“Tumbling” brings to mind the triple backflips and other crazy skills you see once every four years in the Olympics. But there’s a lot more to tumbling than that.
Tumbling teaches body awareness along with the combination of strength, coordination, and flexibility it takes to train and perform the skills. And you don’t have to train toward incredibly advanced maneuvers to benefit from tumbling.
It’s just a matter of starting with fundamental movements that get you moving your body in a variety of ways. Working on these movements can also expose you to your deficiencies in strength, flexibility, and motor control in a way that other exercises can’t do.
In this post, I’ll give you the fundamentals you need to get started with tumbling skills, and I’ll describe some of the variations you can begin working on to build a strong foundation of body awareness and motor control.
What Tumbling is Really About and Why We Think It’s Important for Developing Physical Mastery
Tumbling is simply moving your body through space through jumps, twists, and other maneuvers. Very often it includes flipping your body around through inverting it and then returning to your original position.
Cartwheels, handsprings, and flips are good examples of these skills.
You can see that to make this smooth and “pretty” takes a good sense of body awareness and control. Even though you might be able to do a particular move straightaway, you will be able to refine and improve your control over the move each time you practice.
And that’s the major benefit of tumbling – not just for doing “tricks” and competing for the most gnarly move you can pull off, but taking those movements and really owning them.
Some fundamental examples of tumbling include front rolls (which we’ve probably all done at some point) and back rolls (less commonly practiced because of the “fear factor”).
How to Safely Integrate Tumbling into Your Training: 3 Recommendations for Doing it Right
Even the most basic tumbling skills can look intimidating if you haven’t practiced them before, but just as with any new skill, it’s simply a matter of following the right technique, and you can get it.
Tumbling Technique Recommendation #1 – Take it Slow
Probably the most common issue is the very normal anxiety and fear when learning a new skill.
And it can certainly be magnified when you have to assume positions that resemble falling! If you aren’t used to having your head at certain angles, along with the added pressure on the head the skills may generate, you and your body can interpret it as a dangerous thing.
The trick to getting past this anxiety is to take the new movement slow and break it into manageable steps.
Work through each step deliberately and with good control and you’ll diminish your fear. Go too fast and try to just barrel through it, and you may get injured and further reinforce that fear.
Take your time, work though the skill with good technique and you’ll progress much faster.
Tumbling Technique Recommendation #2 – Be Aware of Your Head
When working through basic tumbling such as rolls, cartwheels, and even flips, it’s very important to know where your head is in space and in relation to your body. It’s crucial both for safety and for proper performance of the movement.
For example, your head position for rolling should be with your chin tucked in tight to your chest as you go upside down into and coming out of the roll.
This tucked chin position protects your neck from undue pressure and strain.
And in moves such as aerials and back and front flips, head position can determine whether you complete the move or fall on your face!
Tumbling Technique Recommendation #3 – Be Mindful of Your Space
This may be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. You’ll need a nice clear area to practice. Remove all clutter and allow more room than you think you need.
This is especially important in the beginning when you are first figuring out what to do. Chances are your body will be all over the place and your sense of direction and spatial awareness will not be as sharp.
Please take that into consideration when you pick a training area to work on these new moves. As you improve and you become very comfortable in your technique you won’t need as much space. As an example, take a look at this incredible video of a movement master aware of both his body and his surroundings.
“Where Should I Start?” – Learning to Do the Basic Back Roll
Let’s use the back roll as an example of the technique recommendations I just described. Get comfortable with the back roll and you’ll find other tumbling exercises far less intimidating, and your practice will be that much safer.
In this video, I’ll go over the detailed technique for learning the back roll.
The primary points to keep in mind for the backward roll, as I described in the video, are as follows:
1. Work on your neck flexibility
If you can’t comfortably keep your chin on your chest, then work on your neck mobility under load by working on a modified yoga plow position. This is where you bring your feet over your head as in the regular yoga position, but you place your feet on a wall or other support to take pressure off your neck.
2. Push through your hands
A big reason people have anxiety over the back roll is the perception of pressure on the head and neck. Well, there really shouldn’t be a lot of pressure, as you should be bearing a lot of weight through your hands in the transition.
When you roll back, place your hands by your ears and push strongly to take weight off of your head.
3. Push earlier than you think
The proper timing is to push right before your hips go over your head. If you wait to push when your hips pass your head you’ll be too late.
Follow these key points and you’ll find the back roll is not as daunting as you thought.
Next Steps: Basic Variations for Taking Any Tumbling Skill to the Next Level
There are endless variations when it comes to tumbling. After all, the whole idea of practicing tumbling is to free up your body to be able to do whatever you want.
Here are some basic variations I happen to love practicing, and once you get the fundamentals of the cartwheel, front/back rolls, and the basic locomotions of the frogger, bear, and monkey down, you can play around with these variations and combinations as well.
Variation #1 – Extension
Extending your tumbling is a great way to improve your coordination and balance even further.
Variation #2 – Turning
This example of incorporating turns into your front roll shows another way to improve body and spatial awareness.
Variation #3 – Headspring
You can also follow up a front roll with a headspring to play around with another fun way to get up off the ground.
Here Are Some of the Top Questions We Get About Tumbling
We addressed a lot of tumbling FAQs on our recent show episode, but I’ll take a look at some of the most common concerns we hear about below.
I feel dizzy/nauseated when I practice tumbling exercises. What should I do?
This issue comes up quite a bit and for the majority of people, it comes down to simply not being used to moving like this.
We spend most of our days upright with our head up, or lying down with our head horizontal. Not too many of us whip our heads around in our day jobs! So this is a new thing that takes some time to get used to, perhaps a couple of weeks or more.
Take it slow and take longer rest breaks between trials of the move.
Don’t go beyond the point of mild nausea, and let the feeling subside fully before doing the next rep. If it doesn’t go away, then call it a day and try again.
Now there may be some of you that have a history of vertigo, or other inner ear issues, and the dizziness/nausea may be intractable. Please check with your health care provider to see what is best for you.
Isn’t rolling on your spine super dangerous?!?!
In a word: No.
Take it slow, work on your technique, and improve your flexibility to get in the best positions for these moves. Your spine will not only be okay, it’ll be the better for it.
Do I need special mats for tumbling?
While proper gymnastic mats are a joy to roll on, you don’t need them to start practicing. Grass and carpet are just fine. Perhaps hardwood flooring and concrete aren’t the best for beginners, but you don’t need to buy special and expensive mats to work on these basic skills.
See How Quickly You Notice Improved Body Awareness Once You Start Practicing Tumbling
As I’ve stated above, I believe the best reason to work on tumbling isn’t to do awesome tricks – though that can be nice – but instead, to use these great movements to improve your coordination and your understanding of your body as it moves through space.
Because it isn’t really a normal thing to flip upside down and back up again, or to spin and twist in the course of a regular day, these basic tumbling moves are a potent way to stimulate and invigorate our bodies and minds.
Once you develop a certain amount of strength and flexibility, you’ll want to feel free to play and explore what you can do with your new body.
And really, that’s what you’ve done with all your hard work and persistence. You’ve created a new body that you can use to explore and enjoy movement. So go for it!
One way we recommend building a body that’s ready for more exploratory movement is through Floor One, our introductory program to fundamental bodyweight skills for body control and movement. It includes a full program and instruction for forward and backward rolls, cartwheels, handstands, and other balances.
It is the perfect entry to mindful movement training if you haven’t done any of these skills before, and is a wonderful place to start your journey to building better body awareness.
Floor One: Build Athletic Body Control
Improve balance on your hands and feet, build motor control and coordination, and learn skills like the handstand, cartwheel, jumps, and more.