Transcript of Episode 26: 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 are things, Mikael?
MK: You should be able to see how they are. I’m seated right across the table from you.
EL: We’re in this weird inter period. Lockdown wasn’t any more in Ireland, so Miakel’s come over to film some top secret projects. Now that he’s here, they’ve announced that they’re locking the country back down. We are back to March, the 905th of July. Now we have Mikael in Ireland; it’s going to be cool. We’re sitting in a kitchen doing a podcast.
We shouldn’t have broken the illusion. We are sitting at the temple, on the mountainside, in the snow, recording a podcast for your amusement.
MK: We’re melting the snow with meditation powers.
EL: Mikael’s held a handstand for six hours while in meditation.
MK: PSSSSSHT. That was the sound of the ice melting underneath my mighty palms.
EL: Yeah, the sound you’re probably actually hearing is the Dublin seagulls being fucking loud. They’re a protected species, but if enough of this goes on I will have to buy a drone with a flamethrower attached to deal with them.
MK: You could eat them afterwards. It would make them crispy on the way down.
EL: Apparently, and this is probably delving into my personal family history, but I’ll tell the story anyway. When my dad and uncle were teenagers, they were into bird watching. There was a nature reserve called Bull Island they’d go to when they were 15, 16. I can tell this story now because my dad is dead. He can’t…I can’t get busted.
Anyway, they started bird watching and had a book that would tell them all the birds of Ireland. As they saw them, they would try and tick them off. After they’d ticked them all off, they decided they should try to eat one of every bird. They went up there with an air rifle and preceded to eat and comment on every bird that they could.
They said seagull was the worst thing they’d ever eaten. To put it in context, this was probably Ireland in the 40s or 50s…it would have been the 50s then. Seagulls probably weren’t eating fried chicken and garbage water so much, so you can only imagine the seagull quality has gotten worse.
MK: Could see that being a thing, absolutely.
EL: So the theme for our episode is, What birds can you eat in a handstand? Let us know, dial us in.
Anyway, we are going to do a Q&A episode to answer all your questions. As usual, if you want to ask us any questions, DM them to us on @HandstandFactory on Instagram, or to me or Mikael, and we’ll get to them. You can also voice note us questions if you find us on Anchor.FM. You can find it on the website under the podcast section. Check it out.
Other than that, we just jazzed up the podcast section of the website with all the transcripts and everything there. You can go to Handstand Factory and find the podcast section for the transcripts and references, and everything else. If you haven’t found them yet and are looking for some of the things we reference, yeah.
I suppose we should get to it.
MK: What do people want to know?
EL: Some long questions today.
“For your “Great podcast,” can you talk a little about the sternum in cue? I see that my ribs stick out a bit compared to more professional hand balancers. Was I born with the wrong parents, or am I not sucking in enough?”
The second question goes with this one:
“Can you share your thoughts on rib in in handstand? For example, is it affecting the efficiency in a straight handstand? How do you train to get ribs in?”
MK: Now I am going to destroy your ‘ribs in.’ It’s one of the cues that frustrates me the most. You cannot move your ribs in, unless you move your shoulders as well. This is the primary thing. Moving your ribs in means closing the shoulder angle. Plain and simple. If you are pulling your sternum backwards, you will be rounding the upper back to some degree. That is going to close your shoulder angle by itself, without moving the shoulder flexion. You’re not closing shoulder flexion, but you’re moving the thoracic spine from a position where the ribs are out. When you do that, and if you look at yourself in the mirror from the side, if you move your arm into flexion and elevation – more or less as far back as it goes – and if you continue, you will see your ribs start flaring out. If you want to pull the back in, you need to bring your shoulder angle closer to some degree. That is the thing people don’t understand.
I’m sure you’ve seen this too, Emmet. Especially the too-open handstand where you complete the handstand line by shooting the ribs out, and letting the thoracic spine take out the last piece of flexion, disengaging the hard work the mid traps need to do to get into the full position. Doing this without flaring the ribs is primarily the problem.
Either people don’t have the strength there, or they lack the mobility to even reach that position with a rounded upper back. Then they take out the last 5, 10, 20% with the thoracic spine. The big problem is it seems straight. If you draw a line from the back of the body to the wrist to the hip, it will look straight. Most of the time the ass or feet hang over, and the chest will be on the other side to close the shoulder angle. To be able to do so, you need the strength in the upper back to be able to carry the body in that closed position.
EL: Yeah. I think there’s one interesting thing to think about in this one. There is a flexibility requirement, and a nice little test. I have it on my YouTube. You can see a non-bearded Emmet from many years ago demo-ing that. It will identify if any of the muscles are actually tight. Just pretend you have the ideal muscles and ideal range of motion to be able to do a perfectly straight handstand with the ribs in. When you go inverted, the ribs start to stick out.
We can think that what is happening is that under stretch, a muscle will generally be weaker than when it’s in its midrange. If we are trying to get into a flexed shoulder position with closed ribs, it means the mid back will be slightly stretched, more than in a shorter position. One of the things happening there is the muscle groups may not be strong enough to maintain the flexion required to actually get there.
It could be one of the ‘get stronger’ positions.
There’s a difference in rib anatomy. You see this in some styles of handstand. There are some schools of people, like Yuval, where they really hollow the midsection in the handstand and it looks like it’s carved out.
MK: Pull the belly in a bit, you mean?
EL: Yeah, pull the stomach in a lot. For some coaches it’s their style, you see it in some schools, and some just do it naturally. If you look at their rib cage, it looks like it’s expanded in a sort of barrel shape. When some people do this, it almost looks like they’ve sucked their organs and the rib cage is flared out. Some people who haven’t got a full expansion of the ribs in this, it looks like the ribs are sticking out a bit. That’s just one thing to consider there.
Other than that, the test with the wall, where you take the legs out of it, set up and see if you can get an open shoulder position with the ribs down. What does that look like? Can I get perfect handstand alignment in what’s basically an upside down handstand? If you can, then it’s a matter of strength more than anything else. Close the shoulders.
As MIkael said, it’s epidemic. You push, and then push farther. What happens is you push up and back and think you’re retracted. Boom. I know open your shoulders is such a cue we give to beginners, and people who might be tight, but I think it’s an epidemic in the handstand world.
MK: What it means is misunderstood, at least. It ends up going too far into flexion. Basically you can say it like this: you want your shoulders to be in in a handstand. That’s not the same place where you want it in the bridge.
In a bridge, by default you want to push the ribcage out behind the hands, or above the hands. You want to pull the sternum away. This is what you don’t want in a handstand. To be able to close this point, if you lift your arms overhead and go into a reasonable degree of flexion (as I said before), so that you’re flexing your arm overhead and it’s elevated, and you pull your ribs in and feel your arm is closing. Then if on purpose, you allow the arm to close and try to pull your shoulder farther backwards with only muscle force, you’ll feel it in the neck muscles, and the traps will do this. You’re not allowed to move the sternum farther backwards; you’re only allowed to move the hands farther back by flexion.
How this is expressed when all the weight is in your hands is your mid traps will need to pull very hard, to be able to squeeze these last cm out of your shoulder flexion. As Emmet said, your shoulders are in a kind of extreme position; they need to work really hard. It’s tough for them. One of the best things you can do for them is tuck slides on the wall. Then you’re setting up in a position where the shoulders are forced into closed alignment, the legs start sliding down the wall in front of you. This creates a dilemma for the body. Either you fall on your face, or you flex really hard from the shoulders to be able to maintain this handstand position.
As you flex your shoulders really hard, guess what? You’re building the strength to be able to hold the position that you want to be doing in an actual handstand context. There are many other things that go into this like we talked about before, like the structure of the elbow can greatly affect how much you need to move into flexion. If you want to hear more about that you can check out the episode on anatomical variation we did before, and we discussed that in detail.
It basically means that some people need less flexion, by definition, than others to reach the centre of mass over base of support position. This is not about how the line looks on the back of the body, but where the force travels through the body. It’s funny; it’s a seemingly simple concept that is more complicated than it looks like. It’s not complicated in the ways people think.
People go to handstand and think they need to close their ribs, and try to do something about the ribs. You can’t move them unless you move the shoulders. That is not about closing the shoulders as you do in a planche. Then you allow the shoulder flexion to move.
This is pulling the sternum back, which closes the shoulder angle by itself. Then you need to pull that rest of the angle from your traps, basically.
EL: I think that covers it.
MK: It takes some time to develop. Tuck slides on the wall are one of your best options to build strength to do so.
EL: Lat stretches as well. If you’re talking about the case of just not being flexible enough, stretch your lats and pec minor. That’s the key to work on; I have these on my YouTube already.
Assuming you have the flexibility for a straight handstand, it is shoulder strength and correct positioning of the shoulders. Everything upstream…if anything is going janky on your handstand, always look downstream. It’s always built on that foundation.
Next question. We have a long one, but I have a simple answer to it:
“I’ve had a consistent handstand and handstand related mobility practice guided by a quality teacher for about 18 months now. Up until recently, my mobility practice has just been a complement to my handstand practice. After seeing and feeling some very encouraging results, I’ve become very interested in giving my mobility work more attention, in particular understanding it a bit more intellectually/scientifically. Would you happen to have some top books suggestions to begin my quest?”
Yes. Yes I do. I have two books that I like to recommend. Three actually, but two main ones for hobby practitioners. One by grand daddy Thomas Kurz, Stretching Scientifically. Fantastic book, fantastic man. Very generous with his information. Still on point with a lot of things he talks about. I’d argue over the finer details of the application, those kinds of things. As a groundwork for a book it’s great.
The other book I recommend covers the other side of stretching, I suppose. It’s by Kit Laughlin – I haven’t given Kit a title but I suppose I should. I’ll think of that later, but you’re getting a title, Kit, if you’re listening in.
Anyway, Kit of Stretch Therapy fame has a book called Stretching and Flexibility. It is an introduction to their method of Stretch Therapy.
What I like about these two books is we have the former, with a great quote that says ‘partner stretching is ultimately dangerous and a great waste of time, don’t do it.’ Kit Laughlin basically exclusively uses partner stretching methodologies. Not all, but basically uses them and has an equal number of results.
I think over the years that Kit was running his gym, doing stretching and bodyweight training, had 20 000 people through the doors to help refine his method. So, he’s a man worth listening to.
Thomas Kurz has probably trained an equal number of people in martial arts, using his methods. He’s also a man worth listening to.
When you combine these books together and combine the methodologies, you begin to get a greater view of the potential uses of stretching and flexibility training.
MK: An actual answer to your question.
EL: I think if you check out Kit’s website, KitLaughlin.com, they were giving away a free copy of his book via PDF. I’m not sure that will go on forever, but it was to help keep you entertained during Corona times. Try to grab it if you can.
They normally sell it on print on demand; it’s worth getting.
Same with Thomas Kurz. If you’re serious about training, his book should be on your library list.
To plug myself, I have launched my Modern Methods of Mobility website, which is coming soon. That will have a lot more information as well…I have to finish writing some articles. It’s so difficult to write; I hate it. But! I love doing it for you guys, so I will.
Next question: “I’ve heard long training sessions mentioned a few times, 4-5 hours. How do you recommend someone keeps focus and energy for a training session that long? Do you snack or eat at certain points? Smoke/caffeine throughout? (EL: Smoke what is my question here.}-
MK: Methamphetamine should be fine.
EL: Not recommended but we do it. People think we’re joking. Let me finish the question: -how would it compare to doing two sessions a day? I find it hard to warm up my wrists and elbow for a second session. Thanks, guys.”
MK: I would say, yes, there is this classic thing. Go on Instagram and say, ooh, check me out, I trained for X hours a day. People see that and think oh shit, they train X hours a day, so I should probably also train all these hours a day to give me greater results.
That’s not necessarily the case. I used to train many hours. Sometimes I still do. But first of all, this is very individual and depends on your level of practice. First of all, do you have time for it? Do you have the energy for it?
When I was 19 and doing break dancing, I had the energy for it and I would smash that every single day. I would do that in circus school as well. Nowadays I don’t, and I don’t see the point. I can get more or less the same stuff done with much fewer hours. I don’t need as many sets.
I think there is this idea that the more you get done in the session, the more sets, etc, etc, the better results you will get. There’s something to it, though it’s usually overestimated. You have a limited amount of recovery in a week. You need to factor in how much time you need to take off, and so on and so on. There is definitely an argument to be made for spending a little bit less time on it.
Unless you are an advanced practitioner that is also in your early to mid 20s, meaning you are full of force and drive and energy, then sure. You can do some of those sessions. I don’t think that is something to aim for, just because a lot of the best people say they do so.
EL: I think it would also be useful to explain what actually happens in a circus performer’s training, when they say they train for 4 hours a day.
A lot of people who come from the fitness world think people are sitting down with a piece of paper and smashing out sets and reps, timed, working at the same frequency you would on a gym workout. That’s not really how we work out in the circus world.
Let’s say there is nobody there to distract you and you’re just going to do your training. You come in, you do your warm up that will generally be some kind of dynamic stretching. Some people like to sit in stretches, whatever. You want to loosen out and get into ready to train mode, whatever that entails, or whatever you’re doing.
You will do your discipline specific training. That will be a varying amount of time, generally 1.5-2 hours. Because people are working on different qualities a lot of time, and not just pure strength, you’re working on the aesthetics of the movement, linkages between moves you can already do…You’re working things that are often very sub maximal. You build up work capacity over a long time, so you can do a lot of this. It’s easy. What you’re looking for as a performer is to make things easy, not harder. You made all these movements easy and worked on the efficiency so that you can do a lot. It’s almost like comparing a powerlifter to a farmer.
Farmers are pretty strong; they can go for days. They may not be a strong as a powerlifter, though some of them probably are. They can do a lot of work in the day. It’s the same with a circus performer.
Then you’ve done the main bit of your discipline skill training. After, you probably take a break and chat with whoever is in the hall. I believe Mikael has referred to a handstand training being like a tea party, in terms of intensity. You want to be fully recovered, fully rested. People take very long breaks.
When people are training in circus school and there’s a coach there, they generally take fewer breaks. But when they’re by themselves, you see the sets per hour go down, but it allows for better quality work.
Once you’re done that, then you do your physical training for the day. Strength, conditioning, flexibility training, or all of them. Maybe some flexibility training, then strength. It sounds like a weird order but it’s what people train a lot in circus school. Flexibility is higher up in our hierarchy of value over strength, once you’ve got enough strength.
People aren’t smashing themselves with strength since they’ve already done a lot. People are training quite moderately on the conditioning.
MK: Also because they don’t know to fucking condition, often.
EL: I should do 50 sets of crunches because everyone says that makes a strong core.
MK: Some of the younger guys say, like, I came in at 11, then did a bunch of hand to hand. I did strength training, had a banana and coffee, and now will do handstands. Okay cool.
I remember being like that when I was younger. It’s not necessarily a good idea to just do a bunch. There is this thing that is called recovery and super compensation. To some degree you need to adhere to that if you’re going to make progress, either on a technical or neurological level, or just on muscle building brute force ways, or even flexibility.
If you come in and do the same rhythm daily and train 6 hours, you’re not going to last. That is the question: are you going to build a sustainable practice that you can do often enough to be making progress? Or are you going to make a routine that is about doing a lot of hours, because that is a thing o symbolic value? That is a question.
When I’m in the circus hall, it’s often for 6 hours. I train maybe a cool of hours of handstand. I stretch for an hour. I don’t do a lot of acro, but maybe I do some dance work or floor or dance acro or practice breaking power moves. Suddenly I’ve been there for 6 hours. I’ve been at “training” for a bunch of hours. I haven’t been going hardcore. i think there’s definitely a case to be made for shorter hand balancing sessions.
Take my training today as an example. I was maybe training for 2.5 hours. I did stretching for half an hour to loosen up. I felt really awkward and stiff at the beginning. I did a couple of two arms, started doing some one arms to feel how they felt. I sat around and chilled. I didn’t do a lot. My total number of sets could not have been many. I was there for quite some time. The things I was working on were moderately technically complex in relation to what I do.
I could have stayed for a lot longer, but I know I have things to do tomorrow that are training related. It’s about energy management and being smart with it, in relation to what you are going to do through the week. Some might be strength related, some might be high technical focus. You need to manage that, and it’s complicated with handstand training. But don’t think that just because you add more hours, that you’re being smarter with it.
The correlation is rather in the opposite direction, being smart v spending a lot of time.
EL: Not to take shots at anyone, but I know a lot of the movement people. I know who they are. I know how they train. I’ve trained with them.
There are a lot of people who were promoting this training twice a day stuff. A lot of them actually weren’t training twice a day. They done it for brief periods over the course of the year. They might train twice a day for 6-12 weeks, and then something would happen. They’d either be on tour or doing something else, and then they couldn’t train twice a day. Or they just deloaded, or got an injury, or something like that.
So it’s one of these virtues that gets promoted, but at the end of the day it can be sustainable, though a lot of time it’s just not. You begin to see a shift in movement and movement training and bodyweight training where the people promoting twice a day are now promoting training body parts or patterns once a week or every ten days, stuff like that. It’s really funny for me to see this.
It’s like watching bodybuilding from the 70s and 80s. They’re doing these mega volume workouts, everyone was over trained. Then Mike Metzner came along with Heavy Duty Training – train a body part once every two weeks for one set, totally to failure. People jumped on the train and started getting gains again because they were fully recovering and resting. You’re seeing that a bit with people who were promoting a few years the training twice a day, hard as you can. They’ve shifted.
MK: Also relating to that question we just got – finding it hard to do twice a day because of a difficult warm up. You have your symptoms right there, Mr or Ms or whoever. It’s very simple. If it’s hard for you to train twice a day, it’s simple: drop it. You have no business training twice a day if you feel it taking a toll on your body. Train once a day; you can get the same stuff done. You will likely be getting better quality work done in your sessions because you have more time to recover.
Particularly training handstands twice a day is a dumb idea unless you are super conditioned for this kind of work, or you are on the younger end of the spectrum.
There is a tradition of age is just a number. No, it’s a biological factor. Factor it in. Everyone hates getting worse with age, but it’s going to happen at some stage or other. If you factor it in and…it’s not about making excuses. It’s about being realistic with where you’re at. I can promise you, and I’ve taken this example before in this podcast and practically wherever I go.
When I was 19 years old, I’d come into breaking practice. The music was booming; I remember it very distinctly. I put down my backpack, did two steps of top rocks, and I would throw flares. It was -10º outside in Oslo. Flares, directly. Boom boom boom boom, go go go go. No problem.
If I threw one flare now, even when moderately warmed up, I’d get fucked up.
EL: Maybe you need to go back to Oslo and -10º. You’ve been living too comfortable a life.
MK: The funny thing is, if I take two weeks of working on flares now, I’ll have better flares than when I was 19. But, I need to dynamically warm up my hips and get in the zone for doing the move. Regardless of how recovered I a before I come in – and I’ve tried this, tried to throw flares semi warm, and 100 different occasions over the last few years. It doesn’t work. But give me the time I need and I can do it. It isn’t sustainable, nor smart, nor even possible to do it properly, unless I’m very specifically conditioned for it, and have taken my time to get ready for it.
Rather than looking at it as “warm up,” meaning the standardized idea of biking until I’m sweating, it’s a different thing I like to refer to as ‘readiness.’ You need to be ready for doing whatever you’re going to do. This is very individual, but also depending on the level of dynamism and levels of ranges you’re using.
I never need to warm up to do a planche. My best planche is always on the second try, I’ve found, regardless. I turn out my hands in planche and all I do is put my arms in front of me. I could probably right now, on Emmet’s floor right here, do a decent planche. If I do it diagonally there I wouldn’t kick your TV.
I don’t need a lot of warm up for that. I don’t need a lot of warmup for a front lever either, even though I’m garbage at them. I can always do my best set at first or second attempt. Planche must be second or third. If it’s a figa, I’m much better at that than a planche, but I need to get into my body, to allow myself to work in the range a figa requires. For a flare, I need a lot more readiness. There’s a lot to be said about that, but plain and simple, if it’s not working out to do two sessions a day, don’t do two sessions a day.
EL: One good session beats two or even three shit sessions. One last question for this podcast:
“Flagging in one arm. Why is it so hard to breathe?”
MK: You’re bending a lot.
EL: Yeah basically you’re bending your ribs. We’re going to let you in on a big secret in flagging. The trick is to get in and out fast enough that you get applause from the audience, but don’t have to inhale or exhale in it.
MK: Get the clap and get out.
It’s like that with any high tension loads of…you’re in an extreme position for your body. I have no problems whatsoever breathing in a flag, but I remember having problems breathing in it when I was learning it. I do have problems breathing in a Mexican. I never trained them.
Ask someone who’s good at Mexicans; they can breathe in them. Years ago when I had a decent one I didn’t have problems breathing in it. When you’re moving into these ranges, you’ll tense up a lot more than you actually need. Over time your body allows you to hang out in this position, and your breath naturally becomes fine.
Just like someone who gets their first 5s handstand. Bet your ass they’re going to hold their breath. They’re going to feel like if they breathe they will fall. Give them a bunch of conditioning and work on it so they get comfortable in the range and they’ll be able to breathe. Breathing is no longer a thing; I never think about breathing in handstand.
I remember a couple of weeks ago I was working on doing the one arm pike press again, with a counter weight. It was interesting, because I did 3-4 reps with a counter weight that session. I was experiencing myself breathing. I would go into the one arm L-Sit and could feel myself doing these small breaths, hmph hmph hmph. They couldn’t be long breaths and my attention was on it because I was doing something new. Of course, a lot of maximal tension during this movement and I was suddenly aware of that. When I think back to my session today doing one arm switches on a block, I have no memory of breathing during that set. I was up there for 30-40s, so I was certainly breathing during that time, just unaware because I was comfortable in that zone. It’s something that comes over time.
EL: Particularly with the bendy shapes – Mexicans, flags – one thing I say to people is open your mouth slightly and let the air be squished out of you by the bending. It means you’re not over pressurizing the ribs, particularly when learning. That goes out the window when you’re more advanced, as Mikael says.
Let the bending of your back or side squish the air out of you. What you’ll be left with is this little reserve zone you can breathe in and out of. You want to have this little air pocket to work around, if that’s the correct term. That definitely helps.
One of the other things is static flags that are sub maximally deep. Say you can bend to 20cm. Bend to underneath that, to 10cm. Practice breathing there, just get used to breathing in a sub maximal one so you can get it when you go deeper. It comes back down to what Mikael was saying; if it is a maximal move, whether in terms of intensity of shoulder push, or of bending, it’s going to be hard to breathe in it. This goes for anything.
If your max deadlift is 100 kg, then you try to max that, it will be difficult to breathe. If your max is 200 kg, and you lift 100, it’ll be very easy to breathe in it. So: flag more.
MK: One thing you can do, practically speaking, is you specifically mentioned one arm flags, so do two arm flags. Get really good at breathing in two arm positions, so you feel comfy. Then you can breathe there.
When I think about it now, I started to work back my flags on left arm, which have been really terrible. Because of an old side injury, that has started to clear up and I’m getting really flexible again bending towards my left side.
The last few times I did full flags on my left, I feel I’m bending at the side again and not just feeling massive pressure around the side and spine. When I was there, I was breathing like normal. Since the flexibility is limited it doesn’t look perfect but it feels good. It has the hanging out quality, rather than being here under extreme pressure. It shouldn’t feel like you’re in the conditions that are producing a diamond. It should be that I just bent and am chilling out.
But don’t expect that feeling to be there until it’s easy for you. The analogy Emmet just had with deadlifts is very sound. If you’re lifting your max, don’t expect to be chilling.
EL: Cool. That was all our questions for this episode. As usual, if you want to support the podcast and us, and aid us in our acquisition of some battle cats, please buy one of our programs at Handstand Factory.
If you have some questions you want to ask us, you can DM them to us directly, or to @HandstandFactory on Instagram. There’s a contact form on the website I forgot to mention.
Send us voice questions as well. Our goal in life is to both have two maine coons. If you have a maine coon and would like to share pictures of your cat with us, send them in! DM them to Mikael. If you have an impressive dog you would like to share, send it in to me as well.
Please post dog to me.
Thank you for listening to us ramble for a bit. We’ll speak to you next week.