Here’s what you need to know about adult gymnastics

by Ryan Wagner

I’ve trained in two adult gymnastics gyms in the Boulder and Denver area over the past several years. Fortunately, both are very successful gyms so there’s obviously a market for this type of training. And if you read Motus with any regularity you’ll know that I am an advocate for all things calisthenics and body weight. The simple act of manipulating one’s body weight can be both humbling and a hugely effective strategy to stay healthy for years to come.

But calisthenics training is a continuum. On the lighter end, you have the simplest and safest of movements – the push up and the pull up. On the other end, you can ratchet up the intensity in a hurry with movements like the planche and the most demanding of all – the iron cross. It’s these movements that live in the realm of gymnastics. Even the “easier” gymnastics variations, like the handstand and the muscle up are still pretty intense, even for your typical strong guy or girl. So, it’s with quite a bit of interest that I’ve been watching this new industry plant its roots. I’ve been especially curious to learn how these gyms are planning to train the masses. That is, people with less than perfect shoulders and bad knees. Can the average deconditioned gym goer do adult gymnastics? Can they do it safely?

I’m not without my biases, of course. Firstly, I live in the Denver area – a part of the country that is filled with fit people. Colorado has the nation’s lowest obesity rate and the highest percentage of people who have a gym membership. Also, my philosophy on personal training has always been very conservative. I’m a huge believer in correcting movement dysfunction before getting into any sort of serious lifting or demanding compound movements. And finally, I only have experience with two gyms offering adult gymnastics. That being said, please take the following with a grain of salt. It is not my intention to make any generic conclusions, but rather to give you an idea of what to expect in a Colorado gymnastics facility.

Expect an emphasis on skill training

Adult gymnastics training is much more skill based than any other group exercise I’m familiar with. And although it changes from day to day, it doesn’t change nearly as often as the programming in other gyms. Consequently, you’ll hear “do 10 rounds of…” more frequently than “do two sets of exercise xyz and then we’ll move on to…” And 10 rounds is a lot. I’m a sucker for hardcore training, but 10 rounds of planche tuck holds was intense enough to make even me glance at the clock.

However, there are strong elements of circuit training. I never trained gymnastics in school, so I can’t speak as to whether or not this is standard practice among the elites, but my suspicion is that it’s an attempt to squeeze a full body workout into an hour for busy people.

Predominantly class based

Both the gyms I attended centered their business model around their classes. Very similar to the bread and butter of CrossFit boxes or other small fitness studios. You are allowed to work out during “open gym time,” but I’d really only see one person taking advantage of this opportunity now and again, as it’s usually offered only during inconvienent times. Also, both gyms encouraged their members to attend class often – very often. In fact, members who came in every day were rewarded with praise. This absolutely blew me away. I’m a fitness geek and even I don’t go to the gym daily. Phil Heath, 6-time Mr. Olympia champion doesn’t lift seven days a week (he lifts six during his competition cycle).

You should be fit

Now, I’m sure that both gyms would disagree with me on this statement, but I really do think it’s true – that if you’re considering adult gymnastics, you need to be fit and healthy to begin with. You need to have good knees, healthy shoulders, and strong joints overall.

Two things surprised me in these gyms. In the Boulder gym, most classes began outright with all of the attendees sitting into a deep squat. This is easy for me now, but it took years to earn back this mobility (I say earn back because we could all do this as kids!). Surprisingly, about 9 out of 10 class members were able to do it as well! I would later learn that most people who frequented this gym were literally off duty yoga instructors.  The second thing that surprised me was that neither of the gyms put me through any sort of movement assessment prior to exercising. Not even a simple overhead squat assessment.

If you have a history of injury, I think it’s wise to really understand your movement limitations before trying gymnastics.

It’s a different type of training for a different type of results

With the emphasis on skills training I think you’ll find yourself burning far fewer calories than you would in something like a HIIT class or spin class. Consequently, adult gymnastics isn’t the best choice for weight loss. It’s not a bad choice by any means, but I think there are better options out there. What it comes down to, is whether you have an interest in doing handstands, working towards a muscle up, and the like.

You should also understand that in order to get good at something challenging like a handstand, it’s going to take a lot of practice. Your workouts aren’t going to be changing all the time. Similar to weightlifting, to see results, you need to be almost monk-like and train the same movements.

Wrap up

Joining an adult gymnastics gym can be a great experience. There’s a lot of benefit in training calisthenics and learning to control your body weight. However, at least in the case of Colorado-based adult gymnastics gyms, the coaches often assume that you have proficient movement and strength. You may be surprised at the level of mobility that is expected of you.

If you goal is to get your handstand dialed in or learn to train on the rings, be ready for a long and skill-based process. But if you put the effort in and you have the enthusiasm, I think you’ll have a great time.

By Ryan Wagner

Here's what you need to know about adult gymnastics by