Ever wished you could headstand with the best of them, or simply be able to do a cartwheel? Writer and gymnastics enthusiast Jess Bacon explains why now’s the time to supple, whatever your age.
Most of us used to be able to do a forward roll in PE, while a small number managed a cartwheel. If you tried and failed, chances are that you abandoned gymnastics there and then, and later on decided that back flips and headstands are best left to Simone Biles.
Relegating gymnastics to children and the professionals, however, could be stopping us from engaging in an activity known to be beneficial to bone health and improving flexibility and muscle tone as we age.
Gymnastics has no age limit
A study tracked 217 women with an average age of 62 for six years and found that those who regularly participated in gymnastics had greater bone strength, density and muscular agility than those who didn’t. With that in mind, gymnastics can benefit people of all ages when carried out safely.
In 2012, Johanna Quass rose to viral fame aged 86 for her impressive routines and became the Guinness world record holder as the oldest gymnast. Quass went on to beat her own record and competed internationally until she was 91.
Over on TikTok, the adult gymnastics tag has been used over 10.3 million times, as individuals across the world take up the acrobatic sport for the first time or after years away from the mat. Gymnastics, as increasing numbers of us are learning, is more than learning how to do a black flip. It’s about co-ordination, agility, balance and spatial awareness – all of which are crucial to helping you be more in control of your body.
How to start gymnastics as an adult
While gymnastics can appear intimidating, especially if you’re only used to watching it at Olympic level, it’s worth remembering that you don’t need any skills to start out.
“Gymnastics is very much a full body workout with strength needed in the upper body, lower body and core, along with being able to use this strength to create explosive power for jumps and tumbling,” explains flexibility coach and gymnast Sophie Brace.
Brace, who documents her flips on TikTok, is keen to stress that there’s “no baseline level you need to reach before you attend a gymnastics class”. That’s because “you will develop skill-specific strength and flexibility as you continue to practise and you will learn which areas you need to focus on rather than feeling like you have several things to work on at once.”
Try pilates to build strength and flexibility needed for gymnastics
The fundamentals of gymnastics are broken down into flexibility and strength, so if you already do HIIT sessions, bodyweight or weight lifting and pilates or yoga, you’ll already have an advantage when it comes to progressing into plyometric moves.
Gymnastics coach and former Euro World Champion Paige Clarke recommends starting out with bodyweight-structured classes as opposed to adding additional weight as gymnastics involves supporting and utilising your own body weight through momentum.
Pilates is one of the best ways to improve your core, upper body strength and balance. Gaby Noble, founder of Exhale Pilates London explains: “Joseph Pilates was originally a gymnast, therefore many of the original exercises and the discipline behind the work have gymnastics in mind.”
The similarities between the two forms of exercise include working to use your body against the force of gravity and drawing on your inner strength and resolve to hold these graceful and ambitious positions.
As well as improving your muscle tone and complementing your gymnastic classes, pilates is great for helping with recovery. Noble adds: “Pilates will help gymnasts prevent injuries and avoid the over-use of certain muscles groups which can cause problems for gymnasts who have to balance their body weight equally.”
That’s because pilates involves low impact moves that help to build muscle and joint flexibility – all of which becomes harder with age. Like yoga, it also stresses the importance of using breath to stabilise the body as you flow through different movements.
Bryony Deery, a pilates trainer and instructor at Workshop Gymnasium, emphasises how integral core strength is to not only to gymnastics, but in everyday life such as getting in and out of the car. “These simple activities can often be challenging and uncomfortable; however, if you have a strong centre and maintain flexibility you will move in a different way. You’ll feel a connection to your body like never before,” she explains.
As well as the mental health benefits found in this self-awareness of your body, pilates is a great place to start this journey of moving your body in a completely different way.
Gymnastics exercises for building strength from home
There are several specific exercises that you can regularly do that will improve your performance on the mat. One of the most overlooked areas is the wrists, which have to be strong in order to lift your body off the ground.
Noble recommends a small but very effective movement. Simply hold the ends of a towel in each hand, wrists shoulder-width apart. Begin to pull the towel taut. She says: “Imagine you are pulling the towel apart, engaging and widening your back.”
That pulling motion is designed to engage your arms from your wrists all the way to your shoulders. As the towel is rigid, it stabilises your wrists to help strengthen your hands grip. Of course, you could do your usual pushing and pulling movements at the gym (rows, sledge drags, push-ups, pull-ups) to improve your grip and core, but the towel trick is a great way of building that strength from home, whenever you have spare time.
Blogger Harriet Day revisited her childhood love of gymnastics in lockdown and now shares her flips and tricks each week on TikTok. To build up her strength and skills again, Day found stretching to be as important as functional workouts such as weight lifting and HIIT.
Poses from yoga such as a frog pose and a hip flexor lunge have been fundamental in improving Day’s flexibility and preventing injury. Taking more of a yin approach, Day believes that holding these poses for longer periods of time has made all the difference: “(I’ve) made sure that I hold the stretches for over 30 seconds.”
To track your progress, Day recommends “filming yourself to get an understanding of what you look like compared to what you need to do”.
How to master a headstand and other gymnastic moves
Let’s be real: getting into a headstand is hard. Before you start standing on your head, it’s important that you’ve got a solid foundation of core strength to help with stability, and it’s worth checking with your GP that you’re medically safe to do inversions. Noble advises to initially work with someone who can support you through the movement and begin attempting a headstand against a wall with cushions nearby for additional support.
There’s no universal timeline for mastering skills such as a headstand, but in order to build up in any sport, the key is consistency and practice. As a minimum, it’s worth attending one to two classes a week to repeat these new skills and learn the basic movements to progress into inversions.
As a rough goal for nailing any popular inversion, Clarke says: “It’s hard to pin point how quickly people can master certain skills as everybody will come in at different starting points! But I like to go on a guide of around eight weeks if you really put your mind to it!”
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Ultimately, a sport that you stick with has to be enjoyable. If gymnastics is something you’ve always wanted to do, seek out a local club and go for it. Nervous to give it a go having never done any kind of calisthenics? Start with committing to weekly yoga and pilates classes and once you’re more used to moving your body, find that gymnastics class.
“Gymnastics isn’t an everyday sport that you can pick up straight away and it is not normal for the body to be tuned upside down,” says gold medallist Clarke. “It takes time to develop and perfect the skills (even the basic ones) but the most important thing should be to have fun.”
Want to get more flexible? Check out our range of 15-minute mobility workouts.