Beginner gymnastics… for adults

One of my goals for 2016 is to find a sport or exercise I enjoy doing. I’ve been running on and off for the past couple of years, but I find it so boring that I keep giving up. Rather than pushing myself to do something I don’t like, I’ve been looking for a fun way to get more exercise.

I was looking at Instagram’s “Explore” tab recently, and I saw a video of someone doing parkour. I was fascinated by her flips and bar tricks, which reminded me of gymnastics. I suddenly realised adult gymnastics classes might be a thing. I’d always thought I was too old for gymnastics, since missing out as a kid, so it hadn’t occurred to me to see if anyone in Melbourne offered adult classes.

After a bit of googling I found a gym that offers adult classes catering to “all levels”, including beginners. I booked in for a Sunday morning class, and spent the next few days full of equal parts excitement and terror.

Here’s how it went when I finally entered the gym.

Sunday: First class

So today’s the day. My first gymnastics class has finally arrived, and I’m terrified.

I arrive about ten minutes early at the Victorian Men’s High Performance Centre. The gym has mats everywhere, a trampoline running down one wall towards one of three vaults, uneven bars, and five or six beams, as well as a big open square of space for floor work.

The equipment is confronting, especially since I have to climb around and under it to get to where a couple of other people are sitting on the empty floor section.

I start chatting to one of the women who arrived before me. It’s also her first class, and she happens to be a programmer as well. I feel relieved to have made a friend as I realise many of the other gymnasts arriving already know each other.

As 10a.m. gets closer, the group grows until there are around 15 of us. The three coaches introduce themselves and we hear about their career highlights and (literally) neck-breaking injuries. With that done, we get into a warm-up game.

The game gets us running around, and in-between rounds we do various exercises. My first exercise involves starting in a lunge, then jumping up in the air, switching legs, and landing in another lunge. I do this about ten times along a mat, before turning to do it again all the way back. My thighs are killing me already, and I’ve only just started. This doesn’t bode well at all. And it doesn’t help that I watch others lunge their way up and down the mat while I’m still puffing at the turning point.

My next exercise involves running under and jumping over the set of five or six beams as fast as I can. My pelvis takes a beating as I throw myself at the beams in an enthusiastic effort to get over them as quickly as I can.

Next are push-ups and pull-ups, a tricker-than-it-looks trampoline bunny hop exercise. After the warm up we have a group stretching period, and then we split up into two groups for core strength and handstand work. I join the “beginners, first-timers, and anyone without great core strength” group.

We learn about the various body holds that make up the core of pretty much all gymnastics: the hollow, superman, front support, back support, and side support on each arm. They’re all exercises in core strength that we need to eventually be able to hold for 60 seconds each, working through the set in order.

Image credit: GMB Fitness

Today we do two sets of 20-second holds. It might not sound like much, but I’m dying. The side holds are basically side planks — one arm straight under your shoulder, your body a straight plank with just your feet touching the floor, and your other arm straight up in the air. My arm shakes like mad, and my core muscles burn, but the coaches keep telling us to stick it out. We’re supposed to keep our core muscles engaged while we move between each hold, to practise core strength during movement, but I’m exhausted after each hold and just drop to the floor.

Gymnastics is hard!

Next we do handstands, which carry on from our core work. We start with 3/4 handstands: facing away from the wall with our feet right near the wall, positioned in a front support (similar to a push-up), then walking our feet up the wall. We end up in a plank position, at about a 45 degree angle from the wall. We’re supposed to hold this for 60 seconds also, but I give out at about halfway.

Image credit: Nerd Fitness

The image on the left is what we were calling a “3/4 handstand”.

Almost everyone else gets through 60 seconds of the 3/4 handstand, so I’m feeling a bit disappointed in myself now.

Next we try handstand kick-ups. We do a front support with our hands near the wall, bring one leg up so it’s bent under us, keep our back leg straight and bring it off the floor by just an inch. Then we try kicking our straight leg up to touch the wall. If this sounds easy, try it for yourself. I don’t know how some of these people are managing it, because I can barely get my leg off the ground. Our coach says it’s more important to barely get off the ground but keep correct form than to kick-up incorrectly, but I’m still a bit disheartened that I’m terrible at handstands so far.

Image credit: Nerd Fitness

I didn’t make it past step three.

And then, finally, we get to the apparatus. My group starts on bars, which look much easier than they are. We have two sets of uneven bars with different exercises to try on each, but I fail completely at these. Both require more core strength than I have (basically none), so one of our coaches suggest I stick to the high bar over the foam pit.

There’s a little platform near the actual high bar, so we don’t have to jump up and grab it. After chalking up my hands I step onto the platform and grab the bar — our high bar coach tells me not to use my thumbs, since we’re in the women’s gym today (hence the beams and uneven bars instead of parallel bars, rings, and pommel horse) and the thicker women’s high bar will hurt my thumbs. As soon as I stop curling my thumbs around the bar I feel like I don’t have enough strength in the rest of my hands to hold me up. I’m surprised how much I’d expected to rely on my thumb strength without realising it!

I take a deep breath, hold the bar tight, and let my legs fall off the platform so I’m hanging over the foam pit. I can’t believe how much I weigh! This hurts! It’s completely surprising to me how hard it is to hold myself up on this bar. But the coach doesn’t have time for my complaining. He tells me to start swinging, and as soon as I swing backwards I realise why gymnasts have to regrip so often: this is when you see them briefly come off the bar at the back of their swing before grabbing it again. When your hands are sliding around the bar with each swing, you can tell you’ll eventually fall off if you don’t keep moving your grip.

It’s tough work, but I get the hang of regripping pretty quickly, and the coach says I’m doing it well. Finally, something I’m not terrible at! Then he says to jump off the bar as I swing forward and land on my back in the foam pit. I try this a couple of times, improving my technique, and it’s scary and exhilarating every time.

It doesn’t take many turns on the bars before I notice my hands are stinging. When I look down, I realise I’ve ripped off a little circle of skin in the middle of both palms. I’m relieved that it’s time for floor and vault.

On the floor we line up and practise skills from one side of the open square to the other: forward rolls, jumps, cartwheels, and round-offs. I notice a pulling feeling in my right thigh after doing cartwheels, which hurts quite a bit. It doesn’t hang around too long, but I think I probably need to stretch more before doing cartwheels in the future.

Apart from the leg pain I’m pretty happy with the floor work. I do struggle a little with forward rolls, as I keep flopping straight onto my back instead of gracefully rolling. I’m not sure where I’m going wrong but just as I stand up and realise how dizzy I am, our coach says it’s time for vault.

On the vault we practise running and jumping onto it with our hands. Some people are able to do a full handstand on the vault, and eventually stay in their handstand and fall right over onto the mat behind the vault. I can barely get a little hop onto the vault right, so it’s not the most fun exercise. We end with a little treat, though: one at a time, we stand on the vault and somersault into the foam pit below. Another scary, yet exhilarating experience to round off the two-hour class.

And that’s it! Two hours of sweating, pushing, holding, and grunting, and we’re done. I feel sore, and sweaty, but great. I’m already looking forward to next week.

Monday: Can’t move

Someone clearly let a truck roll through my bedroom last night, because I’ve definitely been run over. I wake up around 2a.m. and feel all my muscles aching and burning as I try to roll over. At 6a.m. I shoot off an email to cancel my morning meeting and laugh at my naïve past self who thought I’d be able to walk around and talk to people today.

At around 9 I give up on getting any more sleep and gingerly lift myself out of bed.

I hurt everywhere. My neck and shoulders are sore. My thighs are burning. My core aches and I have to drag myself around with my arms to avoid relying on my abs too much. When I get in the shower I wince squeezing the shampoo bottle, as I feel my forearm muscles tense.

I’m actually worried I may not be ready for another class by next Sunday.

Tuesday: Ouch… still

I’ve been having epsom salts baths every day, which is supposed to help the muscle soreness. I’m lumbering around with a limp and moaning anytime I get up from a long period of sitting or lying down.

I’m ready to do some practise for next Sunday but my body says no way.

Wednesday: Why can’t I do a handstand yet?

I’m still aching but things are definitely looking up. I’ve been trying to practise the few things we were assigned for homework: our series of core strength holds, 3/4 handstands, and handstand kick-ups. My kick-ups are no better, but I’m doing okay with the 3/4 handstand.

I start googling for advice on doing handstands and find a handy tip: if you’re struggling with holding the 3/4 handstand for the recommended 60 seconds (which I definitely am), try holding it for a set of 10 second reps.

I’m also struggling with the uncomfortable pressure that comes from being upside down for so long, as my head fills with blood. Another tip I find online suggests this is in fact exactly what happens when you get up in the morning and all the blood rushes to your feet — only your feet are accustomed to dealing with the extra influx of blood. Your head simply needs to learn to adjust to all the extra blood, so practising being upside down without worrying about holding a handstand can help.

I start doing sets of 10-second 3/4 handstand reps and lying on my bed with my head hanging down.

Thursday: I think I broke something

Uh oh. I’m doing a 3/4 handstand set. Just as I walk my feet up the wall I notice my hands aren’t lined up on the floor. I lift my right hand to move it in line with my left and feel a sharp pain in my abdomen. I drop from the wall, but thankfully the pain has disappeared already.

I decide to take a break from handstands, but later I notice the pain again in the right of my abdomen, while doing core strength holds. I decide to rest and hope it’ll heal by tomorrow.

Friday: Cartwheeling isn’t for amateurs

Cartwheeling is perhaps the only skill I already had before starting gymnastics. I don’t do them often, so I could definitely use more practice, but when I want to show off I can do a cartwheel that “looks like a real one”, according to my partner, Josh.

I whip out a cartwheel on our back deck to show Josh, and feel that familiar pain in my right thigh. Of course, I didn’t bother to stretch first, so that’s a reminder that stretching is important.

Image credit: Biomechanics — The round off

A round-off is an extension of the cartwheel skill, where you bring your legs together at the top of the cartwheel and jump down on both feet. I try a round-off to show Josh what they look like and feel not only the strain in my thigh, but that right side of my abdomen hurting again. For a few minutes afterwards the pain continues, as if I’ve pulled a muscle, but then it disappears again. I figure it can’t be anything serious, and since it stops hurting I forget about it entirely.

Saturday: Second class nerves

I thought I wouldn’t be nervous after my first class, since I knew what to expect, but I am. I’m really nervous that I’ll actually be worse at everything than I was last week, since I’m still a little sore all over. I try not to worry, and just to look forward to class.

Sunday: Second class

My programmer friend from last week doesn’t show up today, but another first-timer introduces herself while we stretch before class. She’s finally gathered up enough courage to try gymnastics after nearly a year of pole dancing classes. Great, I think, another person who’s new to gymnastics but really strong already. I’m going to be the weakest one again.

We start with the same warm-up game as last week, but a different set of strength exercises. My first exercise is a one-legged box jump. I stand on one leg and jump onto a soft foam block about 40cm high, then jump down again — all while keeping my second leg off the floor.

As soon as I jump on the block the first time, I feel that familiar sharp pain in my abdomen. I take lots of breaks in-between the jumps, but eventually I finish 10 reps on each leg.

Next up my poor thighs take a beating in the alternating lunge exercise from last week, and then I try another new one: pulling myself up in-between the parallel bars, I have to hold myself steady and slowly raise both my knees up and down twelve times. As soon as I try pulling my legs up I feel that tearing pain again. I stop, then try again, stop, try again, and finally give up.

When I ask a coach about the pain he says stretching will help, but I can wait until we all stretch as a group. I ask if I should keep trying the bars exercise and he says he would, but I don’t have to if it hurts too much. I decide it does hurt too much, and he sends me to another exercise where we have to jump over a series of big foam blocks and finally somersault into a foam pit.

I jump over the first block, but immediately drop and grab my side. The pain is getting worse each time I jump. The coach working on this exercise takes me aside and helps me stretch my hip flexor, which is what he thinks is hurting, but the stretch doesn’t seem to touch the actual sore muscle. He sends me off to another coach who asks if I can feel a lump — he’s worried it might actually be a hernia.

I don’t feel any lumps, so the coach is a bit stumped. He sends me off to an exercise that works my arms until it’s time for group stretching. Most of the stretches are okay, though moving between them hurts a little.

We split into two groups again, and go through the core strength exercises, holding each for 20 seconds. A couple of the exercises really pull on whichever muscle I’ve hurt, and I wince and squirm. A coach asks if I’m okay, and suggests only doing the exercises that don’t hurt. When we move on to handstand work I sit it out, and decide to go home early.

I’m really disappointed, as I was so prepared to work hard and get better this week, but as I leave the gym I’m limping. The pain is constant now, and I have to be careful about walking, standing, sitting, or bending.

On the way home I do some googling and discover it’s common to pull a hip flexor muscle during cartwheels if you don’t do them often or don’t warm up first. This sounds like a likely explanation, until I find out that strained abdominal rectus muscles are commonly misdiagnosed as hip flexor injuries. Reading a description of pain during training from someone who’s diagnosed with a pulled rectus muscle confirms for me that I’ve probably done the same. Unfortunately, his doctor suggests staying away from training for up to 100 days to avoid re-injuring the muscle.

Image credit: Patient Help

The rectus abdominis muscle is what becomes a “six pack” when developed. Apparently mine is nowhere near becoming a six pack.

I can’t stand the idea of staying away from gymnastics that long. But I do think a few weeks off to let the muscle heal is a good idea. Once it’s feeling better I plan on spending lots of time on my flexibility and core strength so I’m in a better position to build skills when I get back into the gym. Our coaches keep saying that the whole gym becomes a lot more fun when your core is strong, and after a little glimpse at how terrible I am at most of the apparatus, I’m sure they’re right.

This story has a much sadder (and more painful) ending than I’d expected. I’d really hoped to be throwing some tricks before ending this article, but with every day currently focused on rest and gentle stretching, that won’t be happening any time soon.

When I do get back into the gym, I’m planning on working hard to achieve a solid handstand and to “get my splits” as seems to be the phrase. Hopefully the story will eventually have a happy ending.

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