I came across Ryan Hurst two years ago searching for “how to do a handstand”. Since then, I’ve watched a bunch of his videos and read several of his informative articles.
Ryan is a fitness ninja who has experience practicing and teaching a variety of fitness skills around the world including bodyweight training, martial arts, and even yoga. The core of his mission is to teach bodyweight training skills to help you achieve “physical autonomy and freedom”.
Ryan has achieved an exceptional fitness level. He makes incredibly difficult exercises like one-arm handstands look easy. He has developed mastery over a wide range of bodyweight training exercises.
Five years ago, Ryan and his friends Jarlo and Andy started Gold Medal Bodies (GMB) to help teach and build a community around bodyweight training. GMB has become an awesome resource that now has over 11 downloadable programs for people who want to learn bodyweight training skills and true physical mastery.
Ryan and GMB are helping shift the focus of fitness from “working out” or “getting a sweat” to skill-building. Approaching fitness as a skill can make exercise much more fun, engaging, and sustainable for the long run.
The following are 10 questions I asked Ryan about how to get started with bodyweight training:
1) What is bodyweight training?
Bodyweight training is developing the ability to move your body in any way you want, in any way you need, with control, coordination and balance. It’s a process that challenges your body with new and varied movements. Strength is an outcome but technique comes first and we use our own bodies as the equipment.
At GMB we look at crawling, jumping, tumbling, pulling, pushing, rolling, balancing. We look at the way moving develops freedom and confidence, both physically and mentally.
Bodyweight training is a platform on which you can develop creativity. If you can squat up and down, where you can you go from there? Which new position can you move your body into? How can you get back out of it? It can be like solving a puzzle or putting a jigsaw together. With each new piece, the bigger picture becomes clearer.
This kind of training is preparation for life. You can be training for something as simple as being able to comfortably walk up the stairs or it can be used for developing incredible balance to be able to hold yourself upside down on one hand. Everyone’s body is different but we can all benefit from using it. And we want it to transfer over into the rest of our lives, giving us more resilience and showing us what we are really capable of.
Yes you can simplify it down to “body weight training is pullups, pushups, squats, etc…”, and reel off a list of exercises. But it’s the reasons behind why we do it in the first place that makes bodyweight training what it is to GMB. It’s a lifelong journey.
2) How did you become interested in fitness and teaching bodyweight training?
I started gymnastics from an early age and competed until the end of high school. I moved to Japan as an exchange student during university in order to study martial arts and after graduation began working at a martial arts complex. There I helped out with all of the various martial art classes and got to experience a lot of different teaching styles. Some good, some not so good.
During that time I became very involved in a US based fitness organization and gradually rose to the top becoming the chief coach. This meant traveling around the world teaching and certifying people in that system. During a break during one of the seminars that I was teaching I decided to play around with some gymnastic bodyweight-type movements that I enjoyed doing. The participants in the seminar seemed to be more interested in what I was doing than the material they were supposed to be learning!
I had spent quite a few years as a fitness instructor and saw a lot of frustration about fitness for aesthetic reasons or just to be in shape – people getting “fit” but not feeling any real sense of mastery.
I flew back to Osaka, Japan and at the age of 35 started training with gymnastic rings. When I got the rings, there weren’t any gymnastic ring programs for people who didn’t want to become gymnasts, so I started teaching them, and my clients enjoyed working towards skills versus just “working out”.
GMB’s first program was Rings 1 and we now have over 11 downloadable programs for people looking for fun, smart exercise for true physical mastery.
3) Some advanced bodyweight exercises you do like planches, or one-arm handstands can seem overwhelming and out-of-reach for even an advanced exerciser. How does the average person with no experience get started?
Always start at the beginning with the basics!
Like everything, you’ve got to build a solid base over time. Without the fundamental strength, flexibility, and motor control, you’re asking for trouble in the form of injuries, frustration, and burn-out as you try to progress through the levels.
I do demonstrate and teach advanced variations of skills. But I also started back at the very beginning when I got back into bodyweight training at the age of 35. After all, I had a pretty long break from gymnastic type training and it would have been silly of me to think that I could have just jumped back into doing a planche or a one-arm handstand.
So, no matter what skill you decide to pursue, start by finding a solid program that works the fundamentals, start at the very beginning, and take your time developing your strength and flexibility. It takes patience and a lot of time to hit a planche and one arm handstand. It doesn’t mean you need to do the same things over and over again everyday and bore yourself to death, but you do have to realize that you aren’t going to get these skills in a few weeks.
4) How do bodyweight athletes like gymnasts get so flexible? How much time and effort does it take?
To be honest, gymnasts use some pretty intense stretching that borders on unhealthy. That’s because they’re involved in a sport that demands extreme degrees of flexibility.
Most people would be better off only focusing on hitting a couple of basic stretches that targets the shoulders, hip flexors, and hamstrings. That’s because the average person spends more time sitting down than training like a gymnast. Start simple and keep it simple.
There’s no reason to think that you need to be as flexible as a gymnast to be healthy and perform well in your chosen sports or hobbies. It’s better to think of flexibility as being a relative thing to your personal needs. If you have trouble doing certain movements or getting into postures you’d like to achieve, then you should stretch. If you are moving well and how you want without tightness, then stretching doesn’t have to be a big part of your routine.
However, one thing we should encourage non-gymnasts to emulate is consistency – gymnasts stretch every single day, and over time, that’s what leads to the greatest benefits.
5) What are your top 3 favorite stretching exercises to help people who are stiff to get more flexible?
As above, I really feel everyone would be best served by focusing on the basics. Keep it consistent by doing just a little bit when you can. It is better to do them a shorter time more frequently rather than a long time done infrequently.
Here are a few examples that we have on Youtube that will help.
6) When does someone know they are ready to try handstands? Is there a prerequisite?
Really, the only way to know is to try! But here are a few things to work on in order to help you prepare for handstand work.
Are your wrists ready? Wrist mobility and strength is extremely important for the handstand since you’ll be balancing your entire body on two hands. Make sure you prepare the wrists with stretching and strength work.
Are your shoulders strong enough and do you have full range of motion? Similar to the wrists, the shoulders take a lot of the stress when upside down. You absolutely need strong shoulders for the handstand.
But don’t mistake this in thinking it’s all about how much you can shoulder press. The handstand is a straight arm hold and therefore your scapular strength and mobility play a huge part in being able to stay balanced. Make sure that your shoulders are ready for this by placing your hands on the ground and walking up and down a wall with your feet. The higher you can get your feet up the wall and hands close to the wall the better you’ll be for handstand work.
Are you mentally ready? A big part of the handstand is getting over the fear of being upside down or rather the fear of falling. That is why it is important to know not only how to get into the handstand with control but also get out of it safely. That is why we spend a lot of time working on the entry and exit of the handstand along with wall work before doing any freestanding work.
We have some very detailed tutorials and free programs for learning handstands on our site, so there’s nothing stopping anyone from getting started if they really want to.
7) What are you top 5 favorite bodyweight training exercises for building full-body strength?
There are a lot of great bodyweight exercises out there but if I were to pick 5 exercises they would be the following:
1) Shrimp Squats – The shrimp squat focuses on single leg strength, balance, and ankle/hip flexor flexibility. The pistol squat is a favorite for a lot of people but I prefer the shrimp squat because of the range of variations that can be used from beginner all the way up to experienced bodyweight practitioners.
2) L-Sit – The L-sit is a great core exercise that also teaches full body awareness and control. It can be done on the floor, PBars, between two chairs, rings or wherever you can place your two hands. Besides just strengthening the core it also strengthens your hip flexors, spinal erectors, lats, pecs, lower and middle traps, rotator cuff (if you keep your shoulders back), and your triceps. Quite a bit of bang for the buck!
3) Pancake Stretch – The pancake is a great all-around hamstring, hip adductor, and spinal erector stretch. It will improve your flexibility for various movements like the straddle back roll, straddle handstand, press to handstand, and all other movements that have us in a straddled position.
4) Handstand – Besides being a cool party trick, the handstand teaches overall body awareness and balance. While it might take awhile to get to a full freestanding handstand, once you get it you’ll probably find yourself searching for all the different obstacles around your town to balance on.
5) Bent Arm Bear Crawls – The bent arm bear walk is a great movement in order to test your pressing strength, hamstring flexibility, and stamina. The bent arm bear can immediately let a person know where they are lacking in their flexibility, as well how much control they have over using their upper and lower body together effectively. Master this movement and it will set you up for great strength gains in hand balancing holds as well as other pressing movements.
8) Body control is not something most people think about when they exercise. What is body control and why is it so important?
Here’s our take on what body control is:
“Body control at its simplest is the ability to perform an action with precision and accuracy, along with a sensation of ease, with no wasted energy.”
Body control isn’t something you hear about most of the time in most fitness circles. However, when it comes to bodyweight training and practicing the skills that we are after here in GMB, focusing on body control is what is going to allow you to progress over the years and do it with enjoyment.
Unfortunately a lot of people simply “go through the motions” of exercise and miss out on what’s truly going on in their bodies. They don’t take the time to really think about and feel what is happening. And this can actually be quite harmful in the long run.
We believe that good body control has these three qualities,
Without these, you’re just going through the motions of movement without gaining the true benefits.
9) Any tips on how to master a new bodyweight training exercise while reducing the injury risk as much as possible?
Let go of expectations of “getting” a skill and instead just focus on the task at hand. Try to make what you are doing as beautiful as possible by being mindful of what you are doing and your body will tell you what it needs.
Unfortunately a lot of people ignore their bodies and push themselves to the point of injury just for the sake of achieving their goal faster. Instead, understand that things take time and when you take it slow, focus on making each attempt of the skill count, and not overworking yourself, you’ll find that you’ll be able to achieve that skill in due time without injury and with peace of mind.
10) Anything else you would like to mention?
The biggest thing is that it’s not necessary to get caught up in a whole “fitness” lifestyle. If you just want to get healthy and have your body be an ally in your goals, then you don’t need crazy supplements and gadgets.
One of the things I love about training with my body instead of a lot of machines and weights is that I can do it anywhere, on my own terms. I don’t need a gym or a logo on my shirt. I can decide what I’d like to be able to do with my body (a skill, and feat of strength, some other goal) and chart a course to work towards it.
Anyone reading this can find a program that meets their own needs, for their own lifestyle, and it can doesn’t have to mean believing in some magical system or fitness guru.