Accelerating Back Handsprings
As I mentioned in a previous article, fast tumbling is good tumbling. Here’s something I haven’t told you, unless you’re tumbling on a trampoline, most advanced and elite tumbling tricks are thrown out of a back handspring. In fact, the ability to throw “specialty passes” is usually contingent on the ability to gain power and speed (accelerate) during your back handspring. You’ve probably seen the last pass during a tumbling segment go roundoff handspring full, virtually stop, but somehow push into a undercutted handspring, but then throw a couple more gaining speed and finally end with a double full. That elite tumbler almost got stuck because they failed to over-rotate their full (which is a hard thing to do after working most of your life on “sticking” your landing and NOT over or under rotating), however, they saved the pass because they have the strength and technique to accelerate during their handspring.
Now that we have illustrated the importance of accelerating the handspring, let’s talk about how it is accomplished.
First, there are only 2 points in a handspring where you can accelerate. The rest of the time, it doesn’t matter what you do, you are slowing down. Those 2 points are when your feet and on the ground and when your hands are on the ground. If you are not touching the ground, you have no control over what direction you are traveling, which usually means you are traveling straight down.
Now, suppose you are standing up, ready to throw a back handspring. What is the first thing you do? Is it to jump? Nope. That would be for a standing tuck. For a handspring, the first thing you do is lose your balance. Surprised? Here is the explanation. You want to travel backward in the back handspring. That is self-explanatory. However, you also have to invert (flip) during the handspring. That requires a pretty strong jump. You do not want to waste any of your strength by throwing backwards. Instead, when you jump, you want to lift up with your arms, push off of your toes and focus all of your energy on defeating gravity. If you throw your head back or reach back behind your head you will cut off your jump and undercut. Not a good thing.
So, in order to travel back in a back handspring without throwing back, you must sit before you jump in such a way that you slightly lose your balance. Now, you do not want to completely lose your balance. Lose it too much and you’re on your seat (that’s cheer-talk for your butt). Here’s how you sit just right. When you sit, your shoulders should stay directly over your hips. They should not go back more than your hips. They should not lean forward over your knees. Also, your knees should stay directly over your ankles. They should not slide out over your toes. If you bend your knees without letting them go forward and without leaning your shoulders, you should lose your balance almost as soon as you start to sit. That is way before your knees reach a 90 degree angle. You probably want about half that much knee flex. You CERTAINLY don’t want more than 90. We call that bottoming out, which is, again, a bad thing. You can practice this sit simply by standing 6 to 12 inches from a sturdy wall and sitting against it making sure that your hips and shoulders contact the wall at the exact same time.
OK, so you’re sitting, and you’ve lost your balance. You’ve gone from zero momentum to the speed of gravity without even using an ounce of strength. Very efficient. Good for you. But now what?
Now you get to jump! But do not jump back. Jump up. Lift those arms up by your ears. Do not reach back behind you. Push straight up off your toes. Because you are off-balance, even though you are trying to jump up, since your body is tilted backwards, you will be traveling backwards.
By the way, you have now added the power of your jump to the speed you started with when you lost your balance so you have already accelerated. See how well you’re doing!
Unfortunately, you’re going to slow down a little now because you’re about to leave the ground. Just as your toes are pushing off the floor, you should look up at your hands (not back at the ground). This will cause your back to arch and hands to go towards the ground behind you. This happens pretty quickly. In fact, at the moment your hands touch the floor, your feet should only be about a foot off the ground and your hips should be catching up with (but not quite even with) your shoulders.
Now that you’re on your hands again, there are two things you need to do to accelerate. They are done simultaneously, so don’t be confused when I list them as first and second, ok?
First (but simultaneously) you need to push through your shoulders. This is because your shoulders are your shock absorbers when you’re in a handstand, and you do not want to absorb anything, because that will slow you down. Think of it this way, when two hard items hit each other (like a bowling ball and bowling pin) they rebound off each other hard and fast. However, when something soft hits something hard (like a sponge ball dropped on the ground) it kind of just lays there. The ground is hard, so all you need is to make your shoulders hard and you will bound off the ground like the bowling pin. That, by the way, just added power and speed to your handspring. Well done.
Second (but also simultaneously) you have to pull your legs over the top. This is mostly done with your abs and your hip flexor muscles. Point you toes and squeeze your legs together (not only does that speed you up but it looks prettier too). Do not quit pulling your legs over until your feet are on the floor. Some people quit pulling once they get over the top and they just let gravity pull their feet down. That’s not as fast as using your muscles, so don’t be lazy. So now you’ve added more power and speed. You are really moving now.
If you blocked hard off your shoulders like we asked you to, your hand will come up off the ground a split second before your feet land. During that split second, you will lose a little of your speed. That’s ok. You have more than made up for it with the rest of your effort and technique. Assuming you want to continue to accelerate into another handspring, you want to land in the exact same position that you sat into in the first place (knees over ankles, shoulders over hips, arms by ears, eyes looking forward). Now you are going even faster because you do not have to take the time to sit, you are ALREADY off-balance.
So now you know how (and why) to accelerate your back handspring. Eventually, you will need to convert that backward momentum into upward momentum. That is called “blocking,” but that is a topic for another day…