Sean Lind knows what’s it like to have absolutely no idea how to move your bodyweight efficiently.
Unlike most gymnastics coaches or bodyweight gurus, Lind —the founder of Conjugate Gymnastics— didn’t grow up with an acrobatics background or start doing the balance beam at age four. Instead, he was a high-level judo athlete whose career was cut short by an injury at 19. Lind was getting ready to apply to law school when, at 23, he decided instead he wanted to run away and join the circus.
Lind started taking adult classes and training twice a week with a gymnastics club. He studied progressions, voraciously combed the internet for information and even hung a pair of rings in his apartment to squeeze in more practice.
By the time he applied to circus school in Quebec, Lind was 27 and one of the oldest athletes to get in, landing one of 20 coveted spots out of 400 applicants.
“The way I approach things is with a pendulum, but I’m constantly rotating speed out and working on muscles and tendon strength,” said Lind, who has programmed for CrossFit Games athletes Sam Briggs, Emily Abbott, Lauren Fisher, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet and Miranda Oldroyd. “I don’t just look at how you are getting stronger, I look at how your body adapts and how to not break you down and adjust from there.”
A former assistant and then head coach for the CrossFit Gymnastics certification course, Lind is still constantly evolving and learning. Here, he shares some of his best lessons and tips to improve your gymnastics.
BUILD A BETTER HOUSE
“One of the most common mistakes I see people don’t focus on the foundations of gymnastics that much. By foundations, I mean if you have an athlete doing a handstand walk before they can do a [freestanding] handstand hold you are setting them up for failure,” Lind said. “When you’re a kid you stand and then you walk. I see a lot of coaches that skip over the foundation process and the positioning process and don’t emphasis it as much.”
Think about it: most CrossFit gyms have a strength portion and a metcon portion, maybe with a little skill work. Rarely does Lind see a focus on building absolute gymnastics strength.
“Just squatting doesn’t get you a better squat and just doing handstand push-ups won’t increase your handstand push-up capability”, he said. “Because if there is something wrong in the chain, you need to strengthen the surrounding muscles.”
The common weaknesses are trap and scapula strength and that’s key in both handstand walks and handstand push-ups.
“If you neglect that your handstands are gong to fail and suffer,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you can bench press 400 lb. If you can’t recruit the muscles to do a proper handstand-pushup, you won’t be as efficient. Most people think it’s their overhead mobility. Sometimes it is, but the strength and the support muscle groups have to be there.”
MICRO AND MACRO YOUR STRENGTH
A lot of gymnastic coaches will focus on micro pieces to work on gymnastics and won’t attempt anything else. Lind doesn’t agree with that.
“You have an athlete build up their front squat and clean with a PVC pipe. As their front squat gets better you add clean weight. You don’t avoid front squatting,” Lind explained.
“I like to add pieces while you are attempting things. You attempt muscle-ups while you are working toward a strict muscle-up. You can’t have them do chin ups in a false grip or just negatives. You have to do pieces of the movement to develop a neuromuscular adaptation to the movement and then get strong through the movement. A muscle-up doesn’t build strength. It’s a transition.”
For example, say 5×5 strict muscle-ups were programmed one day. That would be a tough task for most people, but if you look at the raw strength value it’s only 25 strict chin-ups and 25 transitions into a dip at a sub-maximal load.
“You have to develop absolute strength,” said Lind, who programs a lot of weighted movements and weighted holds. “If you worked chin-ups and false grip you are only going to pull as high as you’ve been pulling. You have to strengthen the whole movement and the foundation behind it.”
CONCENTRIC, NOT ECCENTRIC
While negatives are a common progression in pull-ups and handstand push-ups, Lind rarely programs them.
“Eccentric work has no value. It really doesn’t,” he said. “You can go 150 times your bodyweight in eccentric. You can’t do a lot of reps with it and it’s taxing. You will tear more muscle and be out for longer. You will gain mass- if that’s what you want to do— but it will not increase your strength. Too many people are doing too many eccentric or tempo movements.”
For example, if you have someone who could do a 100-lb strict pull-up, they can do a 150-lb. negative.
“But what’s the point of that?,” Lind said. “The point of a pull-up is to go up, not down. This is why we do a lot of band-resisted movements or chains to load up the concentric.”
PICK A BETTER TIME TO PRACTICE
It sounds simple: if you want to get better at gymnastics, take the time to do so. But timing matters.
“My pet peeve is people want to work on a handstand walk or muscle-up and they’ll do it post-WOD,” Lind said. “That’s the wrong way to approach things. Skills are before metcons and before your body is under duress. You can increase your endurance capacity after duress, but you can’t increase your strength.
You will develop poor movement patterns and your body will start shutting down.
You have to view [gymnastics] as strength training and take it seriously.”
STRICT BEFORE KIP
That was the slogan of CrossFit Gymnastics when Lind was there and it’s a rule that should be applied to ALL gymnastics movements, including handstand-pushups and ring muscle-ups.
“It’s basic science and physics. You have to do be able to handle strict movements to be able to withstand the power and force generated when you kip,” Lind said.
“When you are kipping and swinging on rings you can produce up to five times your bodyweight in force. If you have an athlete that weighs 100-lb. and they are kipping it, can be up to 500-lb. of force. If they can’t control that at all stages of the movement their tendons aren’t developed, and now they’re trying to catch that kind of weight when they can’t do 100-lb. of strict force.”
Banging out muscle-ups? You better make sure you can do a strict pull-up with roughly 1 1/3 of your bodyweight if you want to be able to do the movement strict and save your joints. With handstand push-ups if you aren’t strong enough to push-up without a kip, or lower down with control, you can do some serious damage to your spine.