A Beginner's Guide to Acrobatics: Finding Your Inner Monkey

Aug 28, 2019

Acrobatics is one of those activities that's in the same category as hip hop. "It looks really cool BUT there's no way I can do that".

So many body parts are moving in different directions. Arms and legs are coordinating in ways that look smooth and effortless. But you think that if you were to try it you'd look ridiculous.

But what if the goal is to look ridiculous? What if the point of your acrobatic training is to do something silly and fun and not care what it looks like?

Anything that I do that looks effortless, looked silly and ridiculous for a long time before I got to that point. My handstands as a kid had bent legs and I didn't point my fucking toes. I did cartwheels in a skirt with my hair in my face. I fell over a lot. I didn't have to do it perfectly for it to be fun.

When I first started teaching acrobatics to adults I thought the purpose was to teach them a cool party trick. What I observed was much more rewarding. My students started to get out of their standard, routine ways of moving. They twisted, turned upside down, move sideways and got really uncomfortable. As a result they started to feel better physically. Their mobility improved, they felt more confident in their bodies' ability to do things. By moving in many different ways they became more capable of moving however they wanted.

What is in this post?

This post is an introduction on how you can start learning acrobatic movements safely without any fancy equipment or spotters. I'll break it down into 4 parts:

  • Warm up and preparation for acrobatic movements
  • Level 1: Start small and start close to the ground
  • Level 2: Go higher (but do the same thing)
  • Level 3: Progressing to the full skills

Warm up and preparation for acrobatic movements

My preparation for all movement starts with breath work. I do this first thing after I feed the cats and make coffee and before each training session.

I use my breathing as an assessment. I want my breathing to be relaxed and controlled. I want to expand my abdomen uniformly as I inhale and control my exhale for at least 15s. These things ensure that I have stability and can move optimally. If my breathing is off I need to spend more time here before I can get started.

After breath work I prepare and assess the things that I'll be using. For acrobatics that will be spine (I'm doing some back bending movements), wrists, ankles and feet. You will see in the video that I do some shoulder and hip work in there too and if I found something was feeling off I would spend more time working that.

I have posted a simple warm-up in the video below which includes:

  • Breathing assessment (plus extra work if needed)
  • Happy cat & angry cat (not shown)
  • Spine circles
  • Rocking (to integrate breathing into movement & prepare wrists/feet)
  • Rotational bridge work (I knew I was doing macacos so I prepped this)
  • Silly walks (to prep feet and ankles)

This video is sped up. In real time this took me about 10 minutes. There's no fixed number of reps, it's about paying attention to your body and doing as much or as little as you need.

Level 1: Start small and start close to the ground

When learning acrobatic movements, especially as an adult on unforgiving surfaces, I suggest that you start small and stay close to the ground. Learn the movement pattern in a safe environment and then add height, volume and style.

In the video below I am showing 3 movements: the cartwheel, the macaco and the butterfly kick. I start close to the ground, my feet barely leave the floor and I am just practicing the pattern of the movement.

Low Cartwheel

  • Start in a squat
  • Place your hands one at a time on the floor
  • Load your weight over your hands (shoulders directly above hands)
  • Jump your feet over landing one foot at a time
  • Travel in an arch shape

Low Macaco

  • Start in a squat
  • Place one hand behind same side foot (fingers pointed away from your body)
  • Load your weight over your hand (shoulder directly above your hand)
  • Jump your feet around the side, staying low
  • Swivel your hand to finish the movement

Low Butterfly Kick

  • Swing your arms gently
  • Jump from one foot to the opposite foot
  • Stay low and land quietly

Level 2: Go higher (but do the same thing)

As you get comfortable with the movement patterns it is time to go higher. Use your arms more to generate power and momentum. Push more with your legs to get height. If appropriate use props to allow you to go higher safely (as shown in the butterfly kick below). Build it up slowly, going slightly outside your comfort zone.

Mini Cartwheel

  • Begin standing
  • Bend your front knee in order to place your hands one at a time on the floor
  • Load your weight over your hands (shoulders directly above hands)
  • Jump your feet over landing one foot at a time
  • Travel in an arch shape

Mini Macaco

  • Start in a squat
  • Place one hand behind same side foot (fingers pointed away from your body)
  • Load your weight over your hand (shoulder directly above your hand)
  • Swing your arm to get some momentum
  • Push with your legs to lift your hips higher

Supported Butterfly Kick

  • Use a box or chair (make sure it won't slide or tip over)
  • Swing your arms
  • Place your hands on the box and trace big circles with your legs
  • Jump from one foot to the opposite foot
  • Land quietly

Level 3: Progressing to the full skills

You've practiced the low movement, added some height and are starting to look fairly cool. Now you are ready to progress to the full movement. This step often seems harder than the earlier steps. Students start to overthink what they are doing and sometimes see this as a completely different movement that they need to learn. Remember, your body knows this pattern now. All we are doing is adding a bit more volume to it. So trust yourself and just go a bit higher.

Cartwheel

  • Begin standing
  • Bend your front knee in order to place your hands on the floor
  • Push with your front (bent) leg and lift with your back (straight) leg in order to go over the top
  • Place your hands and feet on the same straight line (it can help a lot to actually draw a line)

Macaco

  • Swing your arm straight over your head (rather than around the side)
  • Push down with your arm on the floor
  • Push with your legs to lift your hips higher
  • Make sure you place your hand far enough from your feet in order to be able to extend your hips

Butterfly Kick

  • Swing your arms and reach to the wall behind you
  • Push with your front (bent) leg and lift with your back (straight) leg
  • The more height that you have here the easier the movement becomes
  • Land quietly

Where to go from here?

As a kid we had to perform acrobatics with specific form in order to score the highest mark possible. As adults, who are not competing in front of a panel of judges, we can do whatever we like. And this is where things get interesting. Start to ask "where can I go from here?". Change your hand position, leg shape, add a twist, look in a different direction, roll out of it etc. The possibilities are endless.

If you start exploring these movements, feel free to tag me on Instagram @garagegymgirl so I can see your acrobatic progress and creations! And if you need some inspiration, you can check out the video below.