In this Episode, Emmet and Mikael answer more questions from our listeners, discussing the topics of being able to do a handstand cold, learning a one arm on canes, what canes are good and what to look out for with them and finally good exercises and stretches for prehab/rehab for handstands.
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S1E30 – Q&A with Emmet and Mikael
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Transcript of Episode 30: 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: They are …approximately decent. Yes.
EL: Approximately average. Top of the bell curve.
MK: It sounds really exciting until you remember what a bell curve is. How to say? We were filming a bunch of new stuff with Handstand Factory these last few weeks. I am absolutely decimated from that. I had one day off yesterday since then; my body is basically an old and crumbled dusty temple. I shall return.
EL: We’ve been filming some new courses, and a lot of exciting stuff coming out eventually. It takes a lot out of you. I don’t think people understand these longer days on set.
MK: Long days on set, and holy fucking shit, the studio is amazing. But then there is a police car outside, then a fucking pigeon on the roof that needs to scratch around. Those fucking seagulls that keep sliding down the roof, and then the wind, then the this, then the that. You need to reshoot and retake. Fury!
EL: You can tell Mikael got broken down by this. For the seagulls sliding down the roof – the roof of the studio had a corrugated metal roof, I think. But then it had some window panes in the corrugated plastic. Something about seagulls is they can’t stand on them. When they start to walk across them they instantly start sliding to the bottom, try to fly, and hilarity ensued.
MK: They were frustrating as shit. But I guess we’re up for another Q&A, are we not?
EL: Another Q&A where we answer your questions. If you would like us to answer your questions, you can DM them to us at @HandstandFactory on Instagram, or you can put them on our website on the contact form, on www.handstandfactory.com
Let’s hit it. So: “For a beginner, when is it realistic to expect to do a handstand cold, ie no warm up? I’ve been practicing for a few years and it takes me a couple of tries before I can do a handstand – say 3. Even more tries before I can find a decent hold – say 5 more tries. That is when I feel like my body is warmed up and I can start to grip the floor and have access to different muscles to rebalance.”
MK: That is an interesting question, because if I’m really cold and feel fucked, it can take me 5 times to get up into a handstand, no joke. It’s funny. Of course if I really try, yes I can hold it. It’s not that big of a deal. But if I’m not focused and don’t really try and my wrist is feeling really cold and stiff, I want to be really sure I’m not making any quick jerky movements, then yeah it might take me a few tries.
It’s something I’ve always found interesting with handstands; since you are working in an overhead plane, and during the entry there’s loads of different coordinations that need to happen inside the entire scapula and glenohumeral joint, and so on, to make sure you get neatly on top your hands with the shoulders placed. From my experience, before you have a bit of readiness in the body – which doesn’t mean you need to be warmed up like taking a run first – but you need to feel that your shoulders are able to do it. That might take a few tries.
Something like a straddle planche, for example – when I’m strong in straddle planche, my best will be the first or second attempt, while being fully cold. It doesn’t matter. Same with front lever. I don’t need any type of readiness. The best attempt will be the first couple of ones.
Whereas with handstand, which I’m a lot better at than front lever, I’ll need to get into my body. Same with back lever. I’m a lot better at back lever than front, but I need some sort of readiness in the shoulders and pecs before I can do it. Allow yourself that, to take a bit of time to get onto your hands.
Once you’ll be very consistent with 30 seconds, it basically means you never miss a handstand again, given the circumstances that you allow yourself the time to be ready for it. Don’t expect it to come fully for free. It was more for free for me when I was 19 than now. I didn’t need to warm up at all then. Whereas now, yes, I need to maybe do a little bit more. But my top point now is higher than it ever was, so. You might need to get onto your arms a bit and allow the muscles to coordinate. Then they are ready and can do it fine.
EL: I have this weird thing with handstands where I was testing in training, the last phase. I would test my handstand before warming up. I would get my wrists in a state to be ready to go. Test the handstand – no shoulders, nothing else. See what I could get, if I could even get on the hands. Do the bit of warm up I do, which is a structured 5-10 minutes, nothing even fancy. Then every time I would do a kick up, or straddle up, whatever I was doing. Boom, 55-60 seconds easy.
The dramatic difference was interesting. Some days I’d be fine. Other days I would only give myself one kick up to do it. Kick up test: can I get into a handstand, or just fall out? Or I wouldn’t be able to open the shoulders.
I’d do the warm up, then try the next one. First entry, for comparison…. One at the start, do the warm up, one after. The one after I don’t think I missed 50 seconds. I was aiming for 55 seconds as my target to come down before starting my actual training.
It’s just interesting the difference between doing a bit of plank, a bit of serratus push ups, moving the shoulders around, doing some active wrist stuff. Suddenly you couldn’t kick up, then you did 5 minutes of that, Boom. Ready.
Another thing you honed in on is the body needs time to warm up the balance and just get zoned in to what you want to do. If you’re kicking up and haven’t got awareness of your limbs and everything, and kick up and think your foot is weird. That will throw you off balance because you’re focused on the foot, and haven’t gained peripheral awareness.
MK: You even see this among people doing high level activity in completely different fields. I was watching some video game players, they’ll do warm up rounds too. It’s more about getting your mind into the head space and getting that sort of readiness. I want to call a bit bullshit on this idea that being good at something equates to being able to do it at any given time. That will have to do with what is your relationship between your top point and whatever thing you want to be able to do at any given time.
If your top point is doing a one minute one arm handstand, yes you will always be able to do a handstand. Like I said, I will fuck up, but If I want to I will stay on my first handstand. You put a gun to my head in the middle of the night, I will do a one arm handstand. It won’t be a problem.
EL: You’re free to test that out, to anyone listening.
MK: Mother fucker. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night hearing a *click* and feel a gun against my head, and it’s like, “Alright mother fucker. Time to prove what you said in the podcast.”
My wrist will hurt but of course it’s possible to pull off. It’s about what level of comfort you’re able to do it with. And is it necessary? Is it so that you need to be able to do your fullest at any given time? Or is it just some kind of jerk off fucking sales tactic. “Hey check me out, I can do anything at any given time, that means I’m so much cooler than you. You need to spend 10 minutes warming it up. You pathetic pleb. Train with me.”
That is the way it’s always being sold, and it frustrates me. It’s like, look at reality. You’re not going to go into any activity and watch people do their highest level skills without getting ready for it, in anything from strongman to acrobatics, or chess play.
EL: Yeah they warm up for chess. That’s something I learned in the Art of Learning book.
MK: You need to be into the readiness of what you do. Allowing yourself that isn’t a sign of weakness. I think that is a bit annoying. There’s another funny factor. A lot of people that come across with the idea that you don’t need to be warm – they live in really warm climates! I double dare you; try that shit in Norway in winter. It’s not great. If you walked outside for 25 minutes to get to your training hall, regardless of your winter gear, it’s not going to be amazing to just get onto your hands immediately. It just isn’t.
EL: You should be able to take photos for the gram at any time. I think a lot of this comes down to like, posing for the Gram. You can take a few shots, you can have infinite. It’s not like the old days of camera times where you have a film camera with limited shots. Your phone has basically infinite capacity, so you can do a few bad handstands and get the shot you need still.
Cool, next question: “Is it easier to learn a one arm handstand on canes?”
MK and EL: Yes.
MK: Learning it is a lot easier, basically, if you have a really comfy cane that gives a lot. It can give as much as 15-20% easier than the floor. And that is just a straddle.
When we talk about starting to move your legs around, like straddle one arm to full to Figa to flag, these things start becoming 25% easier on a cane than on the floor. This means if you’re at a high level and can do those things on the floor, those 25% will be so significant that it will feel like a breeze to do it on the cane.
Emmet uses this ‘noise cancelling’…- that is a really good way of describing what it does. It gives a softness, and the movement of the steel means you don’t have to correct as much in the shoulder and the hand.
EL: Just realized that one of the things we talked about with Helgi on the physics cast is that with canes, one of the ways to balance the pendulum is with horizontal movement. If you think about what the cane does when it vibrates, it actually gives that horizontal degree of freedom that we don’t actually have on the floor. That’s where the noise cancelling aspect comes from. Something I’ve been thinking about.
MK: The sensation of doing things on the cane, it feels that you become One With The Cane, in a real way. When you’re grabbing onto the ground, you have some control with the fingers and the hand of course. You need to block a lot in the shoulder, and be very strict in keeping the shoulder tightly in place.
When you’re balancing on a block you have the thumb on the inside, and I almost call it that you have the ability to pull on the block, which allows you to correct sideways in the lateral plane. This is easier to correct on the block, since you have fingers on the sides of the block. For one arms it is a bit easier there.
On the cane, you have that, so you can lock yourself a bit to the cane, and then as the cane sways underneath you, it helps you. Basically what it does in relation to what Helgi spoke about in the physics podcast – check that out if you haven’t – for the inverted pendulum, what you do in a regular handstand is apply torque at the bottom of the inverted pendulum. This means in a handstand context that you put pressure on the floor with your fingers. Whereas if you take another way of balancing an inverted pendulum, say you take a long stick and keep it in your hand and keep balance by moving your hand underneath, that is another way of balancing an inverted pendulum.
Whereas a cane becomes a little bit of both. The cane moves underneath you slightly, which allows you to balance a little bit less. Then you do some of it yourself as well. It does make it significantly easier, particularly learning shapes such as Figa. These shapes are a lot easier than on ground, same with legs together. It’s a useful tool. It doesn’t mean that working on canes means they’re not real hand balancers. It’s a great tool, and a very good performance tool.
For any of you scoffing at performers doing it on canes, “Because it’s so much harder on the floor” – yeah go try it yourself 7 days a week. I’ve done so; it’s not easy. You basically need to take your technique down by quite a notch. So canes are great.
Also something people don’t consider about canes when it comes to performance: if you are in an audience that isn’t very slanted, people in the back won’t see you. Having canes is actually quite significant in terms of that.
What does it matter if you do your fancy one arm on the stage, and you do a flag, but people in the back don’t see you?
EL: Do you remember one of those trends from the 70s or 80s, or maybe you’ve seen it on video, handstand performers had a battle of who had the highest apparatus? It wasn’t just like, I have the longest canes. It’s, I have a platform that’s 3m tall, and then I have my canes on top of it. That kind of stuff.
MK: You also have the motors that push the canes up. There are some really messed up old photos I found a while ago. There are some enormously tall poles, maybe 30m poles that were swaying and extremely tall, in a football stadium. Maybe it was Ringling Brothers or that sort of circus, and people doing handstands – probably elbow supported ones up there – but it was pretty nuts to watch.
EL: A lot of those death defying handstand acts don’t exist anymore.
MK: There are some people doing some crazy stuff like that, but it’s not that common anymore.
EL: People doing handstands on the wheel of death.
Our next question leads into this: “Where can you get good handstand canes?”
So. It depends on how much money you want to spend, really.
MK: What kind of resources you have available to you. I think the absolute best you can do is, if you know someone who has canes, or have a particular set you would want, it is best that you tried some. If you want certain canes because they feel great, take the measurements to someone who has proper machinery that can copy it for you.
Otherwise there are a couple of places online that sell pretty decent stuff.
EL: We’ve got acrobatic-shop.de They do some nice canes; they actually sponsored us some canes, in full clearness. Their canes are pretty good. The sockets and the cane steel is awesome. The platform for someone my size – I’d probably change the sockets into a different platform. If you’re like 60, 70 kilos, you’re probably fine, though. I’d be wary of doing a flag on them; I’d probably break them. But I’m nearly 100 kilos.
MK: I think the steel work on them is super nice, so I would clearly recommend the…maybe 60 or so length canes.
EL: What’s nice about the modulars they sell is they sell different size poles, so you can get different ones on them.
MK: I would say, any cane that is below 40 cm, you’re just working on a block. If you actually want canes, in relation to the movement the cane gives you, you should have something that is 50+ cm. Otherwise, you can basically rig up a set of blocks you make out of wood you glue or screw together. You basically can put two blocks on top of a box or something, for that same kind of challenge.
The acrobatic shop ones are pretty good. The steel is great as Emmet said. I would also basically place the sockets in a different plate, so I’m doing switches and stuff like that. You need a larger platform than the ones they have.
They’re very good. The metal work is great. Then there’s also some from Juggle Gear that are pretty good, with good steel work.
EL: The only thing about that steel work is it’s a bit inconsistent on their ones. The canes tend to rotate in the sockets on some of their sets. We got Elise, our producer, a set of them to say thank you for dealing with us. The platform from Juggle Gear is awesome, really well made, really solid. The sockets tend to wobble around. I fix it very quickly by wash staining the oil off that might have been left from manufacturing, but then they still wiggled.
So what I’d done is plunged the end of the socket in and out of some dirt. Then it gave enough friction. You could probably do the same with a bit of rosin, if you guys know what that is.
I think you’ve seen some sets where they don’t rotate at all.
MK: I’ve seen some that are pretty good. The ones I saw are…I think 16mm steel? They were pretty good.
Just to give you a very short breakdown on some measurements – for anything that is shorter than…for anything 60cm or shorter, you can use 16mm steel and you’ll be totally fine.
For anything taller than that, I’ve seen 70cm canes that I’ve seen that are 16mm that are fine for smaller people. One of the girls in the handstand project I’m working with now, Right Way Down, she has canes like that and is perfect for them. When I go on that stuff, it’s questionable, just because I’m 20 kilos heavier than her. That is something to consider.
I would say that on average, from 70cm, or 65cm, you can go with 18mm or 2cm steel. 2cm will be quite thick and sturdy, so it also depends on your preference. For the milling of the taper, meaning the conical shape in the bottom of the cane, on 16mm canes, you could use a taper that is 4cm long and about 1cm at the bottom. If you calculate that that should give you the dimensions. Or useful dimensions. That’s basically what I use, I use that on 60cm canes; it’s enough.
Anything longer, use thicker steel, use sturdier plates, and so on, just to not get yourself wrecked. You don’t want either the cane to bend, nor the plate to break apart, or anything like that.
EL: These canes recommended are reasonably priced. They’re not the most aesthetic ones. If you’re looking for something a bit more aesthetic and other stuff, I’d recommend you either get the sockets and canes made by someone who really knows circus stuff, or can get the right specs.
The other thing is, if you’re going for a fancier set or you’re going to buy them off someone, make sure they were made by a circus company or someone who actually makes circus gear. I’ve seen a lot of sets over the years, particularly when made out of metal – the sockets and canes are actually fine, but the cross bars on the metal and all that stuff is janked. The welding wasn’t good enough for what they’re put through.
If you think about the leverage on the cane, there’s a lot of leverage: your whole body weight via the length of the cane to the socket, that was bending the cross bars. Watch out. There’s more force in there than you might think.
MK: Basically, make sure that the quality of the stuff you get is good. You can make bootleg canes. I think if you could make a very cheap pair of canes. There was one we had in school that was basically some welded together shit. It was a pretty nice pair. It was basically just an H formed base made out of a couple of metal pipes that were welded together, reasonably sturdy. Then it was 16mm steel welded to the pipes in the middle so they would be the canes, I think 60cm tall. Then some small metal plates welded on top of those canes, and blocks screwed in. It works, as long as it’s sturdy and stable and the welding is well done. Make sure the welding is well done.
I had one pair of canes where I am so happy I didn’t go on those canes back then. I probably would have ended my career. A friend of mine is an older circus artist in Stockholm who came and joined us in our training. He was like, “can I borrow your canes?” Yeah sure, take them.
There were a couple of longer canes I had that I had not used in a very long time. He goes up on them, does a two arm handstand. I’m looking away and suddenly hear a slam and him falling to the ground. The welding on top of the cane had just broke off, and he was on two arms, so luckily enough he could just fall down and crash.
If I had done a one arm, or anyone had done a one arm there, they would have fallen down and speared themselves on that cane. So like, and that was basically done so the little steel plate on top of the cane had been welded at the top, I think.
They had the cane, had made a little hole in the little plate, slid it on top of the cane, and welded it shut on top. Whereas the strong welded canes I have that have now been used for ten years by me and five more by others, those have welding underneath as well. You can see they put some steel there so it can be reinforced and like a thick, strong welding. Make sure you have people who know how to do these things. Don’t build some garbage things yourself, put them on the grass, hey ho, and suddenly something breaks. You can hurt yourself, so make sure you get someone who knows how to do it.
EL: I think with all circus equipment, the people making it who have circus experience know how it breaks when circus people use it. This goes for aerial equipment as well. There’s a lot of janky aerial equipment out there made by non circus manufacturers who don’t understand the load that goes into your body when you’re in space and falling and expecting to catch, and all this stuff.
MK: The more paranoid someone is about the quality of the stuff, the more you should trust them, almost. There have been accidents, and if things break when you’re doing things on them – and handstands are very soft compared to a lot of other things within circus – if things go wrong, you can end your career right there and then. Don’t take the risk. It’s very simple to not do so.
EL: Don’t buy shit canes.
Cool, last question: “What exercises or stretches do you recommend for hand balancing prehab/rehab?”
All of them.
MK: Bicep curls, 10 000 reps.
EL: There’s no magical cure to bulletproof yourself. If there were, everyone would be doing it. Everyone is different and has different needs. You have to understand: what am I training? What are my specific needs in relation to this, and is my training covering it? If it’s not, add something in.
It’s a very hard question to answer. There is stuff we do recommend at certain points in your training, but we wouldn’t recommend it later. The main thing to learn, the magic prehab-rehab thing is to learn to manage your training volume in a way that suits you and you can actually recover from. Learn to pay attention to your body and the signs it gives you that you’re about to do too much before it happens.
MK: The number one thing before any prehab or rehab is just load management. Make sure what you’re doing week to week is not more than you can handle and recover from. Of course, as Emmet said, you might have different needs than someone else.
One thing that is generally good to keep in a practice that is so specialized, such as handstands, is a more generalized conditioning regime, whether that is basically do a bunch of pull-ups or pushups or dips, or whatever it is that you like. Add in some movements that aren’t the same as handstands, because those are extremely the same. I can tell you that from all the years that I’ve been doing it.
When I look back at various periods of practice I have had, the more linear and the more only-handstands I’ve done, I think I actually had worse results in those periods, too. Whereas the better periods I have had have been more varied in the training. I do know very high level hand balancers that train a lot of relative strength things and they keep improving at their handstands, just working things that aren’t directly just stand on the hands.
EL: We have to mind the whole idea of SPP and GPP. We have specialized physical preparation, which is our handstand training. We are specializing in hand balance. But we do have to have a base of general physical preparation. Even my more advanced hand balancers who just focus on balance, they still have one day in the gym a week. It’ll rotate what they do every single phase, but they’re basically just doing simple strength training exercises, even barbell exercises. Everyone trains legs with me, you don’t get an excuse to not do it. Just like doing some squats, and some bench press sometimes, and bent over rows. Sometimes you just go onto all the machines in the gym and have a bit of fun and get a pump. It goes a long way. It’s just putting the body through its full range of motion, with some resistance, and the idea of progressive overload. You’re not doing it too often; the hand balance training takes a lot of your energy anyway.
This idea. We can start talking about doing bicep curls because you’re always working on your elbow extension, and you have to do shoulder extension because we always work shoulder flexion. These are good ideas to balance movement planes, but a general preparation of working: vertical pulling and vertical pushing that aren’t bodyweight training – I know that’s a bit of heresy here – but it goes a long way.
It does do something, and I’m convinced everyone gets a bodybuilding phase every now and then, 6-8 weeks of working on slow exercises with time under tension in highish rep ranges. It does wonders. Versus thinking, if I do my external rotators every set, that will fix my problems.
Train your human capacities. Train your basic stuff, just do basics. That is the best you can do.
MK: A lot of very high performing athletes within various fields are doing stuff like squats, benchpress, these various basic lifts. Definitely a good idea.
I can’t say I do too much of that. I do a lot more calisthenics based stuff like handstand pushups and so on.
EL: Maybe it’s time to do some bench press. We’ll put that in your program.
MK: Possibly. Aww I get so sore.
I do remember two years ago when I was in my most stellar shape ever. When I was living in Rotterdam I did a bunch of other things. I used to just spend an hour in the gym just doing various easy things. It felt great, I remember my shoulders were feeling really good from not just doing the exact same things over and over and over and over. So I definitely do think there is space for that within a handstand practice.
EL: Doesn’t have to be your whole practice, but a bit of it. Other than that, I think we will wrap it up there. You’ve been great. We’ve been the Handstand Cast.
By the way we now have a thing called Buy Me A Coffee. If you want to check that you can buy us a coffee. If you want to buy something a bit more exuberant, you can buy a program off us on HandstandFactory.com
Other than that, if you have any questions, or any answers, please send them to us at HandstandFactory.com either on the contact form, or @HandstandFactory on Instagram. We’ll put them on the rotation.
Thanks for listening.