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S2 Episode 53: The Core


In this episode of the Handstandcast, Emmet and Mikael discuss the core and how it relates to handstands. Going into detail about what the core actually is, how much a strong core actually helps your handstands, handstand variations and their demand on your core and a few brutal routines to build core strength.

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S2E53 – The Core

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Transcript of Episode 53: The Core

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

MK: Today is pretty slow.  Not much to report other than having woken up.

EL: Basically the same.  We’re still in lockdown.  Other than that I have consumed sufficient coffee to be semi excited about speaking into the microphone for you guys.  By that I mean our audience, not you.

I’d like to say I have interesting news, but no.

There is one historic day in a news channel over here.  They basically said, there is no news today, and played music for the 20 minutes that was supposed to be a news segment, rather than forcing some story for ratings.

MK: When I was bingeing on Chernobyl disaster and USSR stuff, I once read that in the USSR they used to have…whenever there would be a major issue or catastrophe, the radio channels would just start playing classical music.

When Chernobyl happened, a lot of people understood something was really wrong because the stations played classical music all day, which was unprecedented.

EL: Speaking of Chernobyl, I was watching a series on Netflix called Dark Tourism last couple days, about some dude who is basically a Louis Theroux copy.  One episode was in Japan, he did a tour inside the “difficult to return zone” in Fukushima and that prefect zone.  They’re in there with personal Geiger counters to show how fucked the place is.

A background radiation level of 0.2 is acceptable living standards.  The places they want people to return to is about 7.1, about 40-50x the dose of safe radiation.  Some of the higher places was like 9.something.

One lady was into visiting nuclear sites as a hobby, as you do…She was freaking out because it was massively over Chernobyl, which you are not allowed to go into anymore.  Yet Japan is like…

MK: I had friends who went there two summers ago, and most of the area is reasonably safe.  There are pockets of more significant radiation.  Of course, inside the safe confinement you need to know what you’re doing so you don’t end up in trouble.

The dome around the site is the largest moveable structure ever created on land.  They built it quite far away, then rolled the entire confinement and placed it over.

This is not very handstand focused.

EL: Let’s just have a nuclear reaction podcast instead.

One more comment, in Fukushima they are visiting towns inside the zone.  If you ever played any Fallout game, it’s literally that in real life.  I don’t want to say LARP Fallout, because it’s not LARP.  It’s real Fallout minus the power suits.

So.  We’re going to talk about all things…what is the topic?  All things related to the core in handstands.  We get asked a lot of common questions, so we’re dumping all that.  Do you need core strength, and how much?  What specific strength actually matters?

The first question I pose to you, Mikael: how long of a dish hold do I need to train a straight handstand, and do I need to train it an infinite amount times?

MK: I think it’s still the largest misconception of handstands.  This is the longest lasting, the hardest to crack, even though most people in that community knows it’s not that important.  Most likely, there seems to be a correlation between your ability…your experience on your hands and your belief in this, being inversely proportional.

Most people who can do a good handstand tend to not focus on it, not as a staple and necessary thing for handstand.

There is an interesting thing I have heard thrown around a bit, in relation to me.  People say, “you’re so good at standing on your hands, so it’s probably not necessary.”  There might be some relevance to that, but again, it comes more down to how able you are to keep your shoulders and hands in the placement you need, than needing to learn some mystical tension of the midsection.

There are lots of different concepts here.  The entire influence from gymnastics and all that, the mysterious ‘centre of body’ stuff from yoga etc.  Then the fact that the fitness industry started obsessing over core, it’s become more mainstream to use as a thing.  Now it’s starting to get debunked as an idea.

The core of anything, if you talk about the core of a concept, or nuclear reactor, it is the most important thing.  It easily establishes itself as a crucial aspect of what we are doing.  It’s also wording, not necessarily that important.

EL: Looking from the fitness point of view, if we look at the new cycles of fitness.  I’ve personally been through about 3 or 4 of them I can remember, trends coming and going.

When I started, core training was super important.  There were two distinct camps.  One was, belly button touches your spine, and that is what causes stability.  The other was, no, inhale air into your belly button and squeeze everything like a belt; that causes stability.

When I first learned to squat, I was always trying to pull my belly button to my spine to stabilize.  It was an overdone concept.  Both were trying to explain the same thing: create intra-abdominal pressure.

Then people began to question, what is the actual definition of core?  It ranges from everything from transversus abdominus muscle, the girdle connecting pelvis and ribs, all the way to basically everything that isn’t arms/legs/head.  This gets to the core of it, there is really no standard definition of what the core is.

There are a lot of things it isn’t.  The limbs aren’t.  Then using the broader definition we could say shoulders, scapula are part of the core.  Scapula is, but humerus is not.  It gets interesting when we look at the actual definition.

I feel like we will be speaking to a lot of the converted in this episode, but at the same time, what I want with core training is not rigidness.  People try to make this block core, like cement.  I want to develop control, give people options.  That is what is going on here.

If the body is maintaining a straight position, it extends its balance beyond something else, and has to adopt the strategy of deforming other parts of the body segments to maintain body mass over something.

You see this in balance.  Someone has gone beyond their capacity to maintain a straight line.  Something else has to default.  If you’re standing and lean too far forwards, you shoot your ass back and bend the knees.  Balance is maintained.

Equivalent things happen in handstand in our rebalance and different levels of rebalancing.  People extrapolate this.  Visually I see an arch in lower back; that must mean they have lost the ability to contract the abdominals and maintain the crunching position.

Most likely, the problem originated lower down.  What you see is the effect and not the cause.

MK: As you are arching over and your legs start going in that direction, rectus abdominus and stuff will start to fire.  Things are moving.  Unless you’re able to reestablish with hands and shoulders – and anyone who can balance a handstand well knows what I’m talking about.

I do find this definition fascinating.  It’s also a point where various factions within physical disciplines will be kind of modifying or creating their own descriptions of what it is, either to be special like in fitness to create their own narrative and stand out, regardless of that having a real world connection or not.

In martial arts, there’s a lot of moving from the centre of the body.  In those contexts it makes sense, it’s more an awareness thing and understanding the principles of movement within the art you do.  Fair enough.

When talking about specifically applying principles in handstand, it gets complicated.  If you use the word core, it’s easy to make the idea of a core small, since there is a lot of stuff around a core.  Centre of mass is around belly button, so that must be where it originates from, and so on.

Of course, you have to keep this in relation to hands etc etc.  You see loads of talk about transverse abdominus, like it’s some secret inside muscle.  It’s the fallacy of small v big or inner v outer muscles.  The inner is more secret and better and smart if you are developed enough.  The outer is bulky and unnecessary and dumb.

There is a drop of truth in it.  Yes, when you’re good, you can really feel the minute details and respond appropriately with less force.  The concept as a whole becomes very flawed.

My friend who is an orthopaedic surgeon cuts this shit open all the time.  He does a lot of hip replacements, so his been inside loads of peoples’ stomachs.  He speaks about it sort of like carpentry.

I asked him about the transverse abdominis versus the other muscles – if you think it looks like a fucking anatomy chart, when you open people up it’s a total mess.  Fibres are fused, things don’t look the same.  None of what you think makes sense on paper.  It isn’t like that when you go in there.

I find these mythologies created fascinating.  Loads in circus, loads in fitness, loads in dance.  Kind of like incline technique, some sort of impossible thing someone asked me to do in a dance class once.  Something physically impossible, like as impossible as leaning forwards with straight legs and a straight upper body and you hinge at the hips, you have to fire your hamstrings.  You sedate the hamstrings, you fall.  You need a pulling force there.  NO, work from some other magical place because this is a big muscle and that’s wrong… There’s loads of garbage coming into the conversation where they don’t know what they’re talking about at all.

EL: I think I know what you’re talking about, we had a dance teacher that explained this and were disappointed.  She was disappointed because we were circus artists so we should be strong and do loads of leg lifts and shit, that you should be able to do downward dog without your hands on the ground.

We tried that to humour her.  Someone said, like a pike or forward fold?  No, she said, “it has to be a triangle shape.  I can’t do it because my core is not so strong, but you guys being so young and good at leg lifts and other core work should be able to do it.”

I pointed out, there is no way with the centre of mass.  “No you can control your centre if your core is strong enough – suck your navel in harder.”

I was at circus school at the peak of the Pilates craze and we had to do it.  In the first circus school, before you do every single movement you have to do navel retraction and hold it for the duration of what you’re doing.  Cue a lot of people hurting their backs trying to run while holding navel in, rather than letting the breathing happen.

I remember one girl from a gymnastics background, ridiculously good at tumbling, could do anything on floor.  Her trying to hold her stomach in and tumble instantly turned off anything she could do.  Why?  The core needs to move, flex, extend in these movements.

She asked the physio person who was saying all this stuff.  They said, your core is so unstable.  When you stabilize it your body won’t let you do these movements because it’s damaging.  Backwards logic. Versus her not having issues because she’s done gymnastics since age 4 and was then 24.

MK: A lot of these principles are illusory fragilities, you catastrophize the body.  “If you don’t do this you will end up injured.”  This is something everyone has seen in various sports and heard again and again.  The body is adaptive; you find people doing those things and being fine most of the time.  I think it’s much better to treat the body as being resilient.

For me, the things I do that are the most “core usage” is like, if you do power moves in breaking, the one that requires the most is flares.  Your hip flexors and obliques and abs need to be super conditioned very specifically.  You won’t get it just by doing leg lifts.  If you do a truckload of flares, the entire lower torso section is what you tire out and work the most.  There are so many angles, you need to push and pull and twist with the entire area.

Compare that to how I feel when I do handstands, and even rather hard variations, it’s so much more work.  Like anyone who just learned to backflip and throw like 50 backflips and do 20 more…their abs are going to be so fucking sore the next few days because of the quick contraction you do there.

That leads into the other reasoning for the core myth – gymnastics.  We’ve talked a lot about this.  You condition a gymnast to have this tension because they use the upside down position while tumbling and so on.

Of course, when your entire career as a gymnast is not only, but a lot is based on creating torque and force from that open chest position, and the open back, then whipping it close to generate power, of course you need to be a fucking monster there.  The purpose is different.

EL: Look at any competent gymnast, they have a core strength far in excess of what they ever need for handstand, but they need it for all their swinging skills, tumbling, everything.  It’s just one of these things, how it’s demanded.

It’s also the idea of body shaping.  People neglect this.  We have core and arch rocks, because it’s the beginning of learning to drive with the heels for tumbling and maintaining body shape in a dynamic motion.  In handstand we’re in a static position.

Same with a lot of body shaping drills in gymnastics – arch, hollow, arch, hollow – all the variations, a lot of them are not for handstanding skills, but high bar and swinging.  It’s to generate the force to go around and around in giants.  It takes a lot of strength and ability.

At the same time, when you are going to be training 20-30 hours a week in gymnastics at high level, you need a level of work capacity.  If you’re doing swings, you do 15 and know you have the conditioning to withstand the 10-14 G forces going around, maintaining hollow through the position so I can let it arch at the right time and snap through to generate momentum.

A lot of core training comes from gymnastics.  Gymnastics uses handstands.  But they’re good on their hands because they can do presses, handstands, walking, all this other stuff.  They’re flexible, they’ve been doing it a very long time.  This is what makes a gymnast good on their hands, not core.  This is a mistake a lot of people pull out.

MK: The stacking of weight on top of yourself, even without a great shoulder position…if you even do an arched handstand, you get a child to try handstand enough times until they can, they don’t need a lot of focus or tension in lower back to hold an arch handstand.  The only place where doing a floppy handstand might be more significantly problematic is if you’re contortionist flexible – so much propensity to bend in that direction with so little resistance, that you don’t concentrate, you might easily fall back into bridge.

But for most people who fall over, it’s usually to do with them being unable to do the work they need in the hands and shoulders early enough in handstands, so the consequence comes higher up.

I guess the other funny positioning, as there are two kinds of arched handstands: the contortion style with not very open shoulders and arched lower back, then the open handstand/Mexican that also arches but you spent he shoulders too far.  The only position that can keep you rather stacked above your hands, with that body structure, is a position where your shoulders are over your hands.

If you pull the shoulders behind hands too much, something will give.  You need to compensate, either by sinking the ass back, or letting the feet go over.  You won’t maintain balance.

This type of position is how you start understanding the Mexican, even at a very tiny level.

In stuff like Mexican, if you try to go deep….in Mexican I’m super stiff through my abs and thoracic spine, it’s absolutely dreadful.  In those you need to have quite a good level of control over your entire abdomen, to let the legs go far enough to start pulling you down.  You need a certain amount of tension to keep them from just falling over.  But you also need to relax in that sort of stretch, feeling very similar to a bridge.

This happens with an extra layer of tension when you keep the legs in the air.  The funny part is, if you’re doing drills for it properly, the body will respond by doing the appropriate thing itself to a large degree.  The body is pretty smart at adjusting to these things if your level of body understanding is high enough for the thing you’re trying to do.

EL: There’s a good case with the Mexican.  I pride myself on being very good at coaching it, definitely good at maximizing peoples’ Mexicans.  It’s a good example of specific v general physical preparation.

To get to the point of doing a really deep, feet hovering off ground, Mexican – a huge amount of preparation needs to go into bridge first, and the active flexibility of the bridge.  You get that first.  Then you train the Mexican to go that deep.

You obviously train balance drills, but we do general physical preparation and build up a lot of the strength we need, ability to contract in these zones, a comfort in the bridge, all these things.  Then we put it into the Mexican.

Same with strength training.  We want to run faster, we have our track and field season.  We build leg strength, power, then go into track season and go faster, hopefully.  Same idea with the Mexican.  You can train it this way, but some ways it’s easier to train all the components and get them really nice and then put together a nice salad with them once you’re done.

What strength do we need to handstand, and how do we train it as well?  Saying zero core strength is wrong, so is saying core is all important.

If I go back to my own teaching 5, 6, 7 years ago, particularly when I graduated from circus school 14 year back – fuck I’m old – I would have been doing a lot more core work with people.  Everyone had to do dish holds and stuff to start.  Now I only really do them with beginners, and it’s to build a bit of body awareness and tension and other stuff.

Once you can hold 45-60s dish holds…I actually despise those.  Straight body holds are superior.  If you look from the side, your body shape looks like a canoe, probably good for tumbling and rolling and stuff, but not great for handstands.

We want a straight body position where we control the body, and everything is in a straight line on the ground.  Bear that in mind.  I don’t like tucked as well, for my own reasons.

They’re great for beginners learning the basics of being on hands, can’t balance, learning basic conditioning.  After 6 months, you should be graduating onto harder drills for your core training/torso training.

If you think about everything in the torso – you want to flex and extend, lateral bend, and rotate.  A lot of these things are taken care of in hanging leg lift progressions.  Side bends for obliques, standing or sideways out from support.  Back extensions.  My more direct students probably lift weights.  Spine stuff is with Romanian deadlifts.  This builds up lots of strength.

Then the other specific stuff of hip flexors gets done, compression, active flexibility.  But there is a gap where someone gets their dish strength up, to the point they can do it.  Then it comes to transferring the general physical prep of holding the body straight, building rough awareness of the centre of the straight position.

The next level is putting core strength into hand balance.  What this really means is building awareness with all the chest to wall drills.  They can equally be used to train.  We can try to hold them for shoulders, build up the shoulder-core strength.  We can just focus on maximizing tension in these positions.  I’ll squeeze the shit out of myself, not to balance, but to push the conditioning and build awareness of the straight position.

With the Push program, people ask why we don’t train a lot of core.  We train and educate it from day one, we just don’t call it that.  Think about it, if we called Chest to Wall drill the “vertical core stabilization exercise,” everyone would say “core stability is so important.”  We just call it a chest to wall drill.

Calling it core makes it sound more important, the core detail.  At the same time, is it?  If we rebranded would it have a different effect on people’s thinking.

MK: In terms of the understanding of all the body parts, it’s certainly good to…any kind of acrobatic awareness or understanding of the body you might have will generally be good for learning other body awareness-like exercises, such as handstand.  The fact that you have this body map developed to some degree, doing those types of exercises can certainly help with that.

If it’s a difficult coordinative struggle to do a straight body line drill and keep toes pointed and your legs reasonably tight, squeezing your butt and holding your abs so you’re lifting your chest up – these are difficult to do at the same time.  Yes it might be a good idea to work on, so you’re understanding where and what these pieces are.

What I think is the problem with the Core idea is it’s so focused that people tend to look for it when upside down in handstand.  You try to pull here, push here, tense that, do all these things.  Then you put one of your awareness points onto this, and it might be harder to focus on other things.

If it helps you with your handstand and maintain a level of tension in the abdomen, sure.  Please do.  But to me, the real question and thing is important to have as the main focus is the fact that it’s not a principle you cannot go without.  It was a thing that was 100% necessary for good handstands, then you would not find people like me….I remember I asked people in Right Way Down what they do with their abs.  They said, what do you mean?  I don’t really think about it.

Same with a dozen other balancers I asked about this, do you think about something specific?  Most of them are like, nah.

Then the argument might be, most of these people are really good so maybe that is why.  I’ve taught loads of people, and you have too, without the abdominal tension or pulling the belly button, who got really damn good without it.  It is an option and not a determining factor.

Another interesting point of this, the opposite direction from a Mexican, which from a balancing vocabulary is more important than under balance control from stacking shoulders and folding to hips, like any tuck or press to handstand work.
There you start to do quite a lot with midsection when going in front of the body.

I remember when I was 17, walking around on my hand with no idea what I was doing.  My legs started to fall and I tried to keep them inn the air. I remember my abdomen would kind of crunch together, and I didn’t know why or what was happening.

I have a shoulder structure that favours press to handstand compared to planche or bending arms.  I would naturally do negative presses.  There you could definitely have benefits from stuff like hanging leg lifts.  It’s just a staple, basic conditioning thing to be able to do if you’re serious about this type of training.

The fascinating part is to be able to experience the real compression in a press to handstand, you need to be able to do a negative.  That’s how I see it.  It gives you the sensation of the compression in a way that almost nothing else does.  You start in the optimal shoulder placement, open your legs, then you pull from the hip flexors, legs towards body.  You don’t have to think about complicated cues like sucking in your navel.  You think: bring the legs towards your body as hard as you can.  You start folding in that direction and the rest depends on your ability to compress, both in terms of the flexibility you have and your strength.

In that scenario, yes there is tons.  It’s a type of strength and movement you don’t necessarily get to build in any other context.  I know people who are absolute beasts at aerials who can leg lift for days.  Ask them to do a single negative press and they cannot.  It’s very specific.

EL: For compression you need shoulder flexion strength as well.  I remember we had leg lifts-offs in school, doing 20 Round the World leg lifts going all the way up in a circle, all the way around.  At the time I could do that, I was doing much more aerial so my handstands were shit.  I could do 20-30s, enough to tumble on, but not good.  Emmet used to be an aerialist!

Years later I was doing more handstands, I could not do that amount of leg lifts, but I could bang out reps and reps of presses.  There is that very specific strength.  Presses were quite easy once I finally cracked them.  So I got them that way, then had the reserve of strength once I had the shoulders to match it, then it was easy.

Once again, General Physical Prep doesn’t necessarily translate to the Specific, but once you have the latter it gives you a broader base on which to build on.

I’m probably showing my bias from the torture from the S&C classes in circus.  They were always only infinite sit ups and dish holds, core.  THat’s it.  Sets of 100 crunches, not even leg lifts.  Those were for aerial, not strength and conditioning.  Arguably, you would have done better the other way around.

MK: In those aspects it’s super important to have… as soon as you go away from very basic general prep it has to be relevant for the practice you do.

If I have an intermediate student that I’d recommend some sort of core training routine to, first I’d say focus on straddle negative stomach to wall, for example, since you can crunch really hard, you work the shoulders too while you pull your legs down, a few reps of that, then do skin the cats or regular stall bar leg lifts.

EL: A brutal superset if people want to try it: chest to wall straddle presses for reps, aiming for a set of around 45-60s of work, not counting set up time.  Then super set that with hanging straddle leg lifts.  People forget about those because they’re evil.

If you’re super flexible they are actually alright.  If you’re not flat to the floor in pancake they are brutal.  I have a few other supersets I’ll give for people to try to wrap up the podcast, reaching into Emmet’s little bag of tricks.

One other one I got from a gymnastics coach to build up endurance in body alignment drills.  You fatigue the muscles and then finish with long static contraction, then more reps.

The general recipe is some kind of flexing or extending of the torso, a straight hold, and then more reps after, deep into the burn.

A simple way is to do either floor crunches, 10-15 reps, heavy, focus on contraction; straight body holds (dish hold) for 45-60s; repeat 10-15 more crunches.

You could also extend it and do GHD sit ups, straight body GHD hold, then more sit ups.

Do that for one set, which takes about 90-120s to do, then rest 120s, then repeat 3-4x.  Anyone who tries, tag me in it.

If we think about flipping ourselves in four directions, we are on the back, sideways for obliques, and back extensions.  We can do these regressed on the floor, or off the edge of a bench with someone holding your legs.  It’s a good body workout since you need judgment and encouragement from a friend to make it through.

Give it a try and report back.  It’s good for “my core is weak,” or “my core is strong.”  Horrible but works very well.

MK: One side note to mention, for side flexing stuff, flags.  When learning one arms, particularly for those who tend to favour positions where the arms is away from the hand and the balance outside on one arm, there is a lot of tension and squeezing of obliques going through lats and serratus and so on.  Or try to do an air baby on one arm and you feel that entire section of your body crunching like crazy.

I find this interesting for flags.  You have a lengthening and a bending side.  Of course they articulate at the same time

The bending side, you feel it but need to pull yourself together as if you’re actively bending into side bend.

The lengthening side is elongating and you need to keep tension there as well so your legs don’t just drop to the ground.

The more pressure you put outside, if you straighten the legs more outwards towards full flag, it’s increasingly demanding on your sides.  Those are super specific, you cannot bend farther than your shoulder control allows you.

What happens at the max point is the shoulders turn or twist and you lose balance.  It’s very common to feel you’re getting shredded to pieces in your sides as you learn deeper flags.

I have yet to see much other stuff than actual flag work that helps it.  As we talked about before, flags are very body specific to bend into them depending on body structure etc.  Most of the time you feel a lot of abdominal oblique action as you do them.

Interestingly, the better you get at them, you stop feeling as much contraction in there.  It’s more just bend and lock.  That’s based on the fact that you are strong enough to hold that position.  Your body is effective at the movement so you no longer squeeze everything at once.  The body intuitively knows what level of tension is needed so you can hold and breathe, unlike at the beginning.

Same for Mexican at first, feels like your face will explode and you can’t breathe, breathing comes later.  Same in a Press too.  In a press it’s even beneficial, the cue of taking a shit.  The intra abdominal pressure when lifting the legs up.  It’s an automatic response that your body will figure out by negatives, rather than intellectualizing and trying to understand and suddenly apply.

EL: A lot of deeper stretch positions come down to stretch tolerance, or lack of apprehension reflex.  This is a thing where you’re going deeper into a stretch and not certain to what effect, the body naturally keeps a degree of tension.

Like someone who can walk normally, then put them near the edge of a cliff with no wind or anything.  Suddenly, they tense up and drop the centre of mass.  Exactly the same kind of reflex in the body/

Same with flags, until you get used to this stretched out ability you will be tenser and fighting the motion.  When you’re used to it, you release into the structure.  The ability to release shifts things from contractive tension to passive tension.

The contractive tension of the muscles work more effectively because they pass on the load and stop working so hard.  They pass it into the structure, so when the muscles need to do something they are able to work.

Mexican breathing…the first stage is getting people used to surviving in the position.  You have the strength, now learn the correct shoulder thing and don’t die.

Let’s wrap up there.  Don’t die.

Some thoughts on core, not extensive.

MK: Don’t exaggerate its necessity to do whatever.  You only have so many attention points, focus on your hands and shoulders more so.

EL: Thanks for tuning in.


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