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First, a disclaimer: I am 22 and was in decent shape before I joined Men’s Health seven months ago. But I was already entrenched in the mindless monotony of the weights room; a workout only counted if it featured bench pressing, biceps curls or – more probably – plenty of both.
I couldn’t touch my toes, though, and seeing some of my new colleagues hampered by mobility issues after a decade of desk-jockeying I wanted to give up fruitless fitness pursuits and start training for real.
I was in awe of the gymnasts at Rio 2016 – you could see how every muscle fibre was called upon to perform their complex movements. The chiseled abs and broad shoulders were a byproduct of their practice, not the reason for it.
I wanted to have this athletic purpose, and for that, there was only one place for me: South Essex Gymnastics Club, spearheaded by Scott Hann, and home to Team GB’s Max Whitlock and Brinn Bevan.
“The power and control you’ll gain will pay dividends in all sports”
The coaches and I never once spoke about aesthetics. Every session was dedicated to being a better gymnast, growing stronger in a handstand or honing the muscle-up. My previous adherence to macros didn’t fly, either. I started to eat well to train well, rather than trying to look ‘cut’.
I ate whole foods and plenty of veg at every meal. Even breakfast. Don’t expect to be able to do an iron cross overnight – or even in 10 weeks’ time, mind. But by learning the fundamentals of gymnastics, you’ll rope in unrivaled core strength, become genuinely mobile and develop athletic power, speed and control that will pay dividends in all sports.
Here’s my plan — enjoy the process of discovering just what your body is capable of. I have and will never look back.
Workout #1: Form With Function
45 Minutes | Back, Arms, Legs | Difficulty: Medium
Gymnastics taught Michael that packing on muscle doesn’t have to involve heavy metal. This high-intensity circuit builds stamina, strength and size. Perform each move in turn and don’t cheat the reps – you’re only shorting yourself
Box Jump: 3 Sets of 10 Reps
Plyometric work – jump training, essentially – is a great way to build power in your legs. Feet at shoulder width, drop into a quarter squat (A) then jump onto the box (B). Land in a deep squat and hold it for five seconds, then hop off. Rest for 30 seconds after each set in this circuit, and for a full minute at the end of each exercise, before moving on.
Legless Rope Climb: 3 Sets of 30 Seconds
Grab the rope with your dominant hand, elbow slightly bent (A). Pull your arm down to lift up, using momentum to grab the rope with your free hand, a foot higher than the first (B). Avoid using your legs as you scale the rope. Your forearms will burn, but future pulling exercises will feel notably easier. Remember to rest for a minute after the third set. You’ll need it.
Parallette Dips: 3 Sets of 20 Reps
A strong set of triceps are good for more than dips; this exercise will boost your bench and shoulder press. Grab the bars with your palms facing in, arms straight (A). Slowly lower until your elbows are at right angles, keeping them tucked close to your body (B). Push up and repeat. Rest as needed after each set and for a full 60 seconds at the end.
Pull-Up: 3 Sets of 20 Reps
Performing 60 pull-ups is no mean feat, but you’ll come away with definition and width in your lats. Grab the bar with your palms facing forward and begin in a dead hang (A). Exhale as you squeeze your shoulder blades and drive your elbows down toward your hips until your chin clears the bar (B), then lower slowly. Rest, then head on over to the TRX station.
TRX Row: 3 Sets of 20 Reps
Row your way to a gymnast’s V-shape by working your back with the TRX suspension trainer. Lie underneath it with your arms fully extended and your body forming a straight line (A). Retract your shoulders to raise your chest to the handles (B), making sure to keep your elbows tucked in close to your sides. Hold for a count, then lower. Rest as before.
Parallette Pike Press-Up: 3 Sets of 20 Reps
A great progression for handstands, this move keeps your tris and shoulders under constant tension. With your feet on a box, grip the parallettes at shoulder width, arms extended so your legs and torso form a right angle (A). Slowly lower until your head nears the floor (B). Push back up to the start position. Three sets done? You’re ready for Michael’s next session…
Workout #2: Midline Mastery
Total Time: 20 Minutes | Abs, Arms, Back | Difficulty: Medium
A solid core is the foundation of gymnastic ability. This circuit will challenge your abs through all planes of motion, for athleticism and definition to match. Leave the barbells to the bros and perform each move once in turn, repeating the circuit for three rounds total
Plank: 3 Sets of 60 Seconds
Being able to hold a plank while maintaining proper form is a great way to fire up your glutes and develop an unshakeable core. Get into a press-up position, but rest on your forearms rather than your hands. Tense your glutes to stop your hips sagging. Perform one set, then flip over and go straight into the body rocks without taking any rest.
If you want to improve your handstands, developing a strong hollow-body position is crucial. Lie with your arms stretched above your head and legs straight. Lift your legs, keeping your lower back on the floor. Now rock back (A), then forward (B), rolling along the curve of your spine. After 10 reps, hold for 10 seconds, then move straight on.
Side Plank Reach Through: 3 Sets of 10 Reps Each Side
Your six-pack isn’t complete without defined obliques, and this move will deliver just that. Prop up your body on your left side by resting on your forearm with legs out straight. Brace your core, with your hips forward and right arm above you (A). Reach this arm under your torso (B), before lifting back up. Do 10 reps, then switch sides.
Back Arch: 3 Sets of 10 Reps
Don’t be fooled into thinking a solid core is purely about the abs. A strong middle starts with stabilising your spine through lower-back exercises. Lying on your front with your abs engaged (A), lift your outstretched arms as shown, at the same time raising your legs (B). Keep your heels together and glutes tensed. Do 10 reps, hold for 10, then move on
Hip Lift: 3 Sets of 10 Reps
Lie on your back and bend at the waist to raise your legs until your toes are pointing at the ceiling (A). Keep your arms flat by your sides. Now keep thrusting your toes toward the ceiling by raising your hips off the ground. This will open up your hip flexors for improved mobility. Lower under control (B) and repeat nine times more.
Hanging Leg Raise: 3 Sets of 10 Reps
Hanging moves recruit your hard-to-target lower abs, as well as increasing your grip strength. Grab the bar and begin in a dead hang. Keep your legs straight and pull your pelvis back (A). Now tense your core and raise your legs until your body is at a right angle (B). Hold, then lower. Take a minute’s rest, then go back to the plank for set two.
Michael Jennings is a fitness writer and Level 3 Qualified Personal Trainer.
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