If you hear 'gymnastics' you might immediately think of Olympic legends like Simone Biles or Beth Tweddle flying through the air, flipping around bars or launching themselves fearlessly over vaults.
But, while gymnastics is a remarkable sport to watch, it's not just for the elites. The key elements of the sport – core strength, explosive power, balance and flexibility – are accessible to anyone.
Over the last few years, amateur adult gymnastics has grown enormously in popularity and it's not hard to see why – it's a challenging training method that pushes you beyond your comfort zone and works your entire body. CrossFit has a hand in this, incorporating classic gymnastic strength moves such as muscle-ups, ring dips, and handstand push-ups into its sessions.
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This guide will break down exactly what gymnastics involves, which core skills you need and what the benefits are so you can venture into a whole new (and significantly more airborne) world of fitness. And there's no need to wear a leotard – unless you want to, of course.
What is gymnastics and what does it involve?
The most recognisable form of gymnastics is artistic gymnastics, where athletes complete routines on the floor or particular pieces of equipment like the rings, high bar, uneven bar or beam. Other sports that incorporate aspects of gymnastics are calisthenics, which involves things like freestyle bar routines and static bodyweight holds, and tricking, which blends aspects of gymnastics with martial arts and break-dancing.
At its most basic core, gymnastics centres around upper body strength, core control and plyometric power, as well as balance and flexibility. You're probably familiar with basic moves like forwards and backwards rolls, cartwheels and handstands from playing as a child. These form the basis of more advanced tumbling moves and build the necessary strength to attain more difficult skills.
Do you have to have done gymnastics as a child?
"Absolutely not!" says Amber Goldsmith, an artistic gymnastics coach at East London Gymnastics Centre.
"Just like any sport, having a pre-existing background will give you an advantage, however, there are so many adults out there who have never stepped foot in a gymnastics gym in their life before, and are able to learn so many new things as a complete newbie."
"Doing gymnastics as a child is obviously beneficial however it is absolutely not a requirement for adult gymnastics," says coach and PT Lauren Kennedy. "I have been teaching adult gymnastics for four years now and all of my students are over 25, and learning skills like backflips and somersaults, bars and handstands."
What are the benefits?
Gymnastics will work your entire body – plyo jumps target your legs, while anything upside down or on bars utilises your upper body and core.
A typical class blends explosive cardio with elements of bodyweight strength training for a session that's as mentally challenging as it is physically. While learning as an adult can be difficult, it's also enormously fun, so if you find the gym a drain on your energy then gymnastics is a good alternative.
What are the basic moves?
Even the most accomplished gymnasts didn't waltz into the gym for the first time and immediately smash out a back handspring. The basic moves below are essential for learning the correct form and body shapes to transfer to all other gymnastic skills.
Arch/Hollow hold: Lie on your back, engage your abs and lift your legs and shoulders off the floor, curling your shoulders in a little and keeping your back flat to the ground. You can hold your arms by your sides to make this easier, or extend them up by your ears. This is an extremely effective core strength move that mimics the upper body shape you should aim for in a handstand. Video link
Dish: Essentially the opposite to the arch or hollow hold. Lie on your stomach, engage your back and raise your arms and legs off the floor. This helps strengthen your glutes and back. Video link
Front support: Similar to a push-up position or plank, but with a hollow-shaped upper body. This again builds core strength, plus shoulder stability. Video link
Back support: Again, the reverse of a front support. Sit down, place your hands behind you and straighten your legs to lift up. This engages the glutes and opens up the front of the shoulders. Video link
V-sit: Raise your legs off the ground straight in front of you, and hold your arms alongside them or up by your ears. This is a more advanced core move that will strengthen your abs and quads. Video link
Bridge: You might be familiar with this move if you practise yoga, where it's known as the wheel. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, place your hands over your shoulders with your fingertips pointing towards your body and press upwards. This improves back flexibility and shoulder mobility. Video link
Straddle stretch: Sit with your legs out in a straddle position, as wide as you can comfortably go without straining. Walk your hands forward (once you get your chest flat to the floor, this is known as a pancake stretch), and try stretching forward over each leg. This opens up your adductors and hamstrings. Video link
Hamstring stretch: Kneeling on one knee, straighten your other leg out in front of you so you feel a stretch in your hamstring. Lean forward gently if you need a more intense stretch. Video link
Quad stretch: Kneeling on one knee with your other leg straight behind you, bend your back knee and grasp your foot. If this is too intense, try a standing quad stretch instead. Video link
Split stretch: Kneel in a lunge position and slowly slide towards a splits position. Never force this further than you comfortably can. Go as far as possible and ease out if it gets too intense. Video link
These are typically included in the warm-up at a gymnastics class, but you can practise them at home or in the gym too. "Body shapes are always the most important skills for any gymnast to learn," says Goldsmith. "They are the foundation building blocks for any gymnast."
From these, you can move on to more technical skills like handstands, cartwheels, and round-offs. If you're brand new to gymnastics or haven't done it in a long time, practise these with a coach in a safe environment.
If you're planning to focus on bars, pull-ups, tricep dips and L-sits will help you build the upper body and core strength needed to get started. If you're interested in tumbling, explosive leg strength is a must for getting the height you need – try tuck jumps, box jumps, calf raises and plyo lunges as a starting point.
"If I could name one skill for every gymnast to learn as the most key and important skill, it would be a handstand," says Goldsmith. "A handstand teaches body awareness, body tension, and balance, and you would be surprised to see how many skills a handstand plays a part in!"
Plyometrics are also an essential part of gymnastics training, especially if you're keen to learn tumbling moves such as front and back tucks.
Tuck jump: Bend your knees to squat slightly then explode off the ground, making sure to push up off your toes, and tuck your knees into your chest at the highest point of the jump. Video link
Straddle jump: Bend your knees and jump up, pushing off your toes. Keeping your legs straight, bring them out as wide as you can to the sides and reach out to try and touch your toes. Video link
Pike jump: Bend your knees and jump up, pushing off your toes. Keeping your legs straight, bring them out directly in front of you and reach out to try and touch your toes. Video link
Hurdle step: This is the step you use to launch into a tumble on the floor. Jump forwards with both your feet together, then as you land place the foot of your weaker side down first before transferring your weight to the stronger foot and jumping forwards from it. It should feel relatively intuitive which foot to put first. Video link
Where can I do it?
As a primarily bodyweight discipline, some aspects of gymnastics can be practised anywhere with enough open space. However, if you're planning on learning a new skill or tumbling, it's wise to practise in a specialised gymnastics gym with sprung floors, foam pits, and safety mats – plus a coach for advice.
Places to get started
Gymnastics centres: You can check the location of US Gymnastics locations using its finder tool. Likewise, British Gymnastics has a helpful club finder on its website, which will search for gyms in your area with the equipment and specialisms you're interested in, whether that's classic gymnastics, tricking, trampolining or something else. While not every gymnastics club has classes for adults, many more are expanding into the area with adults-only classes and open gym time.
Calisthenics parks: Many parks and outdoor spaces have specialist calisthenics bars set up for people to work out on. You can search for one in your area at this site. Personal trainers and calisthenics coaches often set up classes too, so keep an eye out for social media posts and signs advertising them.
CrossFit gyms: CrossFit gymnastics exercises are based more around form and reps as opposed to gymnastic moves, but they're a brilliant way to increase your strength and upper body power. If your local box posts their WODs ahead of time, try booking onto ones focused around gymnastic moves.
Online guides: If you're looking to learn skills and workouts you can do from home or don't have a gymnastics centre near you, online guides are a brilliant way to learn key skills. Team GB gymnast Nile Wilson has created programmes available from his BodyBible website – try the 4 Week Shred 2.0 (£45 for lifetime access) if you're looking for a general introduction to gymnastics strength and HIIT training, the Mobility Manual to improve, well, mobility (£35 for lifetime access) or get advanced specialist skill guides for moves like the planche and muscle up (£40 each for lifetime access).
Gymnastics coach Lauren Kennedy has created a range of guides specifically for adult learners, for skills such as handstands, the splits and back mobility. These start at £15 each and take you through the most basic drills all the way through to the final skill.
Gymnastic Bodies offers five training plans, from beginner to advanced, which introduce the basics of gymnastics training and build up to challenging moves like the human flag and levers. These start at $225, but can be bought in bundle packs too.
What are the injury risks?
Unsurprisingly, the acrobatic nature of gymnastics means there is a risk of injury, especially if attempting a move that's too advanced. Potential injuries include sprains (ankles, knees and elbows), torn calluses, bruises and dislocations.
Always warm up and stretch before a session, work within your ability and never attempt a new move without a spotter or coach to support you. When stretching, don't push yourself beyond what feels reasonably comfortable. If you feel pain, hear a popping noise or if something just feels very wrong, stop and seek medical advice.
But don't let any of that put you off trying gymnastics.
"As long as you are practising skills within your reach and working safe drills then the injury risk is low," says Kennedy. "Warming up correctly and ensuring you are flexible, strong and mobile will prevent injuries. Generally, gymnastics is trained in a safe environment with sufficient mats and padding so landings should not usually be a problem, but just like any sport there are always risks."
So don't panic. Build up slowly, listen to your body and you'll be surprised how quickly you learn new skills.
What to wear
Don't panic - you don't need to go out and buy a leotard or one of those onesies male gymnasts compete in. As with any sport, you need to be comfortable and able to move freely. However, there are a few extra things you need to take into account when it comes to choosing your kit.
- Keep it tight: When it comes to tops, be aware that anything on the loose side will flop into your face when you go upside down, which is a real distraction when you're mid-handstand. Opt for a close-fitting t-shirt or tank top, or even go down to a sports bra if you wear one. Try this Nike Pro tank ($28) or Lululemon crop ($58).
- Be flexible: Unsurprisingly, gymnastics involves a huge range of movement. Stiffer materials which don't have much stretch are at risk of tearing when you work on open-legged moves such as splits and cartwheels. Look for tights and shorts with four-way stretch fabric for maximum movement potential. Also, if you're precious about your activewear, don't wear jersey-style materials if you'll be using a foam pit, unless you want a fine coating of small foam pieces no lint roller will ever be able to defeat.
- Protect your hands: If you're going to train on bars or rings, the heat and friction can easily lead to painful tears - even for those with the most hardened of hands. Electrical tape can be used for a makeshift handguard, or if you're planning to train regularly then invest in a decent pair of grips, such as these Bailie Extreme ones from Gymnastics Planet ($48.80).