Aerial Cartwheel, Dance, Gymnastics, Tumbling

Learning The Aerial Cartwheel

Introduction to Learning the Aerial Cartwheel

The aerial cartwheel has been a common skill for decades in the sport of gymnastics. Today, it is regarded as an elementary skill in most gymnastics programs. However, the aerial cartwheel is far from an “easy” skill to acquire correctly.

Now that the Dance industry has put a large emphasis on acro skills, the Aerial Cartwheel is a “must have” skill in many dance company programs. In fact, most of my Private One-on-One lessons are with Company dancers that need to learn their Aerials. Many dance studios do not have an acro program so students need to outsource their acro training. Even those that do have an acro class, many do not have a highly qualified coach to teach the skill properly and safely.

It is important to note that the Aerial Cartwheel is a complex skill that carries a decent amount of risks. Not only can the skill be mechanically difficult, but the mental aspect can also weigh heavy as well. As with any new skill, confidence plays a large role in how quickly the student can acquire the skill without assistance and risk. This is why it is important to follow proper progressions and build upon an existing skill base: Tumbling: Learning the Basics. In this post, I will discuss the pre-requisites needed, skill dynamics, drills, and proper spotting techniques.

Pre-Requisites to Learning the Aerial Cartwheel

As with all tumbling/acro skills, success depends on the amount of basic element training the student has accomplished. I have mentioned in many previous posts, how important it is to have a strong foundation (Tumbling: Importance of Building a Strong Foundation) for students to build upon. The stronger the foundation, the better the chances of success in learning higher level skills.

Prior to learning the Aeriel, the student must have:

  1. A technically proper and aggressive Cartwheel

2. A technically proper and aggressive Hurdle Step and Lunge position.

3. Flexibility, quickness, and strength also play important roles.

I often ask my students “what is an Aerial Cartwheel”. The answer I give them is: “It Is a Cartwheel – without hands.” In essence, the better the cartwheel, the easier it is to learn the aerial. If the cartwheel is weak or technically incorrect, the aerial will most likely not be accomplished.

Note: The Aerial Cartwheel is performed from several different methods: Standing, from a Hurdle, from a Sache, etc. In this post, I will discuss training methods that incorporate each method.

Training Development

Drill #1:

I begin to teach the aerial by working static cartwheel drills. The cartwheel process, for the purpose of progressing to an aerial, is somewhat different than the normal cartwheel process. In this drill, I have the student begin in a proper lunge position.

I discuss the arm and leg position within the lunge, outlining the “line” position and how it should maintain while performing the skill (such as a “seesaw”). Upon completion of the cartwheel, the lead leg should land very close to the second hand placement on the floor. This action trains the student how the lead leg should prepare for landing the aerial – directly under the hips upon completion.

Always have the student begin the skill in a lunge position with the torso and hips facing forward. A common error is when the student begins by facing sideways (even slightly). This position will make it more difficult for the student to land the aerial effectively. As the student becomes effective with this drill, have the student perform it with kicking the back (lead) leg with as much speed and aggression as possible. The lead leg should get as high as possible – as outlined above to maintain the straight line position. The higher the leg can get, the less distance it has to land at completion of the skill. The optimal position of the legs while suspended vertically during the skill is a complete split (180 degrees).

Drill #2

The next drill in this sequence is to move the student to an elevated surface to work on the same drill. I like to use a folded up panel mat, but any firm surface such as an air floor or firm mattress can be used. The purpose of the elevated surface is to allow the student to drive the lead leg further before the hands make contact with the floor.

I often draw an “X” on the mat where the hands should be placed and another “X” where the lead foot should land. Note: an Aerial should not travel forward very much. thus, the first hand should be placed down slightly in front of the first foot – while maintaining the “strait line” of the leg and arm.

At this point, I will step in and spot the student on an aerial. It is important to reinforce to the student that they are simply doing a fast cartwheel and the spot is a slight lift. This will give the student the feeling of what an aerial actually feels like. I do not have the student focus on any arm positioning at this time. So, the student is simply doing a cartwheel with a spot to lift them up slightly.


When spotting the Aerial Cartwheel, the instructor must be spotting the skill on the side of the lunge leg. For example, for Right dominate tumblers, spot should be on the right side. For Left dominate tumblers, spot should be on the left side.

*It is imperative that the coach is well trained and experienced in spotting this skill!! Why it is Important to Spot Skills

Drill #3:

The next step in this progression is to have the student perform the aerial drill from a run and hurdle step. The panel mat will be used again but will be turned sideways for the lead foot to be placed at the finish of the hurdle step.

It is important to determine the starting point of the run so the hurdle is performed in the correct spot. The run can be from one up to 4 steps prior to the hurdle. For the student just learning, two steps may be easier for the control. As the student becomes more comfortable with the action, the steps can increase to 3 or 4. However, this approach needs to be smooth and controlled. The run should not be too fast. (Note: the aerial should not be performed with much forward momentum).

Note: It is critical that the “Hurdle Step” is done correctly in order for the student to be in the proper position to execute the skill proficiently (The Hurdle Step – The Key Ingredient).

The “Chicken Wing” position:

When I first introduce this skill, I will have the student perform with the arms tucked in – fist to chest (chicken wing) position.

This is the Aerial using the “Chicken Wing” motion

Although this is not the position that aerials should be performed ultimately, I teach it in this manner as this position allows the skill to rotate quicker. Once the student has learned the skill and become confident without spotting, I correct this arm position to swing the arms to the side of the body while performing the skill:

Video of the Aerial with the Arm Swing

Progressing the Skill:

Through consistent repetition, the student will begin to feel more comfortable and confident. The coach should continue to assist with a spot throughout this process and gradually lighten up the assistance as the skill progresses. As with most skills, overcoming the “fear” of performing the skill without a spot may take some time. Patience is the key to building strong confidence, which is required to perform solo.

Once the student is able to perform the skill without a spot, using the tools of the panel mat and landing mat, it is time to transition to the floor. The coach should assist with a spot during this transition until the student is confident enough to attempt without a spot. Again, patience is the key and this process may take some time.


The Aerial Cartwheel does come with a certain amount of risks. If the skill is not performed accurately, the student has the risk of landing low thus putting excess pressure on the landing foot and leg. It is common for a student to experience an ankle injury performing this skill if not performed well. It is never a good idea to force a student to attempt this, or any skill, unless they are both physically and mentally prepared to do so. Always remember, once a student experiences an accident resulting in an injury, even if minor, the confidence level tanks and it may take a long time to gain that confidence back.

This training tutorial is my opinion based on the experiences I have had over the many years of teaching this skill. There are other methods that may be effective. As I have mentioned in previous posts, every athlete is different and what may work great for one may not work great for all.

Scott Johnson
1984 Olympic Gold Medalist 1988 Olympic Team Captain

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