By: Richard Lenton
Gymnastics has emerged from the shadows to become the latest fitness trend for men. EX decided to investigate.
In the course of my thirty-something years, I reckon I’ve had a go at just about every sport that’s been invented, from the mainstream to the more niche and bizarre. I’ve boxed in Ghana, tried hang-gliding in France, played football in China, and even joined the scrum of a Victorian-era mob game known as the Haxey Hood in the north of England.
In short, I’ll have a go at anything, but when Darren Blakeley from UFIT insisted that gymnastics is now a regular part of his fitness regime, I was having none of it. All I could think of was Olga Korbut and young girls flailing around on crash mats while simultaneously throwing ribbons in the air. The very thought of Darren – a six-foot Kiwi beefcake – performing cartwheels in a leotard was one that began to cause strange, recurring nightmares that I’m on the verge of seeking counselling for. However, he persuaded me to give gymnastics a go – without the leotard I might add.
The personal fitness coach charged with putting me through my paces at UFIT was Sarah Denigan. Having represented her county in numerous sports as a youth, Sarah achieved black belt status in taekwondo after being forced to retire from national level gymnastics and trampolining following a nasty neck injury.
To say that I found her session tough would be an understatement. I’d suggested beforehand that my strength-to-bodyweight ratio was pretty damn impressive as I’d been weight training for several years. Big mistake. Gymnastics exercises catch you out because, as well as strength, you’re relying heavily on balance, flexibility and core stability. It was an eye-opener, and it’s fair to say that I was found wanting. I did manage to perform a passable impression of a headstand, but whether or not it was worth a perfect “6” is very much open to debate.
But why should men incorporate gymnastics into their fitness regimes? Over to UFIT owner Darren Blakeley, who is a gymnastics convert. He gives us the lowdown on why it’s so beneficial.
When and how did you start incorporating gymnastics into your exercise regime?
As a fitness all-rounder and someone who has played just about every sport, my training varies seasonally. I have my base training, which includes Olympic lifts, interval running and our bootcamps, and I also discovered core training a few years ago – it’s so important to develop these muscles. Plank variations, dead-lifts and back squats are typical exercises for the core. Using gymnastics equipment like Olympic rings was a natural progression. A lot of gymnastics exercises are quite advanced, but using basic gymnastics moves has been a massive game-changer for me. Simple wall-assisted handstands and headstands are great ways to switch on muscle groups and progressively overload the core.
Why do we need to have a strong core?
As human beings we are increasingly compromising our bodies. We have evolved with a hugely complex computer (our brains) driving highly dexterous limbs and joints via an incredible network (the two nervous systems). This evolution took place due to the challenging environment this planet has provided us with over many thousands of years and yet interestingly a huge change has occurred in our human movement patterns very recently in a very short period of time. Now we sit for long periods, usually in front of a computer and increasingly with a small, hand-held device. All of a sudden, we are hunched over a hell of a lot – and that’s not good for us at all. This one issue may have massive implications for the health and development of children over the next few decades. It is vital to have a strong core to counteract these issues.
And gymnastics can help to counteract that?
Gymnastics works the body in elastic, dynamic movements that are really challenging. And those challenges vary widely. Doing gymnastics can ultimately assist you in just about any sport you want to do. Gymnasts could lay claim to being some of the fittest, leanest, strongest and most disciplined athletes out there. As well as core control, you’re also improving joint mobility, flexibility and strength.
How hard did you find gymnastics initially?
If you start simply and think of the basics and work progressively it’s not that hard. It’s pretty time consuming though. Like anything, you can strive to be a champion or use it as part of an overall package.
Which particular exercises do you find the toughest?
Handstands. Headstands are fine, but progressing to an unsupported handstand is a different matter entirely. We’ve got gymnastics coaches who can walk around on their hands – it sickens me!
What exercises could a total beginner start with?
I’d suggest forward and backward rolls, cartwheels and headstands. Mobility exercises for your shoulders, wrists, ankles and hips would help a lot as well.
How often do you incorporate gymnastics into your routine?
I practice gymnastics twice a week as part of my warm-up routine for my strength training (my warm-ups take as long as 30 minutes). I do two or three strength sessions a week, focusing on gymnastics, Olympic lifts and kettlebells. I firmly believe that we are all athletes, it’s just that some are in better condition than others, and all of us have what it takes to be better.