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S1 Episode 15: One-Arm Handstand


In this Episode of the Handstandcast Emmet and Mikael finally discuss the one-arm Handstand! Going over the most important elements that you have to develop for the one arm handstand, the sequence of movements and cues that you go through to move into a one arm handstand, the process of programming and development of the one-arm handstand as well as more of the finer elements and potential issues.

S1E15 – One-Arm Handstand

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Transcript of Episode 15: The One-Arm Handstand

EL: Hello, and welcome back to Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my cohost, Mikael Kristiansen.  How’s things Mikael?

MK: Could be worse, definitely could be worse.

EL: On a scale of 1 to fucked, how is this current environment treating you?

MK: I’m doing pretty well actually.  It’s sunny, and it’s Sweden.  That’s pretty ridiculous.

EL: If you’re listening to this some time in the future, we’re still in the midst of the ‘Rona outbreak.  Ireland’s having a heat wave at the moment as well.  They started to ease the restrictions, and everyone is like, oh, they’re easing them.  Street party!

MK: That’s basically the case here too.  It’s interesting, I’m not sure how it’s going to develop.  Sweden doesn’t seem to have peaked yet.  Who knows?

EL: The YOLO way to contain it.

We are going to talk about the one arm handstand.  This is probably one of those ones that takes a few episodes to cover everything, but I suppose we’ll start rambling and get onto it.

MK: We need to start it some time.

EL: It’s a long project.

MK: There’s more to say about that than any other given balance thing, I’d say.  Everything before it is substantially more simple.  Most things after it, when you can stand on one arm pretty well, many cues for complex positions is basically: stand on one arm, do this with your body.  Do this with your body part… Though hard to learn, it isn’t that complex.  The actual process of going from two arms to a one arm learning, that step is another world, not even comparable.

EL: With my students, you can have someone perfectly prepared: very good two arm, very good presses, but there’s a learning process you have to put them through to get the one arm.  It’s an immense amount of persistence.  Suffering is the only way to describe it.

You have the conditioning, you can build it up as a kind of carrot.  The stick is you just have to stand on one hand.  What I always say to my students is it’s an abyss.  I can lead you to the abyss, the side of the cliff, giving them the most textbook form for the body type – shoulder position is great, core strength, flexibility is great.  Then you push them over the edge of the abyss so they can climb out.  The only way to climb out is to suffer through 20 000 attempts at holds while your body figures out how to do the balance on one arm.

MK: That’s a good analogy.  It’s funny with that.  The one arm is definitely the one of everything to that point that requires the most conditioning, technique and so on.  In my experience and background, and other people I’ve seen with acrobatic experience, that seems to be the largest correlating factor regarding whether you learn it really fast or not.  As you said, I’ve always trained people that have all the set ups, everything looks great until that very last moment where you need to learn to orient yourself in space around this one hand.  Everything just goes to garbage.

Of course that happens to most people.  I know a lot of people who have that feeling early on, simply because I think the general spacial awareness from all these other things matter a substantial amount.

EL: MIkael and I talk a lot, and I’ve been thinking about this.  If you look at Derek and the other guy in Stockholm, the teeter board fliers, who learned one arms ridiculously quickly to a very high degree,

It made me think about some other case examples of people who learned one arms very quickly.  A lot of them came from a tumbling background, even recreational gymnastics who are pretty good tumblers.  It has made me think about my own training now and my own students, I will start implementing some sort of twisting air sense training with them, in a structured manner.  I’m going to have a couple of control groups and do some basic jumping twisting and see if there’s anything to it, in this rotational control.

MK: I remember, coming from breaking, as seeing as I myself learned one arm through fiddling around and trying a couple of times per practice, not even training.  Slowly but surely it ended up going somewhere.  Of course, breakers are kind of a unique category, since hand hops, jumping on one arm, air babies, all those kinds of freezes, are relevant to being on one arm.  As you see, most B Boys have very different form and wobbly balance compared to most circus artists, since they don’t have a specificity to their technique.  They get the feeling rather fast, because of having relevant movements connecting to that very specific context.

There’s certainly something there.  When thinking about learning it from a more standardized perspective, like what we’re trying to do with Push Harder it’s definitely the one with the largest variance in terms of how long it takes people.  It’s just so difficult to convey as a teacher what you need to be feeling, making sure the set ups are good enough in terms of not sabotaging yourself as you go for the one arm, etc.  On top of that, you’re literally throwing people into a thing where they have no frame of reference for what it’s supposed to feel like.

EL: I really like that analogy of the abyss.  You go into the abyss and climb your way out.  Once you get to the interesting click point I’ve noticed with a lot of people over the last couple of years.  Up until the 8-10s mark, a lot of people can balance, but they’re not balancing.  They’re just surviving.  Something happens, it can happen overnight.  I’m looking at their form checks and a day later they’re like, look at this!  I felt in control, I could balance it.  Before they were just surviving, then whatever balance reactive capacity works out, and suddenly they’re like, the body can do it.  Like the lightbulb moment where you squeeze your fingertips, and it stops you from falling over into overbalance in a handstand.  It’s the same kind of thing, but much more complicated.

MK: The only big issue with the one arm is neither the student, nor the teacher will be able to analyze and detail those things.  In a two arm handstand it’s rather to see the ways to balance.  You see someone, they stand for a while, start getting tired, the shoulders sink a bit and the weight starts moving forward.  You see the fingers really digging into the ground, not fall forwards.  Either they squeeze too hard and drop back towards the feet, or they can’t squeeze hard enough and fall forwards.

On a one arm, there’s so many things happening per second that it’s really hard to know.  When I was teaching in circus school in Copenhagen and working with people who did one arms all day during classes.  You just look at them and think, why did they just fall?  Most of the time it’s not even relevant why they fell.  You look through the chain of what happened.

Usually it’s because the shoulder destabilizes, which sends an enormous cascading effect through the entire body.  To be able to notice why it goes there, and for the person to sense that.

I have one video on my phone where I’m filming from below the canes, doing a one arm.  I’m doing a jump switch on the cane.  It’s a slow motion video, and you see the way my body reacts.  The jump isn’t great, so I pike the hips a lot towards a one arm press kind of position, then flick my arm over to the side in a really weird position.

When you see it in slow-mo, you see how much stuff is going on.  But when you see it fast, you just see a twitch of the arm and the legs.  The rest of it is fine.  I have no way of detailing that specific process of all the things that happened during that motion.

In practice what I did was land on that one arm and I corrected the mistake.  That is the only experience that I have.

EL I done some maths on it recently.  I’m going to say some numbers but I don’t want people quoting me as I’m not certain on the maths.  There are 720 unique ways you can lose balance in a one arm handstand, and about 12 unique ways in a two arm handstand.  I think it’s off slightly but I think it’s fairly close.  If you think about – in a two arm handstand I can teach you all those things in a class.  If you think about all the basic ones: over and under balance.  Then we have over and under balance where you either pike at the hips, or lose the back.  Then you have shoulders open or closed.  There’s a few more lateral as well, but that’s it.

You can set up a drill for each one of them to teach someone, then people get a familiarity in a controlled way.

But in a one arm, well you went off diagonally towards the little finger.  At the same time, you’ve lost your flag and your bottom leg is counter rotated in the under balance direction.  That’s just one thing; it will happen for a quarter of a second.  Then you go in the opposite direction.

I remember counting rebalances per second on a one arm, just to see the differences.  Even on people who are good at handstands, they might do one correction a second while pretty fresh one a two arm.  I was counting on you one time, and you were doing 5-10 corrections a second on your completely stable base.

MK: I’ve never thought of it specifically in terms of math like that.  I kind of think intuitively of what I think I do per second, it’s between 5 and 10.  The funny thing is, the better you are, the more of them you do.  Hence, it seems that you stay more still.  You’re almost more active, but you’re active in such a small space, a little circle of balance that you allow everything to happen in.

That brings me to, if we’re talking about the strength of the one arm handstand.  That is something underestimated, and annoying to speak about strength in acrobatic practices and circus and so on.  There is this tendency to think that strength is the opposing thing of technique: either you do it on strength, or on technique.  I think this is a very misleading and nonsensical dichotomy.  Technique is a specific way of doing something, that uses strength.

The assumption is further exacerbated by people looking at a big dude from the gym who can’t stand well on hands.  Then they see slim girls doing perfect one arms.  They think, she has good technique, he has lots of strength, hence technique is better than strength.  This isn’t the case.

I’ve mentioned this several times before, but I see strength as the ability to exert force, or control in handstands, in any specific context.  All of those “slim girls” who do one arms are really damn strong, just in that context.  Big muscle size, cross section of tissues, does have something to say about strength, but when you’re doing handstands, if you’re carrying a light body you don’t have to build as much mass as a heavy body.  All these things just go into creating this dumb misunderstanding.

The funny thing is you need a lot of strength to balance the one arm, but that strength is ultra specific.

EL: There’s a very classic shape to the back of a hand balancer that you’ll see in a silhouette of a hand balancer in circus.  They all tend towards having the same kind of upper back development.  Not a lot of upper traps, the mid back is kind of thick, and a bit of a hump if you look at them from the side.  The rear delts are quite developed, all these kinds of things.  It’s universal across girls as well as guys.

If you scale someone up to your height versus someone who’s 150cm / 5’, they just have the same kind of build, just proportionately smaller.

MK There isn’t much arms on hand balancers, unless they developed them otherwise through specific things like straps, planche work.  In terms of the balance, one of the most common assumptions I hear from people without experience training one arm is, I think I’m strong enough for it but don’t understand how to balance yet.

To me, that is a good indicator that the person doesn’t really understand what they are dealing with yet.  When you are strong enough for it, you balance it, because you can exert the right amount of force at the right places.  Like you said, with the amount of corrections per second, you’re balancing an object in all three dimensions that is rotating and doing all these weird things at once, which means the corrections need to be fast.  Fast twitch is literally more “strength demanding” than a very slow mellow pressure.  There is no mellow pressure in the beginning for someone learning a one arm.  Over time you will get better at it, using less strength per second.  In the beginning you need to develop that up to a level so you can calm it down more.  Interestingly, for me doing a one arm, of course I can’t feel my separate rotator cuff muscles firing, but that entire complex around the ball of the humerus is working so hard and so much per second to finally tune and keep that ball of the humerus exactly where it should be.  It’s such a misunderstanding when you go against a wall, hold your weight for a while, and think the strength is there.  I got it, I can stand on one arm against the wall for a minute.  Then you put it so the body needs to rebalance using specific strength you’ve never tried.  So how are you expecting to be able to do it?

EL: A mistake a lot of coaches across the fitness world make is they misinterpret rigidity and fixation as ability.  If you look at any joint stability, it’s almost a reactive capacity that is neuromuscular control, being able to absorb, restore, and reconcile force in a particular configuration to keep your planes working.  It can be very fast.  A lot of people think, if I really squeeze, say, my knee, everything around it super hard, then the knee is stable.

No, it’s not really, because it’s not reacting to something outside itself.  It’s the same with the one arm holds, when people do them.  They are a necessary step for some people and you have to build the conditioning somehow, but they’re replacing this fully locked almost pure isometric contraction with a contraction where, if you ever get the privilege of training with a very high level hand balancer and see their back, it’s rippling and vibrating.  The muscles are twitching on and off.

MK: A morse code on the back.

EL: You can see this going on, it’s a very different motor capacity than just holding something squeezed and rigid.  This kind of thing is what you’re looking for.  I always like to call my things poetic stuff to my students to keep them amused.  I call it a stone turns to bamboo.  The idea of being rigid, we’ve built the rigid strength.  Then we put you into the condition where the stone can bend…

MK: There is a level where, in the normal handstand, you’re “on top of your shoulders” all the time.  Delts and traps and all that.  The entire area is working.

In the one arm, the lats and obliques and serratus anterior – all that stuff is involved at an early level as well.  The two general directions you’ll be able to control in a one arm is what I call inwards and outwards.  Whereas inwards would be, if you stand on one arm and drop towards your other hand, you land on two arms, falling in that direction.  Falling outwards is falling into a deep flag.  The more you flag, the more oblique heavy and your sides get into it.  That entire area is suddenly also necessary to work on.  That’s why we teach cartwheel to handstand, side flexions, all these things.

Your body needs a frame of reference for what the hell is going on in the lateral dimension of the body.

EL: With the shoulder positioning in the one arm, one thing we look for is that it doesn’t change.  In a two arm, you can open, close or restore the shoulders.  If you over open or close the shoulders, you’re dead in a one arm.  All the balance has to come from the waist and legs, or all the bigger swings and corrections, not the fine balance.

MK: The bigger swings happen from there.  In terms of the shoulder positioning, since you’re getting twice the amount of weight on it, and all the instability you need to handle.  In outwards falling towards the flag, if you have nothing out there in strength below the point where you’re trying to hold your side flexed….you set up your one arm, shift to the side, pull your legs slightly towards the floor into a flag direction, you push the shoulder, get the finger tips.  If your leg is at the lowest point your body is able to hold it, and you then let go and start to balance, and that leg drops by 0.5cm, it’s over.  You need to have something on a deeper level than that.  It doesn’t mean you should be balancing by waving your legs around, but you need to ensure you have something around the area you’re trying to work in.

That’s also something in the side work from Push Harder.  We call it side flexion weight shifting as flagging.  I think it could be easily misunderstood as a one arm being just flagging a lot.  No, it isn’t.  The side flexion motion is exactly what you do when you flag.  If you continue that motion you end up in a flag.

The issue is, if you don’t do it, you shift your shoulder laterally instead.  Then you end up in a total cluster fuck of a rotation, too much inward balance.  It’s really hard for a beginner to learn.  That’s the main mistake most beginners who don’t know how to train do.

EL: What we’ve done in Push Harder is an approach we’re really happy with.  We broke the one arm down.  You build up the conditioning, but when you’re going for it, it’s a segmented approach.

We’re going to flag.  That sets the hips up at a diagonal angle you need.  That also gives you a radar for where your balance point is.  Then you shift the weight into a hand.  Now your side is compressed down.  Your spine is in a C shape.  This is diagnostic.  If the person can get the C shape curve from the lumbar spine, and the right bit of the spine as well, it means the hips are doing the right correction.

We’re looking for the curve to initiate from just above the rib cage, at the thoracolumbar junction, not at the top.  Once you have that, the side is bent, so when we engage the push, the side straightens out and the spine begins to straighten out in response to this.  We end up in an almost straight spine position.  It’s diagonal; it kind of sets everything up.

We’re loading the springs, then they have something to work against.  If you just shift the shoulders over, you don’t load the springs in a way that gets the weight into the verticality we need.

MK: I remember when we started discussing how to set up the Push Harder program and looking at the general mistakes we’ve both seen.  People have asked me, why shift the hips first and then push?  Why not at the same time?

In most circus schools and with most teachers I met, they teach you shift the hips and push the shoulders at the same time.  Yes it makes sense, but from my experience teaching, and then doing, if you try to do two elements at the same time, you’ll have a harder time than if you do one then the next element, while learning.

Most people with experience very easily shift and do this nicely and properly at the same time.  Making the assumption that it’s easier because the professionals do that isn’t necessarily correct.  They can do that because they aren’t very experienced on the hands.  I do that too.  It’s not a necessity to shift one and one.

While learning, you can set up the hips.  You shift the hips correctly, you know where they are.  You stop the movement, have a control.  Then you initiate the push with the shoulders.  You concentrate on one then the next thing.  That’s the logic.  As you do the push with the shoulder, since we also talk in the program about how to keep the free or assisting arm’s shoulder shrugged, so you don’t move the free scapula.  That’s another topic of discussion.

You can concentrate on that specifically, rather than trying to implement all these parts.  Over time, as you get comfortable, yes, you implement them all.  Again, the idea that is the foundational one of the Handstand Factory is first, you remove variables to understand each component, then you start adding them back together again.

EL: It’s always this idea of, particularly when learning, when you learn something it’s not the same as the practice of it.  You have to have more steps and ways of breaking it down.  It’s your road map.  If you flag over and rotate into the flag, you did something weird in the hips and legs.  You can control that.

If I flag when I engage my push, it means I probably did not push directly into the ground, but back, causing the rotation.

But if I were to do the two at once – was it my hips?  My upper back push?  By doing it this way, you begin to understand, I can flag ok but lose it when I push.  My push is what is causing the rotation.  Oh, I flag over and fall straight out?  Okay, something is off with the flag.  It gives a diagnostic on your skill level, and how to approach it.

MK: You can break it down.  I can stand on my hands, and in straddle.  I can do a weight shift, flagging my legs into the position I want.  Can I stay there, yes or no?  If no, you fell.  If you’re able to stay there, you know you can control this position, know where it is and how it works.  Then it means you can get yourself at least there most times you practice.  From there you practice pushing, trying to get into the fingertip support.  You work on that part.  It takes a while until you get it.  You learn the finger tips, then move on to straight arm support.  Each part of this can be practiced separately.  You add another lego block to the puzzle as you get better at it.

I think this is an important part for learning the one arm balance.  We’re using the straight arm support to set up for it.  Some people employ the finger tips and remove fingers until you’re on one finger technique.  Fair enough, it can work.  The reason I think straight arm support is what i prefer is you need to practice another coordination from fingertips.  As you do so you move the elbow out to straight arm support position, very similar to the one arm position.  You get to that point and you touch the fingers.  You get to an easier point than the one arm, that’s as similar to the one arm as you can possibly recreate with just the floor and your hand.

If you remove the last finger from a five finger support and straighten the arm, you need to make a coordination in a one arm handstand, which is moving the elbow.  For a beginner, that will send you spiralling to your Doom.  It can work, but if setting up in straight arm support, you get that strong.  Then you work on slowly letting go with the fingers until you can get sensation there.

EL: On the removing fingers method, I’ve never seen someone have success with that method who wasn’t working with a coach and getting spotted.  I’ve seen some circus coaches who use that, but people training will be having classes and getting heavily spotted in the circus coaching manner.  That’s what they’re told to do in their conditioning between sets, or on training days by themselves.

MK: I’ve seen some people learn through that.  Mathematically speaking, with enough time it will work.

EL: I’ve just never seen anyone have success with it.  I’ve seen enough people get it with straight arm support.

When you’re still on 4, or 2 or 3 fingers, you can provide a lot of corrections with that hand to the balance.  With straight arm support, you’re on the edge of the fingers and just can’t do anything useful.  It’s just support, not actual support and control.

MK: Exactly.  When you’re on 5 fingers, then move to 2, your base of support is the same.  It hasn’t even changed in size, just where the most amount of weight is.  The base of support is the same.  If there’s one finger, the base of support is smaller, but it’s still from the same place.  It becomes like having that kind of base is still very centred under you.  If you go to straight arm support and draw a triangle from your hand to that point where the straight arm support fingers are touching the floor, it’s a very narrow triangle.  The amount of force you can exert on the floor is very low out there.  It does provide you with something.  A one arm handstand is way harder than a straight arm support hold, but at least you can get yourself to a proximity as close as possible.

The nice thing is your fingers start to become very light in a straight arm support, and your hip position is set up well and shoulder is good.  The fingers can start to float off, rather than picking up anything.  If your set up is good in straight arm support, and you let the fingers wither away and die there, you will be able to stand on one arm, simply because you’re not adding any variables to this precarious balance at the ‘moment of truth, the last part that is so hard, where you’re so stoked and stressed as you start to get this the first time.

If you add something there as a beginner you fly off.  It’s trying to avoid that, it’s the point of it.

EL: The cue of ‘let the weight die in the hand’ is stolen off you and implemented very successfully over the last few years.

What I would normally do in that coaching situation – which works – is get people to set up, very light on the fingertips.  If I were there in person I’d look for their fingernails to stop being white.  Then I’d just cue them, flag more and pull the legs down.  Use the hand to come up a bit.

But just letting the weight die and push, push, push until it takes the power out the hand, you end up in a nice balance hover, 0.5 or 1 cm off the ground.  Then panic ensues because you’re actually balancing.  Chaos, into the abyss, off you go.

That and letting the weight die instead of doing anything at the moment of balance is definitely one of the game changer cues I picked up off you over the last while.  It helped a lot of people; good work Mikael.

MK: My old coach Sacha uses the straight arm support, which is where I took it from of course.  What I started analyzing is exactly that.  The idea of not picking up the hand.  If you need to lift the hand from the floor, there’s weight on it.  If there’s weight on it, you’re going to fall.  If you centre isn’t over your balancing arm then you need to get it there.  That’s where the patience thing comes in.  You need an enormous amount of tries to get strong at correcting, to get any awareness and sensation of where the hell you are, and to do this dumb mistake where you pick up the hand over and over and fall.

It’s important to have the right mindset.  The goal is to do a straight arm support with really light fingers and let it happen.  If it happens it mean you did a good job at other things.  It will be very short at first.

One thing I noticed: the very last point for a person before they can do a one arm, if they do it through this set up- if you’re able to do a straight arm support wth really light fingers, and you come up for a fraction of a second, almost by “mistake.”  The fingers float off, tap back on the floor, float off…this kind of tapping on the floor can only happen if the balance shoulder is solid.  You’ll see the hips will be in place, the shoulders too, and the fingers tap.  The tapping won’t send the person flying out, because there’s such minimal amount of weight on that finger.  People who are not fully there but pick up the fingers and trying to tap; it’s the picking up that sends them flying.  The tapping sends them even more, and it’s just over.

The last point is being able to do those taps a few times then coming back to two arms, as if nothing happened.  That is a very good diagnostic on doing a good job.  For any level in this side flexion to one arm syllabus, if you’re learning this to weight shift, you flag over to the side.  When returning to two arms, if you need to bend the two arms or go into a press, it means you lost the shoulders at some point in the movement.  Same for fingertips.  If you’re able to set that up well and it’s solid, are you able to return to two arms?  If you are, did you have to invade Stalingrad to be able to catch the balance, or can you place the hand neatly on the floor as if nothing happened?  Being able to use that as a diagnostic for good shoulder position, then returning to two arm, is something I’ve noticed to be in between steps, teeny weeny things, where you can see actual progress.

EL: I’ve noticed the transition from flat palm to fingertips, before doing straight arm support or anything, is you should be able to alternate them up and down very easily.  If your shoulders and hips are placed well it doesn’t matter if you’re on fingertips or the flat palm.  It doesn’t change anything in the balance.  That’s something to watch out for, or that i’ve noticed on the same lines.

I’d like to segue into an interesting thing of shoulder position, whether there’s a one true position for the one arm handstand.

MK: It’s funny with that.  I remember a friend of mine who wrote me once.  Someone told him his head wasn’t in the right place for a one arm and that’s why he’s falling.  The guy can stand on one arm actually.  So he asked me about head position, having the ear by the shoulder and so on.

As I alway do when people ask me about that is look for a video of Andrey Moraru where he doesn’t have the head by the arm.  It’s not glued in any way, and he’s the best.

As we talked about before, if you can variations among the best people, it must be an option and not a given.

This is a thing I see confused the most.  Of course you need an elevated shoulder, but it depends whether or not you have hyperextension in the elbow, which can allow you to place the arm closer to the head.  Then preference.  It’s good to not have a massive distance, but it’s largely up to whether you feel good there or can balance well.

EL: I think a lot of people confuse the concept of push, which basically means you sink your weight into the arm and apply an equal or possibly greater amount of weight to elevate the body up, so you’re controlling the vertical displacement of your centre of mass, which nobody really talks about a lot.  That’s pushing.  Once you’re in control of the verticality, the height is optional.

One thing I see a lot which I don’t like: when you’re a coach, you really need to assess the people you’re training, see if they are hyper mobile or not.  Particularly when looking at less muscular girls who are hyper mobile, you see the cue to elevate, elevate, elevate.  If you look at the scapula, their scapula is almost disconnected from the torso in terms of how elevated it’s gotten.

If you’re putting the sub scap and smaller back muscles under strength, are they able to do their jobs as efficiently as in the mid range?  Yes, get your shoulder up.  How high is optional.

To get back to the head, a lot of people say your shoulder must touch your ear.  But I went  through some coach who recommends this technique, and  just to have a look at what his students do, and not to name names or throw shit – it’s just a critique – his spine and neck is basically straight and there’s a hyperextended elbow to a big degree.  That maintains the really straight spine.  But if you look at some of his students there’s a significant degree of lateral flexion to get the ear and shoulder connected.  It’s not like the shoulders aren’t elevating, but it’s like…limb length.  The shoulders are elevating high, they’re in control and doing the drills right.  To get the position they have to move to the side.

MK: That’s what happens to me.  I have rather wide shoulders.  If I push my shoulder to the absolute max, either my arm stays in a position with solid control, then I need to keep my head slightly away, or shove my head towards the arm or, worse, shove my arm towards the head.  That doesn’t create a place for me to concentrate on balancing well.  It’s very up to individual structures.  I’m sure the things we talked about before in terms of individual variations of bones, muscle insertions, etc, which will likely come up in different episodes too.  These things are likely contributors to how all these things will be preferable for certain people.

A lot of the best people within this, from sport acrobatics, or Ukraine or Chinese circus schools, very often it seems to me that there are certain preferences.  Either from coaches, or certain body types, all these things that are “better” for reaching the 0.01 level of the craziest.

EL: Like having a 7’ wingspan on your hands might make you good at basketball, or more likely than someone else.

MK: Exactly, so it’s easy to compare with those and think you need to do like them.  But that’s again why I mentioned Andrey.  He doesn’t have the conventional perfect hand balancing body yet is at absolutely crazy levels.  It’s really about figuring out then, what works for you.  Rather than thinking it needs to be like other people, this can be such a road block.

It can be really destructive, the ‘Federation.’  Unless you do like the person on the internet then it’s worthless.  Getting back to shoulder position, like you say, for me when I do things, the only time I push to my absolute max is doing a figa on one arm, and close my legs together.  Then I need to push to my maximal range.  I know people that don’t push to max when they do that, because they have a body that complies a lot better with that position.

Some people can figa and slap their legs so hard together they’re basically vertical.  It’s not an issue, that big of an effort position.  In those, yes, you need to push more than in a straddle.  There are levels, but the push you need for a straddle one arm handstand needs to be your baseline level of push.  That’s your resting push, in a sense.  You don’t want to go higher or lower, just for the sake of it.  You can go higher, you can go lower, so that you can save and control and transition.  It should be a place where you feel you have a wide base of control.

EL: The way I coach the degree of push is set via the straight arm support method.  What happens is you’re not pushing enough with the shoulder when you set up with the flag, shift the weight and are beginning to push, and there’s still weight in the hand.  Let’s assume perfect set up.  As you push the shoulder up and straighten the side out, and I describe it as the push originating from the obliques, not just the shoulders.  I’m pushing everything, lats and all are involved in some way.  Not in a contractive manner, but it’s the imagery we are working with.  This push and that elevation, by the time the weight comes out of the hand, by definition you’ve achieved the degree of push you need for the one arm.

You don’t need to set the shoulders super high, though eventually you might need that for the one arm.  That’s your position, we’re always looking for your body’s preferred position to do things in.  Then we go, what’s the minimum amount of push required?  How much over push do we need to have a zone of control on either side, both down and up?  Then do we need more than that?  Not really.

It’s this idea we can establish a radar using this set up.  How high do I need to actually elevate, what degree of push do I need to get there?

MK: In terms of how much you need to flex your sides to be able to get into a comfy one arm position, you will see most hand balancers will have the hip diagonal.  The less diagonal it is, the more towards a two arm handstand it rests, the higher push you need to balance it, comparatively.  That is why, like I mentioned, the legs together figa is the extreme expression of that.  A lot of weight is on the inside of your arms.  The hips is counterbalancing the outside, you’re pushing the arm underneath that structure.  Then you need to go very high.  If you do a one arm where the hips are identical to a normal two arm straddle, it’s possible, just more difficult.  it’s much more precarious for balance than a more diagonal straddle.

You need more push in that position to be able to hold it.  To do that, you need to squeeze your obliques on the ‘in’ side to be able to maintain that hip position.  It’s kind of a linear degree there on how much you need to push to be able to bring your legs towards a two arm position, then towards figa.  The more weight inside the more you need to push there, you feel that very well when you transition from a straddle one arm to an inside position.

EL: We’re almost at an hour, we’ll do one more topic.

MK: There’s one more thing I wanted to mention about one arms – flexibility.  Very important, Emmet Louis.  That is a huge thing, in terms of how much work you need to put in learning a one arm.  Sure, you can learn a one arm with a little degree of straddle earlier-

One conception I meet a lot with people training one arm, they always tell me the same thing.  “But I feel so much more stable when I do the legs together set up.”  Have you ever stood on one arm?  “No.”  I knew you hadn’t because you think the legs together is ‘better.’  It’s because you’re on finger tips.  Yes it feels easier to do then, because you just glue your legs together, shift to the side, get the fingertips.  But balancing that fucking thing is a nightmare.  You’re not ready.  You think you’re ready, but you’re not.  It’s basically like your straddle one arm is a tiny little boat and you want to take it out on the big seas?  No, you don’t.  You need a ship first.  It’s a classic tendency to think the legs together is easier.  The wider the straddle, on average, the faster you will learn it.

That’s not saying legs together drills are useless, but in terms of actually developing the reactive capacity, legs together will provide you with two large challenges.  The reactions you need to make are too fast for the beginner.

So, stretch.

EL: It’s also a torque thing.  One of the ways I like to think about it is, if you have the legs out, there’s a lower centre of mass.  If your legs are turning and rotating, they give you so much more sensation to the middle of the body, so you can really feel the leverage of the legs coming in and out of position.  When you have the legs together, then the deviation from the centre line is much smaller.  You haven’t got the precision balance capacity, you don’t feel it as early.  Even imagine you drop 10º of hip position in straight.  It won’t look like a lot visually, but if you drop 9º with the leg out to the side, you can see a bigger change and feel it as well.  The legs work kind of like the old tightrope walkers with sticks they use for balance.  They work like that, but they also work as radars, giving you a better sense.

When you’re learning to balance, you’ve jumped off the abyss and are trying to balance, you are basically going to use every joint segment you can to balance.  If you have your legs out, you have your knees free to move, your legs can move together – transverse abduction or adduction – they can move up and down, independent of each other.  You have a lot of options for the body to flail around and try to survive on one arm.

Whereas when legs are together, you suddenly have no knees- just a shoulder and a hand.  And a prayer.

MK: The last thing I want to mention, and if we didn’t someone would ask us to mention it.  That is the fucking twisting.  We should really do a whole episode on twisting.  People say legs together feels easier because they don’t need to twist.  No, try letting go of the hand; you twist immediately and it’s over.  You can’t control twisting well in legs together.

This is why if you see a good hand balancer make a mess in a legs together one arm, the first thing they do is open their legs and catch and replace the shoulder, then close the legs again.

I’ve done some legs together saves, and they look super duper rough.  It’s not very comfortable to do.  You have to muscle it so much in the shoulder.  It’s doable, it just takes a lot more out of you.  It feels like you’re not twisting on legs together, but it’s because you haven’t let go yet.  The twisting in a straddle is counter intuitive, but the fact that the legs are long means the pivot points, or the end of your legs are far away.  So it will rotate slow.  It’s like any wheel.  The outer points will rotate slower, giving you more time to react.

I’m sad to bring it to you like that but it’s true.  It feels really miserable with twisting on one arm, because you feel you can do nothing about it at the beginning.  That’s how it is, you can’t do anything about it until you’ve been in the situation for long enough for your body to get both the strength and understanding of trying to survive up there.

As we talked about before, balancing a one arm in the start feels like falling slow.  You need to have the mindset and idea that you’re going to stay up, fight the forces, resist what is going on, so you can eventually build this motor control and understanding.

To break down what the twisting actually is in terms of mechanics, most of the time it can come purely from the hip if you do a bad set up.  Most of the time twisting occurs when you go to fingertips, straight arm support, or one arm, those transitions points.  What happens is as you do the transition, there is a slight destabilization of the shoulder, means you can’t keep it in as small of a point in your hand, meaning the little shoulder movement which most of the time when done on two arms, would make you arch.

Since you are placing the weight over one point and the legs are apart, it won’t express as arching, but as the top leg rotating backwards most of the time.  Low leg rotates forwards, and sends you into a slow spiral out of control.

EL: Those who know anatomy, if you think of the fibre directions of the lats and glutes across the body in that X shape, that’s what’s going on.  Instead of arching, which is the two arm version, it’s shortening along that whole chain, pulling the leg up and over the top.

MK: It’s very often the twisting is a consequence more often than a cause in itself, where you did something wrong.  Believe me, everyone twists all the time.  It’s just the more experienced the hand balancer and the better they’re doing, the less you see of it.  If any hand balancer goes to a one arm and then starts relaxing and doing nothing for half a second, they will twist and have to do a quick and violent correction to get back on it.  If you’re controlling these things constantly, and you also see with a lot of hand balancers who almost fall and go into a deep kind of flaggy thing, you also see the hips starting to twist.  But they’ll be in control; they do have the abilities to replace themselves and catch it.  It’s a very complicated procedure of loads of things going on at the same time.  As my first coach said to me when I asked how to deal with twisting, he just said, “Deal with it.”

Over time, you need to…I can’t tell you how to handle it.  It’s too fast, it needs to be the intuitive spectrum and takes loads of practice.

EL: My only advice I give to people on twisting is to over twist in the opposite direction.  There’s some walking drills in the program to help, but for twisting, just twist and fall out the opposite direction.  Force yourself to.  That gives you an idea of the over and under side, something for the body to work with.

Twisting sucks.  Spacial awareness, can you do it bra?

MK: That’s a lot of stuff about the one arm.

EL: Particularly if we were to start getting into specific positions….

MK: We didn’t even speak about the free shoulder, lifting the arm, many things we didn’t.

EL: The three different shoulder positions of one arm, we touched on it a bit.  We have the standard one we use in straddle one arm, straight, diamonds, all these.  That’s one.  Then we have the flag and full flag, where we use a different shoulder position.  Then figa with the higher position.

MK: I usually use four, because the press positions are slightly different to flags.  At a certain point it changes.  The differences there are even more subtle than anything on two arms.  It’s not like they’re totally different beasts, but they definitely have their specificities and matter a lot more than two arms.

EL: That’s a taster for more one arm stuff to come.  If you are interested in learning to handstand, or the one arm, or everything we do, check out our programs at Handstand Factory dot com, which makes this podcast possible.  Other than that, good night Mikael and everyone listening.

MK: Good night yourself.


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