Once you tick off pull ups, dips, push ups and other basic staple calisthenic moves, it becomes time to think about what’s next. It’s a popular debate: what moves shall I train for after I’ve got my ‘solid foundation’??
Most commonly recommended is the L-sit, handstand, muscle up and back lever. I’d tend to agree and this was the same for me. Good old push ups, pull ups and dips don’t require much in the way of flexibility and are what I call ‘tin man friendly’; even the tightest people can work these moves just fine.
The next level moves require more mobility, and I will show you in this post just how to stretch for certain moves and explain how flexibility in certain areas will make more advanced moves SO MUCH easier.
A Better Front Fold = Easier L-sits, V-sits, Hanging Leg Raises & Handstand Presses
People wrongly assume these moves are all functions of the core when it’s not just the core that determines your proficiency with them. It’s also your posterior chain mobility – particularly in the lower body.
Some beginners are so tight in their front fold (mainly hamstrings), they can’t even straighten their legs in an L-sit, even if they’re strong enough in the core. What most people do is keep training the crap out of the L-sit expecting to just get better. I made this mistake with the V-sit; thinking I could muscle my way into it.
Recently I’ve stripped it back and not even trained the move. Instead, I’ve focused on hamstring and front folding flexibility. The theory being, if I free up the resistance in those areas, my compression (ab & hip flexor strength) won’t have to fight my tight muscles AND gravity.
It’s just a case of being efficient.
What is a good standard for front folding?
I think a comfortable palms to floor pike with straight legs is a good target for most. Of course this is nothing compared to gymnasts but getting to this level will net you a vast improvement in any of the moves above.
And comfortable means without warming up for half an hour and doing a million front fold attempts prior. Just test it throughout the day with no pre stretching and see where you’re at.
In terms of a good stretching routine to follow to improve your forward folding, I’ll hand the floor over to Emmet Louis in the video below. This is the protocol I myself use.
Shoulder Extension = Back Levers, Skin The Cats & V sits
Tight pec muscles, front deltoids and biceps can all inhibit your ability to extend the shoulder (reach your hands up and behind you). The V sit, back lever and skin the cat are all moves that not only need you to extend your arms behind you, but they need you to be able to do it under load.
In case you don’t quite get it, trying a full back lever with tight shoulders and pecs = tendon ruptures and torn muscles.
Obviously the V-sit entails nowhere near as aggressive shoulder extension as the back lever or German hang (bottom of a skin the cat), but as you start getting very advanced and working towards ‘The Manna’, shoulder extension will become more paramount. See the picture below:
The Manna………basically a V-sit on steroids
Putting A Plan Together
If you’re brand new to shoulder and chest stretching, then please start conservatively. Use the floor stretch shown above – perform 3 sets of 60 second holds, consciously trying to draw your arms further behind your body. Remember to breathe well. Do this 3 times per week.
If you’re a little more experienced and have more mobility in your chest (can do deep dips and have no trouble lifting your arms behind you), then German Hangs are the way to go. Again, start conservative and build your hold times. Sets of 5 seconds may feel a lot to begin with. As you acclimatise you’ll find 30 seconds is more than comfortable. It’s at this level the back lever will really start to feel much stronger. Trust me.
GMB have a wonderful video on German Hang progressions to suit any level……..
Shoulder Flexion, Overhead Mobility & The Thoracic Spine
Another area equally as lacking as the hamstrings; people just seem to have crappy overhead mobility these days, myself included! Think about it, when do we spend any time in modern life with our arms overhead? Unless you’re on a roller-coaster you probably don’t, with the exception of gymnasts and sports involving overhead throwing.
Straight handstands and bridges require fully open overhead mobility. Even your chances of holding the iconic human flag is a representation of your shoulder flexibility, believe it or not.
If you can’t raise your arms overhead into 180 degrees of shoulder flexion, you’ll not be able to hold a straight handstand; there will always be a degree of compensation (the evil banana handstand). While banana handstands aren’t wrong per se, they’re much less efficient than their straighter counterpart; balance is always easier when things are aligned.
Even though the back bridge is more a display of flexibility than a strength move itself, it’s still a very important position if you have any gymnastic aspiration for moves like back walkovers and the likes, as any restriction in the lats and thoracic spine will make these MUCH harder.
Even less skilled moves such as overhead pressing and handstand push ups will be made smoother by having better overhead mobility – your shoulders and traps aren’t having to oppose the weight AND your tight muscles but rather just the weight. Again, by being mobile you’re more efficient.
My Story & A Plan Of Attack
I’ll never forget my time at Emmet Louis’ Modern Methods Of Mobility Seminar (read the full review here), which I went to, to try and improve my woefully lacking overhead mobility above all………and I spent the whole seminar leading up to the bridge just going about my business. When it came to the bridge though, I had everyone trying to help me with ideas and techniques; you know you suck when you get help without asking for it! So I’m very much trying to win the war on overhead mobility with you.
I’ve found passive stretching to not work in this category very well at all. You not only have to loosen the tight muscles (usually lats and pecs) but also activate the ones that don’t fire (usually the lower traps, serratus anterior and mid traps) – this seems to be the winning formula here.
(image credit: liftbigeatbig.wordpress.com)
There are 2 stretches I like most for lats and overhead mobility. The first is a chin up dead hang with a supinated grip; the supinated grip places the shoulder into external rotation and thus, further stretching the lats as they’re internal rotators of the shoulder.
The other really nice overhead stretch is the hanging cobra. For this you’ll need set of gymnastics rings. The tighter you are, the lower you’ll need the rings.
The cueing here for enhancing the stretch is simply squeeze the butt and draw the abs in somewhat; you’re basically ‘hollowing out’. Reason being, if you don’t tighten up, all you’ll do is arch your lower back and bypass the lats and thoracic spine.
3 sets of 30-60 second holds here work well. Another tip is to rotate from side to side while in the cobra stretch and target each lat individually.
Emmet Louis has a lovely sequence for this that I’ve been using with quite a bit of success myself. Here’s a link to the article in question: https://emmetlouis.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/fixing-arched-back-in-handstand/
I hope you now realise the value of better than average mobility when it comes to doing the advanced moves. I will say you can get these moves while being rather inflexible but it’s stupidly inefficient and you’ll never look as graceful as those with more flexibility than you.
Questions & comments, hit me with them below. Thanks for reading.
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