Would you say you’re in control of your body?
It turns out that’s not really a simple question. A month ago, I’d have answered, “Uh, duh. I lift weights like three times a week.”
But when I decided to finally make good on my yearly resolution to learn a cool-ass backflip, I quickly learned that I could lift all the weights I like, but I knew precisely jack about how to actually control my body, know where it is in space, and what it’s doing. But of course, by the time I realized how much I had to learn, I’d already made my editors a promise: I was going to learn how to do a backflip in less than one month.
As I entered the sprawling gymnastics playground that is New York’s Chelsea Piers, I tried to forget that the piers were the Titanic’s intended final destination. The knowledge that I was going to spend the next four weeks—eight one-hour lessons—crashing my own stern into their floor was disquieting enough. But despite my inability to touch my toes, my brawny trainer, Jon, insisted he was “pretty sure” I’d “probably” accomplish my goal.
“The most important thing you gotta learn is to stay tight,” Jon said. “See, the way most people exercise is they section off their bodies—they work the abs, then the legs, then the back—but in gymnastics, your whole body’s gotta work together.”
This became clear as we ran drill after drill of “the set”—the crucial takeoff portion of the backflip.
How to Do the Perfect Set
1. Bend the knees and swing the arms down and behind the body.
2. Keeping the head in a neutral position and the eyes focused on a point in front of you, swing up the arms and jump upward—not backward—as high as possible.
3. After lift-off, tighten the abs and legs together so that they form a rigid line pointing downward.
4. With the arms at about 80 degrees, lift the chest upward and pull the shoulders back slightly. The body should start to drift backward.
Note that unlike the standard squat, you shouldn’t bend your knees too deeply for the jump—they should only bend enough to allow you to jump as high as possible. I tried to tell Jon, “But… but you activate your glutes better when you squat deep! I actually wrote this article about it…”
But he would cut me off: “This isn’t a gym. This is gymnastics.”
The body does not want to be upside down.
Few truths hurt harder than this one. As I graduated from ground-based backward rolls to rolling over a chest-high stack of mats from a standing position, I found myself totally unable to keep my head from twisting backward when my knees passed my shoulders. In other words, once I was upside down and lost sight of the ground, my brain desperately tried to relocate it, and I would reflexively crane my neck. This kept me landing on my neck so consistently that I had to cancel a lesson from the pain.
While licking my wounds and chatting with physical therapist and Greatist Expert Eugene Babenko, I tried to understand why I was hitting this mental block when it came to keeping my head straight. He told me that the average person’s disinterest in backflipping, handstands, and general upside down-ness is a roadblock in our path to fitness. Babenko himself spends up to eight minutes at a time hanging upside down at a New York City CrossFit gym several times per week.
“We spend a third of our life lying down and two thirds of it standing up—or worse, sitting,” he said with a grimace. “We just never spend time upside down, but I’m telling you: Exposing the brain to new stimulus like that, building our tolerance to unusual situations, it’s really important. I can’t say there are many studies on just being upside down, but these sorts of exercises—handstands, gymnastics, ring training—they all improve body control, coordination, agility, spatial awareness, and balance. For creating a fitness foundation for life, nothing is better than gymnastics training.”
The man has a point. Not only do scores of elite athletes, from MMA champions to NFL players, learn gymnastics to improve their sports performance, gymnastics is also terrific for building an actual foundation for the body. The high-impact nature of the sport appears to improve bone density and mineral content, effects that are especially noticeable and long-lasting when someone practices gymnastics as a child Peripubertal female athletes in high-impact sports show improved bone mass acquisition and bone geometry. Maïmoun L, Coste O, et al. Metabolism, 2013 Aug;62(8):1088-98. Skeletal adaptations associated with pre-pubertal gymnastics participation as determined by DXA and pQCT: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Burt LA, Greene DA, et al. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 2013 May;16(3):231-9. Non-elite gymnastics participation is associated with greater bone strength, muscle size, and function in pre- and early pubertal girls. Burt LA, Naughton GA, et al. Osteoporosis International, 2012 Apr;23(4):1277-86. Effects of high-impact exercise on ultrasonic and biochemical indices of skeletal status: A prospective study in young male gymnasts. Daly RM, Rich PA, et al. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 1999 Jul;14(7):1222-30 Former premenarcheal gymnasts exhibit site-specific skeletal benefits in adulthood after long-term retirement. Erlandson MC, Kontulainen SA, et al. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 2012 Nov;27(11):2298-305. Higher premenarcheal bone mass in elite gymnasts is maintained into young adulthood after long-term retirement from sport: a 14-year follow-up. Erlandson MC, Kontulainen SA, et al. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 2012 Jan;27(1):104-10. Sustained skeletal benefit from childhood mechanical loading. Scerpella TA, Dowthwaite JN, Rosenbaum PF. Osteoporosis International, 2011 Jul;22(7):2205-10. The effect of a specific strength-development exercise on bone mineral density in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. Danz AM, Zittermann A, et al. Journal of Women's Health, 1998 Aug;7(6):701-9. History of amenorrhoea compromises some of the exercise-induced benefits in cortical and trabecular bone in the peripheral and axial skeleton: a study in retired elite gymnasts. Ducher G, Eser P, et al. Bone, 2009 Oct;45(4):760-7. .
And that talk about it improving the brain wasn’t just talk—some researchers have said gymnastic exercises are “essential influences on the central nervous system,“ and a recent German study found that even two weeks of simple balance training cause the brain to develop new grey matter. Health promotion and exercise training. Viru A, Smirnova T. Sports Medicine, 1995 Feb;19(2):123-36 Effect of unsupervised home based proprioceptive training on recurrences of ankle sprain: randomised controlled trial. Hupperets MD, Verhagen EA, van Mechelen W. British Medical Journal, 2009 Jul 9;339:b2684 . So, gymnastics is actually a terrific way to improve memory, attention span, and learning capacity.
In any case, backflips look cool as shit, and I was determined to override my unconscious fear of upside down-ness and keep my chin rigid and slightly tucked during my flips.
3 Exercises to Prepare Your Body to Backflip
1. Hanging tuck-up: While keeping the chin tucked ever so slightly downward, bend the knees up toward the head, crunching the core and rotating the body as far backward as possible. Perform the move very fast, as the goal is to improve flipping speed.
2. Box jump: Focusing on height, rather than depth, leap onto as high a platform as possible. Repeat as much as is comfortable.
3. Lying bent-knee leg raise : With the knees bent and the lower torso rising off the ground, lift your legs towards your head. This is like a horizontal version of the hanging tuck-up. Perform the movement with arms stretched above the head, and it will train the body to not swing them too far backward during a flip.
Performed over and over again, these exercises got my body and my mind used to the idea of turning in midair without keeping my eye on the floor or monitoring the horizon. All told, this is the most fascinating aspect of the entire flipping exercise: You need to purposefully train your mind and develop new instincts.
Flips simply happen too fast to consciously make decisions about what you’re doing. The whole movement happens on instinct and habit—the only way to get better at flips is to J.F.D.I.: Just Flipping Do It. With Jon spotting me, I spent hours doing flips on three kinds of trampolines and a series of spongy mats. (Cue Rocky-esque training montage.)
For all the weights I’d lifted and kettlebells I’d swung, I’d never trained my body to act on its own—to bypass deliberate instruction and just act on instinct, and this was my greatest challenge. The fitness nerd in me wanted an overcomplicated approach.
“Jon, would it help my backflips if I did high-rep leg presses at the gym? Should I eat more protein?”
“No, dude! You need to flip more!”
This was the last lesson that we’d budgeted. The pressure was on: If I didn’t flip today, my article was tanked.
Jon, who is both a gymnastics champion and an amateur boxer, was trying to calm my nerves and help me clear my mind.
“You just have to not think so much… you’re kinda neurotic, you know that? It’s just like Bruce Lee said: ‘Be water, my friend.’ Just relax, be fluid. But stay tight. And symmetrical.”
Friend, it is very hard to be mindful of so many moving parts while also keeping the mind clear. Fortunately, on this day in particular, I’d been napping and meditating all afternoon. And for once, my chronic slothfulness was an advantage.
(Okay, I acknowledge that Jon gave me a teeny tiny spot in this video—we didn’t film the two flips I did on my own. You’ll have to take my word for it.)
Victory! I managed two unassisted flips before spraining my ankle and calling it a day. And while I never completed a single week of training without spraining my ankle, wrist, knee, or neck, Dr. Babenko is unwavering in his belief that a good foundation of gymnastics is one of the best ways to prevent injury and improve performance across the board.
“Look, Nick, this whole experiment was fun, but only an idiot goes from zero to backflipping without learning the fundamentals of gymnastics first.” Of course, he’s right. Like a lot of us impatient gym rats, I got too focused on "cool" and forgot about "smart."
And Dr. Babenko doesn’t think I’m alone: “The biggest problem in the fitness industry is skipping ahead. Expertise takes a lot more time than most people would like. Is gymnastics worth the risk of injury? If you have a good plan, good instruction, and you’re making progress the right way, then yes, absolutely. Injuries happen from doing too much, too fast, too soon.”
Humbled and hobbled, I left Chelsea Piers for the last time with a profound respect and gratitude for my trainer and gymnastics as a whole. While I’m no CrossFitter, I’m left with the words of the company’s founder Greg Glassman, who once summed up gymnastics succinctly: “It is within this realm that we can develop extraordinary strength…flexibility, coordination, balance, agility, and accuracy. In fact, the traditional gymnast has no peer in terms of development of these skills.”
Gymnastics has opened a dimension of my physicality that I’ve never known, and my experiment has left me with both more control over my body and a strong desire to further push my limits. But remember, kids: Awesomeness takes patience.
A huge, tremendous thank you to Jonathan Malarsky and the team at the Chelsea Piers Field House for their support throughout this article’s production. Don’t forget to like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter!
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