Transcript of Episode 17: Anatomy Quirks and the Handstand
EL: Welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my cohost Mikael Kristiansen. How’s things going, Mikael?
MK: How are things going? I’m really fucking sleepy today. That’s all I have to say today. Today is completely uneventful; I haven’t talked to a single human being.
EL: I think this is the idea. You should give everyone your big announcement. Mikael is retiring from hand balance, for five days.
MK: Let’s see when it happens. I don’t think it’s going to happen this weekend. I’m going to take a break of at least five days because I’m busted. I haven’t done that since 2012, right after we graduated. I had five days off last time.
EL: The Mayan end of the world.
MK: Yeah, exactly. This is like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It is over. Forever.
EL: We’re like Joe Rogan on this podcast. We actually have a Jamie, but he’s called Isaac. He’s one of our models.
MK: Usually at the start of these podcasts, Emmet fires him and then I rehire him. Isaac is great. …ish.
EL: We’ll leave our Jamie alone. Anyway, the topic for today’s episode is one that me and Mikael geek out on. I know a lot of other people do as well. It’s all the weird stuff inside the body that may or may not be important to hand balance, what we can know about it.
I think this is an episode we could do a few of, but we got to start somewhere. We’ve been geeking out. We advise you to check out the transcripts on our website. We’ll put a lot of links and photos of some of the stuff we’re talking about, so you can follow along.
MK: This one is probably the episode that, so far at least, is good to look at the transcript. There’s a lot of stuff we reference that we can’t really describe without you seeing certain pictures, or reading certain things. For some of the things we banter about.
Anatomical variation. What does that mean? I guess the main thing it means – the first time I started getting interested in understanding this was, I have a very good childhood friend named Kim, who is now an orthopaedic surgeon. Whenever I would meet him, I would ask him all these anatomy questions because I’m so fascinated by shoulders, muscles, bones, all that stuff. Of course, my idea from how this looks is how the anatomy chart looks. And it has to make sense, right?
I’d ask him about the attachments here and there, and he’s like, pfft, you think it looks like that when you open people up? You open them up and muscle fibres are fused. Why’s that vein there? It should be over there. You have no idea what you’re looking at. Of course it was jokingly, but he really made the point that the actual insides of people are very different and very individual.
That’s just something that’s not really discussed, obviously because it’s very hard to know. Often it’s not so relevant, but it’s interesting to understand there are certain factors. Some are maybe even observable. It’s one of these things we’ve been nerding out about.
EL: There’s a good meme that goes around some of the medical Facebook groups every now and then. The gist of the meme, and I’ll try to find it for the transcript, is: what the anatomy textbooks say it looks like. And there’s a picture of a circuit diagram from electronics. Then it goes, what it looks like when I cut you open, and it’s a bowl of spaghetti.
I suppose this episode needs to come with a bit of a disclaimer. We’re going to say a lot of things we know about the body. Let’s face it, we are acrobatics coaches, so we are limited. There’s going to be some things that might be controversial, which is fine. There may or may not be other things that are limitations. We don’t know; they are interesting. It’s not an excuse that you can or can’t. The only way you’ll find out your own true level in all these skills is to train, train, train. Eventually it will emerge.
A lot of these limitations don’t cause problems until the upper high level. On the flip side of the coin, these kinds of weird structural anomalies are sometimes what can give someone a unique flavour to their handstand.
MK: There’s a hand balancer from Kiev, we will link his instagram. The reason we thought of him with this podcast is, I remember when he came out. He’s a world famous hand balancer, he won Cirque de Demain, I think in 2010. He has a very specific style, kind of contortion hand balancing style. He also has a very specific handstand.
First of all, have you seen his wrists, Emmet? He does that kind of cupping hand to an extreme degree I’ve barely ever seen before.
EL: I picked up that cupping hand shape, because I was training at the Catacombs in Berlin, a circus space that no longer exists. He was training there, and I was doing my pleb level hand balance. This is after you visited Berlin, actually. I was training handstands after getting reinspired after meeting Mikael, doing some circus-y stuff.
He was doing his thing beside me, running his act. I noticed his hand position and thought, that’s really funky. Then I started screening. Possibly you’ll be able to see his hand in the instagram post. He basically doesn’t have the first knuckle down. His hand is kind of like a pyramid.
I started playing with that myself. My wrists are okay, it made sense. I started giving it to my hand balancers who had greater than 110-120º extension in the wrist. It turns out it’s quite a winner.
He sometimes even puts his thumb under his thing to create a mini block on the super heavy shapes.
MK: One thing that I also noticed with him is that there is a variation of elbows. It’s something they refer to as a carrying angle. There is also a medical term called cubital valgus. We’ve talked a bit about that before on the Casts. The exact use of valgus, I’m not exactly sure how a medical professional would refer to it.
Essentially, it has to do with a certain angle from the elbow to the hand, you can observe if you have your arm hanging down by your side, completely neutral. Then you rotate the forearm so the palm is facing forwards without moving your arm in any significant way.
People with this carrying angle in the cubital valgus direction will display a significant angle from the elbow to the hand. The hand will move away from the thigh, essentially, so you get an outwards angle from the body.
What is cool is Serge has a picture we found on his Facebook page. He basically does a mexican handstand, where he looks at the ceiling with the head through. It’s a mexican where the body is completely diagonal, yet fully straight. You’ll see the shoulder flexion he has is good of course, but the elbow contributes a significant degree to being able to get his base of support under his centre of mass.
EL: I got a rough measurement of it, and it looks like he’s got 20-30º of this. You can see it when you look at the picture. He’s almost at a straight line along the torso to the elbow. It deviates off a huge amount. It’s one of those handstands where this slanted line can be done, but even the top level people who have super good balance and super good shoulders can’t get anywhere close to the angle he can get. It’s almost a mexican, but with a straight body.
MK: If you look at that picture, you would imagine he would have to do all this shoulder flexion without this “help” from the elbow angle, then the shoulder flexion would be so extreme, I have barely seen anyone who would have enough to recreate that position.
EL: I think I’ve seen one person called Ludmila Soboleva (https://www.instagram.com/ludmila.soboleva.144/). They do it with super god tier shoulder flexion. They’re young, clearly the hyper mobile ones of the group, and just have immense shoulder flexion. They’re getting close to his angle but…
MK: It looks so easy for him. It’s obvious that this amount of elbow actually does help him to be able to help him attain this position. He’s super damn good as a hand balancer. It’s one of the types of things where you can see, in this position it’s very clear this angle is beneficial for the execution of the movements.
There’s another observation we’ve also had with this carrying angle. The interesting thing there is I tend to see, or think I do, overrepresented among people who are reasonably talented and learning handstands fast, especially presses to handstand.
Now, I know tons of people that learn handstands fast that do not have this, and wonder whether or not it’s just an issue of this type of elbow structure being noticeable, it pops a bit out. It might be that it’s just a bias I created in my own head. That’s why as Emmet mentioned, these are observations we had, not something we can know if they’re actual truths. We don’t have any control group, or anything in this, simply observation.
EL: I’ve noticed as well, and Mikael pointed me to this elbow structure and learning the press very quickly. I was like, ok, I’ll keep an eye out for this and see. And then, just more and more, I was spotting there is an overrepresentation of people who can press fast…er, or can get it quicker.
It’s interesting if you look at what happens in the mechanics of the press. When you configure it for the handstand, it looks like the elbow moves backwards slightly. What happens is it seems to reduce the shoulder flexion demand by an equal amount of degrees in the elbow.
Say it’s 15º, which is the clinical representation of this, at the elbow, it reduces the demand on your shoulder flexion 15º, it seems, to get stacked above the base of support.
That in turn means you are closer to the midrange of your shoulder flexors, getting you into the press faster. It also means the centre of mass gets a bit lower over the hands, making it easier to press.
MK: A requirement for good active shoulder flexion is good passive shoulder flexion. It might mean that you kind of get away with having less absolute shoulder flexion for these certain things, if you have this type of elbow structure.
The way it kind of looks if you look at people from the side – I have a few pictures I will link for this in the transcript. It looks like the person is bending the arms, yet it is not so. It has nothing to do with a bent arm. This is an expression of their straight arm in the handstand.
The pictures I’ll link are with locked elbows. It is just in this configuration it looks like they’re bending. That’s also why I’ve been thinking about this in pressing.
In one sense, it achieves the same in the press as bending your arms do, slightly able to bring the shoulders more forwards. That’s one thing I’m thinking might be a contributing factor.
Then again, that being said, there’s tons of people that learn to press really fast.
I don’t have particular…I have a slight, slight amount of this, but it’s insignificant, and I learned press fast. In my case, it has nothing to do with that, more with strong shoulder flexion. Which you need to have anyway. We’re talking about small (possibly) contributing factors.
EL: You need to make another video on your Gollum presses.
The other thing we want to move onto is shoulders. Shoulders come in all these different configurations, shapes, sizes. Shoulder width, the acromial width – how wide your shoulders are from the side has variance. I’ve noticed as well that depending on the shoulder width, it can have a big play on the amount of elevation we need to configure the shoulders into the arrangement we want for a handstand in a straight line handstand, in particular.
If you don’t have any hyper-extension and your shoulders are quite wide, your hand placement will be much wider than another person’s. When you sink into this position and push out, it will look like you’re not actually elevating as high as someone in a narrower position. It’s a trick of the eye thing, you have the same degree, but because the arms have more spacing, it looks like you’re farther from the ear.
When a lot of people say, get your shoulders to your ear…and you can almost see this in one arm positions. The people who do it with a wide shoulder end up bending the head quite far to the side to get it to touch the ear.
MK: That’s what I would have to do. If I’m going to put my head by my arm to do a one arm, I need to make a specific correction of my entire handstand by moving the head. Pushing so high the arm goes to my head practically doesn’t work.
If I push to the absolute max, I still have to either tilt the arm to the side and bring the head in, so it always feels like a less practical position for me. I was just speaking about that with a friend of mine, Sammy, yesterday I think. He has a very hyper-extended elbow, and when he does the legs together arm up position, he doesn’t need to have a lot of diagonal in the body at all. It kind of looks as if his hand is almost under his face when he does it, due to the extra angle the hyper-extension of the elbow can allow him to comfortably be in.
I’ve tried a few times, and remember I took a picture of his one arm and tried to replicate the position he was in, and I was filming it. To me, it doesn’t just look bad, it looks like I don’t know what I’m doing at all. My body can’t go there without me having a diagonal from the shoulder down to the hand by a substantial degree. So it’s funny how these things express.
EL: I know this guy from circus school, and he’s quite tall and narrow. He’s quite tall for a hand balancer. Whereas if you look at Mikael, you’re quite broad across the shoulders with a wide shoulder angle, so it would be a good comparison of people who are sort of equal skill levels. Mikael can’t configure it. And I’m sure Sammy couldn’t configure his shoulders into your position.
MK: It would probably almost as uncomfortable for him to do what I do, as it is for me to do what he does.
EL: I have similar shoulders and elbows as Sammy. I can just touch my ear without even elevating my shoulder; it just goes there. Whereas, if Mikael puts his arms up there’s a big space by his head.
MK: It’s so funny to try to do those positions for me, because it’s miserable.
Speaking about shoulders, you mentioned the acromion. I pulled up a couple of pictures, once when reading about these anatomical variations. Elbows are just some of them.
The funny thing is, you could probably replicate these variations with any bones in the body. The most significant bone differences in bodies are larger things that everyone knows about, like differences between male and female pelvises, femurs that are genetically different. But there’s tons of small ones that we can’t see or have no idea about.
I was reading about the scapula, as it’s so relevant to the handstand. I found these pictures that we’ll also link, so I urge you to take a look at those pictures right now. Scroll halfway down the website there, and you will find a couple of pictures of scapula, basically bone parts. If you look at the upper right picture of the scapulas there- […] these two scapulas, if I looked at them and didn’t know what I was looking at, I wouldn’t necessarily be sure they’re the same bones. The acromion sizes are massively different.
On one of them, you wouldn’t even see the supraspinatus, and in the other it’s in plain view. These kinds of differences are the types where there are no ways for us to make any significant assumptions on what or if this could cause, but what we can assume is that there is something to be said for these two things, that variations of technique might be a good approach.
These are what we want to come from this, not that you need to do one thing or another depending on your body, or that you’re talented or not, but that it might be smart to rethink the idea that there is only one certain way of doing things, if it is true that body parts are different in different people. Which they are.
EL: We don’t just have a gross morphology that is a bit different; there are internal things where two people of the same size and stature – I think it was Greg Everett, in his book on Olympic Weightlifting where he was comparing two weightlifters. Two females, same size and weight class, lifting about the same weight, and he put them side to side and shot them from the back.
On one, her ass would have been equal to the person’s sacrum on the other side. That person obviously had a shorter torso to compensate. You can see big differences in the gross morphology, even from the outside when comparing people.
Inside, it’s nonsense, sometimes, in terms of what can be different and what has to compensate for those differences.
One possibly detrimental one that I see in front of me now, is the acromion. The acromion process has between 3-5 different types, depending on which textbook you pick up. I had this explained to me by a physio very early in my training days.
Type I acromion, and there were only 3 in his classification system, you have no problems. Type I is straight. Type II is curved; you have shoulder problems every now and then. Type III is hooked, coming right over; you have shoulder problems all the time.
This is interesting, just from the basis that we have to remember that the body and bones are a form of connective tissue that respond to stress. There’s some evidence, not sure how strong it is, and surely some physios will jump down my throat, but you can actually make the acromion process adapt by working overhead.
A lot of people just don’t work overhead, whether weightlifting, hanging, chin ups, which should have been part of our development. The shoulder, being the first weight loading joint of the body apparently, at least in locomotion – if we don’t do enough of these activities, the acromion doesn’t get enough stimulus to adapt, and ends up being a Type III. Whether that’s true or not, I’ve heard it in a few places. It’s interesting that if you take up hanging, and there are MRI images where you can see the changes of doing hanging for 4-5 months. That will force the acromion to straighten out a bit from a Type III to a Type II, or Type II to a Type I.
This kind of adaption is still possible. Even if you have these bone structures, things can be changed. So it’s interesting to think – what’s the long term effect of standing on our hands so much?
MK: I’ve thought a lot about that the last couple of years, now that I’m not 22 anymore. My left elbow used to hyper extend. On all my old videos from 10 years ago, my left elbow is hyper-extending to a decent degree. Now it’s not. I have found that when I hang from a bar, I can feel a significant stretch in my elbow. I described it to Emmet, to use Rodney Mullen’s metaphor, it feels like dried gum being pulled apart. So I started to hang a bit to see if that does anything.
It’s interesting; it used to be a pronounced hyper-extension that is practically gone. I wouldn’t be surprised if this has to do with me absolutely decimating my elbows by jumping around on my hands every single day for a number of years. Obviously my body is trying to deal with this, which it has done very well. I don’t have significant elbow issues. I also can’t bend my arms a lot. That’s maybe the most interesting part. I can’t touch my shoulder with the hand in any way, shape or form. It’s not even my biceps, as there isn’t any stop in that section. It’s around the tricep area, and my triceps are extremely stiff.
I remember very clearly when I started circus over ten years ago, I would do some partner acrobatics. A girl would stand on my shoulders, step into one of my hands, then step into the other, and we were in foot to hand. No big deal.
A few years ago I tried to do this step step method with an extremely light girl. She’s tiny, weighs 43 kilos. I couldn’t. I was like, why can’t I hold her? This used to be extremely easy 10 years ago when I was much weaker.
Then I saw, I can’t get my hand close enough to my body to get into any efficient angle whatsoever. I literally had to have her out in some janked bicep curl stupid position to be able to push and hold her. It wasn’t doable.
I did some pair acro a year ago, and it improved significantly again. I put a lot of stress onto the arm and elbow into that position and it improved, but I definitely need to stick to that to be able to keep the change, of course.
EL: On the elbow note, I have the opposite issue. I don’t have a hint of hyper-mobility in my body; I have the exact opposite type. Flexibility does not come easy to me as a thing, that’s why I know so much and spent so long researching it. I had to find something that worked for me, at least back in the day.
For elbows I managed to develop a significant degree of hyper-extension deliberately. I was trying circus a decent amount of time. I got to third year circus school and figured I wanted to learn handstands and one arms, as a side project. I could hand balance fine, press fine, stalder, all these things were fine, but I couldn’t one arm. Okay, I’ll put the work in.
I was talking to someone I respected who I can’t remember right now. He said you have to be able to hyper-extend in the elbows or you won’t be able to one arm.
My arm goes straight, not the other way. I’m fucked. I took a method I learned from the circus school in San Francisco, via a friend. It came from the Chinese coaches who I met later on. They did this for everything: hyper-extend the elbows, the knees, the lot. What they would do is sit down in a pike against the wall with your toes pointed on a couple of yoga blocks. You get some 10lb sandbags – 5lbs for the Europeans – and put them on 2-3x a week, sit there for 10-15min at a time.
So, I proceeded to do the same thing with my elbows. A few months later, and anyone who sees my elbows now, there’s a quite significant degree of hyper-extension that developed. So joints can be changed; I’ve experienced it directly.
MK: Of course there’s certain limits on how much, but yes, the body responds to forces. That is something that we know. Speaking of that, now we’ve mentioned a few things: bones, scapula, elbows, spines are of course different, hips, everything.
It’s easier to imagine the bones are different – at least it was to me – than muscles. Then I started completely randomly to google Latissimus Dorsi, because I wanted to read something about it. Maybe I was in some wikipedia loop, or a sleepless night.
I googled that, and clicked the wikipedia, maybe to check insertions or something. Then I look a little bit down the page, and suddenly it says, “Variations.” I’m like what do you mean, variations? It’s just one of the biggest muscles in the upper body. It pulls the arm down, and so on.
Suddenly I see it says the latissimus dorsi crosses the inferior angle of the scapula. A study found that, of 100 dissected cadavers, 43% had a substantial amount of fibres in that muscles originating from the scapula. 36% had few or no muscular fibres, but a soft fibrous link between the scapula and latissimus dorsi. 21% had little or no connective tissue between the two structures. What? So for 43% of people, they have muscle fibres from the lats to the scapula. The rest literally do not have significant muscle fibres connecting there at all. It blew my mind.
This is just speaking of one single muscle. Again, we can’t extrapolate what this means for hand balancing practice, other muscles, and so on, but it definitely says something. It’s not set in stone exactly how these connect within our bodies. I am pretty certain that these things can also be contributing to what we call talent, in the sense that certain structures favour certain movements. This is an obvious thing.
Again, this is not something to go home and “Boo hoo, my scapula does not connect to my lats. I shall never do a pull-up again.” It’s not about that. It’s about understanding what variations actually exist.
EL: I say this phrase a lot to people, since many people come to me for flexibility training, obviously. I get people interested in becoming contortionists. In my mind, contortionists are born; you don’t make a contortionist.
Now, you can train in contortionism and get immensely flexible. You can get really good bridges, oversplits, really good pancakes, all that stuff. But for contortion, particularly the high level back bending, just has something else, where if you don’t have it, you can’t train it. I think a lot comes down to the spinal processes. The size of your vertebra, when they start to jam up, as well as hyper-mobility of the tissues along the spinal column, as this is more like a rigid tube of muscles and connective tissue surrounding the bones. All these kinds of things: there’s just a hard bony limit on how flexible you get, and you can’t train past it for a lot of people.
As I say, the talent to be a proper contortionist, and by this I mean someone who has the capacity to learn a proper Marinelli Bend, when you backbend and sit on your own head, or other advanced straight leg head sits, stuff like this. You’d be able to get a chin stand, a lot of people can get their feet to the ground on a chin stand. But there’s a limit of…even I, at certain points, could get my feet to the ground on a chin stand. But there’s not a chance I’d be able to sit on my own head. There are encoded bony hard limits in flexibility as well.
MK: When you reach those upper crazier levels of things, it’s just like not everyone can run as fast as Usain Bolt. It just won’t happen. Everyone can run faster. So they can get really good at what they do, but there’s a certain upper upper level of things. Things like talent start to matter. Like if you want to be the best at ring gymnastics in the world, and you weigh 90kg. Well, you’re not going to be the best. It’s literally that simple.
Whereas understanding the basis of where these things come from, the inner pieces as well, is interesting and something that is barely ever spoken about. It’s very obvious why – it’s really hard to cut someone open. It’s not something you just go and do.
EL: Really? You don’t?
MK: At least you don’t tell anyone about it.
EL: I think Mikael lives in Norway to save on the freezer bills.
MK: Obviously you can’t really do these kinds of studies on athletes, as I assume only doing imaging might not be enough on a lot of these things. As they refer to the article in Wikipedia, they dissected cadavers to be able to ascertain these variations.
EL: If people are into coaching, or keeping up with pain science research, there’s a trend called victims of medical imaging. A simple example is if you have back pain, and go to the doctor, who sends you to an orthopaedic specialist to do an MRI on your back. Then he tells you you have a blown out or prolapsed disc in your back; that’s the cause of your pain. We must operate and fix it.
But – it’s only because they can see something wrong that they attribute that to it. They started doing studies on MRIs on healthy young people over a certain age, I think 80% of them had evidence of past spinal prolapses that had been asymptomatic.
If we started attributing your acromial width being X wide meaning you’re good at hand balancing, or won’t be able to make it, then obviously we’re introducing some kind of nocebic effect.
MK: Exactly. I think this is really important. I’m not a health and fitness expert at all. But I even downloaded that picture, of the most jank bullshit you’ve ever seen. Basically, it was from some sort of physio page with a question: Do you sit with your wallet in your back pocket? Then there was a picture of a person sitting on their ass, with no wallet in the back pocket. Then the person with the wallet in the back pocket. Then the person jamming their ass up and sitting with their back in a very funky position due to this wallet being in the back pocket. Then they had put a picture of a spine on the back of these two bodies.
One had a nice and straight spine; the other was crooked and bent. They were acting as if sitting with your wallet in your back pocket is a significant contributor to back pain, because the spine doing this slight bend from the picture, which I’m sure is not actually noticeable if you’re sitting. Even if your wallet is thick, you’re not going to move 10cm to the side. Your body is resilient and adaptable, and likely able to sit on its ass, even if one ass cheek is slightly higher.
EL: You just train one side of hip thrusts to balance it out. I like to keep my wallet in my left pocket, so I train hip thrusts only on the right leg. That keeps my ass in shape.
MK: I remember two really nice quotes that I can’t remember the source of, but some pain science related stuff.
One was, The best posture is your next one. Which I really like. If you sit on your couch right now, listening to our podcast, for example, you’re probably slouching. Good. Within 5 minutes you’ll probably change position once or twice. Your body can do this. Your body can deal with this.
EL: I like to think lots of people listening to our podcast are training handstands. We get tagged in a lot of posts. It’s great.
Hopefully you stay longer and not get distracted. Pay attention. And if you’re listening in a handstand right now, point your fucking toes. Or flex your toes. Do something with them.
MK: Don’t fall. Don’t make me ashamed. I just need to mention the other quote as well. You can see who’s in pain by who’s sitting upright. That’s one I really liked. The idea of course is that it’s not great to sit and slouch all the time, but like you said, the nocebo affect of imagining the body is a glass castle you need to protect at all costs. If you do something wrong you will break it.
That’s the same idea with hand balancing and acrobatic practices, too. There’s this strong idea that if you do everything correct you’ll never be injured. Or incorrect training, form, posture, is the only reason why you get injured. There’s an enormous amount of individual factors that you can never know exactly what is going on.
EL: You’d like to rate people on their form technician skills, then track their injuries over 5 years and see that form is subjective. Form is subjective, but glory lasts forever. So perform the triple.
We should get back onto anatomy. The side bending thing. This one is interesting as well.
Side bending comes up as a limitation. It’s torso length, but length of the rib cage. People can have extra ribs, be missing ribs, have floating ribs, or little riblets. It’s funny, I’ll try to find a picture for the transcript as well. Even the spacing you can feel from the top of the pelvis.
Remember the pelvis comes in different shapes as well, and can be higher up or lower down. These can be contributors to your success in side bending in handstands.
If I go sideways and feel the bottom of my ribs to my pelvis, you should have about a hand width there. Some people have double that, others are much closer. This becomes one of the uncomfortable bone limits when you side bend. It just feels like your own ribs are stabbing in some organs. It limits how deep you can get into the bend.
This is one you see quite commonly. Even at advanced levels you have a good balancer who just can’t side bend nicely as someone else. That’s not even counting the lumbar spine and what’s going on there. There’s some tricks to get around it I’ve picked up over the years, like to let the pelvis go over the ribs so they compress them inwards. That one works, but it’s been responsible for a few broken floating ribs every now and then. I know more than a couple of people who have broken ribs that way.
There’s one particular school that will remain unnamed, but you need to sort out your side bending skills. If you’re listening you know who you are. If you have more than a few broken floating ribs in a year, you know who you are.
Other than that…the other one is the pelvis goes inside the ribs and shifts down. That one you end up squishing your own liver to get around it, but it still does not give you the same bend as having a lot of space for the lumbar to conform around. If you want to be great at side bending, you better roll that dice in the reincarnation.
MK: My side bending is fine, but it’s not great. If I do a full flag and I bend as deep as I can and keep my arm completely close to my face, I will never ever make it to 90º flat. I even tried it holding onto a bar, where I then have more than all the power I need to keep the arm perfectly by my ear.
It gets close to horizontal, but to reach that horizontal line, I need to move the hand away from the head. I could do that with a straight arm, or bend the elbow. I can kind of reach the pretty flat shape. If I do not do either, it is not going to happen. It’s not a discussion of more bending. It doesn’t hurt in the bones, but there isn’t more to be done there.
I even tried this with ankle weights to have something to pull me down more. I was filming from the exact same angle, and it was virtually exactly the same thing. There wouldn’t be anywhere further I could go with that.
The funny thing is, you’ll see so much variation on this. Some barely bend at all on the side, or do a lot moving the arm away. Then you have, for example, some of those Mongolian contortionists. There’s one we’ll link, she’s the most flexible I’ve ever seen in that regard. Of course her contortion is top, top, top notch as well. She’s an insane hand balancer. She bends so much in the side. She puts her opposite hip on her shoulder; the ass is on the shoulder. It just looks like when I try to imagine that in my body…just, no. There isn’t. I would have to remove 1/5 of my upper body to get into that position. That’s a lot of blood and gore. I kind of skipped learning that one.
EL: I could come over and happily do that for you. Bring some preworkout, bring the axe. Get you into the position.
If you look at the position, and you see with a lot of high level contortion, certain contortionists have their power moves they flex on other contortionists that they can just do. No one else can. It’s down to some of these weird things.
Particularly when a country decides a certain thing is their thing, then pulls all the talent pool in the country just based on the population, and suddenly is smoking everyone. Mongolian and contortion is a classic in circus. They just have a very…it’s an art form over there, a very respected thing your kids might do instead of dance classes. They get a talent pool, where in the upper echelons, people rise out that are immensely good. You see that with other sports. A country decides like, wrestling is their sport. Then a small country like Bulgaria is smoking everyone at wrestling.
You’d think bigger countries might do it, but no. The talent pool is focused in one direction. You have selection of the best of the best traits for this thing.
MK: It’s really important to remember that, again, speaking of the best of the best, the best ones tend to continue with it. They start when they’re young, blah blah blah. It will be the people with these strange variations of human bodies that end up doing these at higher levels. But hard training is an enormous and significant amount of it.
Me starting circus at 23 was doable. I could never get as good as the guys who started way younger. It’s not a discussion, the amount of training hours I could put in with quality between 22 and my mid 30s…I could get a lot done, but you could get a lot more done with fewer hours if you’re a child. That is entirely fine.
One of the reasons why i wanted to make this episode is it’s really the opposite of having a discouraging “you shouldn’t do this because you don’t have talent.” It’s not that. I think it’s important to know what kind of things exist, so we’re not running around in a fairy tale world thinking we’re going to become the best in the world. It’s not productive.
You might be. It’s good to have that kind of passion, drive, all that. But it’s good to understand where these things are coming from. We’re having a discussion about reality, not fairy tale land.
EL: It’s the case that all handstands must look exactly the same, and if you don’t perform to this form, you’re a bad person, or not achieving the goal of a handstand, even if you’re holding it for 50-60s.
The line itself, even if talking about the bone adaptations, like the stuff I had personally going on with the elbows – I picked it up in circus school and was able to blast out handstands no problem. When I adapted the elbows, I’m a new person, from my own personal experience.
Coaches, maybe not all obviously, but there’s a trend in specialized hand balance coaches where everything has to look the same. It must be this alignment, straight. We have to recognize the root of a lot of this comes from gymnastic coaching. That is aimed for children. They have a certain aesthetic based on children.
The people who reach the high levels of gymnastics, particularly women, are generally wider in the shoulders and narrower in the hips than an average woman. Generally, not in every single case, but particularly at the Olympic level.
We get the bias that this is the best shaped body for this, in the exact same way that being 7’ tall with 7’10 arms is the best shape for playing basketball. There are body types that are better for these acrobatic disciplines, but the interesting thing is you see more variation of the body types, particularly in gymnastics, at the university level. You get girls who are really good, maybe not olympic material. They start having growth spurts at the university level. The hips get wider, bigger asses, thighs. Just from training. They have a different physique shape than we’re used to seeing performed at the upper echelons.
They’re still damn good, busting doubles and shit like this. But what happens, which I picked up on through my own misfortune, unknowingly 10-12 years ago: I was coaching, working as a PT. I was coaching women. My main clientele were women, 35-45 as the average age. Generally not super fit, but not in bad shape. General office workers with an interest in health is the easiest way to describe it. I was trying to get them to do dish holds, hollow body, whatever you want to call them. Lots of them who were more curvy shaped – not fat, just curvy – couldn’t get their lumbar spine flat on the ground.
For me, one of the key things I was drilled in was the lumbar spine must be flat on the ground, as hard as possible. You’d be getting these curved banana shapes to get the flatness on the lumbar spine.
I have a strong feeling on the dish hold and big canoe shape, versus the straight body hold we want to use for hand balance.
I would start to feel the lumbar spine. They were flexing it pretty hard, and posteriorly tilting the pelvis. They just had more mass and muscles on their asses that was going backwards. For them they couldn’t get flat. It wasn’t that their spine wasn’t in the configuration I wanted. It’s just they had muscle, ass. It was causing a speed bump. They couldn’t do hollow body rocks right.I was thinking they were bad people because they couldn’t do these with form, but it turns out I was the bad person. I hate it when I’m wrong, it was a learning experience. It would manifest in peoples’ handstands as well.
You see this a bit online. Shoulder position is good, everything is stacked. If you project an image of roughly where you think the bones are, the skeleton is straight. The butt is sticking out, so it looks like the lower back is curved. It’s not; it’s flat. There’s no excuse to curve the lower back. But watch out for this, particularly if you’re a coach, in thinking it must be a straight line. No, we’re looking at a straight line through the body, not at the back of the body.
MK: There’s also the notion we spoke of before that if we take these variations of bodies and then speak about technique…these ideas that you have to follow a certain standard set by a sport, gymnastics, with criteria for aesthetics. Gymnastics had a lot of its roots in aesthetics from ballet, which has to do with a certain form of presentation and aesthetic that is culturally constructed.
I love to compare this with breaking, since that’s where I come from. It’s really cool to see the extreme difference. You learn the straight, straight handstand, and the straight becomes kind of a symbol of value. That’s what I find fascinating. I can do the straight handstand. I am straight, which means I project value. I can be one of the people that can do the straight. That is the parameter we are trying to satisfy. We are trying so hard to adapt the body to this technique.
If you look at the variation, both in gymnastics and circus, there are loads of new material developed, people doing new things with it. But if you look at just handstand wise, in terms of various movements you can do on the hands, this aesthetic framework becomes oppressive. It dictates us to work in a specific way all the time.
I found this video a few days ago, to juxtapose, and I’m not saying circus or gymnastics need to move in this direction. It’s a B Boy called Elvis something, from Russia, who does some air baby crocodile baby freeze kind of combination movements that are absolutely absurd. Both technically and complexity and difficulty wise, it is absolutely nuts what he does in the one video we will link in the description. The amount of sheer variation that comes out of this perspective when you’re not trying to change your body to the technique. You’re just seeing, what works for my body? Then you swap the technique to that.
Again, not saying circus needs to do that, but there’s certainly an interesting thing to see what happens when you let people free with that.
EL: I’m putting my more advanced students through this process at the moment, of trying to get rid of the technique. We’re trying to go, well, we have all the classic hand balance shapes. Now let’s make some new shapes. We’re trying to make a whole act where the goal is to have no shapes out of the classic repertoire in there. No transitions from the classic repertoire, just finding your own voice in this process. It’s frustrating, it’s Josh. He has quite high level technique, he can do all the basic repertoire. But where can we take it, what can we do with it?
MK: Another mention in the transcript, check out Imogen Huzel. She’s the queen of doing weird things with her handstands. They are weird, and they’re fucking awesome.
EL: Imogen had a cool one where she’s bending and extending her elbows in time to a beat.
MK: She does a lot of that stuff. Also her one arm positions – she can do the things, all the classic shapes, but chooses to move in a completely different way. It’s very noticeable it’s her. Of course the shapes are there, but it’s about the movement quality and the mood that gets added into it. She doesn’t just choose to do a straight leg here, look how pretty it is. It’s exactly as pretty as this other person’s exactly same straight leg.
It’s valuing other things.
EL: This is where the uniqueness of your body comes into play. I can’t flag exactly in the exact same shape because I stabbed myself in the liver with my own bones. But I found out I can flag in some weird twisted thing that relies on me putting my shoulders in a strange position that no one else can replicate.
This is where things get cool for me. You can take your base repertoire and shapes. It’s like playing scales in classical music, or any instrument. You need to learn your scales, and then when people are linking them and doing classy sequences, it’s like learning to play songs.
You learn Wonder Wall, then Metallica, then better things. Is there anything better than Metallica? I don’t know.
Then eventually, maybe I need to write my own songs, play the guitar in weird ways. I think we’re beginning to hit this point in circus as well. There was this uniqueness trend back in the day, to be the only person to do such a thing. A lot did rely on people having weird joints.
What was the name of that Instagram account I shared earlier today? I’ll find and put it in the comments. It’s just old time American carni and circus and carnivals, all this. A lot of people with unique bodies making a high living back in the day, billed as freaks and geeks. People who have medical conditions that would be treated nowadays, but back in the history of these Vaudeville performances, they were super high paid.
MK: The side show stuff.
EL: That uniqueness kind of got lost a bit in circus, then it was pushed away for almost a homogenization of technique. People had pushed the skill to a certain level, but now the skill is dispersed. I’m very convinced that anyone who wants to learn a one arm handstand, give me enough time and you will have a one arm handstand no matter the starting point. We understand the techniques. Same with trapeze, silks, juggling, anything you want to learn. You can get pretty good.
But people realized it got homogenous, the Cirque de Soleil-ification of circus is what people called. So people are trying to find their own voice now with these skills. They have a classical musician trying to play jazz is a good analogy there.
MK: That is also where ultimately, the variation both makes sense and doesn’t. When or if you choose to do things that work for you or you find interesting, then maybe it doesn’t matter or not if you can do the exact fancy pants movement that is highly valued by the ‘community.’
There’s certainly something to be said for that, especially when it comes to an art form. No one bothers more than a few times to see the same balance or flip, while if you have some flavour to add, it plays a significant role in the work and people wanting you to work. Also for inspiration, infinitely chasing the highest skills…there’s a very serious diminishing return, and it’s something I’ve felt very much the last years.
I’ve done most of the things. I know what things I can get slightly better at. I know the things I’ll never be able to do, and the things I don’t care to be able to do. It increasingly becomes not caring about being able to do this, since the feeling is going to be largely the same as the last 8000 things I learned to do. You kind of start looking for other criteria for your practice.
EL: Do origami in a handstand.
MK: Yes, do you realize how hard it is to flat fold paper upside down on a couch? Really fucking hard. And with your feet? Fuck that.
I can tie a rope with my feet; that’s where it stops.
I’ve been trying to fold paper in a handstand. The problem is for flat folding paper, you need two hands, or at least a flat surface. So it should technically be possible to fold a bird in a handstand on the floor, but when I speed fold a bird from a 4cm square going really fast, it takes a bout a minute, sitting. So doing that in a handstand will take several minutes, a pain in the ass.
EL: You just have to get faster. Get better at handstands, or at folding.
MK: Emmet, then I’d need to train endurance. I don’t want to train that.
EL: If you don’t care about endurance but want to get good at handstands, train with Mikael. If you like training endurance, I’ll give you some. There’s some coaches that will give you a lot. If you want to train endurance go to China. What’s the Chinese rule? They eased it up to the Westerners who go to the Beijing school, but back in the day, you had to be able to do 30-40 minutes chest to wall handstand before they’d let you train one arms.
MK: My friend there said they were very rough to the Chinese kids, but not to them. They were beaten with sticks when they went down to rest in the stomach to wall handstand.
EL: I think the Chinese character for teaching also contains the character for bamboo. So it’s got the idea of a stick in there as well. Maybe some Sinophiles can tell me if I”m right, but I heard it through the grapevine.
I think we should wrap it up there.
Basically, moral of the story is, your body is completely unique on the inside. There has never been one like it before. Maybe there has, who knows? Statistically probably not. We can’t tell you what’s going on. There’s likely some things you can do, and some you can’t. Eventually you will have to adapt the technique to your body, not your body to the technique.
MK: To some degree. And try your best to do things nicely, but don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t picture perfect.
EL: If you would like to learn to handstand, and the principles we teach from beginner to advanced, we have our courses on Handstand Factory dot com. If you want to ask some questions for the minisodes where we answer all your questions, you can send them to us on social media, either my Instagram, Mikael’s, or the Handstand Factory Instagram, as well as Anchor dot FM.
If you find our page we will link, you can leave us voice messages, which is cool. We’ll definitely play them. You can also leave voice answers and we’ll try to pair up questions to answers, which would be amusing for me but probably not for you guys.
I hope you found something interesting. We’ll leave it here.