Handstand and deliver!

Turning bodyweight training on its head

With a step-by-step handstand training program, you can help clients achieve the numerous benefits that accompany this impressive bodyweight feat, says PT and gymnastics coach Farkas Pungur.

  • Today’s fitness industry is taking inspiration from, and teaching elements of, sports, gymnastics and other physical disciplines
  • Training clients in this way doesn’t mean we are sports coaching – we’re simply using the skillsets of different sports to assist clients in reaching their fitness goals
  • Using bodyweight training elements of gymnastics, the handstand has become an increasingly popular training goal
  • By learning how to break the handstand movement down, observe and correct faults, and use a variety of spotting techniques, trainers can help clients safely achieve the numerous benefits that accompany this impressive feat.

Today’s fitness industry is taking inspiration from, and teaching elements of, many different sports, both Olympic and non-Olympic, as well as other physical disciplines.

Consider for a moment the various options that you or your industry colleagues teach, or borrow from, in the sessions you deliver – from Le Tour inspired cycle to cardio kickboxing classes. Some of the more widely ‘imitated’ Olympic sports include boxing, weightlifting, swimming, cycling, gymnastics and athletics (particularly running), while non-Olympic sports include power lifting (bench press, back squat, deadlift) and kickboxing. And, of course, we borrow balance and stretching elements from yoga movements and Pilates exercises.

Taking inspiration from the sporting world is a great way of keeping our offerings varied and interesting to clients and participants – but, of course, just because we are training them using skills and exercises from different sports, doesn’t mean we are sports coaching. Rather, we are simply using the skillsets of different sports to assist clients in reaching their fitness goals. A personal trainer’s role is to safely and effectively help their clients achieve, and maintain, their stated health and wellbeing objectives – it is not to win a sporting event or competition.

Gymnastics and bodyweight training

One of the areas of fitness that has seen huge growth in recent years is bodyweight training, in all manner of both traditional and modern guises – it’s been sitting near the top of global industry trend tables for a couple of years now. Think Animal Flow, Box Pilates and TRX, among many other variations.

As both a personal trainer and gymnastics coach (as well as a former competitive gymnast), it has been particularly interesting to witness the fitness industry’s adoption of bodyweight training elements of gymnastics.

For non-gymnasts, which is most of our personal training clientele, being able to do a handstand is something of a status symbol, a goal to work towards. In response to the increased interest in bodyweight training, and handstands in particular, I created a course to teach fellow fitness professionals how to train clients to master the handstand.

As with the other sport-influenced fitness training, the course doesn’t teach this gymnastic feat as an Olympic sport – it teaches skills which fall under the terminology of the word gymnastics, and which are also often classed as calisthenics.

How does gymnastics fit within today’s fitness industry?

In the fitness industry, bodyweight movements such as air squats, push ups, pull ups and dips are, essentially, gymnastics. We are taking skills from the sport of gymnastics and applying them to workouts. In fitness, the gymnastics label is applied to any exercise in which you move your body through a range of motion (ROM) or extended range of motion (EROM) without an external load. Isometric holds are also considered gymnastics.

Thefreedictionary.com defines gymnastics as physical exercises used to develop and display strength, balance, and agility, especially those performed on or with apparatus.

In addition to describing the competitive Olympic sport, the term ‘gymnastics’ also refers to activities in which the aim is body control, such as climbing, yoga, calisthenics and dance. The fitness industry uses short parallel bars (‘parallettes’), the floor, wooden rings, pull up bars, dip bars, climbing ropes and other equipment to implement gymnastics training.

Why gymnastics?

In the world of CrossFit, gymnastics is one of the three foundational modalities of the Theoretical Hierarchy of Development. According to the hierarchy, you can only maximise competency in weight training and sport if you are first proficient in gymnastics.

If performed properly, gymnastics movements influence every aspect of a person’s life and have a dramatic effect on overall fitness. Gymnastics assist in development of many of the 10 components of fitness: accuracy, agility, balance, coordination, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, strength, and stamina. No other modality beats gymnastics in terms of developing the four neurological components among these, namely, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. Furthermore, gymnastics training produces impressive strength gains without requiring an external load.

Strength is required for proper form, and proper form is required to demonstrate body control. As such, gymnastics has a clear emphasis on strength in bodyweight movements. More than anything else, strict form establishes mastery in a movement, and for this reason we promote strict movement before we apply momentum. The strength gains from mastering the strict movements are well worth the effort, and the possibility of injury is reduced substantially when strict movements are practiced first. Small moves will bring great rewards. You do not rush these movements – you learn them and earn them!

Turning your world upside down with handstands!

You may use more gymnastic bodyweight training with clients yourself, or have noticed colleagues doing so – after all, it generally requires little or nothing in the way of equipment and can be practised in most locations, making it a convenient training modality. However, not all those training clients in bodyweight exercises have a proper understanding of how to safely teach it.

It is unfortunate to see how many fitness professionals teaching fitness exercises based on the handstand – including walk up to handstand at wall, walk backwards towards handstand with feet in TRX, or even a simple ‘wheelbarrow’ walk – don’t know the physical and technical preparation required for the safe performance of these skill. The same applies to many more gymnastics-based exercises, like the muscle up on ring or bar, dips and chin ups, to mention a few.

To successfully train clients to perform a handstand and other bodyweight variations, personal trainers need to learn the strength exercises and key steps to build up to the execution of the movement. By gaining an understanding of how to break the movement down, observe and correct movement faults, and use a variety of spotting techniques, trainers can help clients develop proper form, which in turn helps them safely progress without injury and improve their overall physical preparedness.

By taking the training step-by-step, rather than jumping in at the deep end and attempting a handstand without proper preparation, we can also enable clients of varying abilities to safely and effectively work towards this impressive feat. And we’re not just talking about getting them onto their hands – but also holding the position, unsupported.

The first time that a client manages to hold a handstand is a very rewarding experience, for both them and their trainer. But, impressive though the movement may be, the ability to handstand hold is not just about being able to do something that will give them an awesome Instagram picture (though it definitely does that too!). The handstand hold will skyrocket their shoulder stability and strength, which will benefit any upper body exercises with or without external weightload, such as dips, push ups, bench press, and dumbbell or kettlebell shoulder presses. With proper coaching, clients that master the handstand can then progress the move to a variety of other exercises in the body weight program, such as the handstand walk, handstand dips on ground or floor parallel bars, TRX handstands, and wall climb to handstand.

Whenever we learn a new skill for working with personal training clients we are cognisant of whether it lies within the Scope of Practice for Registered Exercise Professionals. By teaching handstands as a strength and skills exercise, rather than as a sport or for competition, we can practice within scope, while offering clients an exciting new fitness challenge.

Click HERE to find out more about the 3-CEC Network course created by Farkas, a Step-by-step Guide to Mastering the Handstand.

Farkas Pungur has been in gymnastics for over 40 years as a competitor, international performer and international level gymnastics coach. He has a Masters degree in Physical Education and a Bachelors in Gymnastics/Sport Coaching, as well as a Diploma in Fitness. Currently working with Gymnastics QLD, you might also recognise Farkas as a competitor on Australian Ninja Warrior.