Time and time again, athletes approach and ask me to teach them a skill—be it a pull-up, a muscle-up, a handstand push-up or a pistol.
Here’s how the conversation often goes:
Client: “I really want to get a muscle-up. Can you teach me after class?”
Me: “How many chest-to-bar pull-ups can you do?”
Client: “Maybe one on a good day.”
Me: “What about ring dips?”
Client: “One. In a band.”
Me: “Johnny, you're not ready to work on muscle-ups. Once you can do 10 chest-to-bar pull-ups and 10 ring dips, then we can start looking at the muscle-up.”
Client: "So you don't think I will be able to learn one today?
Me: small chuckle.
Client: Sadness overtakes his/her face.
I love the concept of prerequisites for learning gymnastics. It helps me explain to an athlete, who can barely do a push-up, who asks, “Can you teach me a handstand push-up?” why it wouldn’t be wise for her to start working on handstand push-ups just yet.
“You would probably would fail Physics 400 if you didn’t take 100 and 200-level courses first.”
“Babies walk before they run, and run before they can jump.”
The point is only to say you can’t skip steps when it comes to learning gymnastics.
THAT BEING SAID, getting two coaches to agree on exactly what the prerequisites should be for teaching various gymnastics movements, is a whole other ball game. Answers vary even among top-level gymnastics coaches when it comes to questions like:
Should I learn a strict pull-up before I start to kip?
How many ring dips should I be able to do before I work on getting a muscle-up?
At what point can I learn the butterfly pull-ups? A bar muscle-up?
Recently, MadLab School of Fitness put out what they think is ideal for clients:
Ring rows—Prerequisite: Perform 40 seconds static hang from rings at 45 degree angle, or greater, with the top of rings at armpit height
Static Bent Arm Holds—Prerequisite: Perform 3 sets of 10 ring rows at a 45 degree angle or greater with the top of the rings at armpit height
Strict Pull-Ups—Prerequisite: Perform 3 sets of 40s of a chin over bar hold with a supinated grip
Kipping Pull-Ups—Prerequisite: Perform 5 sets of 5 of strict pull-ups
Strict Chest to Bar Pull-Ups—Prerequisite: Perform 3 sets of 40s of a chin over bar hold with a pronated grip
Kipping Chest to bar Pull-Ups—Prerequisite: Perform 5 sets of 5 of strict chest to bar pull-ups
Strict Muscle-Ups—Prerequisite: Perform 5 sets of 5 of strict ring dips and 1 set of 10/8 of strict chest to bar pull-ups
Kipping Muscle-Up—Prerequisite: Perform 5 sets of 3 of strict muscle-ups
Kipping Bar Muscle-Up—Prerequisite: Perform 5 sets of 10 of chest to bar pull-ups and 3 sets of 5 of kipping muscle ups
Butterfly Pull-Ups—Prerequisite: Perform 5 sets of 5 of skin the cat, 5 sets of 10 of kipping chest to bar pull-ups and a 2 min chin over bar hold with a pronated grip
It’s a pretty bold template. I know as someone who has competed at the Regional and CrossFit Games level, if I followed the above, I still wouldn’t be cleared to do a kipping muscle-up.
The point is, the above is a template. And a very good, safe one. If you trained on your own and followed the above advice, you would learn pulling skills safety and effective, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
However, like diet, I believe learning gymnastics is more personal—hence the need for a coach more than almost any other sport, in my opinion. Gymnastics isn’t just about strength: It’s about mobility and joint health and body awareness, and the person’s individual goals.
I had a conversation with high-level CrossFit gymnastics coach Louise Eberts the other day about prerequisites for learning movements. She agreed that, although we can agree upon the basics—such as, you have to be able to do a ring dip and a pull-up to be able to do a muscle-up—she doesn’t use a set-in-stone, rigid code when it comes to teaching movements.
No two athletes are the same, she explained. Instead, she takes into consideration the person’s age, strength, shoulder health, injury background, and personal goals in the sport when coming up with individual gymnastics programs.
For example, if you’re a 12-year-old and are striving for the 2024 CrossFit Games, Eberts would take a more patient approach to teaching gymnastics than she would with an athletic 28-year-old who has been training for five years, is healthy, and needs to find a way to string muscle-ups together if she wants to qualify for her gym’s team to compete at Regionals next year.
ALAS, I believe the best method for teaching gymnastics involves prerequisites—YES, ABSOLUTELY—but more fluid, as opposed to rigid, set-in-stone standards. AND most importantly, a COACH to help create the best program for your individual needs.