Gymnastics Skills – 7 Steps To Breaking Through Your Plateaus

Struggling with gymnastic skills such as hspu, toes to bar, pull ups, pistols? Use these 7 steps to work out the best way to achieve them based on your current ability level, available time and priorities.

I had an athlete who just wanted to get a Strict Handstand Push up someday. She had been doing CrossFit for 3 years at this point. Everything was improving and she had come a really long way. But now that there was a specific goal, we had to audit her time, energy, and actions to see where the inconsistencies were. The worst feeling is when you realize 6 months have gone by and you’re in the same spot as before. Incremental progress keeps us motivated.

As a podcaster, I love asking myself questions because it triggers thought in a variety of ways. So as you’re going through these steps, talk to yourself and maybe even write the answers to the questions down.

Step 1: Find the holes

First, let’s identify what gymnastics skills are you struggling with? What is your goal? Remember the answer to this because you will plug it into later steps.

  • Chest To Bar Pull-Ups
  • Toes To Bar
  • Pistol Squats
  • Ring/Bar Muscle Ups
  • Kipping/Butterfly Pull-ups
  • Handstand Pushups
  • Handstand Walking
  • Etc
improve your movement bar muscle up
Improve your gymnastic skills

Step 2: Establish your background

Now let’s think about what your current state of training looks like. Ask yourself:

  • How long have I been training? (ex. 3 years)
  • How many days/week do I train? (ex. 4 days / week)
  • What’s the typical duration of my sessions? (ex. 60-90 minutes)

Step 3: Audit

This is the fun question. We can start to really dig into where your time/energy has been going. Don’t gloss past this one either. Feel free to get as detailed as you want. Really think about the flow of how you spend your time at the gym.

What do my training sessions typically consist of? (ex. Strength portion, WODs)

*Useful resource: Movement Audit Checklist

Step 4: What are you realizing?

Can you identify with any of the following?

  • “I’ve relied on solely the class workouts to work on [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1]. I’ve seen progress in other areas, but not towards the [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1]
  • “I can perform [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1] if I’m fresh, but if it’s during a WOD — no chance.”
  • “I haven’t really focused any dedicated time to build this skill aside from the scaling options performed in WODs.”
gymnastic wods female crossfitter ring muscle up eating right importance of recovery kipping
Good movement is vital for success

Step 5: Priority or not

This is a sweeping generalization because every gym programs a little bit differently.

But typically GPP programming is not getting you better at your gymnastics skills IF [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1] shows up on the board once or twice every few weeks. After all, the intent behind a GPP program is to improve fitness overall, not necessarily specialize to focus around certain skills.

Great programs figure out the a way to balance the two goals in unique and creative ways to serve their community’s needs.

If you burnout really fast when you try to perform your [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1] in WODs — you need to condition your joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and overall structure to be able to handle the intensity.

This takes time, patience, and letting go of ego.

The questions:

  • When else am I working on the [GOAL/MOVEMENT OF CHOICE FROM STEP 1]?
  • And what exactly are you doing?
  • Am I willing to dedicate 15-20 minutes towards solely improving this [GOAL/MOVEMENT OF CHOICE FROM STEP 1]? 

Step 6: The System

Okay great, if you’ve made it this far, this is the start of uncovering your solution. The 4 phases of movement is something I learned about form Dave Durante and has stuck with me every since.

WARNING: This is not a “one and done” approach. It’s important to note that you want to view these phases as something cyclical. Just because you have Phase 1 in the bag doesn’t mean you never have to focus on it again.

As you’re going through these phases, ask yourself:

  • What am I not getting enough of at this point in time?
  • Have I skipped any steps completely?

You must leave your ego at the door before moving forward. Here. We. Go.

Phase 1: Creation of body shapes

This consists of core strength and flexibility. These two components allow us to get into positions desired for [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1].

When we’re talking about core strength, it is all-encompassing (obliques, abdominals, hip flexors, and entire posterior chain).

Flexibility simply means “Do I have the passive range of motion to get into the position for [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1]?”

An example would be something like the Hollow Body Hold. If we’re not fluent, then we’re going to run into trouble when it’s time to learn how to kip. Mastery of the Hollow Body position is crucial to learning how to kip efficiently.

Here is a short video where I give 3 core exercises to develop bodyweight control:

Let’s say you realize your shoulders are lacking the flexibility needed for [GOAL/MOVEMENT FROM STEP 1]. Give the following exercises a shot:

Phase 2: Static and Controlled Action

This is where I see the most roadblocks. Most people skip this step unknowingly. A lot of what we do in WODs or intense exercise consists of concentric contractions.

That’s great, but if we neglect isometric and eccentric strength, we’re failing to prepare the structure necessary to keep playing the game we want to play. For pull-ups, think about how it’s always explosive in a WOD. You’re kipping, doing butterfly, or just flailing your hips to get your chin over the bar.

Adding isometric and eccentric work in the right doses is one of the fastest ways to get stronger, especially if you haven’t given this much focus in the past.

Something I like to test for pull-ups is: How long does it take you to accumulate 60 seconds for a Supinated Grip Chin Over Bar Hold? How are you having to break up your sets?

Phase 3: Dynamic Action

This is where we spend a lot of our time. Especially if you rely on just metcons to work on your gymnastics skills. Kipping Pull-ups, Kipping HSPU, Kipping Muscle Ups, etc.

The problem is that if you spend most of your time here without keeping tabs on Phase 1 and 2 — you’ll run into a plateau or inch your way closer to injury.

Phase 1 and Phase 2 is what ALLOWS you to reach your potential in Phase 3.

If there’s no money in the bank in the above areas, it’s like swiping a credit card endlessly without ever paying it back.

Phase 4: Routines, complexes, sequences

Think of this as something like Handstand Walking or putting together complexes like 5 Strict Toes To Ring + 5 Kipping Toes To Ring.

We can figure out ways to challenge your movement if you’re at this level in a variety of ways.

This is a rabbit hole I’ll go down in another post because I want to highlight the first three phases and give them justice.

Step 7: Train those weaknesses?

If gymnasts are continuously refining the above phases and finding ways to master the fundamentals — why aren’t we? Check out these articles and start to weak on the exercises you want to improve:

Chest To Bar Pull-Ups

Toes To Bar

Pistol Squats

Ring/Bar Muscle Ups

Kipping/Butterfly Pull-ups

Handstand Pushups

Handstand Walking


improve your movement bar muscle up © WODSHOTS

gymnastic wods female crossfitter ring muscle up eating right importance of recovery kipping © Stevie D Photography

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About The Author

Misbah Haque helps recreational CrossFitters improve mobility and strength using bodybuilding and gymnastics practices. He hosts a podcast called The Airborne Mind Show, where he brings some of the smartest minds in fitness together each week. For anyone looking to improve movement quality, he’s giving away a few free gifts at theairbornemind.com.

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