Fitness 101 for a Vaulter
By Devon Maitozo
Hello my fellow vaulting enthusiasts! You may be thinking one of two things: What could yet another “fitness” article actually tell me that I haven’t already been told and read a million times… or… I can’t believe Devon actually wrote an article for the vaulting magazine. Well, if either of these thoughts crossed your mind… me too!
Why write this now? Besides being asked, I also imagined that it could be useful to share with people an idea for a change about how EASY it actually is to be in great shape. What? I can’t believe I actually am saying that, but it’s true… So long you don’t mind a little pain! Ay, there’s the rub!
All of us want to be in better shape or condition in some way, and nearly all of us put an effort in as well. Why is it then that few of us would say we are in excellent shape, strong enough for what we want to do, and not held back by some kind of physical shortcoming that could theoretically be resolved? It’s not for a lack of information available to us about how to develop ourselves in every possible way. It’s because we just can’t keep up with the demands of most exercise programs as our lives and schedules change with every shifting of the wind. It’s also due to the sensory overload of all the fitness plans, weight management schemes, equipment choices, and great ideas we are bombarded with. We often then convince ourselves we will never figure out the perfect plan or be self indulgent enough to actually devote the time necessary to even sift through it all… let alone do it! We need to stop finding excuses, blaming it on injuries, or avoiding what we know needs to be done, and kick ourselves in the proverbial a**!
What I want to share with you is not a comprehensive plan to follow step by step in order to become a vaulting god (or goddess for most of you)! What I would rather do is impart an attitude about improving yourself. I want you to positively expect it! It’s time we shed the politically correct B.S. (bunny snot) once and for all, and admit that none of us are fit enough, tough enough, charming enough, good looking enough, or prepared enough physically that we shouldn’t expect more from ourselves. We may be creative enough to change that though! We can all do better, reach higher, dig deeper, soar farther, and in turn, score higher. We can then expand our expectations, potential scope of our future goals, as well as have a greater impact on the sport and the world around us. I don’t care if you’re the world champion or a tiny tot. Any “great job” can also be a better job. That’s not “nice” (or what one should actually say to that cute tiny tot!), but it’s true. It doesn’t mean, “I suck”, or that your mom’s assertion that “you were awesome!” isn’t true. It simply means, “I could be so much more awesome next time” is also true. Now that I’ve stood on my soapbox, let me explain what to do with that new attitude that you just magically adopted!
If you’re motivated to get in great shape, all you really need are sneakers, something heavy to lift, a pair of pushup handles, some creativity, and a dose of common sense. I will give you a handful of the basics that you should be very familiar with, but it’s up to you to expand upon these basics and act as your own creative personal trainer, using the environment around you as your gym. This will not make you a great vaulter alone of course, but it can lay the foundation for great vaulting training. To really improve, you must be physically prepared to withstand and thrive with an intensive horse and barrel practice regiment. That means a hard core, strong and balanced upper body, and stable legs that can both jump explosively, and land safely. Flexibility is equally important, and an absolute must, but that’s another article altogether. Many vaulters feel that their vaulting practice is enough of a workout to get in the right shape, but it just isn’t. Even if all your horse practice keeps you pretty fit, you have no idea how much more you would get from those practices if you prepared yourself for them separately. Between practices, while on trips, weeks off, or off season… If you are on vacation for a long weekend, or taking a semester off from training, you can still keep yourself in that kind of shape that that allows you to get right back on the horse anytime and be ready to push yourself to the next level.
That’s right. Running shoes. Those, and maybe some clothes to keep you from being arrested, are all you need to get that heart of yours beating in proper rhythm with your goals. I know some of you are scoffing at the suggestion that running is so important, but seriously, nothing else comes even close to being a more efficient and convenient means of getting in proper aerobic condition. Of course swimming, professional roller derby, Capoeira, cross country skiing, and boot camp for the Navy Seals are also great ways to get your heart in condition too, but I’m speaking to the masses here people! One pair of good running shoes can allow you to keep trim, increase your stamina (by increasing your heart’s capacity to pump oxygenated blood through your body as well as your lungs efficiency at oxygenating that blood), and strengthen your legs and core no matter where in the world you find yourself.
Here is one example of a simple plan: Run 20-30 minutes 3-4 times per week. Find some different routes that fit within this timeframe as I want you to vary the route whenever possible. Keep track of the time it takes you to complete any specific route and work on improving your pace over time. You should be running fast enough to make you really feel steadily challenged throughout the run, but never nauseated.
When I travel (and I travel a lot) I never leave without my pushup handles. They are with me wherever I go. I actually can’t seem to stop leaving them all around the world though, so I’m constantly having to buy new ones. At least the last ones I purchased were only $9.89! These handles serve as your handstand encouragement tools primarily. There is no way around the fact that a vaulter must have really strong upper body, and one of the most applicable exercise is the basic handstand, held correctly. Although you can easily do any of these exercises without handles, they do help create a more regimented platform for your work, help protect your wrists, and can help simulate the surcingle.
Exercise One: A correct handstand against the wall, without handles.
Place your hands near a wall with your fingers facing away from the wall. Either kick your legs up into a handstand against the wall, or climb your legs up the wall. With your hands only two inches from the wall, make sure your toes are the only point touching the wall. This demands straight extension, as opposed to an unsupported arched core. Hold this for three times 25 seconds. You should eventually be able to hold it for a minute or more multiple times.
Exercise Two: Knee extensions to handstand, pike down/plange down.
In a kneeling position with your hands on the handles, make sure your knees are forward enough to be between the handles and your shoulders are low enough to put your arms in a 90-degree angle. Extend quickly into a tight extended handstand with your legs together by tucking up from the ground. Make sure that your legs and arms extend all at the same time, and not separately. From the handstand, pike down slowly, landing carefully on the ground from your toes to your knees. Repeat this 5 times and do three sets. Extensions to handstand are key in success in vaulting, so when it becomes easy to do them on the ground or handles, try doing the same exercise up higher on any kind of stable platform. Take a short break after the knee extensions (two to three minutes). After that, extend again into handstand quickly from your knees, but plange down this time as slowly as possible, landing in a pushup position. This exercise helps improve shoulder strength in a way particularly important for vaulting.
Exercise Three: Pushups
Pushups! Yes, basic pushups are important, so do them. Do between 30 and 60 pushups daily, 6 days per week. Break that up as you wish, but try to get them all done within about 8 minutes at the most. Vary the width of your arms often in order to help increase strength in different areas. Keep your body in a straight and stabilized plange position at all times. The slower you do each pushup, the more benefit you get from them.
Exercise Four: The Table pull up.
This one can be replicated under most tabletops. With either one or two chairs for the feet to be placed upon, and with your hands hanging on the sides or facing you, make sure you pull your body into a completely straight position and hang under the table. Let your shoulders reach away in front of you, and then pull your shoulder blades together behind you slowly. Do three sets of 8 of just these shoulder extension exercises. They do wonders for posture. Then you should do three sets of 7-10 of these pull-ups slowly, trying to get your chest to hit the table each time.
Exercise Five: Tricep Pushes.
Do three sets of 10 of these, making sure your butt almost touches the ground each time.
Exercise Six: Lift something heavy like you are starting a lawnmower.
I use a kettle bell that weighs 35 pounds in every way I can come think of to help me promote my strength and stability. It can be anything heavy that can be lifted with one arm, such as a bucket of water or a bag of bricks. Do the Lawnmower lift on each side for 3 sets of 8 reps. Make sure your back is straight position and in a horizontal plane for this exercise.
The running will definitely help you maintain fit and strong legs, especially if you run trails or routes with some hills, but it isn’t all they need. They also need major stability for vaulting. Here is one of my most hated exercises, but equally important.
Exercise One: The Genie Squats
Assume a squat position with your butt at the same height as your knees, your chest up, lower back somewhat arched, and your arms in that crucial “genie” position. Hold for 10 seconds. Then drop lower and lift back up 10 times. Then reach your arms straight ahead and flatten your back completely while still in the same squat with your legs, and do another 10 squats. Then remaining in that position, reach your hands between your legs to the ground as far as they can go and back 10 times without your butt raising. Then place your hands on the ground back there between your legs as far as they could get, and while your hands remain on the ground, do 10 squats with just your butt. At the end, lift back up to the original genie position and hold another 10 seconds. Repeat this sequence thee times. If this doesn’t give you a burn, and an equally great butt over time, nothing will!
There is nothing more hardcore, than a hard core. So get one. I define your core muscles as any muscles that play a role in connecting two opposite ends of your body. This connection is quite important in our sport, as we all know. All your muscles are functionally core muscles, but they all must be connected by your center. The core headquarters are your abdominals, your oblique muscles, and your back. Let me show you the least complicated exercises I have found to get all the essential core muscles worked without anything other than your body and the ground.
Exercise One: The fish on land.
Start on your back with your arms reaching behind your head and the only part of your body touching the ground being the mid to lower back. Roll slowly to your side without touching your arms or legs to the ground, and then continue rolling to your stomach into the superman position. Roll back slowly the same way you came from and then do the same thing the other direction. Repeat 10 times.
Exercise two: Elbow-V, Elbow-V
Assume a tucked position as if you just reached the top of a sit up and holding your hands together just in front of your chest. Touch one elbow to the ground while keeping your legs steady and come back to the middle. Straighten your legs up into a V position with your arms stretched out, tuck back to original position, and then touch the other elbow on the ground of the other side without moving your legs. Repeat the entire sequence 10-20 times.
Exercise three: The Australians.
I first learned this exact sequence of exercises on my first trip to Australia 11 years ago. I’ve called them “The Australians” ever since. These may be well known by now, but they can’t be done enough.
Assume a plank position on only your toes and your elbows with your back completely straight, stomach slightly contracted. Hold this position for 15 seconds. Then lift one arm off the ground underneath you and hold for 15 seconds. The other arm, again 15 seconds. Lift one leg and then the other leg, both for 15 seconds. Then lift the diagonal pairs (left arm right leg and vice versa) for 15 seconds each. After that, put both elbows on the ground and rock forward and back 15 times, just to get that extra burn before you stop. It is especially important that you never allow yourself to twist or turn at all during this exercise in order for it to have the proper affect on your core. Do 3 sets of these. Be proud.
These straight forward exercises are meant to show you how easy it actually is to get in great shape with only your power of will, and at almost no expense. It is important to point out that the details on exactly how these exercises are performed is somewhat arbitrary in many ways. This system works for me and has worked for my vaulters in the past, but there are a million other ways to do the same exercises, just as there are a million other exercises not included in this article. Don’t be afraid of being creative and coming up with a new way to get that great result we all hope for; a body that helps us be the best version of ourselves we can possibly be. It’s an elusive goal, but well worth the effort. No more excuses. Good luck!