Checklist for Building Baseline Gymnastics Strength
Written by Travis Ewart 

There are many great coaches out there giving their newest members the tools they need to succeed in all aspects of CrossFit, but oddly there seems to be a bit of a lack of focus on the fundamentals for kipping movements and inverted (handstand) movements. As the Invictus Gymnastics coach, my goal is to give some very simple directions to help slowly and safely lead your aspiring athlete toward their body weight goals and to create a standard for all coaches and athletes to take into consideration.

Hanging from the Bar

This may seem like a no-brainer, but hanging from the bar for time and in a good position may be overlooked. When we (coaches) spend all day working with athletes performing small sets of toes-to-bar, working on their kipping pull-ups or just basic kipping swings, when we get a fresh member in the gym it’s very easy to expect too much from them, and if left unchecked, we may be leaving them feeling like CrossFit is more difficult to get into than it really should be.

As coaches we always want our athletes to feel like they are making progress, or at least to know where they can focus some attention to grow their skills, and hanging from the bar for 30 seconds is a great place to start!

Hanging from the bar doesn’t mean that you are simply not falling off the bar. This test will allow you to check the boxes to see if your athlete can keep a sturdy grip on the bar (without that slow slip to their fingertips) and to evaluate their comfortability in the hanging position. 

Aside from the hanging grip, can you see their neck? I have seen so many newer athletes that hang from the bar and it seems like their head is sitting on their shoulders. This is an unsafe position for them to be in. Though we don’t need their scaps completely settled down into their mid trap, we do need some sort of retaining tension in the scapular muscles. These muscles are necessary for keeping the shoulders from ‘bottoming out’ during movements even as simple as a regrip (to come in this blog shortly). This baseline strength, held for time, will activate the muscles pulling on the scaps and create blood flow to the area, awakening the muscles they may have never, or at least recently used. No, we don’t need full contraction either, as your athlete will not be kipping from full contraction of the scaps, these overly tightened muscles will not be in the position that your athlete will be kipping from.

Please note: Kipping strength is the fundamental strength at the insertion points of the operating muscles where they meet the tendons. The more contracted the operating muscles are the further toward the belly of the muscle the load will be, and since kipping strength comes from the insertion points and building strength in the tendons and connective tissues, this is where our focus is going to be to build the necessary strength in the linkage to keep our athletes safe when they ultimately grow into the more grandeur kipping elements.

Two-Handed Grip

Of course a regrip will be necessary for all athletes to avoid slipping off the bar when they still have strength to successfully and safely perform said kipping skills, but what else could a regrip be relevant for?

Well, as hinted to above, dynamic pulling for kipping skills has a load focused on the insertion point of the muscles and tendons (and the tendons to the bone). Before we start having athletes perform ANY kipping elements, we need to build up dynamic pulling strength (which differs from slow twitch pulling strength because muscle fibers develop according to their operational stimulus). 

A symmetrical, two-handed regrip IS in fact the same type of dynamic pulling that the athlete will eventually use for their kipping skills, and it keeps them quite safe! Requesting athletes to do this relatively simple task can give you (the coach) the opportunity to evaluate the ‘springiness’ of their position, as the two handed regrip will need to be performed with both a dynamic pull and a controlled descent.

Consider kipping skills like jumping on a trampoline. If you have ever watched a 3 or 4-year-old attempt to jump on a trampoline you would know that there is a sense of extreme caution in the child, and they may not quite be able to jump with both feet at a time. Now, you give that child some time doing tiny little jumps, and voila, they start learning how to jump a bit higher. It’s not that the child necessarily doesn’t know how to jump, but jumping on a trampoline is much different from jumping off the ground.

This is how kipping should be approached. You wouldn’t ask the child to jump off your shoulders to the trampoline and bounce just as high as your shoulders, and since kipping the based on the ability to spring from the bottom of a hang to perform a stunt with altitude, just as the trampoline analogy you should expect an athlete to start their kipping journey with tiny dynamic pulls from the bottom of the hang, which we call the regrip. 

Performing this exercise for 10 reps, 3 times per week will be a great way to develop your athlete’s fundamental dynamic (kipping) pulling strength. It is from this point that you will watch your athlete grow in strength (of the kipping sort) that will eventually lead to being able to perform more elevated kipping pulls, and ultimately to their kipping goal…one step at a time.

Inverted Movements

Being upside down is scary for most, but how do we ease them away from the fear and build confidence?

If you tell a new athlete that they are going to place their head between a hard surface and their body’s equivalent of weight above it, they may be picturing a scene from the movie Saw, but really it’s what you’re asking them to do in a handstand. Handstands are a sensitive topic for many people because of the risks involved, but it’s our job as coaches to walk them comfortably through a checklist, always making sure they are feeling confident in their safety and making progress with a bit of excitement.

At each athlete’s individual pace and starting from a hand plank for time is a great way to start their journey to the upside-down world of CrossFit. The basic concept is to evaluate an athlete’s ability to confidently support their weight with their arms. And when I say ‘confidently’, I mean that they aren’t trembling with fear, shaking from effort, or moving their eyes around like they are being hunted. A cool demeanor is just as important as the strength to perform any variation of the handstand, as fear will deter or stunt their progress.

Simply follow these simple guidelines for your athletes with empathy, patience and calm, and you will watch your athlete go from looking like their neck has been eaten by their body to stoically performing kipping-pulling or hinging movements without a hint of uncertainty. 

And once these fundamental goals are achieved, they are ready for Invictus Gymnastics programming to send them on the smooth path to gymnastics performance in their CrossFit workouts!

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