Carl Paoli instructs a Freestyle Connection seminar at LAX CrossFit “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” — Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)
Freestyle movement instructor Carl Paoli is the Morpheus of CrossFit. A former elite-level gymnast and originator of the popular “Gymnastics WOD” website, Paoli has become the enigmatic mentor for the legions of CrossFit athletes who find themselves lost in the matrix of gymnastics. With a keen eye for human movement and an easygoing style, he has a gift for getting apprehensive students to conquer intimidating obstacles. He booked seminars three weekends a month last year, and the best CrossFit athletes on the planet seek him out for help on what is commonly the flaring gap in their skill set: gymnastics. We asked him these four questions.
What question are you asked most by CrossFitters? “How do I get a muscle-up?” I get that all the time. I wish someone would ask me about a burpee. Or ask why they can squat all this weight but can’t do a pistol. I’d rather they asked me that than, “Hey, give me the party trick.”
Why is gymnastics such a glaring weakness for most CrossFit athletes? People hear “gymnastics,” and they think, Whoa, I can’t do that, because they think of the iron cross or some weird feat of strength. I almost hate the word gymnastics because when people hear it, they think about the Olympics. I don’t even care about the Olympics. I just want to get over that wall. It’s not about gymnastics; it’s human movement.
Most athletes who have a hard time with gymnastics think they are not strong enough. Is that the case? Definitely not. When I first worked with [2011 CrossFit Games champion] Annie Thorisdottir, she could only do seven handstand push-ups in a row. Seven weeks later, she sent me a video of herself doing 30 in 37 seconds. Where does that disconnect come from?
Here’s an example: We teach the muscle-up on the rings, but CrossFitters shouldn’t be thinking about the rings. They should be thinking, How can I get over a wall if I am in military or if I am being chased? That is a muscle-up. But everyone directly associates the muscle-up as being the move you do on the rings. A muscle-up can be done anywhere, and that transfer of skills is what our athletes really need. (Photo by Dan Uyemura)