“You cannot run away from weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?” — Robert Louis Stevenson
Whether you want to stand atop the podium the CrossFit Games or you just want to keep posting personal bests on the whiteboard, your level of success is predicated on a willingness to identify and summarily eliminate deficiencies. And even though a full third of all CrossFit programming includes various gymnastics elements, many athletes marginalize the importance of these moves, instead dedicating their early time at the gym to easier skills they have deemed a greater priority. But any serious CrossFitter should stubbornly insist on eliminating weaknesses, not avoiding them.
Gymnastics moves are intimidating if you have never done them before — or if you’ve tried in front of fellow athletes and failed. But mastering these moves and their core elements can make you vastly more proficient at everything else you do in CrossFit.
“CrossFit founder Greg Glassman is an ex-gymnast who understands the benefit of moving the body in different planes and has set gymnastics up as a foundational element of CrossFit,” says Jeff Tucker, former gymnast and CEO of CrossFit GSX in Fort Worth, Texas. “All gymnastics ever did was serve me well throughout my 24-year career as a firefighter. I could move my body better. I was more agile, more explosive, stronger. If you’re not doing gymnastics, you’re not doing CrossFit. It’s that simple.”
Dusty Hyland, co-owner and head gymnastics coach of DogTown CrossFit in Culver City, Calif., believes that gymnastics can be a valuable tool for any athlete because of the many purposes it serves. “Gymnastics is fundamental to everything across the board,” Hyland says. “Basically, it’s no-load weightlifting and body mechanics 101. Put another way, it’s functional bodyweight movement. And for the elite CrossFitter, unfortunately, it’s the most underutilized third of the programming. It shouldn’t be. It can identify mobility deficiencies and help you avoid injury. If you can get efficient in these movements, you’ll have a leg up as a competitor.”
See AlsoRing Dip
Additionally, Tucker and Hyland contend that the core strength and stability benefits can translate immediately into nearly every other CrossFit activity. From a stronger kip to a heavier deadlift, those who train gymnastics moves in earnest can expect a significant performance boost.
“We want athletes to understand that the greater their core strength, the greater their overall strength will
be,” Tucker says. “One athlete went from a 325-pound plateau on her deadlift to 369 simply by adding gymnastics moves that better developed her core. For those who would doubt the payoff, we see the proof constantly.”
Don’t go thinking that you have to go all “iron cross” to start getting all gymnast-y. As with anything else, focusing on a basic progression of moves is central to developing proficiency. And these moves, which you will encounter if you spend any length of time at your local box, help to diffuse the aura of impossibility surrounding gymnastics for CrossFitters. No need to start walking over to the rings. Snuffing out this weakness starts, not surprisingly, between your ears.
The Intimidation Factor
Some people who are new to CrossFit — those maybe looking to sweat off a few pounds — are often intimidated when walking into an environment in which people are hand-walking and doing ring dips. This throws up a red flag and forces immediate evaluation of their own capabilities. Doubt can quickly creep in about the value or practicality of this type of skill work.
“I think definitions become really important,” Tucker says. “People say that gymnastics are too skill intensive. What is skill-intensive work? Is the snatch skill intensive? Or the overhead squat? So much mechanics go into doing these things correctly before going heavier. One of the greatest things we do that we put out there is that you don’t have to do as much skill-intensive work as you might think to do gymnastics work. And you’re never alone. On average, about 2 percent of people in a class can do most gymnastics moves like the iron cross, and that’s fun for a coach like me. Obviously, there has to be some prerequisite strength. It’s only once we find a starting point that we start to work on more advanced things.”
But the popular vernacular — and what folks have learned about gymnastics from NBC — could cause peoples’ survivalist brains to go into high gear. No one wants to fall off a high bar, right? “When people use the term ‘gymnastics,’ they immediately think of the Olympics and the highest level of a very specialized sport, not fundamental position,” Hyland says. And, he adds, any coach worth his salt is going to walk you through the progressions in a way that promotes proper skill development and safety.
“What we are really discussing here is a focus on proper position for better mechanics in movement,” Hyland says. “Efficient movement rooted in safety starts with the development of optimal position. And once you can train without fear, you can train in earnest.”
Training (Slowly) in Earnest
Step away from the rings. We’re not there yet. Before we can snuff out your glaring gymnastics incompetence (or unwillingness), you have to resign yourself to starting small. And on the floor. Try the following exercises.
Tight Arch Hold
Execution: Lie flat on your stomach, your arms reaching overhead. Keep your head down and neutral, your arms straight and shoulder-width apart. Press up and away through the shoulder girdle, contract your glutes to elevate the heels, contracting your lower back into a tight arch position.
Coach Hyland Says: “This is not the Superman. You want to be one taut piece of badass gymnastics muscle. No break. Lock from shoulder to hip.”
Rx: Perform 10 two- to five-second holds.
Execution: Lie flat on your back with your arms stretched back over your head. Lift from your shoulder and your hip again, contracting your abs and glutes to contract the lower lumbar and shorten the rib cage. Your feet and hands should elevate about six inches off the ground. Your head remains neutral with your arms overhead and feet extended; the lower back should remain pressed into the floor.
Coach Hyland Says: “This is a foundational position that everything else will build off of.”
Rx: Perform five sets of 20-second holds.
Execution: Following the form outlined for the hollow hold, lift your shoulders slightly off the ground to begin rocking back and forth from shoulder to hip and back.
Coach Hyland Says: “What we’re after is no breakage at the hip.”
Rx: Perform five sets of five rocks.
Execution:Get into a standard push-up position with your hands on the floor, just outside of shoulder width, fingers spread out wide, elbows 45 degrees or less out at your sides. Starting from a strong, active hollow position and maintaining that throughout, lower the body to the floor, making sure to stay tight so you don’t deactivate your core. Press back up and repeat.
Coach Hyland Says:“Good push-ups allow you to see if an athlete is maintaining a good neutral hollow position. Everyone does them in the fitness community, but here, we use them as a building block.”
Rx: Perform three sets of 10 perfect push-ups.
Execution: Keeping an active, wrapped, palms-forward (pronated) grip on the bar, start in a dead hang with your shoulders open and your body fully extended. First, keeping your arms straight, pull down your shoulder blades to activate the lats. From here, pull up, with your head and chin rising above the bar.
Coach Tucker Says: “If you increase your range of motion and strength under control on these, I guarantee you’ll be able to perform better when you go back to kipping.”
Rx: Perform five sets of three reps. Use a band or spotter to scale.
Execution: Place your hands on the floor just outside shoulder width like you would for a push-up. Place the top of your head where your nose would be at the bottom of a push-up. It should form an equilateral triangle with your hands. Rock forward so that your weight is distributed evenly between your head and hands (like the legs of a bar stool), your spine is in line with your body and your knees are resting on your elbows.
Coach Hyland Says: “This is the basis of the handstand that people can begin to understand and process. It helps develop spatial awareness and balance.”
Rx: Perform five sets of three-second holds.
Execution: Replicating the steps for the tripod with your head and hands, have a partner help you press yourself into a handstand position. Spread your fingers and create as much area for balance as possible. Your head is largely neutral; however, as a visual cue, look at an imaginary x between your hands — with eyes, not chin — because this aids in balance by offering a focal point. Use a partner or a wall to aid in balance initially.
Coach Hyland Says: “Keep the shoulders active and open with a strong midline.”
Rx: Perform five 10-second handstands.
Execution: Replicating the steps for the handstand, simply begin walking your hands forward. Start with a short distance that you can cover without crashing.
Coach Hyland Says:“We have to learn to stand before we can learn how to walk, and this applies on our hands, as well.”
Rx: Perform five sets of walks, starting at three feet or so, starting and finishing in a strong handstand position.
Execution: Setting a pair of rings at a lower height to start, jump into a fully extended ring-support position. Squeeze the rings to the sides of your body, press your shoulders down into the sockets, rings by the hips, feet directly below the body. To eliminate swing, make sure you’re not behind the rings when you jump up.
Coach Hyland Says:“The muscle-up is a feat, but there’s no actual competitive gymnastics value. There are no points for a muscle-up. It’s saving yourself from hanging from a cliff or pulling yourself up out of the ocean. It requires strength, coordination and technique.
Rx: Perform five 10-second holds.
Skill Starts Now
The only way you’re going to get better at gymnastics moves is by performing gymnastics moves. These core exercises require a great deal of coordination, base-line strength and patience. But mostly, they just require work.
“If gymnastics are a soft spot in your skill set, work on it three to four days in a week,” Tucker says. “In gymnastics, there’s always something harder to do. But as CrossFitters, if we stay in one plane, that’s all we’re gonna be good at.”
You may be thinking that a focus on gymnastics is the last thing that you need, considering that you’ve been working so hard at developing other CrossFit aptitudes. Hyland responds. “Most CrossFitters have ADD, and it’s not their fault. They have so many tasks to do, and it’s hard to stay focused. But gymnastics, in my mind, is the beginning. And because of that, we do position stuff every day in the warm-up, and there’s some gymnastics element in the workout, and by the end of the month, you’ve worked on something 12 times or more.”
That kind of regularity might not be the norm at every CrossFit gym you walk into, but you can always show up a bit early to work on these things or mix in some skill work at home. In other words, there are no excuses. Gymnastics training is too valuable not to be good at. And to paraphrase Stevenson: What the hell are you waiting for? ρ
For more instruction (including videos) from Jeff Tucker and Dusty Hyland, visit crossfitgymnastics.com.