Emmet and Mikael discuss the methodology and theory that went into the creation of the Handstand Factory programs, focusing on the capacity of learning how to teach yourself to handstand, as well as answer questions from live viewers.
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S1E10 – Training Philosophy and Live Q&A
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Transcript of Episode 10: Training Philosophy and Live Q&A
EL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Handstand Cast by Handstand Factory. We are recording our minisode today in front of a live audience on Zoom. Thank you all for joining us.
Today’s topic is looking at the philosophy behind training. I am Emmet Louis, and I am joined by my cohost Mikael Kristiansen.
How are things, Mikael?
MK: Not too bad. Sorry, everything just locked up, but now it’s good. I’ll answer that question by quoting that guy that I met on a cruise ship once that seemed exceptionally miserable. I’ll say the same as yesterday, though my yesterday wasn’t that miserable, either. Not much changed lately.
EL: The way to describe it is, we’re stuck in endless Wednesday. Every day is Wednesday. Wake up, it’s Wednesday. Saturday never comes.
MK: Yeah, but we go on. Slowly.
EL: Let us digress before we reach the pit of despair. We’re here tonight to talk a little bit about the philosophy of Handstand Factory, and our own coaching as well, to give you some insight into that. I know everyone who is listening is a live audience tonight, so after we talk we’re going to do a Live Q&A towards the end.
We’re going to get to some of the other questions, depending on how much time we’ve got left.
So, Mikael, training philosophy – where do we start on this one? It’s kind of a tricky topic.
MK: Yeah, I guess I can start where my training philosophy, or lack of, comes from. Actually, when I think about where I started any type of physical practice, which was first Karate when I was 14. Of course, it is very systematic. You have the grades, and the belt, and the trainer says what you’re supposed to do, and so on.
Then I went into breakdancing, which is completely the opposite. There’s no structure, no training philosophy besides try one more time, kick your leg higher, and train every day. That is kind of the thing, no methodology to it. This works great when you’re 18, so at that point, I just smashed constantly, every single day until I started getting into the circus scene.
There I actually continued to smash every single day. So that’s kind of been me. In terms of my own practice, I started learning from others when I started teaching people. It’s actually not great to train 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
I think that it kind of starts there. It’s important to do a lot, but it’s to find the chunk of time you need to invest to get something to happen. You have to allow somewhat of the opposite, so you don’t end up wrecked. This was my mission to learn.
EL: I think you raised an interesting point there with the smash approach to learning. It works, and it’s definitely one strategy that needs to be employed. We have two concepts in training.
I have my structured training that I do to specifically improve certain qualities, and then I have the physical act of doing the thing, whatever I might be training at the moment.
When you’re doing the thing, correcting, or thinking about your handstand alignments, how to balance, how your fingers work and toes point, then by definition you’re thinking about the skill. You’re assessing, critiquing, judging. You’re not actually doing it.
In my mind, you have to have two sets of practices, or mindsets. You have to be physically working on a specific quality, be that strength, balance, alignment, flexibility, whatever it might be. At the same time, you have to allow these moments where you just practice and do the thing. You throw all our cueing, technique, let it go out the window and see what is actually embodied, and what happens. It works. Clearly we can say the brute force training for handstands, where someone keeps kicking up and kicking up-
MK: In the end, a lot of training and brute forcing..and when I say that to those of you listening, I don’t mean that it’s about using a lot of strength. Think about it in the way of code breaking. If you have a computer that tries to break the code enough times, in the end it will succeed. It’s brute forcing the code. That is essentially a part of skill learning, where you sometimes need an insane amount of repetition for things to click.
Then again, the issue is there are smarter ways of doing that.
One of the points of the Handstand Factory thinking is to allow for both of these kinds of approaches. You have this more structured ‘this is what you need to do.’ But how you approach doing that can be very different, and for different people.
When I started teaching people, I saw that I can’t assume, because I learned to do something a certain way, that it is by definition 1:1 going to function for someone else. Having that interplay and dialectic between these two approaches is really important.
EL: It’s something Yuri Marmenstein quoted, sometime in the past month or two. I can’t remember the source he quoted from, but he said: an athlete has a method, but a coach has a methodology. So in this context, an athlete is someone who’s really good at the skill and what works for them. They can show you, I do this, this is how I got there, and this is how I train now. But then a coach will have the overarching principles of the methodology, and be able to adapt those principles to the situation at hand. It’s one of the things that totally comes across in the program, though you have to be the judge of this, as you’re the ones doing it. We’re teaching this methodology, and if you start from the start of the syllabus, all the way up to the one arm work, we’re slowly taking you by the hand, then taking the training wheels off. When you get to Keep Pushing, you have to make choices for yourself. When you get to Press, it’s a bit more linear, more of a strength skill. But on the one arm skill, it’s: these are the techniques you have to master, but how you get there is different, as everyone is coming into it differently.
At the same time, we don’t search for perfection. I think a lot of people make the mistake is expecting perfection from the start. You can’t be perfect from the start.
I always have this idea that perfect form is an emergent phenomenon, based on preconditions that you have set up. How can you get this concept onto you? Your body has the ability to display perfect form, whether that might be flexibility, coordination upside down, balance skills – you won’t display perfect form. You have to know it’s okay to be bad, but you still have to try as hard as you can.
MK: I’ve done it a lot myself. The very simple way of looking at something is like, you see something done, or you do it extremely well, then you use this backwards rationalization for it. “Okay, my technique is such, that is why I can do it well.” Instead, maybe your technique is such because you’ve done it so many times that you don’t have any concept anymore of the variation of that.
A good example is, my arm is pushed here, my head is here, and I’m balancing well because it’s like that. I remember a friend of mine who also did circus school and has really good one arms. A friend had come to him and said, you’re not balancing well because your head is here, that’s the issue. He asked me about that, and immediately the first thing I did was find him a video of Andrey Moraru, and said, Andrey is better than everyone, and his head is here. Then there must be something else causing this good balancing. Perhaps his neurology and muscles in combination and ability to balance is what does that.
It’s easy to think that this perfection has to be there from the get go, when, as you say, it’s an emergent property that comes over time. Like you said of our programs, it’s interesting in the Press program, for those of you who haven’t looked at it.
There’s especially one drill in there, called the Endo Roll to Handstand, which is essentially where you roll back to lie on the back of your neck, with legs by your head. Then you roll forwards, and place your hands in between your legs and push as high as you can into a stalder press from that position. It’s by no means a progression that is good for everyone. This is something we decided to have in there, because someone is going to come into this and be comfortable with dynamic style movements, or done tumbling or gymnastics. It’s a perfect way for them to relate to the movement, though it might not be for everyone.
The path diverges as you get more experience with this. You have to start to have to make your own choices about your training, especially when you don’t have a one to one coach on a daily basis.
EL: With a one to one coach, a lot of the time I can tell you what school most hand balancers went to, just by looking at their line in a handstand. The individual variances, like where a person keeps the legs externally rotated in a straight handstand, or keep them squeezed together, so they went here. These people keep this parallel, so they went here. These people have the shoulders locked to the ears, so they went here.
All of them are very good balancers, but might have different shoulder positions, different lines, plus or minus a bit. But there must be some overarching principle they’re all adhering to, to have a good handstand.
This is one of the things we put a lot of thought into when designing Push itself. We had directions of correction in the handstand, and slowly introduced these directions. The first one is verticality, maintaining it up and down. The first section is learning to get inverted, to support your weight. You build confidence, know how, alignment.
Then we start introducing directions. We reduce the variables. One of our big principles is to reduce variables, then add them in.
We have losing balance, rebalancing in one direction only. Then in our kick up technique, can we try to reduce all the variables so you grow an efficient technique that can just be repeated? As we add them on and on, suddenly we have a free balance handstand that has vertical balance, as well as the entry into it.
By the time you’ve had experience with all this, this will emerge into your perfect handstand for whatever your shoulder flexibility and alignment allows. It’s an important thing; if we can nail these principles more than anything else, we can let peoples’ own styles of handstand emerge.
MK: The thing with removing variables seems to still be one of the most important things. For any level on anything, you’re learning.
When I do coaching with new people, I see them start doing the drills on the wall, and know this person could have wasted their time for months in the same thing. All the day is push off the toes on the wall.
It’s funny to my brain, as I’ve done this for so long, it’s such a counter intuitive thing to do. But I’m sure if a mathematician started to show me some semi-complicated math, I’d probably do the same thing. What is intuitive to that person would be a complete mindfuck to me, concentrating so much energy into just understanding the equation.
For a person upside down, it’s the same thing. There’s a guy I started with who I gave feedback to yesterday. All of the drills, he was doing exactly the opposite of what I’d already told him he was supposed to be doing. I said, put the hands closer to the wall, grab the fingers, don’t push with the toes.
What he did was put his hands really far from the wall, didn’t use his fingers, pushed the toes. But, he’s trying to solve a puzzle. At the present, he can’t concentrate on all these pieces. Being able to use the efficient set up…stuff like getting used to the kick up and keeping the legs straight to the degree you can. If you always bend the leg up in different ways, your body will have different sensations for all that. But if you’re able to make your body try to repeat the same experience again and again, first you have less flying around in space, and you get more experience points per kick up.
EL: I think the kick up is a really good example, The kick up drill shows the principles in action. We can have someone who can literally just touch their toes, and there’s no point even attempting splits. Then we can have someone who has full oversplits. If we set the principles behind the kick up, like lining the shoulders, then the spine on top of that, and the hips and legs following, then you have someone whose kick up is in a V shape, and someone whose kickup is in a full split. But they’re both adhering to the same principles.
So a lot of the time, the corrections you’d be getting are aesthetic choices more than principles. But if we can teach the principles to Mr I Can’t Touch My Toes, who trains a couple of years and gets to Mr I Can Oversplit, the same principles will apply, but his will look like the first flexible example.
I’m really enjoying watching how people are coming along with the course. There’s someone whose name I’m not sure of, but he’s @Coach_Deezy on instagram. He’s a great example. He’s got the program, and trains with other people but is constantly tagging us. He went from no one arm, but doesn’t have a body or flexibility that is super conducive to making it work, but has adapted the technique and principles to himself. He has a solid 15s now.
MK: His big split is kind of like a semi, small split for most. He doesn’t have a wide straddle, but it works. Emmet and I were having a conversation the last couple of days, in terms of the anatomical variation between people. Without being able to say too much or extrapolate too much about how things need to be, and all that, it’s impossible. You either have to do very specific X-Rays or MRIs, or literally cut people open to see their joint angles. It’s not possible to make too many assumptions, but I found this website with tons of different bones from cadavers. I was mainly looking at the scapula. If you looked at the scapula, especially the acromion and the…Coracoid process, you can see a couple of different scapula. The size of the acromion had massive differences. And I was looking at the scapula from four different people.
You can’t really know what that means for a certain person, but it certainly means that not everything will fit for everyone. If the bone looks like this, or that, it will have an effect. We can’t always assume everything will fit for everyone.
EL: What about one of your favourites, the Cubital Valgus?
For those who don’t know, if you have greater than 10º of deviation…with your hands out to the side, externally rotated, you’ll see the hands do not make a straight line. The forearm will be bent at a slight angle to the outside.
MK: I have a little bit, but I can’t show much with how I’m sitting now. It is like if your arm is hanging fully down, relaxed, and rotate so your palm is up, you will see the elbow down to the hand having a slight outwards angle from the body.
EL: We noticed this as something Mikael spotted for himself, then in other people. It makes a very funky line-
MK: I was seeing insane amounts of it, and was like, what the hell is this?
EL: Yeah, and we noticed if you look at what happens on the centre of mass when these people go to press, they have a very easy press. We noticed a lot of the pressing beasts we have have this.
It almost looks like they are doing a bent arm press, slightly. Weird freaks.
It goes back to this thing, we don’t know what your body looks like inside, and we’re not prepared to find out legally.
MK: I’m going to send a picture in the chat, if I can. This is from a student who came to a workshop in Iceland. She has some freaky elbows. It’s interesting, because I showed this to a couple of other hand balancers, and they said, no, her arms are bent. And I said no, I was there.
These arms really do look bent to a substantial degree.
EL: We’re going to do a game of charades, or words…where people can guess what we’re looking at. For those listening in in podcast land, we’ll put any photos into the transcript, which is on our website.
MK: I need to find out how to put this in the chat.
EL: Hyperextension is an interesting one as well. It comes in two flavours: either you don’t have enough, or you have too much. It’s never just right.
It’s interesting to see it develops in people when they hand balance, to a certain degree. Some schools actually force it. I remember having some Chinese coaches, and they thought the lines looked nicer, so they tied belts around the elbows and pulled them in to try to hyper tend them when holding chest to wall handstands.
It’s proper Chinese. Well, why? It was literally just a pure aesthetic choice for them. They were trying to get a line where the upper arm was vertical to the ground, and an A shape outwards. It was pleasing to the eye.
MK: It’s a little bit like the look of the hyper extended leg for dancers, to get this almost arch. I’ve noticed it a lot in pro hand balancers. You do often see hyper extended elbows.
Mine stopped hyper extending after 10 000 years of smashing it. You can maybe see a little bit in my left arm when I lift it, it’s angling slightly. It used to be more. I guess it’s just the wear and tear over the years that ended up in the arm.
EL: I think it’s kind of funky, because for me I have negative hyper mobility anything in the body. I developed quite a big one on the elbows, which I sort of did deliberately via stretching. Other stuff just kind of emerged and was maintained, but the rest of my body doesn’t show any of that stuff.
Kevin was standing up to show his arms, if anyone noticed.
Anyway, back to Philosophy. Let’s segue, what do you think about training intensity?
MK: In my own head, and we’ve talked a lot about this, how do you translate these concepts? Frequency is simple. Volume is rather simple, while intensity is a difficult one to translate into hand balancing practice.
If it’s press to handstand, it’s not very difficult. If you can barely do a pike press on a good day, well that’s 100% intensity. That’s not very difficult.
But when it comes to technical complexity, that is another parameter where you can kind of speak about intensities.
Let’s say someone can do a kick up to handstand and hit that 8/10 times, but then kick up to handstand, go to tuck, then back to straight – that is a 2/10 times thing, if they hit the handstand.
Then we’re starting to talk about things that might be in that intensity range. If we relate that to what we were talking about before…now I’ve completely lost my train of thought.
EL: Complexity as a form of training intensity.
MK: If you do that too much, it becomes like trying to brute force. Say you spend your entire training only allowing yourself to value it as being productive if you manage to kick up, tuck, straight, tuck, come down, but that is too hard for you to successfully manage each time. If you only keep basing that, as your validation for the skill and being your goal, that can be detrimental in the same way as wanting to lift 100kg in the bench at the gym. You go in and all you try to do is lift 100kg in the bench at the gym. That is how you get to the level of lifting 100 at the gym. It’s kind of the same.
You reduce the variables, you practice your tuck handstand by the wall. That gets very good. You practice your kick up to handstand, that gets solid. Then you start putting it together.
That’s one way I like to think about the intensity of things.
EL: What I say to a lot of people, particularly in bodyweight skills, is making the form better is a form of adding weight to the bar, basically, for bodyweight skills.
If you think about a press to handstand, you get your first press, your legs are all over the place, you have a mini seizure on the way up. You kind of lose it. Well, you know, as you get stronger, your legs will stay straighter longer. Your toes will stay pointed longer, your technique will get better. This is one of our measures of progress, and it can get quite interesting as a coach.
You’ll see someone who just did 4 or 6 weeks of training. They might have increased the skill one repetition. If we were to go by standard increases in weight training, it’s terrible. You added one rep per set in your whole training day – that’s nothing. Nothing.
But when you look at the videos of the beginning form checks and the end form checks, you see someone who was pressing with the Gollum Technique, then someone pressing with the Elf Technique.
If we were to look at this workout in paper, the volume is literally the same amount. But the technique and technical parameters are improving. A lot of people, particularly at the beginning stage, maybe learned to balance in a kind of arch shape, it’s a bit sloppy and your legs are moving. You might find you’re stuck at 20s for a long time, but slowly, the lines are getting better, the legs are moving less. There are all these little parameters you might not even notice.
MK: You have a better 20s, essentially.
It’s like lifting a weight, there is only one parameter, one axis you develop. While here, it’s very hard to translate directly, but you are developing on several axes at the same time. You are getting better at doing the thing that you want to do.
Let’s say you’re used to balancing like this, and your arms are slightly bent. You’re pretty comfortable there and can stay 30s. Then you start to work on pushing your shoulders high, and you aren’t bended anymore and it feels heavy. You get the experience of it being heavier than you used to do, but then again, you’re working with muscles that are not as used to doing the job for you.
Like if you asked me to do a bent arm pike press, where I lean forwards, bend my arms like a handstand pushup, then do the leg lift, I find that heavier to do than both a handstand pushup, and a pike press. I’d probably find it as heavy as 3 reps of either, just because I never do it. I can do both of the other things.
If you put yourself in a new situation, it doesn’t necessarily translate. As you’re learning these things, it’s important to not 100% focus on whether the form is perfect, or you reached some thing that you failed. “I didn’t reach 30s, so I failed!” If you did 29s of whatever it was, you were still doing the job. You’re still learning.
On one side, there’s the training philosophy of sports science, and intensity, frequency, recovery and specifically mapped out things you can put on paper. On the other side you have circus school.
It’s a little bit similar to breakdancing, though circus school has a bit more structure. Circus school is full of a bunch of totally jacked 19 year olds, where all they need to do is train all day. They have all the energy and talent, because they got in there, and they’re just steam trains. They go and go and go and go. In those contexts, it often works perfectly to brute force it. A friend of mine from Sweden went to China and trained for some months. All they had him do there was L-Sit to Handstand Presses. He was just doing a million billion of those.
I was like, damn, he’s gonna break. Of course he didn’t. He was 18, he had very high capacity from before. He’s the kind of guy who has no structure. He will just go in, train a bunch of handstands, then do a bit of hand to hand. Then he goes, I’ll finish with bench press and pull-ups, then does a million of bench press and pull-ups, goes home, comes in the next day, and keeps doing the same thing.
It’s certainly not optimal, but because of the extreme amount of capacity there, due to the age, the talent, and so on, these things are kind of possible to do.
One thing we wanted to keep from the circus community is this thing of learning to be in control of your own training. You’re not only manipulating a weight and bar, but if we only say, here’s a handstand program, go and do this, then you’ve lost your autonomy. Being able to have the combination of that is what we’re aiming to do here, both in sense of direction with programming, but also autonomy the more advanced you get.
Even on straddle one arm level, which arguably is difficult, but not into the more difficult stuff, we could say more specifically what you have to do there than on the complex positions. Then we’re entering into, can your body do this efficiently? This is the upper echelons, where it’s much harder to say immediately what would work.
EL: It’s one of the things I believe about a lot of circus schools, because the recruitment process, they end up with an immense talent pool who have this belief that if you put the same people or group in your year in the hall and gave them the amount of time you have in circus school, tell them, you have three years to put on a show, off you go, you’d probably end up with people at basically the exact same level that they come out with after three years of training. This is not to say they don’t get other things, but in terms of technical skill, it’s basically that. They see things, they try them out until they can do it.
This is what we want people to do with handstands. We give them the capacity, and build on that capacity in a logical, structured manner. But then, we prefer to go, oh here’s me at the beach doing a hundred handstands because I felt like it.
MK: And that’s sort of important. It’s ultimately supposed to be enjoyable. That’s where I call bullshit on the ‘Discipline’ approach. You must do X reps of Y or else!!!!
On average, you are less likely to bother doing the thing if you find it to be tedious. Over time, it’s good to be disciplined. But if that is all you trust, you’re at risk of losing interest and motivation. So you need the joy in that.
Having to do the thing before being allowed to have fun is kind of nonsense. You need to have those times where you’re able to step back and say, hey, I’m going to do some handstands because it’s fun. I don’t need to record one and see, I did 13s, I did 7s.
EL: We’re getting towards the end, so if you have any questions or anything like that, put them in the group chat to the side.
But to sum up some of our philosophy here, we are trying to teach you to think for yourself, by giving you experience of different styles.
We give you the experience of how to build volume, build capacity, how to reduce and increase variables, how to not be ruled by perfect technique at the beginning. Then, just to level it out, practice.
Whenever I write programs for people or are training them for a long time, I don’t optimize the programs for most efficient results, but I optimize them for consistency. If that means it might be better to not train something, but this person really wants to train biceps and have massive arms, then if I didn’t give them some bicep training, they’d probably be upset.
Whereas if I give some of the stuff he wants, say with handstands I say play, try stuff out, here’s some variables – you’re more likely to stick with the program, and have fun. Certain styles of coaching have you do two years of preparation before you’re actually allowed to kick up to a handstand.
MK: Then you are wasting your time. You need to be able to enjoy it on some level. I think that, and take this with a grain of salt, because I don’t want you going out to just absolutely wreck yourself and blame me. Very often, and I remember this with Helgi, who both Emmet and I have taught, and who runs a gym in Iceland. I saw him during this intensive training, we were training a lot. Then I see him outside on some bad cobblestone, trying to do a one arm. I said now Helgi is going to get it, because you can’t stop doing it.
The more complicated things are, the more that applies to a certain degree. If you have some free time, you feel okay, if you want to do it even though you don’t have a specific program on it, or your program says this is rest day..
If you know you’re being an idiot, and it is rest day, and your shoulders are terrible and you’re feeling really tired, then don’t. But you need that kind of looseness allowed for yourself.
In that sense, for a lot of you working on two arm stuff, I think a loosely based system around greasing the groove method, where you take some minutes, get your wrists ready, then practice a bit in ten minutes can be a very efficient strategy.
It’s definitely not something I recommend for one arm, since I’ve never seen wrists particularly happy about that.
EL: it’s the curse of the one arm. When you’re learning it, you’re inefficient and all over the place. Most people, at some point while learning one arm, will injure their elbow, or their fingers. Just from doing too much, then falling or twisting all their weight onto one arm in a weird way.
If a lot of people are good, they get up to a 10-12s one arm before the left hand, or dark hand, or whatever you want to call it, is doing anything. But then they generally injure the right hand, and have to spend a load of time practicing on their left hand until the right hand gets fixed.
Then the left hand catches up. The unfortunate fun of one arm is you inevitably get injured, which leads us into a good question here.
A question from one of our viewers: do you guys have any prehab exercises for the shoulder, as that’s the most common injury here amongst handstanders, probably because of overtraining, but do you have any you’ve found throughout your years of training.
MK: I have a mixed relationship with prehab of shoulders. One of the things is you want to train your shoulders a bit, so you can train your shoulders more. So unless you take a step back from your handstand practice so that you have the recovery time you need, you will very easily add…
Let me just tell you a really dumb thing I did in circus school, because I heard, oh yeah, you need your pulling muscles as strong as your pushing muscles. So I was doing 100 hours of handstands a week, then figured, ok what’s the opposite of all this pushing work I do here? I’m going to do one arm pulls to meat hook, if you know what that is. It’s a quite advanced straps exercise, like a one arm leg raise, and they wreck your shoulders. But to me, this made sense.
I didn’t have any sensible thinking, like taking a step back from the handstands and training the pulling part of my shoulders. No. I just added it. Then you’re running with another 20% extra load.
That is just something to consider in terms of prehab work, but something that I have found to help is external rotation work, especially overhead. This is a very experimental thing I work with, like loads and reps, where I’m essentially working rotator cuff exercises in all these weird positions that do seem really relatable to handstands.
But on average, the things I’ve seen that cause the most injuries in the shoulders from handstand practice is definitely the external rotator, since they’re part of what locks the arm in the handstand position.
EL: It also depends on what level you’re at. One of the greatest things we can have to prevent the injury is just a well structured strength and conditioning routine. The more complex your skills are, and handstand is pretty complex, then you need a basic strength and conditioning program. You don’t want crazy anything in there. I don’t know if there’s a debate on this point.
But simple things – chin ups, push ups, dips, these types of exercises. Very simple, but just do them.
Something I noticed is a lot of hand balancers I coach only train strength and conditioning one time a week, and then we let the handstands take care of the rest of the training. There’s a couple of people who lift 140kg in the chat in this training. It’s not too small, but it still does provide that base of injury resistance. It’s hard to say if it’s one exercise, because everyone is a bit different. But just having a very basic plan, but a structured one where you follow the rules of logical load, correct range of motion, proper progressions and regressions, then you get a lot of that.
The other thing is, don’t do too much.
MK: Don’t be afraid of taking a step back. What can actually repair your body is your own biology. If you’re doing too much or too often, make sure you keep track of that. That is where you really be careful about the things I did propose just before this. That playful, I’m going to go do something now kind of thing. That can be more on the problematic side simply because you are a little bit injured, but you’re just going to do a thing.
With risks, the large one is, “My wrist is a bit better, I’m just going to try this handstand on this stone right here….It feels a bit worse, it’s probably okay. I’m just going to train tomorrow.” Then you train tomorrow, and it becomes a bad spiral, where you constantly have to test whether or not your joint is better. That is something to look out for,
EL: Cool. So we’re going to move on to our next question.
When learning to use blocks, how much blocks versus floor should you do?That’s a hard one, it depends on the purpose you’re using blocks for. Once people start to get up to one arm conditioning and are pretty advanced, I generally advise them to do one day on blocks, another on floor, to avoid overuse injuries of the wrist. Whether people choose to ignore my advice or not, I don’t know. So 1:1 is a good idea.
But when you’re learning to use them, you can get a lot out of just doing a few sets. If you’re holding a straight handstand and want to learn blocks, just regressing to heel and toe pulls using the blocks instead will teach your fingers the balance mechanism on the block.
You generally find this sharp learning curve. Nothing happens for a while and it’s terrible. Then your fingers figure out how to do it, and suddenly you’re basically the exact same on blocks as on the floor.
MK: It’s also a preference. On average, I would say that when you are pretty good on your hands, block and floor should feel identical on two arms, and on one arm, block should feel easier. You will have control on the side, and the fingers on the side of the block can grab the block and squeeze yourself a bit sideways, giving yourself extra control.
You mainly feel that in high centre of mass positions, such as legs together. There you’ll feel a significant difference. There should not be any real difference in shoulder position, and so on. It’s essentially whether or not your fingers are like that, or like that. It is slightly easier, so I’d advise to play with both, and see what you like the most.
Some people I know only stick to blocks. I like to do it on the ground. On average, the ground will give you more control than blocks, but as long as you get familiar with both of them, you should be able to use both.
EL: It’s a familiarity thing as much as anything else. For me, the main limit was my finger strength or endurance – the burn – and on blocks, the burn wouldn’t happen as fast. Say doing sets of 90s on the floor, but 3+ min on blocks since you can relax the fingers on the set completely, whereas there’s always a bit of a stretch on the ground.
MK: I remember my very first time doing blocks in my first handstand class as a B-Boy and came to the Circus Tent in Oslo, where this American hand balancer named Cory who taught a class. The first thing he asked me to do was show him a handstand on the blocks. I could do 40s, but my forearm was nuked so bad. I was used to my wide and bent arm position and he told me to do all these things. I just remember my grip, leaving there, going, I don’t know how to stand on my hands.
EL: Next one. This is a good one actually: My traps are super sore from carrying a backpack 40km. No sharp pain today. What are a few good exercises or stretches to open up the traps well?
There’s one recommendation we will link in the transcript, and you can find it on Youtube. If you look up Stretch Therapy Shoulder Push Down, it is from our friends Kit Laughlin and Olivia Allnutt. They teach a form of stretching, a lot of their work is around reducing tension and muscular tone. If you have a partner, and I’m not sure how you can do this socially distanced, but this stretch is after handstand training, or you feel a lot of pressure around the neck from pushing so hard, doing a round of this and really sinking into it is fantastic, to quote Kit. So check that out, and report back.
MK: Any advice on insanely tight hamstrings? I guess this one is for you, Emmet Louis.
Insanely tight hamstrings – I have some stuff on Youtube for hamstring stretches. If you’ve tried some relaxed stretching, if it’s not working and nothing is improving, it generally means you have to look at something else.
Generally the first thing I would look at is one of the functions of the hamstrings can do very poorly is help with hip stabilization, laterally, if I remember correctly. What I find is people will not be good on single leg exercises: single leg deadlifts, squats, balancing. Strengthen those ranges, then see if the hamstrings open up to it.
The other thing is calves. Calves can hide a lot of hamstring problems, so put some time into calves. The fun thing about calves is they aren’t fun to stretch properly, and generally don’t get an adaptation. Most stretches you can get a good adaptation in 30-45s. Calves, you have to basically start thinking 75-90s to begin with, and they don’t respond well to strengthening techniques. They just need a heavy load and time.
The other thing to check out with tight hamstrings is your active leg raise. Can you lift your leg parallel to the floor, with toes pointed and knee locked, or does it come up below that? If so, work on hip flexor strength, because we need this active-passive balance, where we can control the leg both actively and passively. If that’s lacking, the brakes get put on the flexibility. Definitely one to check out.
And then, what position are your hamstrings insanely tight in? Do you actually understand the position, have you spent some time thinking about how to adapt this technique to me? Are we doing it right?
A very common thing is people keep the weight on the toes when they go forward, and it blocks everything. If you learn to shift the hips backwards and flex the hip joint correctly, suddenly a lot of range can free up.
There’s a lot of things to try there, but if you’ve tried all other stretches and methodologies and it’s not working, look at glute stability, single leg exercises, these kinds of things.
MK: Next one here from Nick. Where do you see creativity research in handstand training? I see loads of people using a one arm handstand, which is great, but I see performances on two arms demonstrating such freedom on their hands, being creative with that, and showing insane skills. Where do you see this type of training in the methodology of hand balancing, and also in relation to the qualities Emmet was talking on on his Instagram.
I can say a little bit first. Creativity is kind of separate in relation to whatever skill level you’re at. People can be very creative without doing much spectacular skill things at all in any discipline, whether it’s circus or music. As a performer, I look at developing the vocabulary, and maybe more than that, developing the overarching degree of control to such a level that you can make more choices with it. You have a much larger and wider toolbox because you can do so many things. You have such a degree of control on your hands.
I think the best acts I have seen have nothing of the very, very high end difficulty tricks in them, because it’s always this trade off. If I never or rarely perform anything that is above 70% of my maximum capacity, because you are going to perform several days a week, and you are going to be destroyed or completely tired, hungover, whatever. You need the ability to do things that are rather safe. Within that way of thinking, find what my range of control is. What skills do I have absolute control over? It’s within those that you can play the most.
Expanding the circle on what you can do will give you more options. You will need to be the 0.01% of talent to be able to do the craziest things, in a casual easy manner that will contextualize it…
EL: It goes back to how people tend to focus a lot and put a lot into their technique stat, not their exploration stat. Just loading the skill points up.
You see people obsessed with the technicality of the skill. You must push technical boundaries, but there’s no real reward. There’s only the reward for doing weird handstands. When you can find something really nice, present it, and it’s given a context.
It comes down to one of the things we have in Keep Pushing. It’s the idea of movement qualities. We give a list of them, but it’s basically non exhaustive. I think for myself, actually, it was a hard slap in the face moment when I first went to circus school, or was at my second school. We had this contemporary dance teacher teaching dance.
She basically came in, we were doing some sequence. She said, okay Emmet, you need to make it juicier. I did the sequence again in what I thought was juicier. What is this woman talking about?
The next comment was, no, that wasn’t really it. I really wanted orange juice, and you gave me apple juice.
Pew! That was me going, what the hell. You have this subjective training vocabulary that helps guide our expression. I always think it’s important, a simple word you can say to someone. Slow, fast, you understand that. Hard, soft. Can we make a contrast, can we have a duality there? Can we move softly? Can we move with hard tension? Okay, we’re getting somewhere. Can we give a concept we have an experience of, and translate that experience into handstands?
One I put up on my Instagram recently was bounces, a concept I’ve been exploring with some of the more advanced hand balancers, where we have a bounce one, a bounce two, and a bounce three. A bounce one drops from a high position, a high state, to a lower state. A one to one.
A bounce two is like a bouncing ball. It drops, then loses some of its height, then loses height again. So bounce two might be handstand, drop to split, back up to diamond, or half diamond. You’re slowly reducing the energy in the system, or the height, I suppose. Once again, using energy is a concept in training that bears no relation to actual energy.
We have these words. If you take a simple word, like can we make a sequence in four moves, then do a red version of the sequence? Can I do a purple version?
MK: One of the nicer pieces I made in circus school was a second year show. There was a French circus director that was giving us a bunch of tasks. I think he told me ‘a drop of honey dripping off a leaf,’ or something like that. Then he said, do whatever you want with it, but keep that in mind when you create.
You can do a lot of those things. It doesn’t need to be from some sort of poetic image, either. Some of the stuff I really want to do more research with is with a bunch of power tools in handstand, because I did some stupid stuff with that once. Then I take something away from the context of handstands, then see how it can apply in this context. Finding things that are further removed from what you’re doing, and being able to see whether or not you can integrate it. That is where a lot of information and experimentation needs to happen.
The primary thing to remember in general when creating, is you’re going to create a lot of garbage, a lot of things you will not look upon as good in the moment, or in two years. You just need to keep on doing. It’s the same with training.
I was in circus school, and one guy was the other hand balancer that trained with my coach. He’s one of the most creative people I know. He could take absolutely anything, grab it, go on stage with no plan, and it would turn out amazing. He just had such a skill, in the same way that a lot of people train their bodies to get super strong, he had trained himself to be able to produce this creative state. He would find something.
He went on stage once, an open stage, and said, “Okay audience, give me three words.” I think he got elephant, Spain and something else. He just started and it was great.
It took him like 3 or 4 minutes before he found what he wanted to find. But when he got it, he just went, and everyone laughed their asses off.
I think accepting the suffering of creating trash is a hard part. You really need to invest. This thing is going to be good. And then you present it and just stab yourself. It looks terrible. I hate myself. You go through that, then slowly but surely, you develop it further.
EL: It’s embracing the emotional torment that comes with improvising for an hour. You look back at your footage and realize only 30s of it was useful. The rest just looked like you’re-
MK: Emotional harakiri.
EL: I thought it was so graceful and joints were under control, but no. You were a noodle flopping around.
Next question. Chasing 60s on two hands, but after the first hold over 40s, my forearm starts to burn. I can push through 10 more seconds, 4-5 chest to wall over a minute feels ok. Is there any way to target the forearms?
More burn time. You have two things to look at there. One is placement. Are you keeping constant pressure on the fingertips, or allowing them to relax during the set? The other one is, conditioning in the shoulders, elbows, body. If your forearms are the weak link, they need to be conditioned via strategic overreaching.
MK: One thing that can help you is, say finger strength is where you fail. Do your entire endurance set back to the wall, and when you start to fail, intentionally put your feet on the wall, and continue doing heel pulls, for example, even if you need to cheat a lot. You just want to juice out that last from the hand.
EL: It’s one thing, for people listening, an interesting test I do with people is get them to do a chest to wall handstand, when you’re learning. Say they can do 60s. But use a clock to time, and for this person, you notice the first point where they drop the shoulders. That will cause them to fall out of the handstand. If you drop the shoulders and notice, you can reestablish the push quite easily. But once you’re balancing when learning, if you drop the shoulders at 40s, maybe you haven’t got the endurance and that’s what is causing you to fall out.
MK: I see this one question, I don’t really have a specific answer to that one about handstands, and how long into pregnancy can one handstand?
EL: I actually have an answer for that one. Obviously it is depending on the doctor. What’s the actual question?
Into the second trimester is normally fine; you can normally keep up with all activities. Generally in third trimester, you have to see how they come, and you want to start toning down the training. Particularly because handstands can put stress on the joints and ligaments, and they can take a bit of a beating during pregnancy, due to the hormonal changes, I wouldn’t…Put it this way. I know a lot of hand balancers and acrobats who trained all the way up to their pregnancy, but suddenly their 4h training sessions become like, an hour of rolling around on a foam roller, then doing 4 or 5 handstands, and a bit of stretching. Nobody starts pushing it.
Play it by ear, feel. Obviously consult with your medical professional. There will be some people saying, inversions will confuse the baby. There’s no evidence of that because you’re upside down for so short a time. I wouldn’t worry too much about that.
But, don’t put pressure on yourself to keep training while you’re pregnant. Enjoy it. Enjoy the sleep while you still have a chance to do it.
MK: I’m having difficulties programming planche, handstands and pulling strength. No programming is very specific, but are there ideas I can experiment with?Trying to improve too many things at the same time will likely make you either have to accept very slow progress, or you might want to focus on certain things at certain times.
You want to have pulling strength, that is one thing you want to get stronger at, which requires load and recovery. Planche, same thing. Handstands, also the same thing to some degree. It’s kind of tricky.
I would say that at least treating one of them as less of a priority would be a place to start.
EL: Yeah. It is always a fine line. We have a minimal amount of recovery we need to achieve for all these skills. What can be interesting and that I’ve done in the past before is reduce the frequency, or look at the overlap in movements.
It also depends on level, because we need a bit of planche for stalder. We need a lot of it. But if we’re training stalder it covers planche a lot of the time. At the same time, if you look at a program for just planche training, it might be 4 or 5 exercises twice a week. You’re going to wreck yourself if you want to do handstand presses and everything like that. Your program might be just 2 exercises, but you pick the most effective for you. It might not mean the hardest ones, but the ones that tackle the specific parts of the strength curve that are weak.
You’re trying to dissect where your training needs work, and putting all the effort into there.
Then you might do planche, or a planche drill to work some part of it, like protraction or depression. Because of the crossover effect, when you get into retesting, or putting it back as the main focus, you’ll have an increase in it.
Generally for me to get to the stage where I can coach someone in this takes about 4-6 months of coaching and testing different volume strategies out on them. It’s not an easy question; capacity for recovery depends on so many things. Are we 18 and in circus school, or are we 45? Are you eating properly? Are you trying to cut, or gain weight? There’s a lot here to be refined.
The main thing I would say is do less than you think you should, and then judge that and see how you improve. You get a lot of crossover effect from a lot of these things.
MK: What do you both believe about push and pull strength quality?
I think about that. I guess there might be some merit to, if you want to have reasonably capable upper body strength, as Emmet said before, if you have a general strength training regimen that will help you along.
Then again, it depends. If you want to be Mr Calisthenics, who can do full planche, full lever and all that stuff, then those skills need to be your absolute main focus. From my own experience, I have never seen any direct results of whether or not I’ve been doing pulling training.
I do primarily and only pushing training, and I haven’t really felt anything other than being more tired when I’ve added pulling. That has to do with doing so much handstand, and I like to do so much that it’s hard for me to remove 2 days a week of handstand training. I don’t, so I’d rather not add a set of pull-ups to an already full training schedule. You don’t get particularly interesting results; it just becomes fiddling around with it.
My shoulders have been quite ok for the amount of training I’ve done through the years. So load management is more key.
EL: We look at this push pull strength equality and where it actually comes from. It came from the 90s, a guy called Ian King, really good and really influential at strength training.
He had this planes of movement theory, that you should program certain planes of movement. If you do a horizontal pull, you must do a horizontal push. You must have a balance in equal number of sets and reps.
Then it got shifted to: you must have an equal strength. It just doesn’t work out that way. I’ve coached enough people that no one really has equal strength. People tend to be more extension, pushing, or pulling exercise based, as an observation.
There’s also no actual research showing it has to be a 1:1. Every strength coach has their own ratios, you see them all different, which is the other thing. So is it specific to the system, that they need the ratios to get the strength to overcome the limitations of the system?
You see this a lot when considering the choice of accessory exercises. A strength coach who’s been in the game long enough will have certain favourite accessory exercises you must include in the program. For some it’s external rotations, trap 3 raises, variations of these….
What these accessories are doing are actually compensating for a lack of training, or overtraining in some function that this coach has a bias towards.
Do you need a 1:1 push to pulling ratio? Backs are arguably bigger muscles would need more angles and variations to train them in totality, so you might end up with a 2:1 ratio. You know, and with bodyweight training it’s actually very hard for me to say anything super conclusive other than you should train both of them.
MK: At least from all the stuff I’ve seen that advocated that you have to do that, it’s always mixed with marketing. You need to do this, because you’ll stay injury free. You need to do this to train optimally, so on and so on. I kind of have a little bit of a hard time taking it fully seriously that it has to be like that, especially I’ve seen dozens and dozens of super athletes in the circus that don’t do that. They just train what they like to do, and they are better than all these authors that train ‘optimally.’ I question whether the optimality of it is actually what they are claiming.
It’s not a bad idea to train a bit of different things, but I don’t think there’s much conclusiveness to be said about it.
EL: What’s your opinion on forcing a stretch with weight, particularly the middle splits? They’ve always been tight from years of football, but I got to the point where I can sit with the straight legs in a flat middle split, but only if I weigh it down with about 30kg. However, my middle split is only at 130º and has been for the last year. Forcing the split has me hesitant. Would it be better in this case to relax down into position?
The first thing is if someone is stuck at 130ºish, you would look at their alignment. The middle split is one of those where, if everyone was to sit in a squat, most people could simply do it. Everyone’s squat would look very different. Some would have more external rotation, be wider, narrower legs, more or less dorsiflexion, rounding or straightening of the spine, all these kinds of things.
Middle split is like the squat, in terms of huge amounts of individual variance. You have to play around with the main variables of pelvic tilt, somewhere from 70 to 110º is the sweet spot. Somewhere between 45 and 70º is external rotation.
There’s some groove to be found in there first. First is to optimize the position.
Next, if we’re paying attention to the lengthening side of the joint, what’s going on in the shortening side of the joint? This side butt, or the pissing dog exercises, actively pull you deeper into the splits. I really think that the middle split is a glute exercise more than an adductor exercise.
Working these muscles and learning to actually use the glutes in the split is the key to getting down.
The other thing to try is, is it a limitation in short adductors? Training something like a tailor’s pose with weights and lifts, or pull downs or isometrics could be the key to unlocking this degree of side split. Dealing with that limitation, you’ll see your side split is improved.
In general, for adding weight, someone at one of my workshops really wanted the side split. He’d been having great progress, and doing them holding 20kg for 60-70s isometrics, and had recently torn the adductor off. I advised him to stop doing this, you don’t need it. He’s out for a decent amount of time, and has a big rehab ahead of him.
When we’re stretching, we’re trying to put tissues into zones they haven’t been in for a very long time. The conditioning of the tissue at these zones and angles could be considered questionable. It’s better not to find that out, and just get there with the least amount of added resistance possible. Use internal resistance. It doesn’t mean you don’t add resistance when you don’t need it, but you do it consciously.
Do a bit, see how you get on, see if you can optimize things. Maybe titrate upwards. You don’t want to find out if 20kg exceeds your max, and you slide into that zone you’ve never been in before. Snap city.
With the splits with 130º, positioning and glutes are key. That would be my take there.
MK: We had one asking about foam rolling, Emmet. Maybe that’s one you would like to respond to.
Any thoughts on foam roller usage, before/after practice, versus using it as a complement for strength, versus just placebo?
EL: I think it provides a short term effect on the increase in range of motion, which has been pretty well established. You’re never going to foam roll yourself to splits, or foam roll yourself into bridge.
If you do it before training and it helps you feel you do better training, or you do it before stretching, and it helps you feel better, do it. If you think it’s going to help, it’s questionable, but if it feels good, do it.
The main problem with foam rolling is people seem to do too much of it. You normally see people foam rolling for 30-40 minutes before a workout. What’s the point? If you do 10-15 minutes, that’s almost too much, in my opinion.
There’s an interesting thing I’m actually helping design to launch. My student is doing a Masters in strength and conditioning. He’s researching the stretching type we do in the programming and comparing it to foam rolling to see which gives a better short term effect.
Hopefully that will be out soon, and we will see what works better.
MK: One here. Does handstand training produce demands in the body for a change in nutrition? Do you have to think about nutrition when it comes to the longer sessions, the higher level training like 2 hour sessions? Or is coffee and sour worms enough?
Coffee and sour worms have really done it for me a lot of times. In broader terms for nutrition, I think eating good is good, but there seems to be too much variance. I know people that have been doing the same stuff for years on end, and they’re optimizing their diet every 3 months. Still they’re doing the same stuff.
As I said, to use the circus community as an example, the best guys I know eat frozen food. They don’t have time to bother with making food. They want to smash circus all day. Then they use Snickers and frozen food, then go home and have a Coke and continue.
I think having a sound diet is smart, but my large problem with that entire field is you see people with very different approaches to what is supposed to be optimal, like 180º. I literally have vegan friends and carnivore friends that are both arguing their diet does the same thing. That leads me to think there is a lot, like placebo-
EL: I think you nailed it when we were once talking about vegan-carnivore debate, and you realized the human body is optimized to not die, and will do that in many different ways. That nails it a lot.
MK: Not dying is how I said it. I think there is quite a lot to that.
Eating only sour keys and coffee might be not correct.
EL: It could be optimal; we haven’t researched it. One last question and then we will wrap up. Two last questions. We’re going to answer this quick.
Any chance there is a general strength training program for people training mostly handstands in the pipeline?
We can say we are discussing a few new programs at the moment and that is one that has come up. So, maybe. We are kind of limited with the ‘Rona going on, in terms of when we can film these things.
Hopefully if you’re listening at some point in the future, the Rona won’t be a thing anymore.
Here we go: do you think using a light ankle weight of 1-2kg would be a benefit in handstands?
EL: No. Same here.
MK: I tried the ankle weights in school, and was like, “Yeah! Gonna train to 2.5 kg ankle weights. Yeah!” I stuck with it for a couple of weeks. It’s a bit harder to do legs together one arm shapes with ankle weights, but it’s not that big of a difference.
I think the only thing it could be significantly helpful for is stuff like press to handstand, and flags on one arm and stuff. But with press to handstand, you could just learn to do reps, or get better at doing the press. There are so many levels. You can straddle press. Okay, learn to pike press. You can pike press, learn to do a range of motion press where you start moving towards a stalder. There’s L-Sit press, and so on.
EL: It’s a last resort. A bit of fun. I’m going to wrap this up before we get on too long. This was meant to be a minisode. It’s now stretching into a maxisode.
MK: I think none of us have a concept of time anymore.
EL: I’m just going to wrap it up, and then we’re going to open the mics up and have a bit of a chat, if you want to hang around. Anyway, thanks a lot for everyone listening in to us talk. Extra special thanks to all the participants who came onto our first live Zoom. It was a bit of an experiment for us.
This podcast is a bit of an experiment, as you can probably tell. We’re enjoying it, and it seems like you guys are, so thanks a lot.
Once again, if you’re into handstands and would like to learn more about what we do, we are proudly supported by Handstand Factory. We’re the head coaches. We would like to teach you to handstand. If you want to learn from us, you know where we are.
Other than that, we will say goodbye. This has been Mikael Exotic, and Emmet Exotic.
- “An athlete has a method, a coach has a methodology” – Yuri Marmerstein @yuri_marmerstein
- The handbalancer who is “better than everyone” – Andrey Moraru @whoisandreymoraru
- Kit and Liv shoulder push-down stretch for if your traps feel tight (and they will feel tight): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzFMs3Up1Yc
- Emmet’s Loaded Hamstring Stretch
- Useful single leg strengthening exercise: Single leg romanian deadlifts
- Handstand Factory courses
- Emmet Louis Instagram
- Mikael Kristiansen Instagram
- Handstand Factory Instagram
Cubital valgus – Image taken from Wikipedia
Elbow hyperextension – Image taken from: http://orthopedic.com.sg/patients-guide/hand-wrist-elbow-pain/elbow-hyperextension-injury/