In this Q&A with Emmet and Mikael, they answer more questions from you, our listeners. Covering the benefits of block training, oversplits, exercises for someone who trains gymnastics and how much hypertrophy can interfere with handstand training.
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S1E24 – Q&A with Emmet and Mikael
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Transcript of Episode 24: Q&A with Emmet and Mikael
EL: Hello, and welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my co host Mikael Kristiansen. How’s it going, Mikael?
MK: Exactly the same as last time.
EL: Exactly the same as last time?
MK: Exactly, 100%. Can’t complain. Again.
EL: We should probably pretend we’re not recording this on the same day as the last minisode. We could say, Mikael your model is finished now, it looks amazing.
MK: There’s loads of lines on the paper at least. I’ve folded a lot more tiny birds, I think over 300 or something.
EL: You have to level up. It’s basically origami grinding.
MK: It is. I’m at level 30 right now, 25 or something. It never ends.
EL: How many birds do you have to fold to get the sword of infinite truths?
MK: I could wish for it to be 1000 birds, but it didn’t work last time. So..
EL: I’m just a humble Paladin, level 20. Anyway, we’ve got another minisode with your questions and our answers. If you want to send us some questions, DM them to @handstandfactory on Instagram, or use the contact form on our website, http://www.HandstandFactory.com/. Or, you can also do audio questions on Anchor.FM, if you want to be one of these voices on the radio. You can play it back to your mother, let her know you’re on the radio. That would be cool.
We have a few questions about blocks we grouped together. Mikael, what are the benefits of training on blocks?
MK: You get to stand on blocks. Once you’re good at standing on blocks, it’s easier to do one arms on them. They prepare you for doing canes, which is slightly easier than blocks. On average, for most people that do one arms, blocks will become easier than floor at one point or another, even if some people are put off by blocks and don’t get them in the beginning.
I basically know no one who is actually better on floor than on block. Once you can balance on both, the grip on the block gives you a few more dimensions of saving in the hand that doesn’t need to be done in the shoulder. You can be much more precise on the block.
EL: One of the things I really like with the block, and also parallettes – if you look at tendonitis injury, and particularly when you’re learning, or are prone to it, or have had a history of it – if you’re always training on the floor, you’re always giving your forearms the exact same stimulation and stress in the same plane. Alternating training on blocks and floor can be a good way of keeping the stimulation novel in training.
I like getting people to start using blocks from very early in their journey, so you don’t get to the situation where you have a really good floor handstand, can press and do other things, but the forearms are getting overtrained from only floor. If you can’t balance on blocks you have to go all the way back to heel pulls and toe pulls.
MK: Or you can do tons of stuff but can’t do anything on blocks. Just learn the fucking blocks. It’s good for you, basically. Start as early as you can. It’s not particularly much harder, even though some people might experience it as such in the start.
EL: I think people who experience that are already pretty good on the floor. Once they go onto blocks, they think it’s terrible. You just have to learn a different balance mechanism, but once you get it, you can do blocks.
MK: It’s very similar. I remember my first handstand class, I had to stand on blocks and my forearms were so pumped. I was dying after just one set. The warmup set I had to do – the teacher Corey just wanted to see what I could do. I wanted to show him my one arm, and he said, nah we’re going to start at the beginning. God damn it. I didn’t know anything about alignment or anything, just some B-Boy. He had me do a two arm on blocks. I did 40 s and I was dying. Okay, I’m just going to shut up and listen to what he has to say.
EL: As a counter point to the way we teach one arms, there’s definitely some schools of one arms where the block is basically..you do block walks up and down, for months, to get the one arm.
MK: I’m not too big a fan of block walks too early. You can walk the blocks with garbage technique. It’s really hard to do straight arm support with garbage technique. It basically doesn’t work. At some point, when you can do good fingertip support and straight arm support, it means you’re able to get to the point where you grab the block. You’re able to do block walks by moving the hand away, putting it on the floor, moving back over to the other hand, and so on. You have basically built the hip placement and shoulder integrity to be able to do them. They’re great, it’s a great exercise. But it’s an exercise, and not something that necessarily teaches you the one arm directly. It’s certainly useful, but you have to be able to do the other steps as well, to be able to do them efficiently.
EL: Definitely. I bring them in for conditioning for my students from time to time, but they’re normally able to have good success on four finger supports for about 20s before I consider it.
MK: Why bother doing an exercise where you’ll just fall a ton? If you have a teacher, you can walk some blocks. Good for conditioning, but you need to be able to place your hips correctly.
EL: Hip placement first. We kind of answered question two, which was: at what stage would it be suggested to use blocks? Whenever you feel like it, get used to it earlier. As we said earlier.
Okay, number 3. Here’s an interesting one, actually: What is the hand position for blocks, and do they alter your centre of gravity?
MK: No they don’t. I remember I heard this once, by a rather prominent teacher who said handstands on blocks are different than on floor, because your shoulder position needs to be different. What? What do you mean?
EL: That’s interesting. I can remember one of the girls from Circus Space who’s an aerialist, and aerialists are always tight, as we know. They’re jacked in the upper body in ways I wish I could be. Her handstand on the floor was garbage – sorry that is terrible to say, she could do things and hold a handstand. It was just closed shoulders, with a mild arch in the thoracic spine. But if you put her on blocks or parallettes, it would instantly go completely straight.
Wrists could have been it, but she was always super flexible and mobile in most directions.
MK: The thing I have a problem understanding is: it might be that it changes something technical or in the feeling for the person, but the 90º bend at the knuckle of the fingers – I can’t see how that changes much of the rest of the position. On the other hand, you can grab onto a block and do a handstand and release the fingers so they are de facto in the same position as the handstand on the floor, except you aren’t gripping, and your shoulders do not change position. In terms of your centre of mass, it should stay in the same place. If you are comfortable with both surfaces, it shouldn’t change significantly.
When I do any type of two arm work, I have never been able to feel the difference between block and floor. Whereas when on one arm, I feel like I have a lot more force to exert from the hand as I balance on one.
For hand position, do whatever you feel comfortable with. Most people have two fingers in front, the index and middle finger. Some, including me, have three fingers – the index, middle and ring in front. Not long ago, I gave a friend of mine the advice to not do one finger. Then she sent me a video of a Russian girl doing spinning one arm flags on a block. Guess what? She had one finger in front. So it also works, because that girl was better than me.
It’s largely down to preference, but two fingers seems to be most common.
EL: That’s what I think as well. Two fingers is normally where we start. Get used to it, and make sure your block suits your hand size as well. Too big are too annoying, as are too small.
We can also drop a little teaser about what we’re working on. We are going to be releasing Handstand Factory blocks at some point in the near future. We’re getting some custom made with nice designs. If you’d seen some of the art we had done for the stickers and stuff, the blocks will also be getting a manual with a sort of small homage to the manuals from the 1960s and 1970s exercise manuals you get. That’ll be cool when it gets finished. It’s a little project we’re working on.
Blocks. Use your blocks. Enjoy them. I might even use my blocks today. Next question. Please discuss from getting splits warm, to getting them cold. Is training oversplits necessary to getting flat when cold?
We have to basically define what you mean by cold as well. There is a fantasy a lot of people have of getting out of bed, and literally before taking a piss being able to do splits. That’s rare. It’s honestly rare to get that level of flexibility. It’s definitely possible, but we know there are circadian biorhythm things that make you tighter in the morning. You can warm up a bit, and 30-40 minutes after you wake up, you should be able to display your flexibility.
It will change day to day based on what you’re training as well. Some days it will be super tight. Others, you won’t be. This is also to watch out for.
Are we talking about middle splits or front splits? I am very wary of people training over middle splits, because most peoples’ hip capsules cannot do an over middle split. You’ll put too much stress on your joint and inner labrum of your hip. If you can get tested or find me in person, I can do it for you.
Getting over front splits is useful, as is over pancake. If you think about my max being all I can get out of it after 5-6 sets of stretching, that’s like an all out max deadlift. It’s not going to happen every single time. If you have a bit of strength excess: I can do a pancake, but a pancake isometric with a person sitting on me, and I can resist the strength, then you’ll have an excess of strength at that position. You can then display it at lower intensities.
Same with pushing the split. Even if your front split isn’t flat, and you’ve gotten all the way down to the back of the knee with the front leg, and back hip is kind of similar, then training over front can be that next limit you push over to getting flat. If you can do an over front split isometric, or have trained it and increased the leverage, that makes it more likely for my split. You need to develop the capacity to show the split, then start reducing the mental intention that goes into doing this type of exercise. Generally what I have people do is an isometric middle split where they get flat to the floor. It’s really hard. This is when I go all the way back to our basic relax stretching, and start doing it in a very informal and casual manner. Just do the split between your handstand sets. Just get in and feel it out. Doing it with this incredibly relaxed focus, breathing, intention, maybe with some light glute or hip flexor contractions, this will basically get you to the point where it becomes habitual for your body to do a split.
MK: When doing it cold etc, like you say, it’s a fantasy. What is so important about it? I guess it’s this thing of being able to do anything at any time without warm up, etc. Yes, it works fine when you’re 19. You’re not going to be 19 all your life. I’m not saying you will deteriorate and be unable to do things cold when older, but you don’t need to do everything while cold. All it will do is be a thing you can say to one up other people…Who gives a shit?
It’s good to have an ability to do things without having to spend 100 years warming up, but readying yourself for doing things is a good thing in my opinion. It’s making sure you’re focused for what you want to do.
We’ve talked about heavy isometrics into splits versus what you can display with no weight. I remember early on when I met Emmet, i asked you why I see so many circus people, without a particular methodology in that culture for how you work up your splits with protocols and isometrics of X kind and advance exercises, but they sit around in splits a lot. If you get questions about flexibility, people basically just say stretch. This is scoffed and laughed upon by the internet community. “Ha ha! Those methods are so bad.” But why are they so good at splits? It’s not only that they’re good at splits, but also extremely good at demonstrating and exhibiting that flexibility. That is what they do.
When you see very good hand balancers or acrobats with their massive ass splits on display in a handstand, in a very relaxed manner – I have seen so many people even demonstrating cold splits, where they just glide down in an isometric and need that body resistance to get down into it. They have the strength on the insides of the thighs to get down and hold it, but ask them to split their legs, or straddle, or pancake, in a position where you have to lift the legs, their knees are bent and they’re unable to display the use of the flexibility in the manner we are wishing to use it in.
Then it’s, I can do the splits – but can you use it for anything? In my opinion, splits flexibility is rather useless unless you’re wishing to use that for particular athletic things. I’m not the expert on flexibility here, but it’s the question I’ve had for a long time. You see the people with the ability to chill in a split for a very long time. Hello Morgan and Josh, for an example. You’ll see them just sitting around in a massive split, texting on the phone. It’s not a big deal. Guess what happens when they go into a handstand? That split is still there. While Mr Muscle Dude who can get into a heavy ass split goes into handstand, there’s literally no split there.
I remember once in the Netherlands, this guy got into a deeper splits than me when holding 20kg. It looked great. Then he went to handstand, when he straddled his legs it just looked like a small straddle. It was uncanny how large a difference there was when only gravity was pulling his legs down there.
EL: You touched on a lot of interesting points, and I’m going to break a few of them down.
The informative side to my Modern Methods of Mobility syllabus is, I would ask people how they became more flexible. I was on a quest. I was getting answers like, stretch more, sit around, do that. That wasn’t getting results, so I started looking at what people were doing. If you look at a circus person, which was my first exposure, but it was the same in dance and martial arts, with high kicks and stuff, if you look at the way these people actually use their bodies, it’s an environment that encourages the use of flexibility in a highly variable manner. There’s no focus on the flexibility, other than the completion of a task. The task can be an expression of something, a high kick, an aesthetic or geometric quality of the body you’re going for. This is what people are doing. They’re constantly not trying to do a split, but get this to do that, or kick that pad, or jump in the air and do a split because what the choreography says. This kind of formal use of the flexibility is what really develops it much more past a certain point than just stretching your splits.
There’s specific flexibility preparation. A lot of people confuse this with general flexibility preparation. That is the reverse of what you think about in strength training. Specific flexibility training is when you can do an isometric split with heavy weights. Then your body begins to get really good at doing isometric splits with heavy weights. You need the weight to get into the split. General flexibility preparation is where I train all different qualities of flexibility: dynamic, static, active, all these kinds of ways of training it. I do this in a general and relaxed manner, though a discipline that takes care of these needs as well. Then I’ll just be more flexible and it will be more accessible. My flexibility is a skill as much as an exercise. You have to bear that in mind.
Also, it’s habituation. Everyone thinks it’s an exercise that develops your flexibility. It’s not; it follows very strictly the bio-psycho-social model. If you’re in an environment that places a high value on flexibility, mobility and aesthetics in these positions, guess what? You will get more flexible just by being in this environment. It’s funny to watch. Take the tight guys we know in circus: tight fascial and muscle type. They’re much more flexible than anyone you see in Crossfit. Why? Value is placed on flexibility in these environments. They train it more, they’re in a place that’s more supportive. You’re not just that weird person going over to stretch for 30 minutes, or practices holding their leg up at a certain angle. You’re not that person who practices rolling around on the floor to use your flexibility in some specific way, because I want to throw a ball and catch it while looking in a certain manner. These kinds of environmental factors go a huge amount into your flexibility. The expectations of your environment as well play a big part in this.
To sum up, use your flexibility more. Train it more.
There’s an interesting passage in Stretching Scientific by Thomas Kurz. His big thing in the book is to display maximum flexibility with this little warm up routine you do in the morning. It’s leg swings and stuff like that. You do that, and he mentions how you’re able to display close to your maximum range. He says this is really useful if someone mugs you and you need to high kick them to the face.
But if you’re going to do a full training session, you should take the time to warm up properly with joint rotations, light jogging, kicks, lower intensity versions of what you do. It doesn’t make sense to go in and do splits without warming up properly. There’s a lot more to a warm up than just being able to do the move.
Then he also says, you don’t need to warm up your flexibility by doing 20-30 minutes of stretching. You just do one set of isometric stretches and your flexibility is there. Read the book, it’s interesting and well worth it.
Cool. I think that covers it. We rambled. Did we ramble enough though, that is the question.
MK: I think it was an adequate ramble.
EL: Number five. What lower body exercises do you recommend for gymnasts, and how often?
MK: I’m not that well versed in gymnastics in that sense. I just know that one channel I want to mention for that can be a guy I had when I was in circus school who was a gymnastics teacher. Daniel Sundell was his name. He’s a Swedish guy I will find so we can link his instagram. He posts a lot of exercises for young gymnasts that are quite particular for gymnastics. Loads of strange stuff I would never imagine. He’s strictly a gymnastics teacher, so probably has loads of particular ones.
EL: I can talk about this one loads. We have to look at what you mean by a gymnast. Do you mean a competitive gymnast, or someone who does recreational gymnastics? Two very very different things.
Generally we also have to look at what is the volume of tumbling this person is doing? What is the plyometric height they’re aiming for? How high are they jumping? How much vaults are they doing? How much sprinting?
There’s this fallacy of “gymnasts do pistols; that’s why they have strong legs.” Actually, you probably do 50-100 tumbling passes in a training session, starting with a very basic forward roll all the way to more powered stuff. You will also be jumping down a trampoline. You will also be sprinting down a vault track. All these things add up. People forget that and fetishize certain exercises, saying that is what does it.
Generally, for gymnasts, acrobats, and tumblers I train, we will look at the volume of jumping. Generally we train one a week of with resistance training: squats, deadlifts, single leg work. Very basic format, very low volume: sets of 3-5, good technique. We’re trying to get the benefits of resistance training without becoming a weight lifter. There’s a lot of benefits to resistance training, but also a lot of highly specialized technique that goes into being a weight lifter. You have to watch out for that. Obviously you need good technique. We just need to be a bit stronger and progress on that. We need to not become an expert on squatting. I made the mistake on that actually in circus school. I got hooked on squatting. My legs got super big. I remember in second year my quads were jacked and immense. I looked great. It made tumbling so hard. Lay outs were so difficult because I couldn’t kick my legs around fast enough. It was funny because I still had my height from back tucks and things, but it was slow to rotate. I had to stop training legs for a while until they shrank a bit, and take up jogging. Great fun.
So we need the legs to be strong. We don’t need them to hypertrophy a huge amount, though a bit is good. There’s also a lot of remedial stuff that doesn’t get a lot of time under tension in gymnastics: calf raises, VMO specific exercises, all these things that can be useful.
This is a big and complicated question to answer. Then we also have to think about all the moving the legs through space, using my split in space, kicking my legs really hard to generate the tumbling forces…these are also lower body exercises. We need to look at the strength of the hip flexors and active flexibility, the deficits. These are also lower body training, just in a different manner.
There’s a lot of things to look at and go over there. It’s a bit outside the realm of hand balance.
MK: Last question, then. To what extent does weight lifting and muscle hypertrophy interfere with handstand training?
Interfere is an interesting word, because I don’t really think it necessarily interferes in any way. Certainly, there is one. If you get absolutely jacked and weigh a lot, you have more to lift. At least with advanced stuff, it will perhaps start interfering with the heaviest skills, in terms of strength to weight ratio. At an early enough stage, that will start to outdo the benefits of the extra strength gained.
I don’t really think it’s that large..I haven’t seen that often as too big an issue. I remember at my first workshop in Dublin, there was a bodybuilder that came and was proper jacked. He was fucking massive. I remember he had those tights on, and his quads were enormous. I don’t think he was competing anymore, but he was proper big. He was doing very good handstands. He struggled with pressing, obviously because his legs were ginormous. He had super good range in his shoulders. His alignment through the shoulders was stellar, practically perfect. He could one arm a little bit. It wasn’t entirely there, but it was basically on the fact that the just needed to work the balancing aspect a bit more. But his placement was good. He had decent leg flexibility as well, his straddle and pancake were good as well.
EL: We should probably link the Alexis Brothers. Check their older stuff out. I don’t think they ever claimed natty. They were huge, a pair of acrobats that would do slow hand to hand.
One of the acts, they were doing a two person one arm planche kind of thing. Machines. They looked like mini Arnold Schwarzeneggers.
MK: Check out the act on YouTube. They both have snakeskin tights. The base has the hair of Val Kilmer from Top Gun. They’re both massively jacked and doing super crazy stuff.
I remember the first time someone showed it to me, I thought you must be that big and strong to do this kind of stuff. Then you see sport acro guys, super twiggy, doing that stuff. Certainly these two were really damn good; they’ve done it all their lives. They didn’t need even half that muscle to do what they did. I think it was more for showmanship and the look.
EL: You can find some of their really old stuff. The interesting thing is this act was originally the Alexis sisters. Someone coached them into it, and they took over the act. The Alexis sisters were also ver high level, doing slow and strong hand to hand, stuff like that.
MK: Are those the girls who walk up and down the ladder with one doing a headstand on top?
EL: That, and they do a head stand on foot basing, stuff like that. They’re strong big ladies.
If you find the younger Alexis brothers, they’re just normal sized. But at a certain point in their career, they decided to go for this bodybuilding aesthetic.
I remember seeing a photoshoot of them in the gym, and the base was doing like 4 or 5 pounds on the incline. That was their training: bodybuilding, not bodyweight training.
You could basically just train bodybuilding, crossfit, other stuff, train handstands and end up pretty beastly. You don’t necessarily have to train bodyweight training with hand balance. Obviously it’s very good, but not a necessity.
MK: There’s several people I know who have lifted loads of weights through their handstand careers, that have been on super high levels. It’s not like a detriment, per se. It’s like anything, it’s more about how you do it, and what your goals are within it, and if the goals interfere with what you want to do in handstands then yes, it might be interfering.
Just the practice itself of grabbing some weights and lifting them, that isn’t a problem. If you want to micromanage cutting and bulking cycles and have weight goals you want to get to, and bodyfat percentages, that type of work? Then that might interfere. But weight lifting, hypertrophy, no problem. For most people, let’s be real. Most people are not at the level of muscle hypertrophy where they’re so maximized that they need to invest 80% of their lives into that last 10%. Most people aren’t there, so it’s rather limited to how much it will ruin your handstand ambitions.
EL: Same with flexibility. I’ve gotten big guys into splits. There’s no real limitation.
Well actually, knee flexion can be limited by how big your quads and calves are. If you’re going for a highly specialized thing and you want to maximize your capacities in one zone, other things have to go away.
If you want to be generally in shape and do handstands and presses and shapes, you don’t really give up the bodybuilding.
MK: I guess there’s a reason why most contortionists are rather slim. At one point, body mass might be in the way of certain things moving. If you have an enormous amount of muscle mass, it will be troubling to do the higher level stuff.
Within reasonable limits, where 99% of people will traverse, I don’t think it’s stopping anything. At the same time I think it can help with loads of things too. For very basic weightlifting stuff, some barbell work, and even biceps and triceps and bench and shoulder press will not take anything away. You do need to recover from those workouts, so what it can do is take time from your handstand practice. In that sense it will be detrimental. It’s definitely a thing you shouldn’t shun just because of it.
EL: I do this a bit with some specific clients, where every fourth phase of 6 weeks, where we normally work bodyweight skills – planche, press, whatever – I’ll cycle them onto a bodybuilding style isolation workout for quite high reps, 12-15. A basic bodypart split. It just seems to give the body a bit of rest while building a bit of resilience.
I’d use this for people who are a bit more prone to connective tissue injuries. By doing this it seems to give a break from stuff that’s quite stressful on those tissues. We’re deloading and following all the good practices already, but it gives a longer recovery period for it all to catch up. You also get a bit of a pump on and get jacked. You look good in the mirror, what more do you want? This is why we do this.
MK: Stop the handstands, get jacked, go home. The end.
EL: Thank you for tuning in. If you want to check out any of our programs, please check out HandstandFactory.com. If you have any questions please DM them to @HandstandFactory on Instagram. DM them to us directly, or voice note them in on Anchor.FM.
Other than that, have a good week.
MK: Yes. Cheers.