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S1 Episode 33: The Handstand Flag


In this Episode of the Handstandcast, Emmet and Mikael discuss Handstand flags (also known as Handstand side-bending). Going into detail about training the variations in one-arm and two-arm, what to look for when flagging and how learning to flag can improve your One-Arm Handstand.

We hope you enjoy it!

S1E33 – The Handstand Flag

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Transcript of Episode 33: The Handstand Flag

EL: Hello, welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my cohost Mikael Kristiansen.  How is it going, Mikael?

MK: It’s going pretty well.  I’m actually in Norway now, just outside of Oslo, playing a bunch of shows for children with a Norwegian performance called Fritt Fram, which basically translates to free for all, roughly.

It’s a show by a company called Company 2, a nice little circus company made by two friends of mine.  We have this kids show together.  We’re getting to play some shows in 2020; I’m rather surprised it’s possible.

EL: I basically think everyone I know who performs, if they did one show or walkabout or anything this summer, they’ve been lucky.  Most haven’t and are struggling.  I think they’re eager to get back onto the scene.  Must be frustrating.

MK: I think it will be a longer type of situation for performing artists, since a lot of us are bound to having access to international travel to make it feasible to make things go around from only performing.  Definitely not the best times for these things.  I do know a couple of people who are still able to do the projects they have planned, and things are going as planned.

It’s definitely not everyone.  We also had to do a bunch of adjustments to our show.  Usually at the end of the show, since it’s a kid show, we invite them onto the stage – the little circle we’ve drawn on the floor – and allow them in, and they play and draw on the floor and stuff.  But that can’t happen now.  Instead they get a bunch of chalk from us and are allowed to play with it outside.  It still works and is fun to do.

EL: “Here children, here’s a lot of chalk.  Now off you go and mess someone else’s wall up with it.”

It reminded me of a show by the Gandini Juggling Project.  In one show, I can’t remember which, in one section someone was juggling five balls – Inaki Sastre – and everyone was coming up to him.  They were trying to put him off by shouting in his face, aggravating him.  I think it culminated in people taking mouthfuls of water and spitting it in his face to try to get hi to stop juggling.  It kept going.  He’s a very talented juggler so he just kept going.  I think maybe that show will have to be altered in light of recent events….

Anyway, I’m going to get onto the topic of tonight’s show.  We are going to talk about all things flagging in handstands.  We’ll try to give a definition of what we consider to be flagging.  We’ll talk about flagging on two arms and different shapes, flagging and how it relates to the one arm handstand, flexibility…what else?

MK: The various ways it functions in a one arm, and how to define it in itself.  The strength components and why you should train flags at different points in your process.  Flag work can be very beneficial even at earlier levels.  You don’t need to have a one arm to actually practice certain types of flags.

EL: I think first we should probably define the flag itself, and what we mean by the flagging action.

For me, and there’s a bit of a debate between on us on this, but I define it as bending the waist sideways.  This is flagging in handstand.  What your legs are pelvis are doing doesn’t really matter in configuration.  What I look for is this angulation of the side bend; that’s what I call a flagging action.  It could be a deep flag, a straddle, diamond or tuck.  But this intent to bend the side, either a small or big amount, is the flagging action.  What do you think?

MK: I think any sort of tilting of the hip as a unit, on top of the torso, I would say that if you’re trying to do a flag, you’re trying to move the hip laterally into a side bend on top of the torso.  How the torso and arms respond to that is a different thing.  There are options for the body structure to respond to that movement.  The most technically correct, for lack of a better word, is keeping your arms straight and locked like a normal handstand, only bending at the side and keeping the arms straight.

Whereas that is kind of the option we train for if you want professional looking hand balancing.  The response can also be very heavy arm bending, or a closing of the shoulders.  I even know extremely good hand balancers who deliberately close their shoulders a bit when doing full flags, and his full flags are fantastic.  There are options on how to respond to it, but in general you’re definitely right.

EL: You just reminded me, some capoeira stuff I’d seen before – the person I remember in particular, probably a street show.  His splits were pretty good, not super amazing.  His side bend was immense, I really remember this.  He was doing the capoeira fighting…the Roda.  He was using a huge amount of bending in the arm, combined with sending the legs sideways in response to this to control and change his direction in and out of handstand, using a very deep flagging action.

Think of someone going from a squat into a bent arm handstand with quite a wide stance, while almost getting the leg up and over to the other side before the second leg comes off the ground.  He had a very high degree of flexibility in the side.

MK: There’s even one famous capoeira video, his arms are bent at 90º to the side.  His head is barely off the floor and he’s doing that ‘around the world’ thing where you go Mexican-Flag-Pike-Mexican-Flag.  He does that all the way around on heavily bent arms, very cool.

Also there’s a B-Boy, BBoy Physicx, a legendary Korean B-Boy.  He used to do some crazy basically flag spins.  I’ve seen him a couple times go out of a freeze combination and do a full turn in a flag before stopping and holding it for a second and a half and dropping to the next freeze.  Absolutely crazy.

I think there are many ways this can be done, but I think the obvious, in terms of resisting gravity since we’re trying to do this, even when bending sideways, the more you can stay on a straight arm, the better on average it will be.  Of course, if you have no shoulder flexibility it will feel heavier to do that.

If we assume you have the structure that will support a straight arm flag where the arm stays reasonably close to your head, depending on your proportions and flexibility, that will be a more effective way of doing it, on average, especially if you relate it to hand balancing in general.

EL: Something that popped into mind a month or two ago, when we train someone to learn handstands and to hand balance, one of the first things we do is obviously get them a handstand.  The next thing is get control of the leg movements.  The next thing is begin to control the leg movements.  What we introduce at this time is pressing, the extension and flexion of the core; Mexicans; and side bending, the flagging.  We get this core as a ‘box’ idea.  We train the core on top of the shoulders, to manipulate that in combination with the leg movements.

We establish the straight line, then begin to play with over and under balance and the different leg movements.  Then we begin to go, let’s see how far we can push this by flexing, extending, laterally flexing and rotation movements too, at that stage.  We begin to juice the core muscles up.

MK: It’s very common, if you see hand balancers that do a lot of side bend, they have developed obliques and serratus muscles.  Those are very involved in all side bending.  I think it’s a very important element in terms of the intermediate practitioner.

With people who are getting confident on two arms, I like challenging them with lateral movements.  The first thing I say is we are not training for one arm.  We are trying to understand what the lateral movements of the legs in handstand mean.  Those are very different things.  We’re not trying to set you up for one arm, but doing early prep so you have a frame of reference when you start training one arms.  You have experience which makes it much shorter.

They can be done stomach to wall, then freestanding.  You don’t need to then do these side flexions/flags so deep at first.  You can start learning what happens to your waist as you do so.  For most people, when you start to shift and do side bending actions, we often cue it by imagining bringing one of the legs closer to the floor.  If you keep that action going and can stay on your arms, you reach the floor with the leg in the end.

But you initiate this action to the degree you can keep control of it.

What happens to people who start learning this are already being challenged by rotation, because the upper leg won’t necessarily stay in line with the lower leg.  The legs might even move in their sockets and not stay in unit with the hips.  It starts causing these same types of rotational problems people struggle with on one arm, but at a much lower level.

EL: I think it comes down to – a lot of people are not flexible in their sides, but most people are in extension.  When you think about going to flag, they hit the limit quite early in what they can side bend, in terms of flexibility or structure, for control reasons.

Then it’s easy to escape the flexibility and keep moving in the arching direction of the lower back, into extension.  That generally…you can move in two directions – rotation, or side.  Then we extend and have rotation…

I think this linearity of training is interesting: we’re going to move in one straight direction.  Then the problems occur.  Once you can move in this cross manner, a lot of general movement disciplines rely on teaching straight lines first, then the curves.  Your ability to control your curves and lines gives the circles, but not necessarily the other way around.  So it’s being very strict on this lateral movement.

MK: Of course, another element that goes into that too, when you start doing early flag preparation work on two arms, suddenly you’re carrying 70-30 of your weight instead of 50-50, which will be more demanding.  You may not respond correctly to that amount of pressure in your shoulder, and the shoulder might move.

As you know in handstand, if the shoulder moves you either have to deal with it or you fall down.  It’s definitely a very interesting and underestimated challenge.  You don’t need to be so far ahead in handstand training before including these.

There might be this idea that you don’t start to train these exercises because it’s one arm training.  No it isn’t.  For me, doing these exercises has nothing to do with one arm training at that point in time.  It’s about learning to understand the lateral dimension on a two arm handstand.  Like you said, as you learn to pike, tuck, straddle, you learn a certain dimension on your two arm handstand.  The side bend is just a more complicated, heavier and a variation that sets you up for later work.  It’s very important to iterate that the goal of this exercise at an early level isn’t a one arm, yet.

Later it will help you with a one arm, just like pike handstand will help you with one arm.  But it’s not practicing the one arm when you do the pike.

EL: There’s also a lot to be said for learning the flags as a way of progressively overloading your stacked position as well.  If we have a solid two arm handstand and need to put weight into the side, we train the under balance direction by pressing.

We train the weight shift from unilateral, the 70-30, 60-40, in increments up.  And you see if you can maintain a good shoulder stack with this increased loading.  Then you’re getting stronger.  If you default to the arm moving away from the ear, or bending the arm, you’re clearly not pushing or engaging the structure in the right way we want for the handstand at that time, if we’re trying to maintain the straight arm.

We can use this as a gauge.  If you’re bending at 30º, maybe your arm bends in response to this.  Two weeks later, bending at 30º and my arm is completely straight and locked.  Okay, we have some progressive overload.  It’s not just training one arms and shifts.  It’s beginning to build more scapular strength on this plane.

MK: Agreed.  The stronger you are, the more potential control you have.  It’s not necessarily so that stronger equals tons more control.  If you have the strength specific for the handstand itself, being able to carry your weight 70-30 compared to not being able to, is a very obvious linear relationship.  It’s better to be able to do it if you want to be stronger on your hands, which is likely if you train hand balancing.

Also, one of the reasons, or maybe even the primary reason..no, but it’s as important as this thing of learning about the lateral dimension, to teach that the lateral dimension needs to happen through some sort of side flexion through some degree or other, if it happens on two arms.  If you’re going to use this two arm lateral movement to teach the one arm handstand later on, might as well set you up in a situation where you learn about the trajectory where you want to move your legs and hips when setting up a one arm handstand.

You could also move the legs and hips in the way that you walk on your hands.  Instead of tilting the hips sideways and bringing one leg down, and the other up, you shift the hips sideways entirely so they stay parallel to the floor.  This is the number one issue that I see in people learning one arms, everyone does the same mistake.  The body thinks this is the right direction to move in and they’re not getting the diagonal relationship between the hips and arm, as you will see in practically every pro hand balancer out there.

One leg is lower, the other higher.  The belly button area is over the hand, the hip joint itself is in line with the leg line.

There are different dimensions and hyperextended elbows matter, etc, in how much you bring your hip that direction.  It’s possible to do a one arm with a fully horizontal hip angle, but on average it’s not efficient.

EL: Before we get to one arm stuff I’d like to talk about two main shoulder positions when learning to flag.  I think they’re both important; there’s no right or wrong.

We have our normal stacked shoulder position.  I always look at the person’s butt check and want to see them flag so the butt cheek goes outside the side line of the body.  They stay on top of the shoulders.  This will begin to load more weight onto one side, by definition.

There’s the other type of flag where I specifically instruct people to counter shift their shoulders in the opposite direction.  You’re opening the shoulder angle between the ears, whatever that might be.

This is a way you can get very deep flags or side bend, depending on your flexibility, or very impressive looking angles.  I always tell people when I start training them on flags, I tell them to go to the wall, do 3 sets of 3 flags and hold the last one.  I don’t tell them anything about the shoulders; I want to see what they naturally do.  It’s always interesting to see them solve the issue with the flag and shoulders.

It’s about 50-50 on the count.  Some people stay in “good handstand position.”  The other half will counter shift the shoulders.  This will keep the weight more 50-50 in the hands.  It’s not necessarily classic, but it’s interesting because it can be slightly down to side flexibility.

You get to a certain level but if you counter shift the shoulders, it lets you straighten the body out a bit more.  If you want to touch the ground – classic one, if your split isn’t super big you want to touch the ground with your feet.  Then you have to start getting into these side shifting shoulders.

If you stay on top of the shoulders and bend to the same degree as the side shift, you won’t touch the ground or get as deep visually into the flag.  The configuration of the hip and torso would be bent and curved to the same degree.

Also, I really like this one because it’s an interesting way for people to experience the other shoulder positions that can happen in a one arm handstand as well.  We have the open position.  Even if they’re stronger, if I have someone who is proper strong, planche master kind of strength but not great at hand balance, getting them to flag with legs together, heavy flag, and push the shoulders horizontal – the amount of them that can get into a passable four finger support or questionable balanced but nicely arranged full flag…shoulders go away, flag bends down and they rely on brute force in the shoulders to do it.

If you were to set them up with a good handstand and one arm and that whole pathway, to get there takes some time.  Because they have the strength and can use the weight shift of the hand, it’s almost like a curved planche.

MK: It’s how I approached one arms when I first started.  I had air baby strength, so full flag to me was accessible really early on.  It was bent arm and leaning a lot because of power.

The interesting thing with full flag, I find it easier to get into my maximal depth of a flag with a full flag than any other.  So much weight is pulling me down in that direction and I know I can counter act that with force.

If I want to set up a nice flag, in terms of the standard aesthetic model of straight arm etc, I’d have to do a proper set up.  I can hold a straight arm full flag, but if I’m not detailed in the set up, the easiest thing for me to do is bend the arm.  That is most efficient as set up in terms of controlling it.

For example, if I do a Svicka, side bend fast and go into a flag, I will most likely bend the arm as that is where I can catch the balance aspect the most.

Going back to what you said about shoulder shifting, I used to have good toe touches on each side.  It’s a very classical exercise and very common in the circus community.  People that started hand balancing or go towards higher levels usually have that level of hip flexibility.  Their straddles are massive.  The toe taps where you side flex and tap the floor is a very classical move that you see a lot of people do.  It is a very nice thing to be able to do.  If you have those generalized “nice” criteria where you can keep the arms fully straight and locked and you can touch each side with a wide split easily, it’s great.  It’s a nice pre requisite.

For me, when I do that on my left side, still after all these years with the injury I had on my right side and lower back area, when I bend to the left in straddle flag, you see a lot more side shifting in the arm that I shouldn’t need for such an easy move for myself.  I need to concentrate a lot to keep the arm in position when I do that.  After the injury it became the ingrained way of doing it, moving the arm away a little more, when doing any side shifts on my left arm.  There’s another interesting thing that happens regardless if you shift away a lot or not.

If you keep a straight arm, you get a degree of pressure into your biceps similar to a planche but less intense.  It’s like…if your hand is on the floor, as your legs go outside, it’s like you have to counter act in the direction of pulling the arm towards the centre.  You aren’t but your biceps has to brace the straightness of the arm, in the same way that the bicep straightens the arm in planche.

EL: If you look at the anatomy of what’s going on there, if you start the arm overhead and open to the side, as you approach 45º it begins to link the chain that connects the thumb, forearm, biceps and pec minor.

On my YouTube, there’s a wall handstand pec minor fascia stretch in there.  You can feel how it works and it gives you an idea of why it’s intense on the bicep.

When you open that angle, to segue into the one arm topic, it’s one thing I narrowed down.  When people have bicep jank and shoulder impingements, it’s generally when learning one arm and start opening the shoulder angle out and haven’t really conditioned that position.

If I see someone doing that balancing too much and don’t correct it, that’s when they start getting a bicep tendon issue.

MK: I’ve had that too.  It comes especially if you do rough corrections, fall out and go quickly out with the arm to save yourself.  Puts loads of force in the joint.

EL: When people are learning to balance and in that position, then say their elbow or shoulder hurts…told you so.

Anyway, we should start talking about one arms.

MK: One other thing I’d like to say before fully entering into one arm domain.  This relates a lot.  Obviously the level of your side flexibility will make a massive difference for flags.  There are people out there who look abnormal in the amount they can bend in the side.  You often see contortionists like that.  It looks like half their body disappears when they do a flag.

A friend of mine, Joe Martino from Portugal.  Really damn good hand balancer and she has good flags.  When she was in Stockholm years ago, we were training flags.  I said, try grabbing the bar and doing a full flag.  She has a contortion back.  She doesn’t train contortion but has extreme back flexibility.  Her sides are just nuts.

It was as if she bent too far.  It was weird to look at, like you literally cut her in half or her torso were a large piece of cake and you removed one to fold her in half.  Where the hell are your anything?  It looks mental.

Loads of people have this.  That is going to require its own level of strength to do.

For the bicep, when I do a lot of these and do conditioning sets of flags, I’ll feel my bicep quite a lot.  I’m a person where there is no way in hell regardless that I can even bend half as much as she can, for example.

I’ve also tried to grab onto a bar with my free arm, putting my balance arm totally close to my head so it’s basically touching, then bending as far as I possibly could until I got bone on bone blocked, nowhere else to go.  I do not reach a full flat there.  The only way to reach a full flat is go to that point then allow the arm to go away from the head.  It can stay straight or bend, but it needs to go away or else it won’t reach the point.

That away from head thing in a one arm handstand, it obviously means there’s an increase in the angle and more required force for the arm and bicep to pull towards your head to counteract the weight.  The strength to flexibility ratio is very interesting and complicated in flags.  There are so many…the body configuration and structure starts to matter at some point to a significant degree.

EL: Yeah.  Exactly.  Depending on lumbar spines, which are always interesting.  The vertebra can be very different shapes and configurations in people, as well as the space between your pelvis and ribs.  Some people can have more space, so there is less bone on bone contact.

The processes on the vertebra can be thicker or smaller, allowing for more lateral flexing.  You see this with people who have hyper mobility; they can get more bend in the lumbar laterally.  If you look at the sacrum, it kind of stays inside the line of the body.  They’re able to get this bend that many people cannot do.  You need to be hyper mobile in this area.

They can keep the mass of the hips inside the body, reducing the lateral bending load, keeping more weight centred over the arm, or two arms, even, without it going too far to the outside.

When you see that, it’s exciting.

MK: It’s like that Ukranian contortionist, she is possibly the craziest contortionist hand balancers in the world…maybe in history.

At that level, we’re no longer talking about just bending the side.  They put their ass on their shoulder.  In pictures, the butt is next to scapula.  We’re not talking close proximity, but literally touching the scapula.  When I see that, it’s alien.  Not something I can relate to whatsoever.

EL: When people start finding something unique in their style, or one thing their body can do that other bodies can’t and pushing it to the limit, you’re like, wait, can’t do that, even if I trained another life time.  It just won’t happen.

MK: You need new parents and to preroll your character.

EL: Let’s get on to the one arm handstand and the flag in the one arm.

If we go back to our original definition of flagging, bending laterally at the waist.  The one arm handstand has a small degree of it.  We don’t have to go super deep, but we need to do it to set up our shoulder and ability to push.

Then we have the whole flag family of one arm handstands, where the intent is to bend as deep in the side as possible.  These are misunderstood in some ways.  Many people say there is no waist bend in one arm handstand, but there is in the set up with a diagonal hip position.

We set the one arm handstand up by moving the weight over.  The head moves over and the hips push out.  If I do it on my feet, it’s the same.  Set up the diagonal angle of the hips then push up and underneath it.  That straightens the spine out from the bottom.

When you get advanced you can do it all in one step.  But when learning, it’s good to separate all the stages of the one arm up into different things, like any movement we do.  Break it down to the easiest bits.

We set the hips diagonal with no rotation, stage one, good.  Then we push.  Do we rotate or fall out?  Okay, the problem is the push.  If we do it all at once and fall out we don’t know what is going on.

MK: It’s an efficient way of setting up too.  You can even find out what the problem is.  If I do a straddle two arm handstand, I shift the hips to make sure the legs are in the diagonal placement I want them in.

Then I stop there, stay there for 5 seconds.  If I can do that, and let’s assume the form is good, it means there is no problem at that current stage whatsoever.  Nothing is going wrong then.

Then I push through the shoulder, straightening the C shape of the spine.  The spine will be laterally flexed as I stand fully on two arms.  As I push my shoulder underneath this point, that will straighten the spine so it goes from a bent shape into a diagonal shape.  I then try to go to my finger tips for example.

At that point, let’s say I fall out.  Then I know, ok, the reason why is I did something wrong as I pushed through the shoulder and took more weight into that arm to go to finger tips.  Perhaps I was too rough with the push, or moved the scapula of the free arm, etc.

There might be other reasons, but at least we can be sure the sideways movement in itself was not the cause.

If I did all at once, I’d flex sideways, push in the shoulder extra to take the weight and move the finger tips, and keep falling out or inwards.  I cannot know what was going on, what was happening, particularly when new at it.

When you’re good at it, sure.  When I shift into one arm, I shift directly and push and it’s not a big deal.  Most people can do that, even at rather early stages of their one arms.

When you’re trying to isolate and understand, both cognitively and physically what these components mean, it might be very beneficial to set that up on two arms.  You will have a flag looking two arm.

There’s something interesting if you see someone do this shirtless from the back, when a person flexes to a level where they would do their one arm, you’d start to see a crease in the skin on the side.  It’s because the pelvis is moving diagonally to the side, and the spine is curving.  If you go from that point and push through the shoulder and the angle of the legs stay exactly the same, neither moving up or down in lateral dimensions, that push through the shoulders straightens the spine.  The crease either becomes smaller or disappears, because the spine is suddenly straight but diagonal.

EL: Exactly, exactly.  When we set up the one arm in this manner, what we do is stretch the opposite side of the spine.  The push comes from the spine and through the shoulder, not from the shoulder.

The shoulder has to achieve its optimal elevation for your alignment.  Once you have that, you don’t push it up or down.  You have to get the push from somewhere.  What happens is that push going down lifts the centre of mass, but comes from the spine.  It’s a whole body action.  It’s not just shoulders.

I think we’re getting too into one arm from our flagging adventures.  Quick, we’re going to geek out on one arm shoulder positions.

So anyway, the other thing about flagging and being able to move the waist sideways, particularly in flagging, is it controls the lateral rebalancing action.  If you start falling to the inside or outside when doing a one arm, your first port of call when learning, before controlling in the hand, will be wobbling in a flag sideways, to try and buy yourself some time.

This can be thought about like: flagging, unflagging, counter-flagging is like when someone is learning a straight handstand.  They can have a little arch, a little pike, little arch, a wobble around the centre line.

This tends to happen, just generally not as many repetitions you get in a two arm, because you fall out quite soon.  The flagging action is almost like the heel and toe pulls of the one arm handstand.

MK: It is similar, but less….unilateral, and hence harder to strengthen specifically since there are so many things to react to.

My last comment before moving into one arm flags and the flag shape family is, the reason for this iterating that we flex sideways when setting up a one arm has nothing to do with going into extreme side flexion to one arm.

Two things, it is good to bend and control yourself in two arms than a much deeper angle you want to be in when you balance a one arm.  When you inevitably move there as you fall out of one arms, at least you have some muscle connection and something to resist with, so over time you can make larger corrections as well as smaller ones.

The other thing is to make sure, if you do not set up this diagonal angle, you will end up with a position that is too high.  The hip is too horizontal, not angled enough above the body, and will cause to fall back to two arms.  Again and again and again.  You’ll do finger tip holds for a billion years but feel you cannot take the hand off because you fall out immediately.

This is so common.  I see it all the time.  It’s basically, you’re not training for a one arm because your hip isn’t set up where it needs to be.  This will differ for different people.

If you have a lot of hyper extension, for example, your hand will be under your face when you are fully pushed out in the shoulder, allowing you to use less side flexion.  We’ve mentioned Sammy Dineen several times in this Cast simply because he has an amazing one arm handstand, really damn solid.

He uses a shoulder position that would make me into a terrible hand balancer, because I don’t have the structure to efficiently support what he does.  I’m sure if he balanced like I do it wouldn’t be as effective for him.  Different ways, different bodies.

We’re talking bone structure here, not just technique that can magically fix this.  There are certain things and the bones inside our bodies look very different.  There’s not always something we can do about that.

However, you can call Emmet if you want to change your bones.  He knows a guy.

EL: I know some people who know some people who will operate on some people..

So the one arm flag family is interesting because it gets into the realm of a slightly different shoulder position for most people.  It’s very rare to find someone with a one arm flag shape – where the intent is to maximize the side bend: the normal straddle flag, diamond, tuck, and straight, or some of the rotational elements as well where you do a front split and rotate into a flag…. It’s like a front split flag.

MK: It kind of fakes the one arm planche aesethetically.

EL: You see it a lot in sports acro.  I don’t even know if it has a name.  If someone wants to invent a name and phone it in, we will use that name if it is good.

MK: I’ll call it the Hotel of Horror until then.

EL: Hotel of Horror Bend.  I Have No Kidneys Bend.

The intent of the flag in one arm is interesting.  What I notice in a lot of people is they use a lower shoulder position.  As you kind of touched on it, they also close the shoulder when going into this position.

Depending on their flexibility, they can either lose some of their thoracic closure and open and extend the thoracic spine.  Or they close the shoulder.  Generally they lower it.  I’ve noticed this a lot, people go into a lower shoulder position in a flag.  Maybe it’s in response to increased weight, but possibly there are configuration issues as well of lowering the centre of mass to get it over the hand.

I always elevate my shoulder more, or I basically resist and try to keep the elevation.  I know people who consciously lower the shoulder, and it can be a valid solution for some.

A lot of street workout guys, for example, they flag one arm and have access to a lot more power, since that is where they are really strong.  Closing the shoulder allows them to work from their powerful places rather than resting from the traps like someone who is more hand balancer trained would.

I perform a lot of flags; they are very stable positions when you have them solid.  Your centre of mass is very low and you have loads of weight on the outside.  You resist that weight by pressure.  You feel a strong force in your shoulder and the pressure in your hand so you don’t need to adjust much.  You just lock it in.

In the beginning it’s very heavy on the obliques and the compressed side and lengthening side cramp a lot.  Some even get issues with their backs from it.

EL: I can think of a few people who have broken their floating ribs going deep into flags that were too heavy; that’s pretty common.

MK: I got the idea that this is common amongst contortion girls who have extreme bends and the power to go in and do one arms there.  When you see how far they bend it’s not strange if things snap in there.

EL: I even know of, not personally, of a contortion coach who tries to push people to break to get the ribs out of the way.  Then they keep training on broken ribs for that to adapt..

Surprisingly, it’s something you expect to hear from the older schools of training in the East, but it is a westerner.  Rumour mill, so won’t give names.

Don’t break your ribs, but if you do, tell us about it.

MK: You’re going to sprain your obliques or serratus.  It might happen.  I never had many problems with that since breakdancing made me conditioned in the area from dumb stuff I did.

EL: I think in terms of conditioning, especially in circus, everyone spends a huge amount of time doing fucking ab training.  Crunches, leg lifts, all that shit.  Dish holds.

No one ever does intense side bend conditioning.  They might do side crunches.  They might break in one direction, generally when they come to flag training, deep flags, or pushing it, they haven’t devolved the same Strong Stable Core as they would have from other stuff.  We can debate if sit ups gave the core or not, but very few movements train your tissue capacity more than anything else in that deep side bending.

MK: It’s super specific.  It doesn’t have much carry over to much else.  Having very good flags will help with pressing on one arm and other advanced things.

I think that for someone enthusiastic about hand balancing and wants to get further into it after the one arms, there is a tendency to train all the straight shapes, but you can easily practice flags at the same time.  It’s a very efficient thing to use; if you get a couple of flag shapes, you immediately have access to a couple others.  It’s essentially the same pressure, you just have to hold and configure your legs slightly differently.  You can change the aesthetics of it rather dramatically without it being a lot heavier.

Flags are essentially range of motion work.  You have things like straddle flag, diamond flag, one leg bent flag, and tuck flag, kind of on the same level of intensity in terms of how much force it requires, or bend.

Then you have the top leg straight out towards the side, and you can do that top leg straight and bottom leg is bent up to the knee – pistol flag, some call it.  Then you have full flag.  That entire family of things is essentially: get strong and comfortable enough with carrying all that weight outside of your centre.  Then you have access to so much stuff.  Why not?

EL: If you were to look at the vertical configuration of the legs, a straddle – if my legs are on the vertical plane – if I bring my legs to a diamond, most of the weight is still on that same vertical plane or alignment.  If I bring my legs together into a tuck from diamond, it’s still basically the same vertical configuration of weight, not like when we do a straddle to straight or diamond, when you have rotational forces to deal with.

This is basically the same thing; the load is distributed in the same configuration, or very..not a big change in terms of what happens in straddle to tuck.

MK: The tuck flag, as all one arm tucks, will wobble a bit and rotate in the pelvis, but it’s slight.  It rotates less than a normal tuck one arm will.  You are still in a flag.  If you have a very strong diamond flag you will likely have a decent tuck flag as well, by the result of the control you have.

This is what I tell all of you listening to this doing one arms: start training full flags.  Don’t throw yourself into a full flag if you can’t do any flag thing.  Be reasonable, don’t be an idiot.

A lot of people say full flag looks so difficult, they can’t practice it.  No, when you can do other flag variations, start working full flag.  Grab onto a bar at the side and bend deep into a full flag.

What does it give you?  The strength to do all other flags, and make them a joke.  As I said, don’t just go for it immediately. It’s a very useful tool for conditioning that gives you everything you need for other flags.

Also, maybe this is just from stereotypes, but full flags is looked at as a guy move, because strong muscle dudes do it.  No, girls, start doing full flags.  I know lots of girls who can.

It’s just traditionally not something a lot of ladies practice because of stereotypes, but it’s doable.  On average girls have better side flexibility; it’s a great thing.  You don’t even need to use it on stage or do a full flag, but it will give you a lot of conditioning and control of the lateral dimension that’s useful.  Why not?

EL: Standard strength training, if you do some sets lasting 15-20-30 seconds, 3 sets, 1-2x a week, would be the next level of pushing your strength up in flagging, just training full flag.

Then you can also track your progress, judging how deep you go,

Pick a level you can go, do 3 reps, 10 s a rep, 30 seconds.  I only lean to 45º.  Record yourself.

Next week, try to go a bit deeper.  The second and third sets were terrible.  Fine, wait until it catches up with the first set.  Then progress.  This is linear progression applied to hand balance using leverage.  It’s very effective.  You don’t have to go all the way down.  Just going part of the way down until you can get in and pull out.

As you get stronger you get access to this.  At the same time, you’re not just training like a strength exercise that we do twice or once a week.  You get gains versus your normal hand balance structured training, training for effortlessness.  For this we train for effort.  It’s interesting because we forget that sometimes in hand balance training.

Because we went through this process of effort, and got to the point where the balance is essentially effortless, or as close to it as it can be, you can do a lot because it’s so easy and efficient that sometimes you have to go back and sweat a little.

MK: In terms of the actual learning of flags, I even had a recent student online who has absolutely beastly side bending abilities.  He doesn’t have the ass on shoulder thing, but top notch side bend abilities.

He’s extremely good on two arms, great splits, perfect alignment, an L sit press on floor.  Gabriel, you know who you are, if you’re listening.  He’s really damn strong on two arms.

He was struggling, learning- his one arm.  What’s interesting is he can basically full flag on two arms, side bending with the strength he has.  He can’t do it on one arm yet, because he doesn’t have the ability to control the one arm handstand to the degree he can work there.

But by the time he can 15-20 second one arm handstand, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could do a full flag.  His body can be in that particular situation on two arms.  This is what’s nice about flags.  If you can do them solidly on two arms, and can one arm handstand, you likely have starting access to do it on one arm rather quickly, because you don’t do a lot of rebalancing action.  It’s more locking the shoulder and the stay-there pressure.

This is why learning to get strong on two arm flags, and using the set up of grabbing onto a bar or sturdy object so you can resist by pulling upwards on the object.

Imagine you are doing a one arm and grabbed a vertical bar like a pole.  As you bend sideways towards a flag, you want to apply the pressure of your hand upwards in the pole.  This helps mitigate the amount of pressure the balancing shoulder needs to exert to keep its positioning.  The feeling of this upwards pull on the bar is similar to that if you’re doing a human flag.  The bottom arm is pushing; the top is pulling.  It’s that type of feel when pulling on the bar.

Doing these kinds of exercises are excellent for developing flag, and gives loads of power you need to go quite far with them.

EL: Definitely.

The balance in the flag – people might remember this kid toy of a self balancing bird, generally an eagle that would balance on its beak because its wings were swept around behind it.  You could balance it on things.

I always use this as a comparison to what happens in a flag.  The intent I tell people learning flag is to try to bend so much they push the off shoulder towards the ground at the same time that they bend the side.  It should open the shoulder angle a tiny bit, possibly depress it a bit.  One of the reasons is you build the tensegrity over the balance point, actually making yourself into one of these birds.

The flag shape kind of self balances if you don’t react to your breathing.  If you see someone doing a flag, when they breathe they wobble a little as the torso pressurizes and de-pressurizes.  It’s not a lot, but you see it, particularly the shallow breathing people do.  Just train someone to lock the shape, lock the shoulder, push directly into the ground, and then not react to the breathing.

Suddenly the flag will balance itself.  There is not a lot of conscious balancing going on in that position.

MK: IT’s very locked.  One of my favourite things to do on stage is full flag.  Weight goes there, pressure goes there, da da, done.  Just chill, nothing more to be said about it.

It’s one of my safest shape, as long as I stretched my sides.

That’s another side note for this, at least for me.  If I do my first flag of the day, I always feel stiff and terrible, and I am a man who cannot flag.  The second feels completely fine.  Third and fourth, I bend as far as I can.  There will be an extreme difference in how far I can bend.

Interestingly, the bending side feels crampy and nasty the first time, like there is no way to go deeper – not because of the lengthening side, but the compressing side.  Then, two flags after, I’m like changing leg positions in full flag however I want.  But you need to get comfortable and get the juices flowing in the area before you max out on it.

It’s important to be careful when learning flags, since you apply a lot of force into a new area.  So it’s something you should take your time with, even though I told you all to go do full flags.

EL: Build up to it.  If you go back to strength training analogies, you don’t start with max sets.  You warm up a bit, try out and test, work up to your max for the day.  You could do 3 work sets, but 3-4 sets to get into it before you’re at your operating capacity for the day.

Take your time.  Train flags.

I think we should wrap it up there; we’ve done the flag in depth.  As usual, we are Handstand Cast by Handstand Factory.  If you want to ask any questions for the podcast, send them to us @HandstandFactory on Instagram, or DM them to me or Mikael as well.

You can also voice note us questions in on Anchor.FM if you find our page there.  It’s linked in all the websites we put this on.

Other than that, if you want to support Handstand Factory, you can buy us a coffee.  There’s a link in our profile.  Or, you could buy a program if you’re interested in learning the art of hand balance online.  We have some cool programs.

Have we got a flag program?  We haven’t.

MK: We might at some point in time.

EL: Based on this podcast, we’ll have to.

If you want to learn everything but the one arm flag, you can buy a program.  Other than that, thanks for listening to us ramble this week.  We’ll see you soon.

MK: Cheers.


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