Lugging a thick blue mat to the front of a springboard, coach Tim Preston announces, “OK, we’re going to use the big and squishy.” But the line of students preparing to fling their bodies into the air to practice vault last week weren’t the usual crowd of kiddies at Gaithersburg’s Preston Gymnastics. In fact, many of them have children of their own.

“We were always picking up our kids here. So one of the moms decided we should do our own class,” explained 39-year-old Katy Gruber, a mother of four who looked more like a high schooler in her perky pigtails and a tight tee. Preston finally succumbed to their pestering two years ago. “I thought I was going to be stuck doing forward rolls and cartwheels,” he said.

To his shock, the students in his adult class — who range from former gymnasts to curious folks who’ve never stepped foot on a balance beam — now routinely perform incredible stunts, like back flips and front handsprings.

The idea of grownups attempting a sport so associated with tots and teens may seem absurd. But while adult gymnastics is only offered at a handful of gyms in the area, leaving puberty behind doesn’t mean forgoing flipping. “It’s just not as easy as it used to be, because it puts a lot of pressure on your joints and body,” explained Angela Boyle, who began teaching an adult class at Skyview Gymnastics in Mount Airy two years ago.

With the right conditioning and stretching, older bodies can manage impressive tricks. Gruber, for instance, can do front flips off the tumble track (a long trampoline). “My son thinks that’s pretty cool,” she said. But students have to know their limitations.

Phillip Mandalou, recreational director at Columbia Gymnastics, has a student in his 30s who desperately wanted to master the pommel horse. “That’s one of the most difficult apparatus. Those guys he’s seen do it on TV are working out five hours a day, every day,” Mandalou said. “So he’s never going to be able to do it like them.”

Even if adult gymnasts set the bar lower than they would have when Mary Lou Retton was the rage, they can still aim for a perfect 10 body. Warm ups target flexibility, the tumbling hones agility and power, bars tackle strength and the conditioning that’s part of every gymnastics class tightens abs and other muscles.

After just a month and a half of classes with Preston, Mani Hassan, a 23-year-old former personal trainer, says no sport he’s ever done has rivaled gymnastics. “Your entire body feels it. It’s great for weight loss, stamina, speed. It’s the best thing out there,” he said. And though the last time he tried gymnastics was during gym class in third grade, Hassan (who’s 6’6″) is already doing aerial cartwheels.

If you’re not an uber-athlete like Hassan, it’s better to start with simpler moves. Mandalou, who’s been teaching adults for 20 years, begins with the handstand. “It’s a skill most people associate with gymnastics and the ability to be inverted and know where you are comes in handy,” he said. And even if adult gymnasts were to stop there, they’d definitely be able to impress their buddies at the next cocktail party.

Tumble time
» PReston Gymnastics offers adult classes Mon. at 7:45 p.m. and Fri. at 7 p.m. (7967 Cessna Ave, Gaithersburg, 301-948-0827).
» Skyview Gymnastics welcomes adults Mon. at 8 p.m. (2603 Back Acre Circle, Mount Airy, 301-829-7998).
» Columbia Gymnastics has its adult session Mon. at 8 p.m. (9200 Rumsey Rd., Columbia, 410-964-2053).