Body Awareness Drills

Body Awareness Drills; the "Roots" of the Gymnastics Skill Tree
Steve Bonham, Georgia Southern University
sbonham at georgiasouthern dot edu

INTRODUCTION: The trees we see in our yards, parks, and forests come in a variety of shapes and sizes. What we see above ground is often impressive; a strong sturdy trunk, and hundreds of branches and sub-branches that radiate away from the trunk. On each branch we find leaves, fruits and flowers - a beautiful and complex joy to behold.

When we see our gymnasts perform at gymnastics meets we see fruits, leaves, and flowers too; the complex skills that required hours of training and hundreds of repetitions to master. But like with the trees, our gymnast's fruits depend on the root system and structural bodies to achieve and maintain their shape.

The primary "root system" for a gymnast is composed of his/her sensitivity for moving or stabilizing body segments during the execution of a skill or a routine. Developing body awareness for common movement patterns and sensitivity to critical positions can provide a deep root structure for expansive future growth. There are few skills in gymnastics that do not utilize one or more of these actions. Very often an error in a difficult or complex skill can be traced back to a weakness in either stabilizing or moving a particular body segment appropriately.

The "Body Awareness Drills" that follow are a few that I've found to be immensely useful for building a strong foundation for skill development. These drills are partner, individual, and/or small group activities that enhance sensitivity for muscle/skeletal control.

NOTE OF CREDIT: My gymnastics knowledge has come from dozens, maybe even hundreds- of sources but most of this content is directly from one source; Fred Martinez. Fred has always unselfishly given thoughtful and easy to understand coaching advice that made gymnastics both fun and easier to understand. I, like many others of my generation (and the current one too, as he is still coaching) owe Mr. Martinez big time. Thanks Fred!

HEADS-UP! In the descriptions for the skills below I've included a few animations as Quicktime movies. Playing them will require the free QuickTime Player.


Drills for Body Segment Stabilization

The following seven drills will develop a student's sensitivity to alignment of the skeletal structures to support weight. I've found that when it comes to teaching a person to contract a particular muscle, the #1 tool in my coaching bag is my index finger. I use it to strategically "poke" during these drills to stimulate tension in these areas.

The two spots (identified by green spots at left) most often poked are; the lateral sides of the gluteals (close to where the buttocks meet the hamstrings), and the abdomen just below the sternum. The action is just a gentle poke to test for tension- not a gouge!

Pressure Stand

Click to play movie...The Pressure Stand drill is designed to sensitize the performer's body to the ability to stabilize the alignment of the spinal column, hips and knees.

The performer is directed to become rigid or tight and downward pressure is applied to the shoulders is short and increasingly forceful bursts by the instructor or a partner/spotter. A rule of thumb here is "Whatever is loose, sticks out." If for instance, the gluteals (hips) are relaxed during this exercise the hips will protrude backward as pressure is applied.

A similar useful technique is the "waggle." In golf, a waggle (rapidly whipping the club in a short arc) is used to sensitize the hands to the length of the shaft and weight of the clubhead. The same thing can be done to the gymnast. Simply grasp the performer's hips (or thighs or knees) at the sides and push them forward then immediately backward and repeat. This will sensitize the gymnast's anterior and posterior muscle groups to the muscles required to resist flexion of the segments above the area where pressure is applied.

The waggle can also be used in many of the following positions. For instance; instead of doing partial wall handstands, you could spot the performer's upper arms and gently waggle to check for looseness in any segment above the position of the spotter's hands (see an animation of this in description for Half-wall Handstand).

Standing Tips
(Left, Right, Forward & Backward)

Standing tips are used to sensitize the performers body to the ability to maintain a rigid aligned body while the center of gravity is not above the base.

Click to play movie...The performer is tipped first forward, then backward and then left and right. The performer should resist the temptation to step in the direction of the lean, or distort the aligned position by either arching, piking or both.

Click to play movie...If the performer does distort body shape, a gentle "burst" of force towards the performer's feet (like those used in the Pressure Stand drills) should remind them to align.

Kneeling Handstand

The kneeling handstand simulates the proper actions of the shoulders when inverted. Downward pressure is exerted by a spotter in short bursts in increasing pulses downward (towards the performer's knees) to simulate the force of gravity. The performer should align the knees, hips, spine, shoulders and elevate the shoulder girdle to "lock out" the position.

As in the standing tips, whatever is loose tends to stick out. The head should be lifted only enough to see the heels of the hands. I've found it's a good idea to suggest that the performer focus on pressing the lower back towards the spotter to resist lower back arching.

The shoulder girdle (shoulder joint composed of the humerus [upper arm bone](a), scapula [shoulder blade] (b) and clavicle [collarbone] (c)) should be elevated. Elevated? Shrug your shoulders to indicate not knowing the answer to a question. That's shoulder girdle elevation.

In common language the shoulders are shrugged upward and held there so that the ears are covered by the shoulder muscles (deltoids).

Press downward to get the feet as high as possible. The performer should only look upward (towards the hands) enough to see the heels on the hands or the forearms.

This drill will prepare the performer for their first handstand.


The candle is a basic building block for future learning. It provides a learning experience for both static alignment and hip and trunk rotation (as in rolls or flips).

In performing a candle, the performer should lie in a supine posture with the arms extended either side of the head. Ideally the back of the hands should be placed on the floor. From this position the performer should bend at the knees and hips and lift the legs above the hips. Then the performer should bend in the trunk (chest pike) to lift the legs and hips above the shoulders, head and arms.

The shoulder girdle should be hollowed so that the arms are as long as possible to maximize leverage. In the finished position both the shoulders and back of the arms should support weight to minimize the amount of weight supported by the neck.

A spotter can grasp the performer's ankles and press or pulse downward gently testing for alignment. IF you do spot don't allow the gymnast to arch and push against you to resist pressure. If they do, release them immediately.

Wall Handstand

The wall handstand may be attempted after successfully completing the Push Away and Push-up & Away body awareness drills. The hands should be placed with the fingertips touching the wall to ensure good alignment.

In this position the shoulder girdle must be elevated and the spinal column must be stretched to get the center of gravity above the hands. The gymnast should focus on pressing the lower back against the wall (Note arrow).

Balance or control in the handstand is maintained at the wrists by increasing or decreasing the pressure applied on the floor by the fingertips. If the body parts above the hands are held stable, the body as a whole will react to the application of force. When balancing on the feet - exactly the same thing is done with the toes.

The pressure on the hands should be felt under the knuckles and on the digits. NOT only on the digits or only on the heels of the hands.

Half-Wall Handstand

Half-wall (or partial wall) handstands may be attempted after successfully completing the wall handstand. The hands should be placed with the fingertips touching the wall. In this position the shoulder girdle must be elevated and the spinal column must be stretched to get the center of gravity above the hands.

The performer sgould press downward to get the feet as high as possible. The stomach and buttocks must be kept tight to maintain control and prevent the back from arching. The height of the "wall" can be raised or lowered to support body segments as required.

Again- waggles can be extremely helpful in developing handstand alignment. Here's another look at how waggling can be used in these drills.


Click to Enlarge...

Designed to teach a Power sit from Roundoffs for flipflops (back-handsprings) the PullMe-PullYou is a static tug of war (without the use of arm/shoulder actions) between spotter and performer.

The idea is to balance these forces while using effective postures. Note that the spotter and performer have very similar positions when balanced. Spotter and performer grasp each other's wrists (the "Indian grip"). Then they both "sit" away from each other. Critical positions to be emphasized include; feet flat, knees over ankles, tucked hips and rounded back, long arms, and shoulders over hips.

Three common errors are displayed:

A. the piked position which is common in both roundoff and flipflop landings.
B. The knees rocked landing- other errors displayed in B include "on toes" and "flat backed" posture.
C. Arched back landing and tightened should girdle. Arms and shoulders should be relaxed.

Later the performer can slightly "bounce" in place while maintaining proper posture.


Drills for Sensitizing Learners to Basic Movement Patterns

All of the following skills are excellent conditioning drills. Have your gymnasts execute them in series. For instance, after a series of PushAways across the FX mat, follow with a series of Inchworms returning to the starting position.


The "Rock'n'Roll" is a repetitive drill combining the first half of the backward roll and the last half of the forward roll in a rhythmical manner.

From a sitting position the student rocks backward while maintaining a rounded back.

The hands are placed in a position to duplicate the backward roll. The fingertips should contact the floor about even with the top of the head. If you can place your entire palm flat- your hands are too close to your shoulders! The elbow should NOT bend to an angle less than 90 degrees. Placing the fingertips close to the shoulders and/or bending the arms to a lesser angle results in a weakened position and so transfers weight onto the cervical spine- NOT a good thing.

The student attempts to support some weight on the hands while holding the knees and hips high. After a momentary pause, the shoulders and back are lowered back onto the mat, while still maintaining a rounded position. Then the student reaches forward and performs a sit-up to transfer most or all of the weight onto the feet. The performer sits backward and repeats this process as many times as desired. Strive to transfer the weight smoothly, BUT RAPIDLY between feet and hands. Note in the "footprint" below this drill measures about 3/4 body length between feet and hands. If completed, the backward roll will measure one body length - from feet to feet.


The inchworm is designed to develop the sensivity for closure (piking &/or tucking) while transfering weight from the feet onto the hands. The trunk is hollowed and curled, then the lumbar area is flexed, then the hips are flexed. Basically this is a weight transfer achieved by "pressing" in contrast to rolling (as in the Rock'n'Roll).


The pushaway (Inchworm in reverse) is designed to sensitize the shoulders and trunk to changing forces while aligning. From a push-up position with the shoulder blades pressed apart and the buttocks contracted, the performer should concentrate on pressing the hips away from the hands. The eyes should be focused on the heels of the hands, but the head should not be lifted. The performer will finish in a prone position. All body parts should touch down simultaneously (No belly flops!).


This drill is basically the same drill as the pushaway drill, but the performer approaches the handstand while extending. Most beginners attempt to pull themselves over their hands at this stage. They must learn to maintain alignment and press the hips AWAY from the hands.

The body shape should not be distorted (arched or piked) during the shoulder alignment. The spotter is positioned either side of the performer and places his/her hands on the ribcage and the thigh of the performer. Make the performer push against a bit of resistance so they can more easily identify a direction in which to exert their extension force.

After they are familiar with the action they can easily be rotation into or close to (even slightly beyond) the handstand position.



Using these body awareness drills will heighten your gymnast's sensivity to stabilizing and moving body segments. The abilty to control segments when exposed to new skills should reduce the number of attempts to blindly "feel out" a skill. Mastering these simple actions or parts that compose complex skills should simplify learning. For example, the ascent of a free hipcircle (clear hipcircle) can be envisioned as being composed of two body awareness drills; the candle (stabilized inverted) position and a pushAway shoulder movement.

By Steve Bonham.