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S1 Episode 38: Q&A with Emmet


In this Episode of the Handstandcast we have a Q&A with Emmet, as Mikael’s flatmate is quarantining. Emmet answers a range of questions from giving tips for coaching and training underbalance in a handstand, how to fix knee pain in side splits, is handstanding aerobic or anaerobic and going into detail about how handbalancers train their legs and a sample leg routine.

Want to have your say on the Handstandcast? You can now leave us a voice note here with your Q&A questions for Emmet and Mikael! If you have any specific topics you’d like us to cover, or want to send in questions for our Q&A episodes, please get in touch via our contact form.

S1E38 – Q&A with Emmet

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Love the podcast? We’re 100% coffee fuelled, so if you’d like to help keep us going you can easily support the Handstandcast by buying us a coffee here:

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Transcript of Episode 38: Q&A with Emmet

EL: Hello and welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis.  Unfortunately, we have hit a bit of a road block this week, where Mikael unfortunately won’t be joining me.

As you know, last week he was in residency and super busy and apparently it went awesome and they’re getting much closer to having a show.  He’ll be back next week to tell us all about that.

Unfortunately his housemate got COVID.  This happened in the middle of the production period, so he had to move out post-haste with very short notice.  He didn’t have any of his podcasting equipment and is currently couch surfing while this blows over.  So you’ve got a Q&A minisode with me this week.
I will answer some of the questions we have chosen lovingly for you guys.  Next week Mikael will be back, or else.  Maybe we should make him do some solo shows and catch up and give me a break.

I think it’s a great idea.

For myself, I can give you guys an update.  We are currently still in lockdown.  I wonder if it will ever end.  It’s one of these things, nothing much really going on, other than constant lockdown.  Lockdown for life.

Right.  Questions.  If you want to ask us some questions you can submit them to us @HandstandFactory on Instagram, or DM them to me or Mikael, or Facebook.  All the social media channels are available.  There’s also the contact form on the website as well, which no one seems to use.  And, if you want to do some voice questions or a dial in, you can do it on anchor.fm/HandstandFactory.

A few options there.  If you do dial ins, we will play them.  We have a couple, or at least one at the moment.  I will say it’s nicer to get the full experience when you make the effort to dial in.

Our first question: “I know there is the toe pull exercise when dropping into under balance.  But what I have difficulty explaining to beginners is how to correct under balance.  In over balance it’s just pushing the fingers into the ground, but with under balance I’m not sure how to describe the motion that corrects.  I can’t remember myself how I did it in the beginning, and right now it seems too hard to explain the way I do it to beginners.”

This is an interesting question because it kind of highlights one of the interesting things with hand balance.  As a beginner, your first battle you fight is with over balance, going over the top.  It’s very rare people would even have a sensibility or the sensation of under balance, what it is, or how to control it.

The next balance battle you fight, and for most of your handstand career, is under balance.  What we do with most of our handstands, if we think of our whole repertoire in being able to hold a handstand, everything else involves controlling under balance.

We have tucks, straddles, everything increases the under balance demand.  Pressing is just a massive display of under balance and correction.

One, it comes down to just being strong enough.  If people aren’t strong enough in the upper back, they don’t have a hope of correcting under balance.  The next thing is, it’s the weird motion that to correct under balance, they have to have enough sensation of where the balance point is in the hand, and be able to push harder through that.  This goes for all the corrections you would do in a handstand or under balance, whether bending the elbows, breaking the shoulder line, or pushing into shoulder flexion more.

It also depends on people understanding when to break the shoulders forwards into planching or not.  It also makes anticipatory.

One of the ways to get people used to correcting under balance is to get them stronger.  This is why we introduce tuck handstand so early in the Handstand Factory programs.  Even if it’s wall support it will build the back in the right way to provide the tensegrity for the handstand to be corrected in under balance.

The other tip I found useful when learning handstands, but I’m not certain how useful it actually is, is to try to lift the fingers off the ground.  We push the fingers into the ground to correct over balance.  Try to lift them off the ground to correct under balance, while pushing through the floor.

This will help.  Generally under balance comes more from strength.  Once people are strong enough and havre a sense of balance then they’re able to do it.

For specific actions.  If you press your fingers the right way, you can correct under balance.  It sounds weird but it’s all how you push the force through the sweet spot in the hand.  Generally, get stronger, try my finger off the ground trip.  But under balance comes as a side product more than anything else.

If someone is strong, you can teach them to bend the elbows, push it out, or planche it.  Obviously it’s not ideal, but if they’re strong enough it’s perfectly valid, and good enough to correct under balance.  Planche, bend, once you reestablish control somehow, lower the mass, push back up on top.  It works.  It takes a bit more coordination, but it’s one way.

If someone’s a bit weaker, they just have to get stronger, really.

Our next question: “Horse stance and side splits feels uncomfortable in the knees, which comes down to pain over a few sessions.  Knees are fine otherwise, and legs strong.  That’s not too special.  They are weird positions.  Just realize, I get the same pain from actively going for maximal separation lying down without any relevant load.  Any idea why, and how to fix it?”

Basically, side splits…it can be you’re just not flexible enough.  As you are getting down there, you’re putting more tension across the joints.  Getting more flexible will help.  It could be, without seeing where you’re actually at, it could be the leverage forces your hips are not flexible enough so you use the knees to become a downwards force.  This strains them.  Or you look if you’re keeping the feet down too much.  I’d be keen to play with different split alignments, maybe training toes up splits, or if your hips are rolling up correctly.  It’s hard to say.

If that doesn’t work, then you need to do specific knee strengthening exercises.  You want to look up things called terminal knee extensions, distance step ups, things like that.  There’s a lot of options on this.  You basically want to train the teardrop muscle on the inside of the knee and keeping it tense in side splits.

Also play with angulations.  This will take a while to get stronger, don’t think it will happen in a week or two.  Over time it will help.

There’s a lot of ways to do these exercises.  You can do them with bands, dumbbells, lying down with ankle weights.  A lot of options here.

The other thing is, you have to make sure you’re paying attention to the signs your body is giving you in the side split.  When you go into it, it can be that if you pay attention to the hip and make sure you’re localizing the sensation you want in the muscle groups of the medial hamstrings, or adductors, or adductor Magnus.  Then see, if I force myself down, am I also forcing my knees into the ground instead of pushing back into the split.  There’s one thing that can help in this situation.

Think of the descent of the split; it’s like an upside down question mark.  When you split from standing and look at the pelvis from the side, if you go straight down for a while the legs go into abduction.  Then it goes backwards into a curve and reaches a maximal point of backwards travel.  Then it will start going forwards in line as the legs go wider.

What can happen for some people is you keep trying to go straight down, not allowing the C shape to happen.  The C shape doesn’t happen so by pushing back you push the knees.  That’s the only thing that can really give in this.  You’re not working with the body and hinge mechanics of the hip.

Play with this and make sure you’re not using the knees as a leverage point.

Some other options to play with, though I have to say I’ve tried this extensively and have not had a lot of success with it.  If it works for you, it will work faster than anything else: the full horse stance to splits progressions.  You constantly squat wider, keeping your knees bent, like a really wise squat.  Sumo, horse stance 5 step, 7 step, 9 step.  Just use that as your progression.  You’re constantly bending the knees and not ever locking them out until you get flat.

I tried this extensively from the writings of Thomas Kurz.  After a few years, it works and is useful.  Horse stance is definitely useful for side splits.  Going wider and constantly wider doesn’t work for a lot of people.  But if it does work for you it will be faster than anything else.  So it’s worth trying for 6 weeks so you have a very good idea if it’s going to work for you or not.

That will mean the knee isn’t too straight or locked into a leg bar.  That’s one thing to try out.

What I really like is, you can do some side split work.  A lot of this work we do is very tense.  You might, because you’re tense, you might be masking some sensations you’re getting in the splits.  Some of the early ones….pain will bring something to the forefront.  You might be missing some subtle alignment thing.

You can get some cushions and either wedge them under your legs, or sit on them in your side split, and take a lot of the weight out of the legs.  Then mentally investigate every square cm of your ankles, knees, hips, muscles, glutes, hip flexors, back.  Everything involved in the side split.  Just see if there’s unevenness, some tension that could be relaxed.  If your alignment is off in the hip and the rotation needs to go in a different direction – all these go into it.

It’s getting in there, or maybe a bit less in terms of what’s going on can be very useful.  If we look at the knee joint, it’s a very big and strong joint.  It has its limitations which are normally fixed by what’s going on in the ankle or hip.  By exploring what might be a limitation there, or finding if there’s an alignment you can fix, you can probably get around this knee pain issue, as well as doing the strengthening exercise and looking them up as well.

I think that kind of covers it.  Other than that, it’s becoming the expert in You.

Next question: “Is handstanding aerobic or anaerobic exercise?”

It’s both.  Generally we’re doing precision work and want to keep the heart rate low, keep the breathing steady, don’t want to be panting or out of breath.  At the same time, when we start doing things like handstand push ups, conditioning sets, trying to get stronger, then it begins to shift into anaerobic if we look at set durations, time to failure or under tension.

I’ve never actually checked heart rates in general.  One time I checked and got up to about 170BPM in a handstand.  Generally I think my sessions are about 110-120 kind of range.  This will be standing.  We want to be relaxed, or low tension, so it will be aerobic exercise and your heart rate won’t be too high.

If it’s a pressing session or handstand push up session or learning new stuff, you’ll be working a bit harder and it could strain into the anaerobic zone. Generally it will be 80% aerobic.

Here’s a good one: “What do hand balancers do to train their legs?”

That is such a broad question.  To answer, most pro hand balancers who work in circus don’t train their legs in the way you’re probably thinking.  What most of them do is some tumbling, some trampoline, jumping, that kind of stuff – if even.

What should happen to train the legs is probably a better question.  Who are we speaking to here as well?  I can think of hand balancers who aren’t professional, as that is dealing with a very specific type of person who is pushing.  It’s like saying, what kind of jogging does a 100m sprinter do?  They probably do some, but it’s not exactly applicable or transferable.  Jogging is a bad example…what sort of bowling do 100m sprinters do is probably a better transfer on that.

Yes they probably do some.  Does it transfer to their sport?  Probably not.

I can think of a lot of good amateurs, not professionals, maybe they’re coaches.  They have impressive numbers in squats and other stuff, so it is something to think about.

I’m going to give a format I use for my more hand balance focused clients and students.  Because they’re not looking to push leg strength super high, and their main training volume goes into handstands, I only have them train legs once a week.  I think everyone should be training a bit of resistance training.

If we look up resistance training, injury proofing, tissue quality, doing something slightly different, strength, all these things…we’re putting all our precision and skill stats into hand balancing training.  The weight training has to be very basic.

What I generally program for most people is one bilateral leg variation for one part of the workout.  This is either a squat or deadlift variation, down to preference or I rotate between 3 of them over 3 phases.  It might be back squat, deadlift, sumo deadlift.  Front squat, sumo deadlift, good morning.  Something like that.  Anyway.

Then, the next exercise in the program will be a single leg variation for the opposite aspect of what they’re doing.  If we look at the theory (I’m not too sold on this) of knee or hip dominant exercises, if we’re doing a squat variation then the single leg variation would be some kind of hip extension exercise.  This might be back squat for 5×3, 6×3, something like that, then accessories, maybe 3-4×6-8 on a single leg back extension or good morning or Romanian.  Then our third variation would generally be something using a leg curl aspect – ankle weight leg curl, floor slider curl, Nordics…. We might play with rep ranges and what our focus for that phase is.

Then we finish with some abs and back extensions, generally hanging leg raises, and some kind of back extension for higher reps.  This gives a very structured leg program, very straight forward, easy enough to do.  If you follow the rules of linear progression, you will get very strong.

I have a bunch of hand balance only people who are all pulling over 2x bodyweight on deadlift and squatting at least 1.75x bodyweight, with hand balance as their main focus.  Then other clients train hand balance as well and are more involved in strength so do more strength work.

You can get very strong on this type of training.  What makes this training work as well is we are doing all our flexibility training as well for our leg training.

When we’re moving the leg in space, it’s very valuable.  It trains a lot of the smaller muscles around the hip, giving the ability to squeeze those muscles.  It may not be training the quads and all the hamstrings and calves correctly, but it does a very good job of it.

If we were to look at Kabuki Strength or some other people, a lot have hybridized powerlifting exercises from flexibility.  You see them teaching a hip airplane recently, or on Squat U as well.  That’s actually a side tilt you train for hand balance.  They’re all modified versions of what they do, and they think it’s the greatest thing for hips ever.  Well, we’ve been doing that for a very long time.

This is the kind of thing.  A lot of flexibility exercises where you move your legs through space are very good.  If you can bang out the reps, add on a bit of weight, like anything else.  They do have a lot of crossover.

That is what I recommend a hand balancer do once a week.  It works.  It’s a good break, and I generally program it on Wednesday or Thursday of their week.  Hand balance, hand balance, general strength, day off, hand balance, hand balance, something.  An idea of how to do it.

Back to the professional hand balancers.  Most of them come from circus school or tumble.  It has gotten better at a lot of circus schools, but most hand balancers want to keep their legs as small as possible.  They get strong from tumbling and jumping, it does get you strong.

People forget about the basics of run and jump.  Obviously we know other stuff but it does work.  I can think of one hand balancer who will remain nameless, very good.  He was doing an audition for Cirque du Soleil.  The audition requires a series of strength tests, always the same.  Climbing a rope for time or repetitions, press handstand, splits and standing broad jump, and some push ups.

In the standing broad jump, the dude could, on his max jump, clear 3m.  But his legs were so skinny and weak he couldn’t absorb the shock of them.  He had to squat flop land.  But he could muster the concentric power to jump 3m.  It was an interesting one to hear about.

Basically, do your jumping, some deadlift to learn to absorb some force, and then you’re sorted.  Hope that gives an idea.

Our last question or possibly not… “In what order can I expect to achieve the different flexibility positions: pike, pancake, front and side splits, and bridge?”

This is one of those “How long is a piece of string” questions.  As a rule of thumb, most people get a very good pike first.  It’s basically the only sort of universal.  It’s the entry to our pancake, our side split.  It is the start of front splits, but not quite.

After that it can be really hit or miss.  I usually see pike first, then side split or pancake.  Some have better hip capsules and sockets and can flex the hip joint easier, and some don’t have them conducive to flexing over super easy.

After that, front split is a weird one.  Most people get that last out of the splits.  But not all the time.  Then bridge is a weird one too.  I can think of a couple people I trained who just had a really good bridge with very minimal training.  That was it.  Maybe their spine was the right shape on the inside, or it was very simple and they had strong enough shoulders.  But splits and the other stuff came with a lot of effort.  Put it that way.

I have rough categories of back benders and front benders.  You pick this up in contortion circles that you’re one or the other.  It’s not universal, but some come easier than others.

Generally the order I suggest is the first order they come in.  I can think of some I’ve met over the years, one guy in particular who basically had a god tier side split.  It was awesome, didn’t need to warm it up.  Cold, in the morning, boom.  -2º, come in and side split.

His pike was…terrible.  He could do a standing pike okay, fingers on the ground.

Pancake as well, if you brought the legs into a pancake angle, going forward was very difficult but doable.

Everyone will be different on this one.  The order I suggest is good, but you have to experiment and see what comes for you.  It can come down to technique as well.  Some people can instinctively grasp the technical details and how you apply the splits and other stuff in some positions easier than others.  We can think of the leverages involved as well.  The leverages on a side split v a front split can be greatly different if you have big v short legs, or long legs.

Or if we train front split with the knee off the ground, or with the knee down.  There’s different leverages there.

It goes back to what I said at the first side split question: become the expert in Yourself.  You’ll figure out what will come from where.

Another point to add is, if side split is coming slow and you haven’t trained pancake, train pancake.  Generally, pancake can be a limitation for side splits but not the other way around.  If you haven’t put a lot of time into pancake and you’re really chasing middle split, pancake should give a cross over effect.  But it doesn’t always work the other way.

That’s our last question for the day.  So, thank you all for listening.  Mikael will be back with us next week if all goes to plan.  Or else I will have to go to Sweden and brave their quarantine to drag him to the mic myself.

I get the inside scoop on all this, but we’re going to interrogate him on the process he’s been going through.  It sounds quite interesting.  They have the sound and lights in, the stage where the show begins to really come together, which is cool.  Other than that, I am Emmet Louis, thank you for listening.

If you want to check out any of our programs on Handstand Factory, either beginner, advanced, intermediate, presses, all this cool stuff on handstands, please check out HandstandFactory.com.  The programs support the podcast.

Have a good week.  Send your questions in.  I’ll catch you next time.


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