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Move Like a Ninja: A Beginner's Guide to Bodyweight Skills
This post comes from Ryan Hurst, the program director and resident ninja at Gold Medal Bodies. A former competitive gymnast, Ryan now spends the majority of his time playing with his kids and helping others move better. The views expressed herein are his.
Photo: Gold Medal Bodies
Do you ever think, “Man, I wish I could do that!” when you watch old Bruce Lee films?
If so, you’re in good company. Everybody loves "ninja" moves (or at least the popular notion of ninjas).
People are drawn to incredible feats of bodyweight strength, and many drool over the possibility of performing those skills themselves. Some of the most popular exercise videos on YouTube are demonstrations of super strength and impressive skills.
I’m all too familiar with the worldwide "ninja moves" craze. I live in Japan, where shows like Ninja Warrior pit contestants against obstacle courses where mastery of bodyweight is crucial. And not to toot my own horn, but I’m a bit of a ninja myself. I decided years ago I wanted to move like a ninja, and have spent most of my time since then training those skills.
Becoming a master of cool bodyweight exercises takes years of dedicated and specialized practice, but everyone has to start somewhere. In this article, I’ll teach you two great skills to get you started on your journey toward learning advanced bodyweight and gymnastics movements.
Start with the Basics
So what are “the basics” you should start with?
Unfortunately, too many people think the only bodyweight exercises available to them are squats and push-ups. In reality, the repertoire of bodyweight exercises to choose from is vast, almost limitless.
Don’t get me wrong: Squats and push-ups are both great exercises, ones that I practice and teach all the time. But while they're great for building strength, they're not the kinds of exercises that will build more advanced skills.
I train my clients to achieve movement skills, not just to crank out as many reps as possible. When you teach your body new skills to move through space in increasingly complex ways, you’ll not only get stronger, but you’ll be able to do far more impressive things with your own bodyweight. True skill mastery requires that you work up to the minimum number of reps necessary to build strength, in order to progress to the next skill level.
There are countless individual skills you could work on to help you build fundamental strength, but I’m going to show you two of my favorites. Try not to underestimate or overestimate either of these movement skills. With dedicated practice, they are both difficult enough and accessible enough to send you on your way to becoming a bodyweight master.
Skill #1: Front and Back Leg Scales
Initially, these moves will look too easy, but if you do them properly, they are anything but.
Most leg exercises in gyms and classes, such as squats, lunges, and leg presses, involve a bend at the knees. The Leg Scales, on the other hand, work on straight leg strength. As soon as you do a few repetitions of the scale exercises, you’ll notice how difficult they are, even if you have been training your legs diligently.
The ability to hold your knees in a locked out position with control works your leg muscles in a new way. These are great activities to improve your sense of body position and awareness for higher-level movements.
I’ll show you exactly how to do the front and back leg scales, along with variations, in the following video. I've also included a few tips and pointers below.
Key Points for the Front Leg Scales:
- Make sure to relax your shoulders and lock out your legs.
- Keep your back straight, chest up, and toes pointed as you lift your leg straight up.
- Don’t lean back or bend your legs.
- Lift your leg higher as you get more comfortable with the movement.
Key Points for the Back Leg Scales:
- Just like the front scales, keep your legs locked out, your toes pointed, your back straight, and your chest up.
- Maintain a straight line in your body as you lift your leg to the back.
- Don’t lean forward, bend your legs, or lean your hips to the side.
Practicing the scales will help you improve your balance, strengthen your legs and core, and gain control to perform that will allow you to perform more advanced bodyweight tricks. Practice the holds shown in the video before moving on to the leg lifts and more advanced variations.
Skill #2: Double Arm Lever
This is a great hand balancing skill anyone can learn with the right instruction.
The Double Arm Lever is beneficial in several important ways. It teaches you to connect your upper and lower body as one unit. This ability is the beginning of mastering full body control. It is also a great skill for finding your body’s natural balance point, which comes from gaining controlled tension throughout your body. That balance point allows a person to progress to more advanced skills that require incredible body control.
In this video, I’ll show you exact instructions on how to do the Double Arm Lever. I've also included more specific tips below.
Key Points for the Double Arm Lever:
- Start on your knees with your fingers pointed backward.
- Bring one knee forward and rest the top of your head on the ground as you bend your elbows in to your sides.
- Lift your head, then raise your legs off the ground, pointing your toes straight back.
- Watch the video above for more specific instructions on elbow, head, hand, and leg positioning.
Watch any video demonstrating ninja skills, and you’ll see how important hand balancing is to the art of mastering bodyweight. The Double Arm Lever is an accessible yet challenging skill that will help you build up the balance and strength needed to advance to more difficult skills.
Master Your Body with Movement Flow
The Leg Scales and Double Arm Lever are skills that are fun, accessible, and will help you get strong.
Building these skills is just the first step in true body mastery. When you master the individual skills, you can begin combining movements to develop a movement flow — and that’s when you’ll really start to look like a ninja.
Obviously, these skills won’t get you a job at Cirque de Soleil, but they’ll help you get you started on your journey toward moving like a ninja.
What are your favorite bodyweight moves to build strength and skill? Sound off in the comments below!