Crossfit Gymnastics: A Seminar Experience

I’ve been following Crossfit Gymnastics via social media for a while now. I had made the assumption of what Crossfit’s version of a gymnastics skill looks like, thinking kipping, arched handstand walking, and A-symmetrical muscle ups made up the entirety of this area of the sport.

However, once I looked further into it I realised this is not the case. Crossfit gymnastics as a subsection of Crossfit, is programmed, taught, and demonstrated on social media by professional athletes. They’re mainly ex-competitive gymnasts who happened to discover Crossfit, and realise they’re seriously good at it thanks to years of training their strength, flexibility, and motor control in ridiculous ways. As a result they are helping to develop and progress one of the more neglected areas within Crossfit.

This, combined with working in a Crossfit gym, sparked my interest to learn more. Last month I travelled to attend the Crossfit Gymnastics Advanced Certification at Crossfit Amsterdam. Which is in Amsterdam believe it or not. Having done my Level 1 four years ago and not really being a Crossfitter, I was pretty apprehensive about how I’d get on. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to learn many new movements since my skill level isn’t as high as I knew most people’s on the course would be. But I knew it would be valuable to my own training, my coaching and for my box, all of which was enough motivation to man up and go.

We covered a lot of content in just two days. This included mobility, locomotion, and prancing around like gazelles. We went through floor skills such as basic tumbling, rolls, jumps, and handbalancing. On the rings we covered levers, muscle ups, skin the cat, forward rolls, and backward rolls. We worked with parallettes and covered basic pushing movements along with L-sits and planches. One of the fantastic thing about Crossfit Amsterdam is the space and equipment they have. We played on the parallel bars, trying out Russian dips, swings and walks. We took one bar away to work on pull overs, back hip circles, and forward rolls. For all of these movements we went over how to spot and teach from the basic progressions to the more advanced.

One of the elements I enjoyed most was learning about the auxiliary training. This is what needs to be done before you begin training for a skill, and what you need to be practicing alongside training for a skill. It’s assistance work, for example, strengthening your upper body through a bigger range of motion with something as simple as a push up. Turn it into a deficit push up and you’re targeting muscles that you’ll use in a similar way when you transition through a muscle up.

I got to experience what real core conditioning is, which I now feel is more important than people realise, and also pretty torturous. Even though a lot of movements involve your core such as front squats or toes to bar or a strict pull up, these are all done for repetitions. How long can you hold a hollow body position for? That kind of endurance can only be built from conditioning your core, but in doing so the ease of every other movement you do will increase along with how efficiently you perform them.

Attending the course made me think about why gymnastics and bodyweight training is often less of a priority. I think it’s because it’s less measurable. It’s far harder to measure progress with a handstand than it is to increase weight on a lift. Increasing your freestanding handstand time by 2 seconds is like the equivalent of adding 10kg to your squat and getting a PB. But would it feel as much of an achievement? You might not even notice it. It’s unlikely you’d be up there ringing the PB bell. It takes a lot of hard work and patience, and time spent on progressions to work towards the advanced gymnastics skills. If all you’re looking for is immediate gains then it’s unlikely you’ll want to focus on something that’s a slower process.

The most important thing I took away from this course wasn’t the skills I learnt or the shiny new progressions to teach, despite the insane amount of fun I had experiencing this, but the ideology behind Crossfit Gymnastics. The idea of NOT RUSHING. Taking your time with each progression and mastering one step at a time. You only have one body, so work with what you have. The smaller things like mobilising joints, stretching, and auxiliary strength work can often be the most significant.

The more seminars and workshops I go on, the more similarities I realise there are between how to approach and train towards a skill. The progressions themselves vary but only slightly, and the more variations you can collect, the easier it is to find which cues and what kind of movement works for you and your students. You’re training and teaching from a broader pool of knowledge and you understand there is no one way or one right way. But the best way for each individual.

If you take the time to develop motor control, increase your strength through bodyweight exercises, and just improve how you move, everything is easier and more efficient. Crossfit gymnastics is designed for just this, and they’re working to find the most affective and teachable progressions for each skill so that everyone can utilise them as a resource. I really see value in what I’ve learnt and hope to carry this forward with my training and my teaching. The inspiration I’ve gained not only from going through the course, but from the other students and our amazing coach, has been so significant and has helped me focus on where I want to head next. It’s made me feel incredibly grateful that I have a body that can move and can continue improving. That’s what I plan to do.

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Thank you to Elaine Yoder for sharing so much knowledge, being incredibly patient, and for being an amazing coach. Thank you to the coaches at Crossfit Amsterdam for being such welcoming hosts. And thank you to all the students I had the pleasure of training alongside. You are all so inspiring and made the weekend amazing for me!

Follow Crossfit Gymnastics: @cfgymnastics

Realising Why Health Matters

When training is part of your job, it takes priority on a daily basis. What gives us the ability to train is our bodies. If our bodies aren’t working then we can’t train. This sounds like an obvious concept, but it’s not something I focus on or think about. I take the time to appreciate that I can train, but I take my body for granted. I’m used to waking up every day knowing that at some point I’ll be moving around. I had forgotten what it feels like when this isn’t an option, and you no longer have the choice to even get out of bed because your body won’t let you. I had forgotten what it feels like to be sick.

I’ve been injured in the past and this has put certain things on hold. But an injury doesn’t cause you to stop training. Physical injuries can often be worked around. If you sprain something, break something or bruise something you can still move other parts of your body. Even if you’re rehabbing damaged areas, you still have the ability to move your body and be active.

I woke up one morning a few weeks ago, not feeling great, but I assumed I was tired from the previous days training. I fell asleep until lunchtime and once I’d woken up that was it. I threw up, and through the day anything I tried to eat just came back up. My head was fuzzy, my limbs felt numb, and when I wasn’t kneeling with my head over the toilet I was lying in bed. I wasn’t able to concentrate on work. Walking up and down the stairs became hard work as my energy levels dropped.

Injury or illness is often a sign to slow down. But who wants to slow down when they can keep pushing and keep achieving? Maybe because you’re supposed to be an example of health, maybe because you don’t want to lose gains. But sometimes you’re forced to. So after two days I finally gave in and accepted I was sick and stayed in bed.

The frustration of not being able to train when that’s what you do is not a comfortable or desired feeling. It’s one of the best parts of my day. But I realised it wasn’t going to happen for a while longer so I let it go. The frustration and discomfort of not being able to eat was what really got to me. Something that is so natural, and necessary for day to day function wasn’t possible. Despite barely doing anything over a couple of days I started losing weight, which you never want because that means your strength is being flushed down the toilet along with your vomit.

Unhelpful thoughts entered my head. I’m missing the sunshine and being out in the fresh air (sunshine in England is precious). I’m missing out on spending time with my friends. I’m wasting time that I could be spending doing useful things. Im wasting time doing nothing and not having fun. I’m being lazy. Except I wasn’t being lazy, I simply needed some rest.

When you take a step back and look at the situation, you have to focus on a different priority. Being healthy. Taking the time to build back up, not being impatient, and actually having a bit of self compassion. Give yourself a break. Take it one step at a time, like the stairs that feel so hard to climb just to go and get a drink from the kitchen, but it’s worth it when you get back upstairs and can fall back into bed.

It’s ridiculous how much I take for granted. I feel frustrated when I have a bad day training, but that’s a stupid attitude because at least it’s a day of being able to move around and use my body. Training seems far less important when you can’t even keep food down. Once I was able to start eating again it felt like a luxury. The simplest things like drinking a black coffee, being able to chew solid food, and waking up with the energy to get out of bed, felt magical. Like sunshine and unicorns. I could get back to work. I could go out for a walk. I didn’t need 20 hours of sleep a day. This was what I was grateful for before I even considered going and smashing out some training.

Eventually, ever so slowly, I was able to train again. I did not think “first session back, time for squats and deadlifts followed by sprints in a weight vest to finish up with!!!”. Not that that’s my usual training. I did some stretching, some locomotion and practiced handstands. I stopped before I felt tired and then went home.

Regardless of any gains you lose or how much being unwell sets you back, it brings you back to reality. You realise you aren’t invincible, and you can’t always “push through it”. You become more considerate of what you’re training, plan your sessions out more thoroughly to help get you back to where you were, and perhaps even reassess your goals. As a result you come back stronger. Don’t forget that strength comes from health. Health is the foundation for everything you do. Eat well, sleep well, take time out to relax, and then be grateful for all the handstands, all the pull ups, and all the weights you lift.

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Re-Balance

Once upon a time my training consisted of nothing but handstands. I became injured, had to say goodbye to rings and anything that involved bent arm strength, and find something else to focus on. I had no pain doing handstands so I rolled with that. I grew them like a flower, giving them all my love and attention. And in the space of about two months I reached 60 seconds. I worked on straight lines, different head positions, stags, scorpions, straddles, tucks. I went to seminars and looked for coaching to be as emerged in the world of hand balancing as I could. Upside down was my favourite place to be. And I spammed Facebook with picture after picture of my life inverted.

At some point something changed. I became tired of them, I lost all the loves, and eventually I thought “f*** you handstands, you suck.” I think I’d lost track of why I was doing them. The funs of life intervened, I broke my foot and had to change my training again. I didn’t think kicking up into a handstand in a cast would have been ideal anyway. So they went into ‘maintenance mode’. Well ‘I don’t want to train that skill anymore’, mode is probably more accurate.

I’ll be honest, I kind of lost them. It was like “whoops, where’d my handstand go..?” Even though I never lost the ability to kick up and hold one they stopped being consistent, my line was more like a zigzag, and I had a lot less strength and mobility in any inverted position. Can you say closed shoulders… I just let them go and said goodbye. I was busy jumping off rocks and breaking bones anyway.

Moving on from something that consumed my training and that I’d worked so hard to progress and perfect felt like a massive step backwards. Even though it’s important to cycle your training and focus on other skills or develop different attributes, it was still in the back of my mind that I wanted them back.

I remember back to those training sessions when I was practicing them just because I wanted to. How it made me feel to be upside down. I would completely zone out, and repeat the same movement over and over again to learn how it was supposed to feel. I was doing it because I loved it, I wanted to get better at it, and it was for me.

I never thought I’d get back to the point where my handstands feel like mine again. I never thought being upside down would become a happy place like it used to be. Or that I could be that present in such a still movement. There’s so much peace and simplicity when you’re able to see such a simple movement for what it is. A place to be quiet, and find balance.

And being able to block everything out around me. Since I train in a Crossfit gym, there can be quite a lot of noise from other people when they’re lifting or WODing (yeah that’s a real word now), and it can be distracting. Maybe ear plugs would help. But if I focus on my breathing, count the seconds in my head or out loud, then I can’t hear anything. People walk past so I’m aware of movement around me, but all I’m watching is the floor between my hands. I re-balance and re-balance, checking my body from finger tips to toes, and then I’m holding myself on that balance point and it’s effortless. I sink into the floor, like if I relaxed any more my fingers would dissolve through the mats. My feet reach up to the ceiling, my whole body extends, my mind goes quiet, my breath is steady, and I’m so happy in that moment.

People often ask, “How long will it take to get my handstand?” Of course it depends on the individual, their background in training, and their current level of strength and body control. But really it takes as long as it takes based on the amount of time and effort you put into your training. I think it takes as long as you’re able to love them for, and put up with the frustration and inconsistency that is more frequent than those tiny inches of progress you make. If this is you, don’t let that go. Because actually every time you kick up, tuck up or press up, hold for a few seconds or a minute, or wave your legs upside down, it’s progress. It has got to be one of the most worthwhile skills that you can learn, and I still find it’s the most enjoyable and worthwhile skill to teach.

I’ll probably always have a love hate relationship with handstands. I’ll never be a hand balancer, and there are so many hand balancing skills I’ll never achieve. And I really don’t want to. It’s got nothing to do with that anymore, it’s just about having all the funs and doing what I enjoy. Sometimes on the floor, sometimes on a tyre, and sometimes in a door frame. It’s about what I feel in my body when I move. Most importantly it’s about the love.

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