Hello, all, coach Jeremy here. Welcome to my lair…. bwahahahahahaha
This blog is primarily aimed at Apex Gymnasts and parents, though I welcome anybody who happens to be interested in the content. My primary goal with this blog is to share some level of technical knowledge with the parents and gymnasts. In short, I want to help parents and gymnasts to understand why we do what we do. If I’m getting too technical (or not technical enough), feel free to let me know.
I have a number of these already written, and I will be posting those on a weekly basis. Once I run out of already-written material, I’ll probably scale back to posting about once every whenever-I-feel-like-it. I may also occasionally feature guest columns by other Apex coaches.
Anyway, without further ado, I’m going to kick this off with a discussion of the most important skill in the entire sport of gymnastics: the handstand.
Virtually every gymnastics skill is in some way based on the handstand. In many cases this link is quite obvious, such as in the giant swing on bars (a swing to handstand) or the cartwheel on floor (a kick with a quarter turn to straddled handstand continuing through to stand in lunge). In other cases, the link is less obvious but equally important, such as in a back somersault on floor (in which a strong takeoff requires the body to be extended and rigid, just as in a handstand).
A common misconception is that the primary goal of a handstand is to hold as long as possible; this is not the primary goal, but rather the secondary one. The primary goal is to achieve the straightest possible body line. In an ideal handstand, a perfectly straight line could be drawn from the wrists through the shoulders, spine, hips, and knees, all the way to the tips of the toes. The head should be either completely neutral or slightly tilted back but still kept between the arms to preserve a straight body line.
Such a position is endlessly useful in the development of high-level skills. Its rigidity allows the body’s movement to be easily predicted and manipulated. Its precise alignment allows the body to tolerate heavy loads and impacts without excessive stress on the lower back. Its shoulder extension allows for a natural and easy spring action, providing for powerful tumbling and vaulting. Its small turning radius about the longitudinal axis allows for easy pirouettes (and eventually, with modifications, twisting somersaults).
The most common error in handstands among gymnasts is a bend in the shoulders and an arch in the lower back. This causes a banana-shaped handstand. Though it is counterintuitive, an arched back is usually not the cause of the problem, but the result. In such instances, the real problem is a lack of shoulder extension. If the gymnast’s shoulders bend, the gymnast’s weight is pulled too far behind the hands; in order to maintain the handstand’s balance, the gymnast arches her back to bring her legs back over her hands. While this will not necessarily bring all further skill development to a complete stop, it will certainly slow the process down.
The primary cause of this problem is almost always shoulder flexibility. This fully extended position through the shoulders is one that we as humans seldom hit in our day-to-day lives. For a beginning gymnast, this may be the first time in her entire life that she has had to hold weight on fully extended shoulders. Because of this, such a lack of functional flexibility is extremely common – off the top of my head, I’d say about 90% of beginning female gymnasts I’ve worked with and nearly all beginning male gymnasts have had this problem. Even higher-level gymnasts often encounter this issue, as it is common for gymnasts between 10 and 14 to lose substantial flexibility as they grow.
Next week, I will discuss some exercises that can safely be done at home to improve shoulder flexibility for handstands.