In this episode of our Handstandcast, Emmet and Mikael discuss the much hyped press to handstand: delving into the mechanics and body demands that the press requires, an argument for bent arm pressing, as well as dispelling common myths. Emmet and Mikael dissect the Press in incredible detail.
The Handstandcast – Season 1 will air every week. Topics we’ll cover over the first season include the straight handstand, the mindset of handbalancing and coaching handstands, though to be honest we’re making it up as we go along, so who knows where it might go!
S1E5 – The Press to Handstand
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Transcript of Episode 5: The Press to Handstand
EL: Welcome to the Handstand Cast. You’re here with Emmet Louis, and I have my hardstanding buddy in power-
MK: Mikael Kristianesen-
EL: And we’re here to welcome you back to our next episode. We have a special episode today, titled The Press.
First off, we have to say that we do courses on the press, so if you’re looking for the practical details, check it out. We’re going to try to talk about the press, and ramble around the press in ways to give you some ideas and deeper insights into how we actually go about teaching someone from no press, to getting them to press.
MK: And why you should press.
I guess it’s good to start with a definition of the press. You could define a press to handstand as being able to get into a handstand without using any momentum from your legs, meaning your hands would be placed on the floor, or canes, or bars, or whatever. From there, you’d be using only power, essentially, to get yourself into a handstand.
There are several ways of doing this. Our approach to this will largely cover one of the ways. We’ll be discussing all of them a little bit, but there’s primarily one method of this that is the goal. That is doing the stacked press, where you try to get yourself as high on top of the shoulders as early as possible. You will be folding a lot at the hips, and either be using a straddling motion, where you move the legs apart to create a large circle. You’re basically making it so your shoulder needs to lean the minimal amount forwards to bring your centre of mass over your base of support to reach the handstand position.
Alternatively, you can pike it by keeping the legs together, but this is the type of press we’re talking about here.
EL: We will also be covering how we divide the press into two segments: high pressing and low pressing. I think that’s an interesting topic; people don’t realize there’s two separate motions.
I suppose we’ll have to talk a bit about flexibility.
MK: Like I said, the bent arm press and planche pressing aren’t really discussed much in the program. We’re not trying to achieve them in that program, but it’s an interesting topic still.
EL: Yes, the difference between planting and pressing. How about we start there?
With the style of press we’re looking at, we’re essentially trying to do the press through elevation, mild protraction, and compression. What this means is we are trying to get the shoulder as close to the final position, as early as possible, in the press. It’s the shoulder flexion motion.
If we think about the starting position of the press, it has two bits. First is getting the feet off the ground-
MK: In standing press, the high press-
EL: Getting the feet off the ground and into a controlled position, and then letting the hips come into their final position, and the legs rise to follow.
I think you have a good way of explaining the compression aspect of the press.
MK: I think compression is one of the terms I despise the most in hand balancing in general. When people imagine the compression aspect, they imagine a similar thing to when you’re doing a sit up, or sitting on the floor in a straddled position, or pancake, and lifting the feet off the floor. Like it’s a midsection, abdominal heavy exercise. This is true to a degree.
This is what annoys me. If you just think about compression as a physics phenomenon. If something should be compressed, there needs to be two opposing forces. To be able to generate this compression – if you put your hands on the floor, lean your shoulders over the hands and infinitely pull your legs towards your chest, unless your shoulders do something you will fall on your face.
It doesn’t matter how much you compress unless your shoulders contribute the opposing force. As Emmet just said, in a press to handstand, that’s literally elevation and flexion of the shoulders, that acts as that secondary force.
An interesting way of comparing this is by doing entirely the opposite motion, a hanging leg lift. You can very easily reverse this motion and get an idea of how it works. If you hang from a bar and lift your feet as high as you can with straight legs, you will only be able to reach a certain degree before you have to engage your lats and pull your shoulders down. Only then can you actually get your feet up to the bar. There is a certain level where basically your feet have risen as high as your hips will allow, about belly button height.
Unless there’s some type of lat activation, nothing will happen. The pulling down of the shoulders, and since it’s the opposite it won’t be flexion of the shoulders, but extension. This means when you’re hanging from the bar, you’re pushing slightly against the bar. That is what makes you able to bring your feet to the bar.
So I like this explanation, because it’s kind of fiddly in handstand to understand how the shoulders help compression when you feel like leaning on them, and want to stand on your hands. It’s exactly the same type of action, just reversed.
EL: A good place to spot this is if you look at someone doing a press walk. This is a beginning exercise where you put your hands on the floor and push high on your toes and try to press. What happens is when your compression and mass going forward exceed your ability to flex the shoulders, a little hop occurs. The head goes down and forwards in a diagonal line. At that point the shoulder line breaks. I suppose that goes back to the shoulder position and the planche, which uses less compression.
MK: The interesting thing there is a press in an extremely body specific type of movement. It’s also very specific to what kind of physical practice you have done. As with everything in hand balancing, like we’ve talked about in previous episodes and will likely mention again, doing all these things is essentially trying to solve a puzzle for your body.
Your body will have to solve it with the tools it has at hand. What we are advocating is working on those tools at the same time you’re learning the motion, so you ensure you have the optimal structure for who you are to learn it.
Essentially, if the planching motion, where you lean forwards and the shoulders start going excessively over the fingers, you’ll see a distinct break in the line from the hand up to the hip.
EL: When I look at students, you see when they begin to planche, the shape becomes angular. When you’re doing a normal standing press, there’s a gentle curve in the shape. You see it before they lose strength. If they’re strong enough to actually planche, then they press out of that.
I don’t do it so much anymore, but I used to coach the press from the idea of tumbling. You’d make a shape that you’d roll up on top of. You need to make a curve somehow, whereas when you’re using brute strength you need angles and leverage. That’s how I was thinking.
MK: The most common simultaneous conception and misconception…the press is a very complicated movement, and it’s not complicated because of how the movement is. It’s complicated because of all the various ways that bodies want to express that movement. The general assumption is that a good, stacked nice and neat press from a flexible person is by definition easier to do than a planched press. It’s true, if you are very flexible and have excellent technique and are able to do a stacked press nicely, you will on average use less energy than a planched press.
But it’s interesting looking at different bodies. If I do a stalder press, I’m not particularly strong at planching, but I’m really strong at pressing. For me, when I do stalder press, in relation to my flexibility, it will roll up. That will be the immediate thing to do.
I have a friend in Oslo. He can probably do maybe as many kinds of presses as I do, but he’s a planche monster. He’s incredible. He’s absolutely batshit at planches. It’s so cool to see him press. For him, and for his current ability – and he’s more flexible than me – for his body structure, he has so much force in the planche. So when his body tries to solve the equation and get up as easy as possible, he just leans a lot more than I do. I would do doing 2 or 3 of the presses he does, while he’s so comfortable in that frontal position as he has so much to work with. That’s just essentially not up to his proportions or flexibility, as they’re similar to mine. He just has enormous working capacity in this frontal position, because of the practice he does.
EL: I’d be interested in making that guy suffer, regress back to the kind of press you do and see what would happen.
MK: The interesting thing is I was messing around with doing a stalder press with my hands crossed, and he did it first try, no problem, no questions asked. To me that’s really hard.
EL: You can’t cut the press hard enough because your pecs are in the way.
MK: It’s a very weird thing, it hurts in my shoulders, it’s janky. For him it is no big deal at all. He can also lean forwards more comfortably, so for him it didn’t take him out of a place of power like it did for me.
In general we’re trying to avoid the planching, because on average for most people, it requires more people. Also when you lean the shoulders excessively, it stops resembling a handstand. When you start approaching a handstand, you make a large curve backwards with the feet. It will often end up kind of arched in the end, so you have to correct it.
EL: I always find that what we’re trying to do is go in sequence and order of the press: shoulders, spine, hips, legs come up in that order.
But what I see is people either planche it, shoulders kind of stay closed while they get the legs up. They kind of finish with a planche press towards the end. It’s a generalization as it’s how people solve the problem. You do see this.
It’s always interesting thinking about body proportions in a press. It makes the changes so interesting. I remember a coach who will remain nameless on the internet. He’s always maintained this idea that in a press, the arms should be perfectly vertical, 90º to the ground is the goal. For many people, even if they have god tier flexibility, it’s just not going to happen.
MK: You need to move your weight over your hands. If the arms are literally 180º vertical, then what’s going to happen? Your weight is in your feet.
EL: I’ve seen it recently, which is why it popped into my head. Someone’s Instagram video where they tagged the coach in the post to say, check out my press; I can do 2 reps now. For someone who’s doing just 2 reps, not “I can do 5 and this is 2,” they’re really really good. Very good technique, very clean. Nothing at fault with it.
The coach said the next level is to start reducing that lean. I was like, this person has very long arms; it’s not going to happen.
MK: The person also likely has an ass…and a couple of legs. If there’s weight in that ass and those legs, you somehow have to get that weight over your fucking hands. This pisses me off when people go like this in presses. It doesn’t happen.
Everyone will need to put their weight over their hands. The only way to do so is leaning that weight over the hands. There’s also the misunderstanding from the planching and how the rolling up motion comes in. The best distinction that can be made there is that the planche version will feel more like a delt heavy thing. You can almost imitate the muscular pressure by grabbing 2 heavy dumbbells and doing a straight arm lift in front of you. It kind of feels like that, but it’s not as bicep heavy as a planche. It’s similar on that lift, if you have the thumbs facing up and you lift the weights. It’s rather similar.
If you do a stacked press, it’s much more of a trapezius heavy movement. You will feel some delts, especially for most people learning it.
Ideally that ability to roll up and stack comes from the ability to stay in elevation and be using the shoulder flexion from a minimal lean. Then you lean over the hands, the feet hover off the floor, and as you straddle or pike to go up, the shoulders go from that minimal lean and move back over your hands.
This happens from shoulder flexion.
EL: I remember at the retreat you were doing a demonstration, showing the shoulder extension to flexion action in the press. It was funny because it’s the first zone of the high press, where you compress, push the shoulders from an extended position into a flexed position, and then your feet were just going. You were like, “I’m doing nothing with my hips, the angle stays completely the same.”
All that was happening was you were flexing your shoulders into position and your feet were coming up to about elbow height. After that to come up would have just been to fully extend the lumbar spine, so the legs come up.
MK: I also did that with the legs bent. So all you people saying you can’t press because the hamstrings are too stiff… if it is the hamstrings, just bend your legs to press, then. It is possible, it’s not even a problem if you can press. But if you can’t, it might be something else than that hamstring flexibility if yours.
It’s certainly heavier to do a bent leg, janky strange pike press, than a very nice wide straddle press. But the point is the midsection, hamstrings, the compression – the ability to bring your legs close to your body will reduce the amount of power that your motor needs to exert to get up, but the motor here is the shoulders.
EL: When I learned to pike press in circus school, I figured out that I could pull myself into my pike as hard as possible, really tense – overtense – put my hands down, then just release the legs and planche forward.
I had good planche strength back then. I’d planche forward, release the compression. My legs would fire up like a rubber band and that would get me in.
MK: I can consistently pull off ten stalder presses without a warmed up pancake, like where I can barely get my forehead to the ground.
EL: I remember we did two retreats, and by the second one, I could see the training was really accumulating for you.
I got you in the morning and was like, Mikael, how far is your pancake? It was…you know…you couldn’t lean forward, you were like 20-30º forward. We’d been training quite a long time, it was early, we’d been training a long time, you’d only had 2L of coffee so far. I asked you how flexible you were, just to show the group. Then I asked if you could press from there, and you did a stalder straight away.
So for flexibility in the stalder, or a normal press, we think we need a lot of flexibility, but the more shoulder flexion strength, and articulation strength, and strength for low pressing, that you have, the less flexibility you need to do it.
MK: We are of course very interested in teaching so that you build up the flexibility to do it. Again, you can use less strength, it will become an easier motion. When you’re learning this, of course you want it to be as easy as possible so you can actually access it. Of course you’re going to develop that part too; it isn’t what I refer to as bellybutton magic, that lifts you up.
I’ve seen it a million, billion times, people literally trying to convince me of some magical inwards suction from behind the belly button, and that’s how you press.
How the hell can I be really damn good at it? I just lean forwards, imagine I take a shit and fly up… It’s essentially that the hidden factor that’s rarely mentioned is the level of passive shoulder flexion that people have. If you have stiffer shoulders that can’t reach 180º (or close) for handstand flexion, it’s hard to make an exact measurement there…
EL: 179.5º to be exact, or else you’re a bad human to be sent back to the shop and fixed.
MK: The point here is that if your shoulder flexion is not particularly great, it is going to be hard to do a straight handstand. That is common knowledge at this point. The big kicker there is if you can’t do a straight handstand, when you bring your legs down in front of the body into a press, your body has to deal with this amount of weight being outside your body line.
If that flexion is not already great from the start in the handstand, it will continue to move forwards. It will start in a less flexed place and move a lot more forwards. It will be extremely heavy; you’re working both against gravity and your own structure.
The funny part that Emmet just described with bent legs that I very often use when I teach and demonstrate, is that the reason I can do that is my shoulders have a lot of flexibility in this kind of press.
EL: Mikael’s warm up set when he comes into the gym, the first time I’d seen him training I knew I was dealing with something a bit different. He warmed up with splits while chatting, kicked up to a one arm straight away, does straddle, 15 seconds, straddle, 10-15 seconds, straight, straight, figa, figa, flag…in the same set. He came down and just shook his wrists and said, “Garbage! In the garbage!”
He was on his hands for 2 minutes just doing one arms as his warmup set. It’s better than most people will ever get in their life, yet for him it’s ‘in the garbage.’
MK: To wrap up thing there about presses, if you fight both gravity and your own structure, it is going to be heavy. I’ve seen this many times. One of my colleagues who I work with in a super cute kids performance show has one of the most perfectly flexible hips I’ve ever seen.
She will just splat into an ultra perfect middle split at any time. Her pancake is perfect, her pike is perfect, all forward folding is ridiculously absolutely ultra mutant perfect.
I remember we started training together over 10 years ago. I always wondered because she had such a hard time with handstands. It seemed like it should be so easy for her to press, that’s what everyone said. Whenever she tried, she couldn’t tuck or straddle jump. It was so difficult for her to just do a normal handstand. Everyone thought it should be easy for her to do it, but it wasn’t easy at all, because her shoulders weren’t moving into that range.
Even with those hips, she had to lean an enormous amount, as her shoulders can’t get into that range while lifting her hands overhead. It’s even harder to do it in a handstand, so of course it’s going to be very difficult to press. It’s a hidden factor that is seldom spoken about.
People get the compression strength, the mystical magical belly button things.
If anyone tells you to do magic belly button things, they are wrong. Demonstrably so.
EL: We’re touching on something I’d like to get on, out of interest more than anything else. It’s a classic thing if you’re a handstand coach and you’ve taught some workshops. You get a girl, generally, in my experience a ballet dancer or doing some contemporary dance. They can’t handstand.
You also see this in kids gymnastics, before girls get their secondary growth spurts, and teenage things, when they’re stronger than the boys. They’ll do this style of press where they go from a straddle L and kind of lean forward enough, but then the back arches beyond straight and it’s like they’re twerking. They stick the butt out to lift the sacrum up. Then they lift the legs, and are so flexible they come up and around, and cantilever the whole shape up. Generally the head is big enough to counter balance.
MK: Their heads are so fucking big. I saw a little boy gymnast do a tuck planche, it wasn’t particularly complicated, but he had no shoulders whatsoever. His head was enormous. Of course if you have a big helmet on your head, you need to lean a lot less.
Start people young and they learn really quickly, but I’ve seen that quite often. It’s like stalder pressing little girls who..can’t stand in the actual handstand. They press up and either fall back down into straddle L, and can do it several times in a row. Or they cartwheel out or go into bridge. This is common.
There’s also a dancer girl I taught in a class. She had absolutely super perfect lines, a brilliant dancer and very articulate, high level of body understanding. She could get all the cues immediately. But she had no forearm strength, so couldn’t stay up, regardless of how hard she pushed her fingers into the ground. There wasn’t enough to be able to counter lever her body, so she always fell over.
At the end of the class, she said, “I can do this thing, let me show you.” She put her hands on the floor, went up on tip toe, and did a perfect 10/10 press, then folded straight over. Where did that come from? I have it on video. Her proportions and level of hip flexibility is so great that there’s barely any lean forwards at all. But as her feet come off the floor, the legs straddle so wide they almost go in front.
EL: I’ve seen that as well. It’s almost like a range of motion press in the stalder, they counter balance the hips just the right amount to get over.
MK: Like we talked about in the start, you have all these variations of how this movement can be executed. You have this dancer who has the perfect proportions. It’s dumb to say she has no strength, it’s not really that. There’s a fortunate mechanics and angles at work. Whereas others need to use crazy ass 1RM power push to get anywhere.
That also kind of leads us into the third style of press, also a kind of power, muscle based press. This is when you need to bend your arms.
It’s fascinating because the old school, bent arm handstand gang back in the days, you’d see the hand to hand, with the two strong guys act.
EL: Bent arm press, as you know, is you set up for a normal standing straddle press. You push forward as far as you can. When you feel you’re about to planche you bend the arms. That will lower the head a bit, the hips go a bit higher, then you transition and straighten the arms out and press to finish.
MK: It’s like a half handstand pushup thing.
EL: I revived all the bent arm presses for one of my clients recently. He just doesn’t have great shoulders overhead – Hello, Mark – but he knows. It’s going to take a year, we’ll sort the shoulders out. He’s ridiculously strong. On handstand pushups, he’s getting loads of reps in them. We have to do something to keep you interested, so let’s learn all the bent arm pressing stuff.
Now he’s doing bent arm press, the standing to bent arm planche to 90º pushup, the old school ones I had to dig out from some old gymnastic manuals to find all the elements.
MK: In a lot of parallel bar stuff where they do swinging dips and momentum based stuff, it’s very important that gymnast have that strength. You see it also in the rings, unless they are like Olympic level dudes that only do the straight arm elements. You often see the bent arm press to handstand in the rings.
EL: It’s still an element in gymnastics. As long as it’s down, you don’t lose points if you stand in a bent. There’s criteria, like going at 90º, etc.
MK: With the bent arm press, some people find it so much easier, especially if you have body or shoulder structure, or a lack of flexibility or strength, it’ll be a lot easier to bend the arms. A full 90º bent arm pike press is a lot heavier than doing a normal pike press. It’s a position I never use.
It’s also harder to do that than a normal handstand pushup. It feels like a weird half ass motion that I never do. The bending has a tendency to happen…it always happens for the people who don’t do it consciously and want to do it. It usually happens as they lean forwards. They have a lot of strength to recruit from bent arms. The body gets to a point where it cannot work any longer on the straight arms. The options are: stopping, falling forwards, or bending the arms and continuing to push. If your intention is getting up to handstand, that is what your body will do to solve this puzzle. It’s something that can be done, but I would say the acceptable level for a little bit of a planchey press goes more into a stacked press than the bent arm does is about how it changes the mechanics, to a degree.
EL: I think it’s a dangerous game to play. It basically gets your centre of mass lower, so you learn to press with the hip and you’re not training the compression aspect as well. You lose that, so you’re losing at two fronts. I think it’s a rare person whose first front press will be without bent elbows.
MK: I see that people who often try to brute force a press without doing the preparations through negatives and so on, they’ll usually bend by internally rotating the arms, so the elbows flare out. Actually doing a bent arm press with externally rotated arms loads it into the triceps, and that’s very heavy to do that version. When you flare them, you can pass by a bit of straight arms trap-dominant kind of push.
EL: Maybe we should invent that, call it an egg press, as that’s what happens with the arms. New course coming soon, we better kickstart that one as well.
MK: With bending, I think the main reason it happens for a lot of people is doing press to handstand is kind of dumb, in terms of the general biomechanics of your body. When, ever, in your life, do you use a similar kind of muscular activation chain in your normal daily life?
EL: Well, walking up stairs without bending your knees.
MK: It’s kind of like that. Let’s say you pick up a large heavy box with books in it to put it on the top shelf. Are you going to do that with straight arms and shrugged trapezius? No, you’re going to bend your arms, maybe stick the chest out a bit to get access to the big muscles, and use them. That’s the sensible thing to do. You’ll have more access to the power you’ve built up through your life in those types of positions.
Also, if you’ve gone to the gym, you’ve likely done bench press, military press. If you’re into training and have been involved in such things, then you like have more access to bent arm strength and those types of positions than to weird upper back straight arm handstand strength. It needs to be built.
EL: It’s kind of stupid when you think about it. We’re going to press, and use all these crappy little muscles in our back, when we could just use the chest… Maybe you’ll get jacked as well, and won’t end up like those acrobats with no pecs.
MK: You’ll end up like a street workout dude bro, they’re jacked as hell. And they’re really good at those things.
The old school guys too, that’s what they used to do. It better fits their style of handstand, with a much more closed shoulder angle. It’s much less efficient to press with straight arms and wide straddle, and so on. Bending arms is the way to go for that.
This leads us to an interesting thing: why the hell do we do this straight arm strength or press? You might say, it looks pretty, but what really matters is this press is what resembles the straight handstand that we’re trying to teach the most. You can demonstrate this by being in a straight handstand and then starting a negative, in a straddle position. The legs open, and as they reach 90º and start moving downwards, you start bending your arms and move into a bent arm press. You have changed the shoulder mechanics so much as the legs come down to 90º and the arms start to bend that it’s no longer in that same kind of placement as a straight handstand.
Then we do the same in the handstand. You straddle the legs, start bringing them down, and lean the shoulders forwards into a planche. Again, you’ve changed the positioning significantly.
If you do the stacked press, you pull the legs downwards and keep the upwards pressure. You keep pulling the legs down. You roll with first the legs articulating, then the hip flexors start articulating, pulling the legs down. When they reach their limit, the sacrum starts, and then the spine and so on. But the upwards pressure from trapezius will still be the same, even at the bottom of the press. It will be heavier and slightly different of course, but it will resemble the actual handstand position a lot more than the planchey or bent arm one will. This is what I think is overlooked in press. To me, that’s why you do it.
It gives you the ability to still be in a handstand when the legs are down, and because of this, you have a very short way to go back up. It also has a big plus, which is our main reason for hammering a lot of the press. This type of control of under balance will be very beneficial when learning the one arm handstand.
EL: Underbalance, for those who didn’t tune in when we spoke of it, is when you’re losing balance. Your mass is more on the side of the hands coming back to standing.
MK: It’s at the heel of the palm, and you want to fall back onto your feet. Catching that is dealing with underbalancing.
EL: Overbalance is when you begin handstands. Your main battle is with overbalance. You kick over the top, lose at that, go into an arch… But once you learn to do heel pulls and strengthen the fingers to put pressure into the fingertips, then your main battle becomes with underbalance. That’s where all the cool tricks are. Every cool trick or position in handstand means moving your legs into under balance. Tuck handstand, pike, straddle…
One of the things I’m always looking for-
MK: Even in Mexican you kind of do that. No one wants to be finger heavy in a Mexican.
EL: Same with the Mexican actually. The thing I’m looking for is the top 3-4 ribs, the scapula all work as a unit, always, in the handstand. When we’re coming down and keeping the stack, you can feel that even when moving, I’m not flexing anymore on the handstand line, but that’s what’s causing the forward lean. The rest of the contortion of the spine is higher than that. I have this block, there’s a lot of mass on that connected zone; that keeps everything in place. It’s the same actually, to segue into Mexicans slightly. The way I coach Mexican, and you can see my students get pretty good at it, I don’t let them flex the shoulders further. If you look at their shoulders, they’re not actually more open than in a handstand. If you look at the top 3 ribs, it’s all coming from below T4. That’s what I’m looking at in getting the spine out.
This means you’re not getting a lot of pressure on this too-open position. It’s too risky, you’ll see people doing it though.
You’re taking the balance off the musculature and putting it onto the passive structures like shoulder, labrum, etc. It’s not…you know, insurance reasons. It would be terrible to fuck yourself up doing a Mexican.
MK: Maybe that’s enough about Mexicans until another episode. That was a bit of a tangent.
I think that, going back to press handstand and its similarity to the actual handstand, it gives you an option of getting up into handstand that’s cool looking, giving you the ability to come up with absolute control, which is another very interesting opportunity, and thing for performance purposes, I would say.
Being able to press means as soon as your hands are on the floor and you do that little press with your shoulders to get the weight into your hands and start moving upwards, you’re already in handstand in principle as the feet come up off the floor. You can control each and every details as you go upwards, as there’s no momentum going.
Speaking from the position of a performer, I never mess up when I jump up on canes. Actually, the first time I jumped up on canes on stage, I fell straight over. My heart rate went from like 120 to 2000; it was dreadful.
What I do now, is whenever I jump up on canes, I know I’m jumping to a position I’m really strong in. I’ll jump maybe 80-90%, and the last bit I press. This means that I jump to a position where I’m still in that under balance zone, and I use power to finish it.
Because I have that jumping power and absolute control of the press, it ends up being a net sum of almost no energy used. The fact that I have control in all this under balance zone means that it costs me very little if I don’t jump far enough, for example. I don’t need to jump to exactly 100. I can jump to 80, 85, 90, or 97 or whatever. I will have control getting there. It’s a very useful tool for all that.
When you get into one arm handstands, and in Push Harder, we teach this in straddle as the beginning point, since it’s where it is most accessible. The thing, if you would take the comparison of these 3 pressing styles we discussed here – the planche, bent arm, and stacked press – the stacked press is the one that develops the capacity to keep the same shoulder position as we talked about in your handstands, as when your legs come rather low. Of course, past a certain point it starts rounding more, but you can keep the same shoulder position for longer. This means that when you’re moving into those straddle fingertip holds for the first couple hundred times, and they’re rather heavy to do, and so on, your hips want to move all over the place, your legs want to drop… If you press is really damn strong at that point, you will likely not drop as far or quickly, because you can stay on top.
If bent arm pressing is what you have, you move into a lot of elbow bending, and that’s B-Boy territory. That is really hard.
If you want to planche, planching on one arm doesn’t work. It works on two arms, but moving the shoulders in front over the wrists is Sayonara for your wrists. It’s basically not an option.
EL: Let’s move on to…low press? I suppose we also have to cover, how do you raise everything at the same time?
When you start off with the basic person, they’re not flexible and they can’t press. Well, are we able to train the shoulder flexion strength we want for the press, either the high or low pressing? We’ll get to low press in a second.
At the same time, can we develop the flexibility and raise both attributes, or raise one to offset the other?
I’m always interested – can I raise all qualities at the same time, at the same rate? Or do we need to put more stats into one, or the other? Does the person naturally come with them? It’s this idea that if you get the ideal person who can’t touch their toes and can’t handstand, by the time their handstand has gotten nice, they will probably be quite flexible if they kept working that at the same time. Give them a year, a year and a half.
Well with the press, you have more options to get the fluid and perfect technique. Whereas if you’re behind on one, if we take flexibility: which part of the flexibility do we need to look at more? Is it total range of motion, or is the total range of motion really good, but their active use of that range is really bad?
Going back to the Mikael thing of him being really stiff at the retreat and still able to press, he has very good active flexibility. His active flexibility very closely matches his passive flexibility. Whereas what you often find is people push the passive flexibility side of things, have an over-pancake, face and chest flat to the floor cold, but they can’t generate enough compression at the hips, or lift the legs high or hard enough to resist the shoulder power. Even if you’re one yoga block away from the floor with your face, but you can’t lift your legs up to elbow height with the knees in a seated compression, then you’re getting to the point where you don’t need more flexibility, but to actually use your flexibility more and lift higher and deeper into it.
The nice thing is the active flexibility improves quite quickly. For certain people, passive flexibility doesn’t come easy, especially if starting later in life, and they haven’t put as much time into it. If they worked their active flexibility 1:1 with their passive, it all raises at the same time.
Before they have an excess of passive flexibility, they’re able to get these presses, and compress for other pressing quite quickly. We’re working against gravity always, and not expressing our flexibility without the help of gravity.
If we look at movements flipped 90º, or 180º, we ask, what does this movement look like upside down? Just like Mikael was saying with the hanging leg raise.
If we look at, say, pancake, what does the pancake look like if we were to flatten the back out, and straighten the arms into a handstand shape with the back kind of flat?
If you look at yourself leaning 45º forward, you can get an actual idea of where the feet would be. If your feet are in line with your elbows, you have an excess of flexibility for the actual standing press. If you can’t access it with the resistance of the shoulders, or the ability to compress yourself with gravity’s assistance – there’s nothing pulling your torso down. The legs have to compress in free space towards the torso. Can you increase that as a variable? Can you increase your shoulder flexion strength and articulation? Can you increase your passive to the point where they all coincide, and then you press?
It’s like a Venn Diagram, but it all veered off to one side. I’ve got a bit more strength on my side, or flexibility. We’re trying to find the perfect balance for you to press.
MK: It’s of course, in terms of applying it in practice, it’s an individual thing since peoples’ bodies are in all sorts of shapes and levels of training. It’s one of the least…linear – well, it’s linear in the sense of building the strength and flexibility themselves, but it’s hard to just see a person and know. A lot of people want a press in X time, but I can’t know at this time how long it’s going to take. There’s so many factors.
If one person’s pancake became really good really fast, and the alignment is pretty good. They’re pretty far ahead already. Someone else might have good hips, not great shoulders, or the opposite, and so on. It’s a game with many stats or skill points that need to be in the right places to make sure you have progress.
Maybe we should talk a little about the low press, that’s another beast all together.
If a high press is from standing position, you put your hands on the floor, push hard into the floor and go into a handstand. The low press is moving from an L-Sit or a straddle L-Sit position. You push hard into the ground and lift your ass upwards until you arrive either into the standing position where the high press starts, or you continue into the handstand. The interesting part is the low and high press are rather different in terms of the strength that they use. The flexibility may be more similar. You will find a bunch of professional hand balancers that are pretty damn good at one arms, standing presses, but can’t do a stalder press or a single L-Sit press. It’s because that pressure you’re using is no longer using shoulder elevation and flexion is used instead here. Your delts, biceps, lats, serratus – these things are working as you’re starting to lift your hips upwards. That requires specific training.
EL: You don’t really get a crossover. A lot of people have a really good strong and deep tuck. You tell them to try a press and they can press from 10cm off the floor. Whereas you don’t get that kind of crossover to the low press. It’s like a dead zone of pressing.
If you look at what’s going on, the stalder press to handstand is a 4 stage, or 5 stage movement. On the low press section, it’s got 2 zones, and a transition zone. The first zone, you have to compress the legs harder and lean forward, so the shoulders do planche a bit.
Then, you have to start compressing the hips. I tell people to bring the legs closer to the arms when learning, but you can throw that cue out as you get super strong. Then you have to protract harder, flex the spine more, and that’s what gets the arms from the pseudo tuck planche, closer to the takeoff zone, the initial forward lean of the actual press itself to standing press. Then there’s the transition from when the feet go from just ahead of fingertips, to just behind them to hover and start the high press.
MK: That transition is a big sticking point for a lot of people.
EL: That last change, I think I’ve most cued it to have the arms straight out in front of you, like a push up position. That change from depression into articulating the shoulders to elevation.
MK: I often talk about trying to get onto your traps as early as possible at that stage. There’s a takeover point there, from it feeling-
EL: I remember when I used to stalder. You feel the serratus cramping from working a lot, then the back kicks in.
MK: If I would do one extremely slowly, I would feel a bicep and front delt, serratus kind of thing, I would feel the switch and it gets to the upper traps in that transition when the feet pass the hands. To be able to develop the low stages of the press, and let’s take the stalder as the example, the straddle L and press to handstand. You need to develop a straddle L of course.
In the bottom of straddle L, as you sit there, you are literally aiming for keeping your inner thigh slightly above your elbow. You can’t sit in a straddle L that is lower, where your legs rest on forearms. What you would see then is the scapula stick out from the upper back and wing a bit.
EL: People aren’t as flexed forward, or can be slightly hunched over, with shoulders up to the ears.
MK: That depression of the shoulders and rounding of upper back is what you see coincide with the legs moving above the elbow joint.
Often I cue people to try to do this with bent legs first, to get an idea of how it feels. If with bent legs, you can set up a straddle L reasonably easy and get the sensation of the rounded back and downwards protracted and depressed shoulder position. From there, when I teach this movement, you do have some people, like this guy from Germany who I coached who does a lot of things – Nikolai Pawas. Hello, Nikolai.
He struggled a lot with standing press. I asked him to try from L-Sit, and he would fly up to standing position, as if it were no one’s business, on the first try. He had loads of strength there. I can’t remember if it was because he had trained planche work, or other related things before.
EL: He definitely had planche phases in his life.
MK: He just had tons of strength in there already. So you can just be monstrously strong on the bottom part but not be able to do standing press, or high press.
You can test whether or not someone will be able to lift particularly high from an L-Sit or Straddle L position by having them try to do a tuck planche. If the tuck planche is not doable, and you’ve set someone’s hands up on the floor, you have protracted shoulder blades, you pull the knees in. If the feet can’t come off the floor and hover there for a while, and they just flop a go down, then no. The person isn’t pressing anywhere. You need to pass through this tuck planche position as your butt goes from low into the mid zone and starts going behind you, before it needs to pass up. At that point, you’re at the maximal amount of forward lean. It shouldn’t be a lot, but there’s a little bit, and it resembles the tuck planche a lot.
EL: Just to get a visual of this, if you imagine a tuck planche, then imagine how the legs would project down and forwards towards the face. That would give you the idea of how it relates to the straddle L position. It’s a common sticking point for a lot of people. There’s a few interesting ways around it.
One is to get fucking stronger.
Two, what I like to do with people is momentum on the way up. An L-Sit with a bit of a swing. Get the momentum with negatives down, but also cue when you feel you get to that straight alignment, or when the shoulders and hips are on that line parallel to the ground, try to add a pause on the eccentric, just slightly above that parallel line. Then you get used to resisting at that point. You know you can get in, then have some force, to press against.
MK: In the Press program, we decided that, funny enough, a stalder is easier to pull off than a very strict L-Sit press to handstand. But it’s a lot harder to learn, because in a straddle L-Sit, you’re locked where your legs are resting on your arms. You can’t get any momentum, swinging force, or help from that position unless you have a freaky straddle L where your legs are pointing high up, and you can get a bit of whip out of that. The strength for the L-Sit and straddle L press is exactly the same.
If you work from L-Sit, first of all an L-Sit is easier to hold than a straddle L. If you have a general level of strength for these things, it’s less technical.
I’m not happy seeing people swinging into them. If you were able to use a bit of a rocking motion to add more cm to that lift, it should still be a strength or power lifted motion.
EL: It should just pushing it over the edge, and not swinging through it.
MK: A short anecdote on that: I was in a calisthenics park in Oslo many years ago. A bunch of dude bros were training there, playing music, everything is fine.
I come and stretch a bit, no big deal. I go to the parallel bars and do a bunch of L-Sit presses to handstand. Of course, a lot of the guys there weren’t used to seeing people do pretty solid presses for reps on the bars. Everyone kind of stops and looks at me. I come down like, uh, ok.
One guy comes over and says, that’s really cool. I used to do gymnastics when I was a kid. I wonder if I can still do it. He grabs the bars, kind of swings his hips forward, not even an L-Sit but a straight body swing. He throws his legs backwards as high as he can, and of course he can’t fucking press to handstand. Mind you, these bars were 1.5m tall, pretty high parallel bars.
He flies up, his arms bend over, and he just straight up smashes his calf into one bar, falls to the ground. I’m standing there like, holy shit are you okay? He limps over, sits by the fence for the rest of the training.
I do a few more presses, 2 more minutes pass. Another guy comes up, holy fucking shit I want to try. Guess what he does. He swings his legs through, flies up, crashes straight over. This guy was lucky; he was able to flare his elbows and roll onto his upper arms. He didn’t know what he was doing either but got goddamn lucky to not smash himself.
I’d been there for 10 minutes and 2 people almost died. If you fell on your neck, you would be hospitalized.
EL: If we’re doing anecdotes, I have one more. Many years ago, like in 2002, I was at Circomedia, a circus school in Bristol. One of the guys was a juggler, specialized in juggling and physical theatre. He was wiry, and okay at acrobatics, could tumble a bit. He couldn’t handstand.
We were out for drinks one night in Bristol, sitting at these high tables with a high bar stool. We’d all had drinks, there were 6 or 7 of us out. He just decides to put his hands on a high bar stool, and he just does an L-Sit press. But he couldn’t handstand. He went up and…he said after he’d never tried it before. It just came to his drunken head that he could L-Sit press. It was really good, he had flexed feet, and kind of shimmied them to get through. But it was good.
He got to the handstand – he can’t balance a handstand. Just like a plank, BAM, straight onto a table of drinks. He WWE’d himself over the table, all the glasses.
We were probably escorted out. It was so surreal to watch. He went through the thing, got there, and then weeeee. You could sense the moment of panic, when you’re on top of a press, you haven’t stopped moving, but you’re straight. Then the rebalance needed to happen…
MK: The moral of the story is, if you can’t handstand, there’s no real reason to actually press. If you’re that good, go to parties and embarrass yourself. You have my go ahead for that, otherwise learn to handstand first.
Putting these two things together is a tricky thing, too. It’s being able to essentially do the entire press. What both of us advocate and were in immediate agreement on is these elements are muscularly different. They connect but are very different in terms of muscular activation.
So why not be able to start practicing both of them, regardless of the level you’re at?
Some people will be better at the top part, others at the lower part. You can practice both parts, more or less from the get go. There are many levels of progression you can work on this.
You can develop a tuck planche. That is a safe bet anyway. Develop a tuck planche. Develop a straddle, and so on. Also work on standing press.
EL: Something I’ve seen in my students over the last while, since I adopted it. Years ago, I used to be like, you must be able to do a straddle press for X time, X reps. You must have a pancake of this quality, then we start working on stalder.
But I think from discussions with you 3-4 years ago, I was like, maybe I will start working on them at the same time, using progressions.
What I’ve found is your first standing press – the technique is going to be shit. You’ll bend your legs, bend your elbows. But your first stalder press, for most people, the form is very clean. We’ve got the low press quite nice. The flexibility is caught up to whatever level. Then you can already do the transitions and the standing press. By the time you get there, you’ve got control over the legs.
I don’t remember the student meet up in Iceland. Erik got his first stalder. You could post it up, textbook. Toes pointed, knees locked, elbows locked. His first press was like his foot had Parkinson’s.
You see that a lot, there’s something to be said for it. It was only a couple of months for Erik before he was doing pike presses. By the time someone is able to pike press, they’re normally able to stalder press, if they’ve raised everything at about the same rate.
MK: If you have a decent pike press, and have worked on low pressing enough to get your hips to standing level, and one of the best connecting movements is a range of motion press. You go into straddle, past your hands, and back up. You get a little bit of extra working time in that midrange. Then go for banging out the stalders.
Like you said, in one sense it’s easier to get good form on the bottom part of it. Your centre of mass is lower that entire part too; you don’t have to worry too much like in the standing press. The problem is usually the connecting tissue between them.
You drive through as hard as you can. As you reach the mid or even top part of the press, you’ve gassed out. Your shoulders are too far forward because you couldn’t deal with it. You fall, and once you do they’re usually not that bad.
As Emmet said, it’s a bit the same like all the things we speak about. Form is good, always aim for good form. But don’t let form break your ability to do it, or your motivation to do it. It’s the analogy of nobody cuts down a tree with sandpaper. You need to do the rough work first, and this is done with exercises and specific things that isolate certain areas. You work on them, and then over time you put it together.
By the time you’re ready to do your first standing press, and stand there, amped up on the ground, lean forwards and push harder than your entire life. You scream and you get up. I don’t care if you bent your legs a bit. Good on you, you got up.
Now work on getting it consistent. Get the knees straight. Of course you don’t want to be stuck in this, I can press, but it looks janky.
If that is what you needed to do to press, okay, at least you did the press. Now you start doing the sharpening, make it look neat and clean.
EL: It’s what I say to people about bodyweight skills. All of them, not just press. Tidying up the form is how you add weight to the bar.
I have certain strengths to do this thing, with all these compensations in the body. As I get better, I start removing the compensations.
I press, my arms bend, I lean too far forward, my legs go, my feet go, I don’t use all my flexibility. Well then, next week, I can lock my arms. That’s tidied something up; I’ve added 2.5 kilos to the bar. That’s how I go.
It’s the same with everything. Look at front levers, back levers, muscle ups, chin ups, even. Think of a beginner learning a chin up. With the first rep, one shoulder comes up first, the other shoulder comes up. They don’t stay retracted. They arch too much. They flail the legs, they bring the knees up to the chest. As the person gets stronger, the shoulders will stay down, stay retracted, come up even. The body will stay tight, or in the same position they pulled from. That’s what you find. You might still be doing one rep per set and can’t increase it, but the quality has gotten better on that rep, so you are gaining strength or control or whatever you want to determine in this position.
You might not be adding reps until later. These are all little details.
One of the things I look at when I’m assessing clients for their progression on exercises: how early in the set do they have to start bringing in a compensation? Say I tell someone to do sets of 5 presses. I start them off on week 1 of the training program. By rep 2, they’re making compensations. I don’t increase the reps over the training phase. For 6 weeks they’re still doing 5 reps per set, but as we go, by week 3, are they compensating by rep 4? Or if it’s 5 sets, the first set will be nice, then 2, 3, 4, and 5 will have compensations in them. By week 3, 4, 5, by set 3 all the form is good, but set 4 is when the compensation starts coming in. These are ways we can track how we are actually progressing, without adding reps or weight to the bar.
MK: It’s a sensible way of looking at it. Like you say, when you’re doing what for you might be a 1RM, you are going to just load as much gunpowder into your shotgun as you possibly can, and you fire. That is how it looks at that point. Essentially you are Mr Strongman grabbing the deadlift and powering through it. It isn’t going to be pretty. A person’s first chin up won’t be pretty either. As the person does their first chin up, the coach will say, you got above the bar, good work. That is the way to look at the press too.
Of course there are details. If you’re able to keep your legs neat and tidy during, more power to you. But having a little bit of the same look, when a person can do one single chin and it’s murdering them, it won’t look great. Give them some time and they can do 5 chins. The first will look pretty good.
It’s a bit the same with the press. At just one press, everything you can do means you might be able to hit one in your training. It is likely to not be great. By the time you can do 5 single reps in a training, several will look good. By the time you can do 3 presses in a row, your first will likely be light. When you can do 5 in a row, 4 will actually be pretty decent.
This is a way to think about it that is also practical. It is tough to make that thing you can only do once with max focus to make it look as good as you would wish it to.
EL: Something I picked up from Louie Simmons, of Powerlifting fame – the amount of cues you can give a lifter is relative to the 1RM they’re lifting. I think he had a rule of thumb. If they’re lifting 50% of their 1RM, you can give 3-4 cues to pay attention to. Every 10% you go up you reduce the cues until you’ve hopefully whittled down to the more important one.
If you’re lifting 80-90%, you can only tell them one thing, like head up, whatever. It’s the same with learning to press. When you go for those first few reps and pushing forward, you can only really focus on one thing. It could be shoulders, compress, abs, or take a dump…whatever.
As you get better and more control, you can pay attention and have 2-3 points of focus. Or a little checklist: toes, compress, shoulders. Whereas before you might be only able to keep an eye on one. Something to think about is, as you get more capacity in these movements, you can pay attention to more details.
Should we finish with the take a dump cue?
MK: Probably a good place to end it. Instead of thinking that you need to do belly button magic when you press, think about taking a shit. It might sound really dumb, and it is, kind of. It’s true.
There’s a thing, mainly relevant in the mid part of the press if you’re doing a full one, going from L-Sit all the way up. When you get to the point where you need to pass your hands, it’s relevant. Also, it’s relevant if you do a standing press from handstand. So what do I mean?
It kind of relates to compression, which is pulling your legs to your chest and resisting it with the shoulders.
When you’re pressing up, you’re actually just doing that for a moment. Then you bring the legs away from the body. In a standing press you don’t compress for a long time. You want to articulate the legs away from the body. That articulation away from the body can be helped by the breath, literally by cueing yourself in the same way as taking a shit. That HUMPH thing that creates that grunt. Use that power.
You can say it’s a similar kind of tension in the midsection as if you want to take a punch to the stomach and tense up to prepare for that. It’s the same type of pressure you create, like a super pressure under your abs.
EL: We technically term that the Valsalva Maneuver.
MK: It sounds fancy, take a shit is better. It’s similar pressure in the mid section when you do things like squats. You don’t need to make a sound when you do this. I maybe do one my last ones, especially when doing a range of motion press where you go down-
EL: Rage of Emotion press.
MK: You lower down past your hands with your feet. As you do that reversing thing, that’s when you activate this. It always happened intuitively, but I started thinking of it as something you can use as a cue, especially when you want to do a take off from a press when standing, or doing range of motion work, going beyond the hands and back up.
Think of toilet times when you press.
EL: I think we’re going to wrap up there. If you’re still listening…
This is what I like about the cues that sound stupid. When it works for you, you will never forget it.
MK: Thank you guys for listening to our rambles this time.
EL: I hope it was informative, I hope you liked it. In keeping with our outro, this podcast is brought to you by Handstand Factory, which is the course we made.
Thank you everyone from kickstarter, as usual. It wouldn’t be possible without you.
If you’re looking how to figure out how to do this stuff in practice- maybe you want to press, maybe you want to handstand, maybe you want to press TO a handstand. We have some courses that can help you with that, so check them out. Other than that, you know where to find us on social media.
We also need to remind you, there is loads of free content on our instagrams: @HandstandFactory, @EmmetLouis, and @MikaelKristiansen. I’ve also got my YouTube, and we have a Handstand Factory YouTube as well. It might be where you found this podcast. If not, check it out. Loads of free stuff, loads of free tutorials as well.
The other thing is, if you have any questions for the podcast, send them in on the contact form on the website at handstand factory dot com. Put them in, with ‘podcast questions’ in the title.
If they’re good, we’ll read them out. If they’re bad, we’ll read them out with your name attached to it.
- Included is Mikael’s post of him showing how shoulders are the strongest link in the chain when it comes to the press to handstand.
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