Sunday, January 22, 2017

Learning the Front Handspring

I thought I’d do a post about a physical skill I’ve been learning: the front handspring. I always wanted to learn those cool gymnastic moves, and now at the age of 35 I’m finally doing it. Sort of. It’s been a long, exhausting, frustrating journey but I finally have a serviceable front handspring.

This won’t be a tutorial; there are plenty of good ones out there. Watch a few Youtube tutorials (here is my favorite, but I've watched many others) and read this Crossfit document and this series of three blog post by a gymnastics coach. I had to watch every tutorial I could find about fifty times and re-read the blog posts and Crossfit document about a dozen times to catch all the mistakes I was making. So have your library of tutorial videos and reading materials ready to go.

This post will be more of a motivational and trouble-shooting post, perhaps filling in some holes or emphasizing different problems than the tutorial videos.

First of all, get a yoga ball and maybe some gym mats. If you have a very soft carpeted floor (what I started on), that might work, but it’ll be murder on your knees, hips, and back to do handsprings repeatedly on a hard surface. You can also try it in the grass outside. Position your yoga ball somewhere on the floor, take a hurdle step toward the yoga ball, kick up into the tallest handstand you can manage with your hands placed just in front of the ball, and fall forward over the yoga ball. The ball will serve as your spotter and bounce you up onto your feet. Trust me, you won’t get bounced off in some odd direction. You’ll bounce up in pretty much the direction you were headed. Take a deep breath and try. Then try a few more. You’ll get used to going over yourself, which is an important confidence builder. You'll probably start off flopping onto the ball at the small of your back and bouncing off with most of your weight. This means your arms aren't straight enough. As you progress, your arms will straighten until you're barely grazing the ball on the way over, probably grazing with your shoulder instead of your hips. 

Now record yourself doing a few. Review the tape, then review the tutorials on Youtube. On an iPhone you can drag yourself through the video at any speed you like by sliding your finger at whatever speed and freeze on the frames you need to. Notice everything you’re doing wrong. You’re probably bending your arms too much when you’re upside down with your weight on your hands. This is wrong; your arms are supposed to be straight. You’re probably reaching down to the ground with your arms. This is wrong; your back leg is supposed to kick up and drive your hands to the ground. Your arms and kicking leg are supposed to be in a straight line, as if you were one of those drinking bird toys dipping down for a drink. Your forward leg is supposed to start bent, then spring to give you some lift just as your hands touch the floor. Think about this as your lunge leg is helping to spring you up into a really tall handstand, it’s just that you’re going to go over yourself rather than staying up. You’re probably tucking forward, trying to look for the ground in front of you. This is wrong. You’re supposed to curl your legs under you and arch your back powerfully, like doing a back-bridge in midair. Lie on the ground for a moment. Try tucking your chin forward and doing a back bridge, then try bridging with your head flexed back. It’s a lot harder to arch your back with your chin tucked forward, but in order to land properly you need this arch in your spine. When you go over, you should be looking backwards and down at your hands, not trying to look forward to spot your landing. Then, there’s the “block” with the hands, where you push yourself up off the floor. Make sure you’re doing this at the right time.

I went through this about a thousand times, looking at my terrible front handsprings in slow-motion on my iPhone video and trying to spot my errors. I noticed that I was bending my left arm while I was upside down in a handstand. To correct this error, I had to make sure I was jumping off my lunge leg, which gives you upward momentum. The force of my back-kicking leg was driving me down, so I was forced to bend my arm to absorb the impact. I was indeed tucking my chin on the way up, rather than looking back so that my back could properly arch. As a result, I was landing very hard on my heels with my knees bent and my weight far behind my feet, rather than landing more softly on the balls of my feet. Doing it the wrong way is murder on your joints, so if you have a problem here fix it fast. I repeatedly missed one or another of these steps and had to record myself to see what I was missing. I repeatedly drilled the one part of the movement that was missing, and then promptly forgot another piece. It’s frustrating as hell, because I could do them fine one day then forget how to do it the next. After several days of messing up badly, I went back to doing them over the yoga ball, which would briefly fix my problem before some other problem arose. But I think I’m finally at a point where I’m reasonably proficient in this move. It took about three months of practice, but I got there.

If possible, get a good coach and schedule a few practice sessions under their tutelage. They’ll be able to correct things that you don’t see yourself doing, suggest useful drills that address your deficiencies, and tell you if you’re doing the move safely or not. I really wish I had had a few sessions with a good gymnastics coach, but it was fun trying to learn it on my own. 

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