Tier 3+ trainer Mackenzie Wickliffe shares 7 moves for mastering this bodyweight tool
The hallmark of an expert athlete: Mastery of advanced bodyweight exercises. So says Tier 3+ trainer Mackenzie Wickliffe, which helps explain the recent surge in popularity of challenging-yet-simple training tools like the rings. What was once the property of gymnasts and circus performers is quickly making its way onto training floors.
“I was a competitive gymnast for over 10 years, a division 1 collegiate diver, and then a professional trapeze artist,” says Wickliffe. “After retiring from all of those things and moving to L.A., I needed something new. I was still hungry for the thrill of being upside down and high up, using my body to its fullest acrobatic potential.”
A few weeks into her new SoCal life, Wickliffe observed an athlete training on the iconic traveling rings of Santa Monica’s original Muscle Beach. “Now a really close friend of mine, he taught me what I know, and I fell in love with swinging high, manipulating my strength and grace on the flying rings in every way any chance I get. The view down there doesn't get old either.”
The benefits of bodyweight training are many: “Bodyweight training requires so much skill and so much neuromuscular coordination,” says Wickliffe. And for those who appreciate artistry in their movement, there are few better options.
Here, Wickliffe shares seven moves that she uses to both prime her body for rings and put her through her proverbial paces. If you’re just starting out, consider working your way up (literally): “Every exercise I perform here on the rings can be performed on a stationary, straight bar. Using a bar would be a good regression to using the rings because the stationary bar adds stability,” she says. “I do lots of yoga for core control and shoulder stability work as well. The perfect balance of mobility and stability will optimize your rings performance.”
The exercises demonstrated below can be formatted into a workout either together or mixed in with other movements, says Wickliffe. "This is just one example of what I might do myself or with capable clients."
(1) Halos (Shoulder Mobility)
Slowly and steadily move a an 18-pound dumbbell or 10kg kettlebell in a tight box pattern around the head keeping as close to the head as possible. Keep ribs in and head still. Arms and shoulders should be the only body part in motion. Do 2 rounds of 3 to 5 reps in each direction as part of your movement prep. Note from Wickliffe: For a beginner or someone with shoulder injuries or weaknesses, 10-pound or lighter weights or even just holding a light ball would suffice. I prefer to use kettlebells because I like the grip position. Most people at an average or beginner level would benefit from using 10-pound (or lighter) bells. This way they can focus on the movement rather than their arms fatiguing.
Start in hollow body position with arms either by ears or at hip level. Reach fingers to toes keeping belly button in towards spine and neck long to a closed pike balance. Return back to starting hollow shape to begin reps 2 and on. Perform 3 to 4 rounds of 12 to 20 reps. To modify: Perform in a tuck position or with hands stabilizing.
Begin in a dead hang with core engaged, legs squeezed and feet in plantarflexion. Maintain this shape while pulling chin above the hands. Slowly lower to beginning position and continue with following reps until set is complete. Perform 3 to 4 rounds of 5 to 10 reps.
(4) Leg Lift
Start in the same position as the beginning of a pull-up. Keeping legs straight, engage core to lift legs either parallel to the ground (level 1) or all the way to a closed pike with toes at hands (level 2). Be sure to lower to starting position slowly and controlled keeping core active before initiating rep 2. Perform 3 to 4 rounds of 8 to 12 reps.
(5) Modified Skin The Cat
From the top of the level 2 leg lift, allow feet to continue through hands to fold into a pike shape paralleling the torso and legs to the ground. From there, slowly lower back to dead hanging position. This requires more core strength and engagement than leg lifts. Perform 3 to 4 rounds of 5 to 10 reps.
(6) Full Skin The Cat
Similar to the modified version, start in a dead hang with a hollow body position. Allow feet tp continue through hands to folded pike. Continue rotating toes toward the floor to the full extension that individual shoulder mobility allows. To rewind, tuck chin and engage abdominals to bring thighs to chest. Unfold to initial hollow body dead hang. Perform 3 to 4 rounds of 5 to 10 reps.
Hanging from rings, send one foot through each ring to hook knees. Walk hands up the straps to pull up to standing. Continue holding straps with arches of feet planted firmly on the rings. Slowly extend legs into a split keeping individual mobility in mind. Activate adductors to squeeze legs back together to come down.