acrobatic tricks. I’m pretty skinny, not really athletic, and just started handstand training two days ago. My goals for right now are to be able to do various flips and handsprings, running handstands, etc. with quickness and ease and to also increase my physical attributes such as speed, balance, agility, strength, etc. I’m thinking of taking a tae kwon do class that’s nearby. I’m a peaceful person but enjoy fighting sports and the benefits that come with them. Thanks for this article, it helped a lot. I thought it was too late for me haha.

  6. E January 17, 2016 at 7:10 am #

    Motivational and realistic story. Thank you. Starting to feel inspired to make one small change a week to lose weight and become agile. Great to find someone relatable. Also, you clearly have a will of steel, to actually stick to every decision (goal) you make! Any tips on how to stay motivated/on track like that Or were you just born with that kind of determination/commitment? Thanks!

  7. keren February 18, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    Chris Hello,
    I jus read your article, and am very grateful to you and appreciate all that you have shared. I am particularly moved by your guidance regarding fear, and recognizing how it is stopping me from going after my hopes and dreams not only in the gym and in exercise but also in life in other areas…. So I am getting your book for handstand, because I have always wanted to be able to do that, and yes fear of getting hurt has always stopped me….I am 44 years old, and have just started working out at the gym about a year a go, and am hoping to transform my body to the greatest that it can be, as well as myself in it….thank you and i look forward to following your coaching in the book :-)-Keren

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