Cartwheels: The Great Escape

Aug 09, 2018

Earlier this year I was at an Original Strength workshop and Dani, the instructor said “Have you ever seen an angry child skipping?”. Which started me thinking, does skipping cure anger or do angry people just not skip?

I feel the same with cartwheels. No one can be mad while spinning upside down!

When I first met my wife she challenged me to a cartwheel contest down the street. She had no idea I was a gymnast. I was wearing a pink wig, high heeled boots and a mini skirt (it was a dress up party). I think that was the moment that I fell in love with her. I threw in a few backflips and kicked her ass. Challenging someone to do cartwheels in public (particularly when you kind of suck at cartwheels) is the most childish, fun, courageous and cool thing that I can imagine.

Why learn cartwheels?

Cartwheels are silly and fun and quite possibly a cure for angry people.

On a more serious note cartwheels are by far my preferred way for students to bail from a handstand. Before you can confidently perform a freestanding handstand you should be able to cartwheel with ease. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it should feel easy.

Getting started

As a kid, cartwheels seem easy but after 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years of not doing cartwheels they can seem rather terrifying. Which is why I teach the cartwheel as a step by step process. “Start small and stay close to the ground” is my rule for learning acrobatic movements as an adult. Height, volume and individual flare can be added later. First understand the basic movement pattern.

Key points

  • These key points apply to all the drills below:
  • Warm-up your wrists before you practice
  • Land softly. As you place your feet on the floor, bend your knees and engage the floor smoothly. As you do this, create enough tension to maintain a stable position but not too much to be the Tin Man.
  • Pay attention to the direction of your hands on the floor. Point your fingers perpendicular to the direction that you are travelling (see hand and foot guides below).
  • I am teaching a side to side cartwheel in the steps below. You can also do a front to back cartwheel by starting facing the direction that you are travelling in and finishing facing the direction that you came from. Check out the round off tutorial below for an example of how to do this.

Check out the video tutorial below of the 3 progressions that I use to teach the cartwheel.

Step 1: Understand the hand, hand, foot, foot principle

This simple practice of saying hand, hand, foot, foot as you perform the drills comes from Sara-Clare of Agatsu.

A cartwheel is a locomotion movement where each hand and foot is placed on the floor (and taken off the floor) one at a time. The first progression that I teach is to help get this sequence correct. For this one you will need a workout bench or low wall. I like this drill because it helps you understand the sequence and you do not need to travel all the way down to the ground to do it.

  • Begin with the bench on your right side.
  • Step your left foot in front of your right and stand with your body at 45 degrees to the bench.
  • Place your right hand on the bench (grip the side) with your thumb pointing to the end of the bench.
  • Place your left hand on the other side of the bench.
  • Jump your left leg over.
  • Step your right leg back so that you are once again at a 45 degree angle to the bench.

Step 2: Mini Cartwheel

For the mini cartwheel we remove the bench and place our hands on the floor. The hand and foot pattern is the same. For this variation, your legs stay low and travel around the side rather than over the top of our head. I like to use a line on the floor to help understand where to place your hands and feet.

The image below shows the hand and foot placement for the mini cartwheel.

  • Find or create a line on the floor.
  • Stand at an angle to the line (start at 45 degrees) with you left foot closer to the line.
  • Bend your left knee and place your left hand down on the line.
  • Place your right hand shoulder width distance from your left hand.
  • Jump your right foot over to the other side of your hands.
  • Step your left foot back to finish standing at an angle to the line.

Start by keeping your legs low. As you get more comfortable with this movement decrease the angle that you make with the line and start to lift your legs higher. Practice this in both directions and notice which is more comfortable.

Step 3: Full Cartwheel

The full cartwheel is where you start to take your legs all the way over your head. If you have followed the progressions above this is just one small step further. This time perform the cartwheel on a straight line. Practice both directions.

The image below shows the hand and foot placement for the mini cartwheel.

  • Begin standing on the line facing the side.
  • Step your left foot to the side (pointing your toes in the direction you are travelling) and bend your left knee.
  • Place your left hand on the line.
  • Place your right hand next to it on the line and push over with your left leg.
  • Step your right leg down to stand on the line.
  • Step your left leg down next to your right.
  • Repeat in the opposite direction.

These instructions might seem overwhelming, just remember hand, hand, foot, foot.

Common problems and how to fix them

So you’ve tried the three progressions and your cartwheel still doesn’t look like Simone Biles! Here’s how we can fix that.

What to do if your cartwheel is too short

This handstand game that I posted on Instagram is a great way to lengthen your cartwheel. Start with two objects. Stand at one and step foot to the second. Score a point if you get your foot at or past the object.

Add another object. Score a point if you step your foot past the first object AND reach your hand at or past the second object.

Add one more object. Score a point if you do all of the above plus reach your second hand at or past the final object.

Bonus points if you use weird or unusual objects.

What to do if your legs go around the side and not over the top

Often the reason that your legs go around the side is a lack of flexibility (hamstring and middle splits in particular). The wider you can take your legs the easier your cartwheel will be. If you are struggling to make progress on flexibility then GMB Fitness’ Focused Flexibility program is a good place to start.

If your flexibility is not a problem or you simply want a challenge then this game is a great way to start taking your legs higher. It’s called the Cartwheel of Doom but is actually super fun. The idea is to cartwheel between two crash mats. Each successful attempt (not hitting the mat) lets you move the mats slightly closer together. If you do hit the mat with your foot, it is no big deal.

I suggest not doing this against solid objects such as walls.

What to do if you struggle to keep your legs straight

The key to straight legs in your cartwheel is to start with straight legs. Your back leg should lift up and be straight the entire time. The front leg should fully push the floor away during the take-off.

I teach this by having my students perform only the cartwheel take off. Lift the back leg and push the front leg. Focus on pushing the floor away from your foot. Perform 10 of these partial cartwheels, feeling your legs pushing straight. Then do 1 full cartwheel, don’t overthink it, just do it. After that go back to the partial reps. 10 partial reps and then 1 full rep. Keep doing this until your legs are nice and straight in your full cartwheels.

I posted a video of this on Instagram.

Next Level Cartwheels

Once you can do a full cartwheel there are lots of new ways to make it challenging. Check out the simple tutorials for the following skills below:

The cartwheel is the one of the first steps to becoming confident with your handstand away from the wall. I have created a free 5 step video series to move your handstand away from the wall. Get it here.