In the Fall of 2011 I took up gymnastics. This is the sport that boys start at 6 years old and most adults believe they can’t ever begin because they didn’t start young enough. I began by experimenting with gymnastics apparatus: tumbling, trampoline, parallel bars, pommel house, and high bar. This last – the high bar – has consumed the last six months of my training and in this post I’ll detail how I’ve learned to complete a Giant in six months – a skill that is taught over the course of a decade in most pre-professional gymnastics training programs.
But first, here is my first-ever High Bar Giant:
It started with a question: “What’s that for?” I was pointing, in awe, at a bar 10 feet off the ground. I learned what is was for as I watched a former pro-gymnast complete circles around the bar at high speed. My curiosity often takes for the form of a feverishly intense desire to learn and thus was the case with the high bar.
The high bar Giant is traditionally learned on something call the straps bar, which is a regular high bar with PVC tubing around the bar to which a gymnast attaches himself via wrist restraints so that he doesn’t go flying off as he is learning to go around.
Here’s a clip from early on swinging on the straps bar, practicing a skill called “hollow body.”
I learned to attach myself to the straps bar and fumbled around, unable to generate more than a couple of swings. After, I was so sore that I was out of commission for several days. The problem was that I was trying to force my swing. Think of being on a swing set, never having used one before, trying to do all of the swinging by pulling on the chains with your arms. Exhausting, yes? And not very productive. I made absolutely zero progress until I realized that the straps bar can be used like a swing set, where the legs and pelvis do a majority of the work. As soon as I understood this, everything fell into place and I began generating enough force to go all the way around.
I even learned to pause for brief moments at the top and switch directions – the difference being between a “Front Giant” and a “Back Giant”. The process of learning this and other auxiliary skills was fascinating, and paved the way for much of what came later. I’d feel like I was making no progress for several weeks; spinning on the straps bar, getting exhausted, moving on. And then one day I’d come in fresh and discover that I could pause at the top of the bar, or control my position on the PVC with my wrists. Subtle differences sprang into my awareness where previously I had just been moving blindly.
I enjoyed these revelations but continued to train haphazardly until two of my gymnastics friend also began investigating the high bar and we decided to to complete Giants together.
We came up with stakes: the first person to accomplish Giants on the high bar would be taken out to dinner by his colleagues. I became invested in my progress. I started to look around at other ways to train Giants and asked everyone in the gym who could do Giants how they had first learned. I compiled a list of all of the components and complementary movements that might help me to learn.
Here is my list of the smaller skills that create the capacity to complete a Giant. For those that I don’t show, a Youtube search will return video:
It has been an exhilarating ride. There were days when I felt like I was just repeatedly hitting my head against a wall, days when I was coursing with adrenaline, and days when I was celebrating like crazy, having just learned a tiny, essential new skill. I’ve recently moved on to training jiu-jitsu (somewhat obsessively) but still take a spin around the High Bar on occasion. More than anything, I’m grateful and excited for what I’ve learned along the way.
I’ve taken the term “Investing in Loss” from Joss Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, a great read for anyone pursuing big goals. For me, it meant many hours not getting the Giant, often feeling like I never would and several times nearly landing on my head.
One of the most challenging parts of learning to complete a Giant was coming to terms with my own physical limitations. This wasn’t the typical strength or conditioning that one might expect with such a high-intensity activity, but rather the road-rash on my wrists of binding myself to the straps bar, the callouses that would tear off from going around the high bar, and the pain of using new leather grips. The only thing that got me through those struggles was emotional resilience and my desire to learn tempered with a willingness to wait until next time. In the future I’ll plan for these physical limiters as a part of my learning curve.
Fear was the single biggest limiter in my learning of the Giant. On the bar my hands were 10 feet of the ground, my feet 16 feet off, upside down, with nothing between my face and the floor but a metal bar… it was scary. Looking back, there were a lot of times when I did not want to do a Giant because I was scared of the repercussions of not doing it perfectly. In future I’ll be spending a good deal more time examining that fear as I go along, because while I can push through it, that isn’t always the easiest way to learn.