Spark your creativity by getting upside down.
When most people think of creativity, art and music are probably what spring to mind first. But we can also be creative and inventive with our bodies as well! Dancers, performing artists and other athletes can do amazing things in their movements.
Oftentimes we think that past a certain age, we aren’t capable of doing particular physical skills, or that they are “dangerous” to do. But while there are some acrobatic feats that may be out of our reach (think triple-twisting back flips), there are so many others that are approachable, and can teach you what you and your body are capable of.
Let’s start with that old playground standby, the cartwheel. Most kids love doing cartwheels, or at least trying to do them! But past a certain age, people may say they’re too big and heavy to do them. A movement that was at one time no big deal, can seem very daunting as an adult.
So why do cartwheels? Cartwheels are a good demonstration of your overall coordination and agility, and they can also show you where you are lacking in particular areas of strength and flexibility.
What do you need to make a cartwheel happen?
There are three main parts to performing a cartwheel:
- The mental blocks holding us back from trying the move (fears of injury and “looking bad”)
- The physical ability to do the move (strength and flexibility issues)
- The coordination and technical ability to do the move (details of technique and performance)
Fear of getting hurt is very reasonable; it’s not just the subsequent pain, but also everything that comes with an injury. We all have responsibilities, and hurting ourselves can get in the way of that. And, of course, no one wants to look silly in front of others. But these are not valid reasons to avoid trying new experiences with your body. Again, we are talking about reasonable movements that most everyone can do. Being creative and getting out of our comfort zones is good for us!
We can prevent most instances of injury when we follow appropriately graded progressions of a chosen movement, instructed by people who have taught it before. And that’s what we’ll share with you today!
As for “looking bad,” quite frankly, if someone makes fun of you for trying something new, they aren’t worth your time and energy. If you want to explore what your body can do—and I hope that is what you want—then you should. Don’t let anyone stop you.
Physical restrictions are a much more valid reason for many people to avoid doing movements such as the cartwheel. Luckily for the vast majority of us, we can work on these restrictions right away and allow ourselves to get the most out of practicing the cartwheel.
1. Tight and/or weak wrists
Many of us are simply not used to putting weight on our hands, so the wrists could use some additional conditioning to get them moving well and make them strong enough to support your weight comfortably. Try stretching the wrists using the forward and backward stretches pictured below.
Do three sets of 10-12 reps of each of those exercises. These can be done daily until you start to feel more strength and mobility in your wrists.
2. Limited side-bending motion
As you move closer to the straight line cartwheel, being able to side bend properly is going to be more and more important. And just like with the wrists, this is an area that is quite restricted for many people. Stretching and moving these areas of our bodies is a good thing, not just for the performance of a cartwheel, but for our overall physical fitness.
To improve side-bending, we’ll use two of my favorite stretches, the triangle pose and the half pancake.
- Triangle pose – This is a pose from Hatha Yoga that really tackles the side-bending needed for the full, straight line cartwheel. Start with your knees bent so you can reach the floor, and over time work on straightening the legs.
- Half pancake with side bend – This one will target side bending as well as hamstring stretching. Start by dropping your elbow down to the inside of your straight leg, then focus on rotating the chest up to the ceiling.
Move in and out of each stretch 10 times, then hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds on the last repetition. You can do these daily until you start to feel more comfortable with side-bending.
One of the primary reasons why children feel like they can throw themselves into a cartwheel (and pretty much any other movement that makes some of us cringe) is the simple fact that they are small. Adults have much larger bodies than children, which are more difficult to maneuver.
Ironically, the best way to address this particular challenge of the cartwheel is to, wait for it … practice cartwheels!
It takes a fair amount of coordination to perform a nice cartwheel. While those that do it well can make it seem like an easy and passive move, there’s actually quite a lot that goes into moving your body from a standing position to an upside down position and back again.
Without the right coordination of movements, many people wind up either plopping over or going in the wrong direction.
You’ll see in the tutorial below that I talk about making an imaginary line (or a real one, if that helps you visualize where you’re going) that you should try to land on. In order to do that, you’ll need your body to work together:
- Your lead leg is going to point in the direction you want to go. So if you want to land on that line, you’ll plant your front foot on the line, pointed straight toward the other end of the line
- You’ll start with your lead hand (same side as the lead foot) up in the air, with the palm pointed in the same direction as your lead foot. The back hand will be out to the side.
The progressions I’ll show you in a minute remove much of that fear factor you might otherwise experience. Instead of jumping up and trying to throw your legs over your head, and hoping you land without hurting yourself, you’ll start with very small steps that help you ease into the feeling of being upside down.
Plus, as you work on these progressions, you’ll start building up strength, flexibility and control throughout your body, which will not only make cartwheels easier, but also any other skill you want to learn.
Step-by-step cartwheel tutorial
- Start by drawing an imaginary (or real) line as your point of reference.
- Step off the line at an angle.
- For this variation you’ll move in a ‘V,’ placing one hand on the line, then the other, then letting your legs follow so that they land at an angle on the other side of the line.
- Don’t worry about bringing your legs up too high, we’re just working on getting you comfortable with having your body “upside down” and coordinating your movement between the hands and feet.
- For this variation, you’ll start on the line (rather than off to the side), with your lead leg pointing forward.
- Place one hand down, then the next, and then jump your legs over to the other side.
- Don’t worry about landing on the line as much as making sure your legs do not wind up crossed.
- For the last progression, focus on starting and landing on the line.
- Over time, work on getting the legs as straight as possible as you go over to the other side.
Where can you go after this?
Once you’ve got the cartwheel down, you have a lot of options for skills you can work toward.
The cartwheel is the start of a concept I like to call the “push and lift,” where you’re pushing off of one leg to lift the other leg up and over. This can lead to skills such as one-arm cartwheels and aerials.
Increased agility and coordination equals creative freedom
Having the physical ability to bust out a cartwheel whenever you like means a lot more than just being a “fit person.” It means you’ve built a certain level of freedom, movement and body control.
And that means you can do even more fun stuff!
As you improve your strength and agility, you open up new possibilities in everything you do with your body. Whether you’re into martial arts, action sports or outdoor adventures, you’ll find yourself suddenly capable of better performance and taking on new challenges. And that’s what training should be about!
Photo credits: (hero) FluxFactory, Thinkstock; (movement, video) Courtesy of GMB