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S1 Episode 40: Strength and Handstands


In this episode of the Handstandcast, Emmet and Mikael discuss the topic of strength and how it relates to the handstand, as well as tackling the false dichotomy of Strength vs. Technique that seems to exist in the handstand world.

We hope you enjoy it.

S1E40 – Strength and Handstands

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Transcript of Episode 40: Strength and Handstands 

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

MK: They are about the same as last time you asked me, I think, whenever that was.  I don’t have short term memory whatsoever.  I am sitting here folding tiny birds and am almost at 1000.  I think I have 972 birds.  During this podcast, I might actually feel 18 more in the hour?

EL: If you hear something rustling… Can you do them blindfolded yet?

MK: Yeah, for sure.

EL: Even the small 1cm ones.

MK: With these ones now, I look down two times. I don’t need to.  You can make an extra fold then fold corner to corner, so you don’t really need to look.  It’s not hard.

EL: I think you should explain the thousand birds thing.  It’s 1000 cranes, but you made it 1000 birds.

MK: This is extreme technicalities.

EL: Origami is extremely technical.

MK: The 1000 cranes is from Japan.  I think it comes from some old legend about folding 1000 cranes and you end up getting your wish fulfilled once you done so.  It was popularized after World War 2 and the Hiroshima bomb.  There was a little girl who ended up dying from radiation poisoning at the hospital.  She believed that if she folded 1000 birds she would get well.  Her medicine was served to her in these small square paper packets, and she would fold one a day.  She sadly died before she was able to finish them.  They put the birds in the Hiroshima memorial for August 6 each year.

This is my second time doing 1000.  I’m not wishing for anything.  Here’s the big secret.  I’m doing it because it’s a thing to do that takes time.  Another thing to do between cradle and grave.  Now I have a fuckton of time.  So if you’re bored, grab 1000 papers and get on with it.

EL: To show people what I’ve been doing with time – I got a sound board.  I took Mikael saying stuff at me, and have some sounds.  First one: [indecipherable].

MK: These are from the recordings when we filmed in Belfast.

EL: This very first one is Mikael where I challenged him to dry scoop some creatine.

MK: It was very powdery.

EL: Very blue.  Dry scooping, if you’re not familiar with supplements, is putting it straight into your mouth.  No water or anything.  It’s not great, but we’re all desperate sometimes for some pre-workout.  Let’s face it, racking up lines at the gym is maybe not the best idea.  But depending on which gym, maybe it’s fine in some places.

You dry scoop.  Mikael has this brilliant video where he’s blowing the coloured pre-workout, I caught the blue coming out of your mouth in this video.

MK: It wasn’t pleasant.  I can very clearly remember.  I haven’t dry scooped many times, maybe three times, and it was dreadful all three times.  That’s a good Instagram challenge for all you cunts.  Go and dry scoop and see how well you hold up.  Throw a fat ass scoop straight in.

EL: Don’t forget people were doing the cinnamon challenge.  At least pre-workout has some sweeteners in it.

MK: Cinnamon challenge is old.  Take the pre-workout, because if you take enough you’re going to start coughing.  You put it in your mouth, then you breathe in.  The shit is so powdered that it goes down your throat.  Glory ensues.

EL: I think people died from the cinnamon challenge.

That’s what I’ve been doing with my time.

Today’s episode, we are going to talk about strength.  What does strength mean in the context of a handstand, and all the other things that go into it, more so than anything else?

Depending on which side of the debate or topic you come from, strength is the be all end all, or technique is the be all end all.  I think Mikael and I are of the persuasion that it’s not so set up as you may think.

MK: I do think that if you have to choose one, it’s like the good old saying: if brute force doesn’t solve your problem, the problem is you’re not using enough.

I think I got that from the flavour text of a trading card game, Battle Tech, I played some time in the 90s.  Anyway.

It is kind of true in one sense.  No matter how well a body is placed and how precise it is, if there is no force or energy exerted to keep your body in the position, even standing on your feet, it will collapse.

The moment you die, you will not stand on your feet anymore.  Your body is no longer firing any neural signals to your muscles fibres.  Some degree of force is necessary.  I think the main issue with the discussion about things like handstands, where it’s about efficiency and so on, is people automatically start to relate strength as being maximal strength or brute force…

EL: I’ve been using this phrase a lot.  I think it’s very clever, so I’ve been using it a lot with my one arm students lately.  “It can’t just look like a plane; it also has to fly like a plane.”

What this means is, people get into a perfect set up and then won’t push hard enough to get the shoulder up, get lifted, or to the balance point or zone.  Why can’t I do this?  It looks like a plane but does not fly like a plane.

This is the thing.  You have to have big fucking airplane engines at a certain point.  That makes you efficient.  Then you can glide around and be free and soar and that.  Until you have the big engines to get you off the ground, it’s limited.

People are zoning in on alignment.  It’s not that we dismiss it.  But also, unless your shoulders can support your mass and your triceps can do a bit of work, and your fingers can exert force into the ground, you won’t be able to balance a two arm handstand.  It’s kind of a missed component.

MK: All of those things need to happen to keep your balance.  They’re contractions of the muscles, and they will be exerting force in certain directions.  That force is strength.  It doesn’t necessarily relate to having maximal power.  It’s not what you need but there is a baseline for the various things you want to do, that you need to have.  Or else you simply cannot execute the movement or balance that you want to do.  I think it’s important to speak about it in the relevant sense, and not have this strength v technique/flexibility, or what not dichotomy.

It isn’t a dichotomy.  Strength is a parameter that always influences what you do in these things.  There are ways to mitigate how much of that absolute power you need in certain situations.

Another reason for strength being usually misunderstood – if you look at the broader cultural sense, how we tend to associate with strength, if it’s about physical strength, what easily comes into my own mind if I think shallowly is a big bodybuilder dude with huge muscles.  That equals strength.  Big barbell.  Because you’re strong you’re automatically stiff, huge and clumsy.

These don’t have anything to do with each other.  People who do bodybuilding lift the weights and get strong, to become enormously massive like they do.  People who do strongman do it for a different point.  They want to get as massive and strong as possible, but the amount of muscle mass is not necessarily the same focus.  And so on.

EL: As an interesting aside.  I remember seeing studies on which humans have the most body muscle.  The ones who were topping it out were actually Sumo wrestlers.  They had proportionately more fat, but not as much as you might think.  I think the figure quoted for them was 4lbs of muscles per inch as the goal, and sumos set this figure.

They counted strongmen, bodybuilders, steroid users, the lot.  Sumos were all actually, they couldn’t get data, but apparently natural.  They were getting the 4lbs of muscle per inch – height, not girth.

Hand balancers, I suppose we just train to get jacked forearms.

MK: On the other side of the coin with stuff like hand balancing, you see all these children doing insane things.  You see this tiny teenage girl who can stay on her hands for an hour, and so on.  There’s no visible defined huge muscles like the conventional view of strength would have.

Oh yeah, but she doesn’t have massive muscles, so it can’t take a lot of strength.  I remember a guy coming to me who said exactly that, when I was doing some really hard lower down to crocodile on one arm.  He insisted it wasn’t strength.  He said, I see all these Chinese tiny girls doing it, there’s no problem.

Yeah but they are 8.  They have been trained since they were a few years old.  Body mass has an enormous amount of say in this.  Of course they are also among the most flexible people in the world, so they can mitigate a lot of the absolute power needed for a certain thing.  On average you will find smaller people who more easily excel towards higher levels of calisthenic based things.

EL: Speaking of small and flexible, I would like to shout out Stephanie Millinger.  She recently done 402 stalder presses.  We can debate the technique, I don’t care.  It’s just obviously an insane feat of endurance as well as strength as well as flexibility.  This is where it all comes together.  You can output all that work in that time, at the same time, once you get to rep 100, things aren’t pretty but you’re still doing them.

Then you cue up all the people on Handstands Anonymous who say it’s ‘more impressive’ when you see a big guy do 2 of them.  What are you talking about?  I too like to watch my mother sprint 100m instead of Usain Bolt.

MK: Absolutely nuts.  This is like, the kind of stuff where you get world class talent mixed with extremely hard and focused training over a very long period of time.  It’s a very good example, in terms of…for a 100kg person doing that feat is probably within the realm of completely impossible for a human muscle structure to do.  Let’s say a guy that is 190 tall and massive, 100kg heavy, of course doing a couple of stalder presses is “impressive” for such a person.  Totally legit.  That doesn’t take away from doing 400 presses.  That’s completely bonkers.  Unachievable by 99.9% of those who would ever try to get 50 won’t even get that.

EL: Even if you take a genetically blessed 155-160 male and try to get them to do 100 stalders, the amount of people who can do that will be very rare.  I’m sure some can manage it.

You probably will see more people coming out doing it.  Once world records get set publicly, people start trying to break them.  We’re looking forward to seeing who can do 500 first.

MK: Not surprised if it’s her again.  The most I’d seen other than her was by an Ethiopian sport acro girl.  I can’t find the video but she was in a women’s trio.  She looked like she could have been maybe 12.  Very slim.  She did 126, those were all straight arm.  She didn’t land in bent arm in the bottom.  There’s a difference there in terms of technique.  I think that took her 12 minutes to do, or something.  There are certainly more people out there.

You never see what the kids in the Chinese circus schools do.  They have so many that are so far ahead of anything that we see in Europe and the states, apart from a few individuals from Kiev and Russia.  They’re mass producing monsters over there.

EL: I got to know this Chinese juggler who was living in Ireland 20 years ago.  Juggling was his thing, but he was an absolute fucking machine on anything.  He could tumble, do doubles, straps, one arms, whatever.  He said his time in circus school, they had to do 100 presses.  If they didn’t do them fast enough they had to do 100 more.  1000 pushups, shit like this.  It’s insane, the fact that they even pull these numbers out.  It wasn’t even a challenge thing, but “It’s Friday, 4pm.  Do your 1000 pushups.  If you’re not done by 5pm, do 1000 more.”

MK: Getting back onto the strength topic, there are many angles to see it from.  Unless there is enough force going through your shoulders to hold your body in a specific position, you will fall down from that position.

In many cases the most relevant is for complete beginners who want to learn to stand on two arms.  I remember I did a workshop in Cork, Ireland.  It was great, and there was a lady there in her 60s.  She was not in particularly good fitness level but was really enthusiastic and really wanted to learn.  I had a group where everyone could hold their weight on their arms for the duration of the workshop, more or less.  People were knackered but they could spend a few hours working towards the wall.

For her, getting up to the wall was a 1RM.  She couldn’t get into a fully inverted position.  This is extremely important to remember; there are many people who would love to learn to handstand who are in that boat.  She did not have the physical capacities at that point to do a lot of work on her hands.  But she was in my workshop so it was my responsibility to make sure she left there with knowledge and training and understanding of what to do.

She did a lot of stuff like headstands, various drills like L holds with her feet on top of a box, starting to gradually get more weight over the hands, and assuring her that through practice she can learn it.  She was sort of able to hold her weight, but far from enough for her to have any handstand practice.

For her, I said it would be really good to have a general increase of physical fitness, learn to do pushups, etc, to make sure there is enough force to hold her body in these positions.

Same with the forearms and grip.  So many times I’ve heard people try to handstand for several years but it’s impossible.  I get them up and ask them to grip the ground with their fingers and nothing happens.  Then it doesn’t matter how many times I technically cue them.  There isn’t enough energy in their hands.  Their forearm flexors are not strong enough to do the given task, hence it’s then better to give the person something that will basically increase force production.  Then later they can use that production to learn to perform the skill.

EL: To cycle back to that lady, what we are doing with handstands training, in sports science terms, is specific physical preparation.  We are preparing the body to perform a very specific feat, the handstand at whatever level.

Then we have off season training, or general physical preparation, where we try to make the body generally strong.  GPP is quite SPP as well.  GPP used to do athletics is very different than the GPP for ballet, for example.  But it’s the same idea to increase strength and cardio, make sure there are no imbalances, increase flexibility…all these things can be raised.

GPP is quantifiable to a large degree.  I pick my metrics, volume, time under tension, total weight lifted per session, density for the session, whatever we want in terms of strength.  We try to raise that capacity over a given period, whether two weeks, a week, a day, six months…

Then we have specific physical preparation where we take those gains and realize them into our practice.  This is where things can get nebulous.  Obviously with sports there are head games that go into this as well.  There’s also peaking, or being stronger in the muscles but having to teach them what to do.  This is the rehab conundrum.  My glutei are weak, so back is sore.  We get the glutei stronger and shit, the back is still sore.  Why?  You didn’t teach the muscles what to do in the right way.

We’re trying to get the body strong.  Hand balance is interesting because it requires strength, but a lot of specific strength.  If you don’t have a baseline of strength, you can’t access the specific strength, so it’s hermetically sealed.

The strength is locked away in a box, so you need some kind of strength.  People who want to and have never done hand balance before, I like them to do 5+ pushups, 10 bodyweight rows, then planks, core, dishes and shit like that for 40-60s.  That’s the point where you can begin to enter the doors of hand balance training as a thing.  This is where hand balance training is interesting.

The first part of this training for me is when we actually develop the strength and basics.  It lasts longer than people think.  It’s more like strength training at the stage until you’re doing maybe 20-30s holds, handstand training is basically strength training.

If we start comparing to strength training metrics, the general rule of thumb is it’s up to 30s, then it gets into hypertrophy or endurance training after that.  Any kind of hold or anything where you work and still get fatigued under the 30s mark is still working on strength.

This is what our technique looks at, where our very basics of training come in – linear progression.  We come in one week, do something.  The next week we want to do a bit more.

This is where things get confusing.  We need to have accurate units of measure.  Do we train to failure?  It’s not the best idea.  It’s better to walk into the wall in 4 steps, then 3 the next week, then hold for 5s.  The next week I want to do 3 sets of 5 seconds.  Okay, good.  I generally use 5s as a baseline for a rep.  We try to do one more rep.  Then we do one set of 10s, and two sets of 5s.  We have progression.  Then the next week we do 2 sets of 10s…and when we can do 3x10s, then we aim to increase to 15.

This is where things get interesting in handstands.  As we gain strength and flexibility, it’s not dichotomous, it allows us to position our skeletal structure in a way that we can be more efficient.  We have more efficient leverages.

If our muscles can exert a certain amount of force for a certain duration of time, with this advantaged leverage, they can use less force so they can survive for a longer time.  This is where technique, strength, flexibility – all our athletic capabilities – come into play.

We want to find efficient alignment, which involves technique and motor control.  At the same time, we’re trying to be strong enough that we don’t fatigue.  At the same time, as we get stronger, it allows us to be more efficient.  But maybe the strength won’t fade away because it opens new doors as you can get stronger in new directions.

MK: As you can place yourself better, by definition it means your reactions are faster and more precise.  You don’t let the body travel as far each time before you start activating your fingers, for example.  Then you don’t need to squeeze as hard, and save more energy, and so on.  That is where it is confusing with the strength idea for handstands.

It’s there but over time you want to mitigate the use of its most maximal power so you can perform it with ease.

I like the comparison of planche and handstand pushup on one side, and press to handstand on the other side.  The reasoning is that the handstand pushup and planche, assuming that in planche you use the same body position, whether straddle tuck or full, if body position is kept consistent and you lean forwards into a planche, all you need to do is push hard enough into the floor so your feet come off the ground.  There are some technique parameters too to planche, but it’s mainly apply force in the right direction.  There are no mitigating factors in bending with the body and so on.  That will always take the same amount of de facto force to get your weight off the floor unless you lose weight or a leg or straddle more.  Assuming you keep body position it will be the same.

Same with the handstand pushup.  As long as you don’t lose weight, it takes the same amount of de facto force to bend and then straighten your arms again with your weight on top.  Of course again, there is technique involved.  If you’re good at doing the motion you won’t wobble tons on the way down and way up, doing handstand pushups, or planche or planche press.

If we compare it to press to handstand, there are loads of mitigating factors in terms of how you perform the press.  The press, since the goal is to compress as much as possible and make the leverage shorter, that can be achieved by higher degrees of flexibility, both in shoulders and hips, and being stronger in the midsection, shoulders, so on.

This is why it’s very clear that the world record on stalder press is over 400, whereas if you look for the world record for full planche presses, I think I’ve seen 10 and maybe there is a beast who can do 20.  You’ll never get to 100 with that, just because.

If I have to eat those words that would be very impressive.

Just to finish up that rant, the other thing, like I said before: first, the nature and practice of handstands, due to the curve of it…there is a rising curve of force required at the beginning until you reach a certain level and it starts to level off.  You have the baseline and it starts to flatline how much power you need per second to do the thing.  The flatline is what you look for, then you move to the next level.

You might need to build more power as you learn to do the new thing.

Say you’re leaning over and trying to do one arm fingertip holds, your shoulder must be stronger to hold 10s of that, than 10s of two arms.  And so on.

This is also where body structure comes a lot into play.  In handstands we’re not doing a lot of “muscle building work” with loads of hypertrophy centred work, where the point is to get as buff as possible.  Hence you won’t see many hand balancers who are absolutely stacked.

If you take a few steps to the right and go into calisthenic circles, where all people do is planche and pull-ups and front levers and muscle ups all day, they’re jacked as shit.  Basically because their practice looks different, the goals are different, this is what I also find fascinating.

EL: I have a point to raise on the being jacked.

If you look at most hand balance girls, they’re generally a certain specific build.  Kind of slim, trim, got some muscle, but a lot are almost stick like.  If I think of a majority of hand balancer guys I know, a lot are pretty muscly.  Even yourself, you have big lats, back, chest, triceps.  I can even think, if I were to rate circus artists in terms of male physique: maybe it would be the straps people first.  Bases can be hit or mass, sometimes they’re just a stack of granite, not super cut.  Then it would be hand balancers after that.  That’s only the men.

For women, aerialists, generally straps and trapeze are stacked.  Hoop can be a lot.  But hand balance, they’re generally the smaller ones.

MK: You’re right.  I guess it’s also due to dudes having an easier time building a lot of shoulder and arm muscle, in general.  I read something like, for women, there is basically the size of the rib cage and shoulder structure that’s more or less finished around 14-16.  For guys, that’s when the testosterone peaks and that part grows significantly.

EL: I think the third growth spurt in your 20s is when female hip bone structure widens, and mens’ shoulders widen, and chest.

MK: I guess it becomes more pronounced due to that.  Since you are also basically only training that area as hand balancers too.

EL: It is still a big disparity when I think about it.

MK:  People come in all sorts of sizes and shapes in hand balancing.  I think the only area where you see specific body structures is in much higher levels, as in all sports.  The higher the level, the harder for all kinds of body structures to be able to reach certain things.  That’s just physics and life.

Either if you go towards the extremes of all the flexibility contortion balancing stuff, you find more women.  It’s a more common culturally discipline for girls than guys, though of course there are insane guys in that too.

When you see all the planche super strength stuff, it’s funny with that.  I’ve seen a few girls full planche.  It’s rare but I’ve seen a few.  I saw a video a few years ago of a woman doing a full planche.  She’s looking at the camera shaking, but she holds it.  It’s legit, super badass.

Then she does a straddle Maltese with fully locked elbows.

I think in calisthenics is where you see it the most, short Russian dudes who are buff, not enormous, because they’re 160 and 60kg, no legs and massive shoulders and can basically fly.

EL: I remember being on a calisthenics kick a few years ago.  I came across a Ukrainian calisthenics video of dudes in some random playground.   Most of them looked like if they put on a tshirt, you couldn’t tell they trained.  Yet they were repping one arm chin ups, doing handstand pushups, planche, maltese, the works.  Damn.

I think we lost our point as usual.

MK: But that’s why you’re listening, isn’t it?

There’s many fascinating things on strength.  I’m on the larger end of people that try to push a lot of the very heavy strength one arm stuff.  I haven’t seen that many on my height and weight level working a lot on those things.

First, if you’re already working on these, you have to be completely obsessed to start working on it.  It’s going to take you eight years to start getting to really work those moves.  Or you’re basically smaller and you do it in half the time or less.

EL: Either six months, or six years working on it.  Or you post videos of yourself on Instagram holding a post off camera and pretending to do the skill.

MK: That also works.

EL: We see you.

MK: I really feel a significant difference in terms of for me to do the heavier skills, I need to be on absolute point with my shape or it’s not possible.  There are a couple of things I did a few years ago I haven’t been able to replicate at all, because I was an absolute monster then.  It was during the dry scoop days.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever do a few of those things again.  I know people who have way better physiques for those things than me.  It’s not a problem.  In the end it comes down, like with strength, the de facto force that a larger frame will have compared to someone smaller doing certain things makes it harder.

Like with weight lifting, you have weight classes because someone who is 60kg is not going to be able to lift the barbell as heavy as someone who is 100kg.

With what we do, it’s more subtle.  There are no weight categories.  You just see someone doing a thing with no understanding of who they are or these physical stats.  Then again I’m happy there isn’t either.  Going around comparing these things, in the end it’s nonsense and a waste of time.

EL: No I think you’re completely wrong here.  I think we need a weight class, a height class and body density class for handstands.  Then someone can do a Wilks score, so someone can compare your one arm to the planche of a Chinese kid who can do 10 one arm planche presses.  Then maybe you can feel superior because your Wilks is higher.

MK: You’re fired, Emmet Louis.

EL: Anyone who power lifts know what I’m talking about.

MK: You can always pull the old school bullshit, “fight me then.”  You think it’s a great idea because you’d beat the shit out of me.

EL: What can I do better than Mikael?  Bridge?  Fight.

MK: You can do a better bridge, and beat the shit out of me.  Maybe deadlifts or weight related stuff.

EL: But no one cares about them.  I said it.

So.  I was going to talk a bit about torque and why it’s important.  This is what we deal with in a lot of bodyweight training.  Torque is rotational force, either stopping or using it.  But maybe we get Dr Helgi on to talk about torque.  We’ll leave that for now.

MK: To sum up a few of the things.  Basically when speaking about hand balancing and other acrobatic or athletic disciplines as well, strength is very relevant.  But the definition of strength is maybe what needs to be discussed specifically in the context, so you’re thinking about it in the right way.  Misunderstanding is rampant about not needing strength.  No, it is a fabrication you can somehow use some sort of magic that makes you stay there.

What makes you stay there are contractions of muscles.  Those contractions need to be strong enough in their specific context.  What I like to use as a definition is, strength is more the body’s ability to exert force in a specific situation.  This is what Emmet talked about with SPP.  You need to have worked up to it specifically.

What makes me think most about is, if I went to another discipline and tried to use my strength for climbing, say, my forearms are well conditioned to do handstands.  Put me on a climbing wall and I suffer within 10min.  It’s different.

Take a monster climber into handstand, and they struggle to do the finger corrections.  It’s a new context.  Perhaps learning these disciplines will have some carryover.  There is some level of general physical preparation coming from your SPP.  A climber will have more forearm force recruitment than anyone who has only squeezed a pen.

You need to teach the muscles what to do with the power at hand.  Unless the power is at hand, it needs to first be built somewhere or else you waste a lot of time.

EL: You summed it up nicely.  Mic drop.

We have our definitions.  I was going to say, basically, technique is like the aim.  Your bulls eye.  You aim with technique but you have to shoot the arrow.  Shooting the arrow is the strength.  If you don’t have both, you can’t get the target.

I think we wrap it up there.  That was a ramble cast.

As you know, Handstand Cast is supported by Handstand Factory.  If you like our rambling and wish to continue, please check out our courses on HandstandFactory.com

If you have questions for our podcasts, please send them to us @HandstandFactory on Instagram, or directly to me or Mikael.  Other than that, we will catch you next week.


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