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    I Trained Like A Professional Gymnast For 30 Days And It Was So Freaking Hard

    This was the hardest thing I've ever done.

    Hey! I'm Spencer, and I can barely put on pants in the morning without tripping over myself.

    This is Paul Ruggeri, a former Team USA gymnast. He's probably never had any issues when it comes to putting on pants.

    I've always wanted to do gymnastics, and Paul recently opened his own training gym in New York, so it was a perfect fit. Our worlds were about to collide.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Gymnastics seemed like the perfect spectator sport for me. I was always mesmerized by everyone's flips and twists and strength, but I was too scared to actually try it. Even as a kid I'd be extra cautious on trampolines and diving boards, in fear that I'd awkwardly land on an ankle or somehow break my neck (I was very cool when I was younger, if you couldn't tell).

    Now, at 27, it was time to make my childhood dreams come true. I was going to give myself 30 days to train like a gymnast and learn as much as I possibly could.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I had very little gymnastics experience before starting this challenge. I could do a handstand for about half a second – just long enough for someone to take a pic so I could convince the internet that I actually knew what I was doing – and I could do an unattractive cartwheel.

    Did I care that I was way past my prime in gymnast years? No. Was I terrified that I'd dislocate an elbow and have to tell all my coworkers how it happened? Heck yes.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    I'm grossly competitive, and I have a ridiculous fear of failure, so I naively went into this challenge thinking I'd be able to easily do every single tumbling pass that was thrown my way. Then reality hit me. I asked Paul and the other trainers what the average adult might accomplish after training for 30 days. Some of them said things like "land a perfect cartwheel" and "do a hollow hold for a minute." I was in for a rude awakening.

    I didn't want to half-ass any of this, so I asked Paul for the exact workouts he did when he trained competitively. This was his morning warm-up:

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Every single morning I'd need to do a little cardio, some stretching, a bunch of ab workouts, and some lower body exercises. In total, he said this should take about 30 minutes to complete (it took me a little longer).

    But his daily routine didn't stop there. Competitive gymnasts train multiple times a day, so my second session alternated between two conditioning workouts: one for my upper body and one for my lower body.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Gymnasts are ridiculously strong, so these workouts were going to help me get on their level. The conditioning exercises were also going to help me build up my endurance, which I desperately needed to do if I wanted to survive all of my gymnastics classes. I did not want to embarrass myself.

    Due to a childhood shoulder injury, I ultimately substituted bench presses for inclined push-ups (this way my arm wouldn't irritate me or hinder my ability to complete further workouts). I also did a lottttt of stretching before and after every workout to help avoid injury and to increase my flexibility.

    My weeknights were comprised of actual gymnastics lessons: a combination of handstand, flexibility, and tumbling classes.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I needed to remind myself that competitive athletes eat, sleep, and breathe their sport. Training is literally their full-time job. I already have a full-time job at BuzzFeed, so this project was going to be a complete lifestyle change.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    Gymnasts have very strict diets. They count calories. I don't. I work at an office where there's an endless supply of free snacks, so it takes a lot of willpower to not consume my bodyweight in chocolate-covered pretzels every day.

    Tumbling is a cardio-heavy workout, and because I was also doing a minimum of two gym sessions every day, I needed to increase my carb intake. My body was going to need that fuel.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I ate between 2,500–3,000 calories each day. Most of my daily carbs were consumed in the morning and before/after my workouts, because that's when my body needed energy the most. I typically don't have any carbs in my dinners (which usually consist of sausage + kale or chicken + kale), but I knew I was going to need extra fuel in my body because of the additional workouts, so I added brown rice to those meals.

    I also drank two ProMix protein shakes each day to help me hit my protein goal (one gram of protein per pound of body weight, so about 160 grams in total).

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse, shrsl.com

    I'd drink one shake when I woke up and one after my big conditioning workouts. If I ever needed a pick-me-up, my go-to snack would either be some Greek yogurt or a ProMix protein puff bar (the mint-flavored ones taste just like Rice Krispies Treats + Thin Mints). I also continued to stay away from alcohol, fried foods, and processed sugars.

    Spencer Althouse / BuzzFeed
    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

    A few weeks before I started this gymnastics project, I completed a separate fitness challenge for BuzzFeed where I did 100 pull-ups a day for 30 days. I was in the best shape of my life when I finished that project. But this new challenge was going to be unlike anything I'd ever done before. One daily workout was already hard enough, so doing two or three of them each day was going to be exhausting.

    Spencer Althouse / BuzzFeed

    This is a pretty unique fitness challenge for me because it's the first one where I'm not solely relying on a standard "before and after" transformation. I'm hoping there will be a bunch of other physical changes in my body that don't just revolve around muscle growth. I'm especially curious to see how my flexibility changes throughout the project.

    Day 1 of the challenge made me quickly realize just how exhausting this whole project was going to be.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I'm one of those annoying people who actually enjoys waking up early in the morning, so being at the gym before work wasn't an issue for me – that was already part of my normal schedule. The tough part was having to be at work for eight hours and then go back to the gym for my second workout, and then I'd often have a third workout on top of that. I never thought I'd see natural sunlight again.

    During my first tumbling class, I kept repeating, "It's just not natural to hurl your body toward the ground," over and over again in my head.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I realized that gymnastics was all about being fearless. That was super unfortunate, because I'm scared of everything.

    But I was honestly really proud of myself during that first class. We worked on cartwheels and front handsprings, something I hadn't attempted in over a decade. Doing several front handsprings in a row (and falling every time) reminded me that gymnasts are so fit and in control of their bodies, and I wanted to know what that was like.

    There are so many little steps to everything in gymnastics, and my mind always went completely blank when I was in the air.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    To learn a front handspring, I started by doing donkey kicks on a mat until I was comfortable enough to kick over and land on my back. Then I'd do it again, only this time I'd land on my butt. Before I knew it, I was throwing my body at full force toward a mat, hoping my wrists didn't crumble upon impact (spoiler alert: they never did).

    You'd think there wouldn't be that many steps to a front handspring: just jump and make contact with your hands and then flop over. But there's so much going on, and even though everything sort of goes in slow motion your mind forgets it all. Like, I have to keep my hands a certain distance apart and when I jump they have to land in the middle of the mat and my arms have to be straight so they're tucked by my ears and my feet have to stay together and the momentum of my body has to swing them over my head instead of me pushing off the mat with my hands and I have to look directly at the mat the whole time and I have to land everything perfectly and I have to do all of that without dying. It seemed impossible.

    All of the extra workouts meant that my body was extra sore during the first few days. I also found out that I had been doing handstands wrong my entire life.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    This is going to sound so stupid, but the hardest part about doing handstands is breathing. It's so hard to have a controlled and relaxed breath when you're upside down, holding up all your bodyweight. And FYI, your weight should rest between your knuckles and the tops of your palms (not your fingertips, like how I foolishly taught myself).

    One of the biggest issues I had with handstands was making sure my back wasn't arched while I was upside down. My elbows and shoulders just aren't flexible enough, so it's much more difficult for me to completely lock out my arms. This makes it a lot harder to create a hollow body with my torso. I was pretty down on myself about all of this, but Paul reassured me that handstands are a skill that can take years to master.

    Most of my experience with gymnastics was me knowing exactly how something should be done and then my body saying "No thanks. I'm gonna do this instead."

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    One of the trainers told me that it's much harder for adults to learn gymnastics than it is for children. For kids, you can basically just tell them to do something and they'll listen. Their bodies will adapt. For adults, we've already trained our brains and bodies to think and do certain things, so we have to re-teach ourselves everything. Gymnastics became a giant game of trial and error for me.

    I wanted to finish the first week off strong, but things just weren't clicking. With each failed attempt, I realized more and more how hard gymnastics really is. I was also so sore and tired, but I didn't have time to be sore or tired because I had to go to bed and wake up early to work out again. This was a never-ending cycle that I hoped would get better. And luckily it did.

    Spencer Althouse / BuzzFeed

    During Week 2, it really hit me how devoted I had to be for this project. I now had two full-time jobs: one at BuzzFeed and one as a faux gymnast.

    Even though I wasn't the best tumbler in the class, I started to fall in love with gymnastics. It was so fun to see my body learn new skills.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    The second week went a lot more smoothly than the first one. My body was getting used to all the workouts, and I could see small improvements in my flexibility. The biggest progress I noticed was in my tumbling. I landed my first front handspring perfectly (of course I didn't get it on camera, so no one will believe me).

    The gymnastics classes were taught in small groups. Sometimes I'd be in a class with a few of other people, and other times I had one-on-one lessons because I was the only person who showed up. Both were enjoyable, but the thing that really stuck out to me was how supportive everyone was. We genuinely wanted to see each other succeed, so everyone cheered each other on.

    The scariest thing was learning how to do a front tuck. It's all about trusting yourself, and that's incredibly difficult for me.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I've always been terrified to flip. There's just so much that could go wrong. We started with forward rolls, then jumping forward rolls, then landing on our butts, and after a few minutes I was ready for a spotter. The only thing worse than thinking you're going to hurt yourself while flipping is thinking you're going to hurt your spotter. Because I have very little control over my body, I was convinced I'd accidentally elbow him in the face.

    The next thing I had to do was get comfortable with being upside down in the air. Everything in my body told me "don't do this," so I had to push on. Keeping my eyes open while upside down was key for me to know where my body was and when to untuck my legs. Otherwise I'd knee myself in the face and get two black eyes, and that would have been a very embarrassing conversation with the doctor.

    By the end of the second week, I was finally starting to notice some physical changes in my body.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Even though my handstands still needed some obvious work, I was actually really impressed with myself in the above pictures. This was the first time I ever noticed my back muscles. It's interesting, because there are some days when I'll walk by a mirror and think that I'm getting stronger, but other days I'll convince myself that I'm losing all of my muscle. I need to work on getting comfortable with my body, and I think looking at it from different angles and perspectives is really helpful.

    Spencer Althouse / BuzzFeed

    Each week I'd find myself increasing the weights in my workouts, which proved I was actually getting stronger and stronger.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I used the Notes app on my phone to keep track of every workout I did, including the total reps and weight. This made it really easy to see how strong I was actually getting without solely relying on physical changes and how I saw my body in the mirror.

    Doing the same workouts over and over again can get monotonous and boring. I was feeling a little unmotivated so I decided to change up my workout on Day 20. I also wanted to celebrate the fact that I was two-thirds done the project, so I completed a 20x5 of goblet squats, pull-ups, and push-ups. This seemed super daunting at first, but it was a nice change of pace. I completely all 100 squats, pull-ups, and push-ups in just under an hour, and the change in routine made me more excited to get back to my normal workouts the following day. It also proved just how strong I was getting.

    I always felt like a kid in a candy store during gymnastics classes. Exhibit A:

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    The flexibility classes taught me how to be more in control of my own body. The only way I can explain it is that there was more of a partnership there and I was more in sync with how I moved and felt.

    The handstand classes were torturous, but I loved them. They were 60 minutes of intense strength training, and I ended every class in a puddle of sweat. There were probably a few tears in there, too.

    But my favorite classes revolved around tumbling. It was truly wild to try all of these cool things I'd never done before and never even thought I could do.

    One of the trainers told me that you have to land a trick three times in a row before you can officially say you've learned a new gymnastics skill. I finally did that with a front tuck.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I can watch this GIF on repeat for hours. The most frustrating part while I was learning a front tuck was that my body kept twisting in the air. Gymnastics is all about keeping your body in sync, but I kept swinging one of my arms a little harder and faster than the other, and that caused the rotation. It took hours and hours of hard work and a lottttt of sweat and failed attempts, but I finally landed three in a row. More importantly, I didn't break any bones!

    Here's a 60-second compilation video that shows how I learned a front tuck. I guess practice really does make perfect.

    Spencer Althouse / BuzzFeed

    Even though I successfully landed a front tuck, I still found myself questioning the rest of my progress. I was scared that anyone who read this article would think, "That's it? That's all he learned after 30 days?"

    I didn't want to disappoint anyone, which added an unnecessary pressure to the challenge. In fact, I was so nervous about not having big enough results that I almost doubled the timeframe of the challenge to two months. That's when I finally figured out that the point of this article wasn't to become a professional athlete, it was to acknowledge the fact that gymnasts are so strong and talented. Thirty days isn't nearly enough time to accomplish anything close to what they can do, and that's totally okay.

    There were only a few days left, so I devoted a lot of time at the end of my workouts to handstands. My goal was to hold an unassisted handstand for 10 seconds.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    Handstands were so freaking tricky. They constantly left me feeling defeated, and I'd nitpick every little thing I did. In a weird way I think that showed my progress. Beforehand, I'd sort of just hope for the best when I attempted a handstand. But now I can recognize what mistakes I'm making when I'm actually upside down, and I can improve from there.

    Pro tip: Make sure your arms are fully extended and your elbows point out, like in the picture above. A great way to practice this motion without actually being upside down is to lock out your elbows and point them forward while doing push-ups.

    Even though I didn't accomplish my original handstand goal, I was still impressed with how much they improved by the end of the challenge.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    One night I saw Paul balancing on handstand blocks a couple feet off the ground, and it looked like so much fun. I built up the courage to try it, and somehow we got a pretty solid picture from one of the attempts. You can't see my face in the picture, so you might not believe it's really me, but I promise it is.

    Not shown above: Paul spotting me and then running out of frame just fast enough so we could get the shot before I fell.

    I sort of said "screw it" during the final week and forced myself to try everything that scared me.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    I fell in love with gymnastics, and there were only a few days left in the challenge, so I really wanted to take advantage of everything. One night during an open gym session, I played a game of Follow the Leader with a few of the more advanced gymnasts. We started out slowly: someone would do a roundoff on the tumbling track, and everyone else would have to copy them. Then things got harder and harder. By the end of it, I attempted things I'd never even done or heard of before (like a front pike, which is a front tuck with straight legs). I think that's pretty impressive, since I started this challenge as the guy who was worried and scared about everything. I'm proud of myself.

    There were some days when I really wanted to give my body a rest. Most of the time I wouldn't let that happen, but sometimes it's necessary.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    On Day 28, I decided to treat myself by turning off my alarm and sleeping in as late as I could. It was a weird feeling to skip the gym that morning, but my body definitely appreciated the extra rest. It's kind of wild, because even though I didn't work out in the morning I still had two afternoon workouts that I needed to do. I felt guilty at first, but I know the extra rest helped me push myself even harder during those final workouts.

    On the final day of the challenge, I successfully landed a roundoff back tuck.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    My original goal was to land a roundoff back handspring, but I'm even more impressed that I finished with a roundoff back tuck instead (especially since I didn't even know how to do a regular standing back tuck). I wanted there to be some fantastic ending to this article – something to really show everyone how much progress could be made in 30 days – so I decided to skip a few steps. Somehow it worked.

    Here's a 60-second compilation video that shows the progress of landing a roundoff back tuck, starting with my very first attempt.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed
    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

    If you're interested in trying gymnastics or taking tumbling classes then you obviously don't need to follow the same workout or nutrition plans I did. My goal was very specific to me, and your goal will be specific to you. I personally love challenging myself and seeing how far I can push my body, so I wanted to see what it was like to train like a competitive athlete for a month.

    Two years ago I couldn't do a single push-up or pull-up, but I've worked really hard and gained enough physical and mental strength to accomplish things I never thought I'd be able to do, and I think that's really cool.

    Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

    With that said, I definitely noticed some changes in my physical appearance as well. My shoulders and back got much stronger, my waist and abs got a little more cut, my butt got more firm, and my chicken legs got a little bigger.

    I had no idea what to expect when it came to splits. I wasn't sure if they'd be doable after stretching for a week or a month or even a year.

    Instagram: @spenceralthouse

    You can tell in my "before" picture that I didn't know what I was doing. In the "after" picture my body is much more relaxed (I'm smiling through the pain), my front leg is straight, my toes are pointed, and my torso is upright. I'm also much lower to the ground.

    Aside from splits, my overall flexibility improved too. A pretty general flexibility test is to see how far down people can touch their toes while standing with straight legs. Before the challenge, I was able to go passed my toes and have my finger tips rest on the ground. After the project, I was able to rest both of my hands/palms fully on the ground, so I'd say there was a huge improvement.

    Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed

    This whole gymnastics project was a humbling reminder that new skills take time to learn and master. It was hard for me to accept the fact that I can't immediately be good at everything. No one is.

    I honestly can't believe how much I challenged myself throughout the whole experience. I learned so much. I could barely do any gymnastics when I first started, and now look at me. Like, there was one day when I saw someone doing one-handed cartwheels, and I said, "Oh, that looks like fun." She told me to try it, and I literally landed a one-handed cartwheel on my first attempt. I never would have been physically able to do that before, and I also would have been too scared to try. I guess it's all about trusting your body and realizing that it's okay to fall and fail.

    Also, as a reward for reading this whole article, here's my worst fall during the 30-day challenge. Enjoy.

    If you want to keep up with the rest of my fitness journey and BuzzFeed challenges, you can follow me on Instagram @SpencerAlthouse.

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