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S2 Episode 57: Minimalist Training


In this episode of the Handstandcast Emmet and Mikael discuss Minimalist Handstand Training, when you find yourself limited by time, space or equipment, what is the minimum that you can do and still progress?

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

S2E57 – Minimalist Training

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Transcript of Episode 57: Minimalist Training

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

MK: Mmmm, yeah, what was I thinking?

EL: How would I know?

MK: This is something I’ve been thinking about all day.  I remembered a dream I had a while ago.  Those who might have known or followed me for a while, you know I have extremely strange dreams.

I told you about it Emmet, because you’re in it.  I was thinking, it hit me, how far out this dream is.  In the dream, there’s no context or people doing stuff.  There’s just a concept that exists, the new Wim Hof method, the ice bathing new thing, the new biohacking that will fix your body.

In my dream it’s called the Tolerate 6.  This is a technique developed by Emmet Louis.  You basically put all your clothes on, including a cap.  Then you go in the shower and turn the water on for 6 seconds.  Then you get out of the shower.  This magically heals all kinds of injuries, various psychological traumas, all kinds of stuff.

Then it ends, nothing else except for Emmet and his grey cap.  He walked into the shower, stood there, got a bit wet for 6s, then left.  Woah!  Fucking revolutionary.  So yeah, I guess I’m doing fine, to answer your question.

It was utterly pathetic too.  The water wasn’t cold, or anything.  It wasn’t a lot of water, just a little bit that trickles down your cap and your clothes got wet.  That was it.

EL: By harnessing the power of the placebo effect…that was probably pretty good.  Warm showers are as good as cold ones, when you harness the placebo effect.

For six seconds.  It’s hard to get in and out in 6 seconds, especially when you have those doors to deal with.  That will ramp your adrenaline up, for the immune system benefits.  We should roll with this, there’s a lot of good going on with this.

MK: That will be the new Handstand Factory program – Tolerate 6.  What a fucking name too.  What’s wrong with my god damn brain when I sleep?

How about you Emmet?  Still in lockdown.

EL: We’re on infinite lockdown.  I think Ireland decided lockdown is the new way of life.  It keeps everyone out of the pubs.  There is a weird thing going on in this country and I will share it with you: people are building home bars to sneak their friends in, so they have a home bar.  Fair enough.  One of those things.

It’s gotten to the stage where I’m getting ads on Instagram for, you know when you’re in a bar, and there’s the thing where you sit on high chairs and the foot rail thing that goes around?  There are now people doing metal work who will come to your house illegally.  They’re doing ads that are very on the Q.T., on Instagram.

Why I get targeted for this on Instagram, I don’t know, because I don’t really drink.

But they come to your house, measure your home bar to have a custom made foot rail, possibly a designer one in gold plate, if need be.  There are metal ones as well.

Ireland is very trashy in some ways, but very cool in other ways.

I think Instagram just has a very wrong picture of me, speaking of ads.

MK: Then again, you’re the guy following accounts like Ugly Irish Homes.

EL: That’s fine.  I don’t have a driver’s license, not that I really care, but I get ads for mechanics equipment on Instagram, like a car lift to go under them.  Compressors, to run your tools off.  How to dig a new hole, that thing mechanics go underneath.  I get ads for this shit all the time.

MK: This happens to me too, after I use YouTube on my phone.  I used a little hidden information sign in the lower left corner to remove the ads.  I don’t give a reason, or I write it’s irrelevant.  I keep getting loads of random garbage on there.

I get a lot of ads for Waifu Sim Games.  On FaceBook, I’m barely on, but there are ads for various conspiracy theory Gaia Revolution Spirit mayhem stuff…

What’s the point of this podcast?

EL: Now that we’ve enlightened everyone on our lockdown ads…fuck that shit – topic today is minimalist handstand training.  We’re going to approach it from a few angles to give you some ideas.  Let’s face it; at various points in your life, you will be restricted in various things.  Either space, time, or equipment.

What is the minimalist handstand training?  How much do you need to do, what’s a minimalist session?

Minimalist equipment; what do you need?  A floor.  The end.

MK: That is always the plus of handstands.  You can roam around outside until you find a flat enough space somewhere and can do something.  That’s a great thing about it.

EL: I have a lot to say about this floor thing.  Many years ago, when doing the Silver Leap Project, me and Elise were cruising around Asia.  We had a different plan that we don’t do anymore.

We were cruising around.  At the time we were both training a lot of handstands.  Cool; we’re going to go to Indonesia, Thailand, all this travel shit you do.

Did you know how hard it is to find a floor you can actually handstand on in Asia?  You think it would be fine.

You’re staying in hotels, maybe there isn’t space to bail.  Fair enough.  The floors are not even.  They might be creaky.  One time I had the perfect floor….infested with biting ants.  I’d do a handstand and my hands would get attacked by fucking ants.

I hate insects, by the way.  I can’t handle them crawling on me.  You have to keep pacing when doing training.

Carpets that are too skanky.  All these cool boho places you might stay in, the floor is not tile or wood, but stones.  Awesome, but it’s hard to handstand on.

I have a lot of complaints about this.  But you take a floor for granted.  Sometimes you just can’t find a floor.  I found it mildly infuriating.  When you find places outdoors, the amount of places I’ve found on our travels where you’re not allowed to do physical activity.  This is a really strange one for me.

There’s parks with grass, flat and ideal for training or hanging out on.  But you’re not allowed on the grass.  I can understand if it’s an ornamental lawn.  But a big park, your normal size of everyday park where you’d go to play frisbee or hang out or have a picnic.  Nope, not allowed on the grass.  People will stop you from doing so.

It was only there to be pretty.  And some were quite big.  It’s not just a small lawn with flowers you would trash by handstanding on.  It’s like six football fields but you’re not allowed on them; there’s just some paths through them.

MK: The number one advice: get yourself a plank.  Any kind of handstand board.  Take a board of any wood that won’t break and make sure it’s as flat as you want it to be.  You can even pad it underneath with rubber if you don’t want it to slip, or you want it to shape itself around whatever is underneath, so it flattens and is stable.

Blocks can also work.  They’re perfect on things like sand, or grass.  You find the right place and they stick neatly.

At least for me, for minimalist practice, my first association is more the philosophical minimalist, in terms of, how do you practice in a minimal fashion?  We need to define.  It depends on your goals and what you’re trying to….let’s say you do minimalist training because there are life conditions that force you to do so.

Then, in general, you might be better off not trying too hard to improve in loads of regards.  You might not have the time and effort to put in.  Reducing your expected outcome of the period might be smart.  Just maintain the most important skills with a little bit of practice.  Then you can take a more intense period later.

Again, handstand is very skilled work.  It requires fine tuning with more frequency than raw strength training.  That can be an important approach, if you are in those types of times where you just can’t do a lot.

On the other side, you can get a lot down if you look upon it from the perspective, like: “I’m choosing these 3 balances, and am going to do each pretty well twice, then I’m done.”  Then you try to sneak that in daily, or twice, or two days a week, whatever you choose.  Take a very limited amount, and whenever you go in and do them, make sure you do them well and choose something on your spectrum of skill that’s average, that you can pull off, and you keep pulling it off over this period of time.  You can even get gains if you do it correctly.

EL: Having been a coach and a trainee, there are a couple of ways to approach it.

One way I like can be challenging sometimes: if you know there is a gap in your handstand training, say the upper back fatigues during tucks, and that is what goes.

Maybe a minimalist session is 15-20 minutes.  I have only this time to do my handstands.  Maybe you just do 5 sets of 30-40s tuck handstands, using the wall, aiming to hone in on the upper back push.  That is your training.  It will take about 10 minutes, and a couple to warm up.

I’ve put people through that exact program.  When we came back from the point where they were not traveling for a month of work, where they do that 3-4 times a week, then coming out, they had net gains on the practice.  We honed in on one detail, gave it enough to fatigue and overload it.  They had enough rest and recovery.  When they came back, that weak point was better.

The minimalist idea of attacking one weak point with 3,4,5 sets, done well with high quality.  Then when you come back, you will lose some precision, but that comes back in a week or two.  After you might see a big net gain.  This requires an objective overview of your handstand training, so you know your weak point, and which exercise targets it exactly.

I find it more difficult for intermediates, than advanced or beginners.  Beginners are simple to program, it’s very linear.  You know the attributes, and the weak point.  Your weak point is body tension; just do body tension drills.  The weak point is the fingers, or balance; blah blah blah.

Intermediate can be nebulous and vague.  For advanced people, they tend to make one mistake or have one fatal flaw.  Intermediates have a lot of flaws that haven’t coalesced into one major flaw.

MK: I had a class earlier today I taught, a girl I’ve taught a couple times.  She’s strong but struggles with being too open, ex gymnast.  She struggles to close: tuck jumps and straddle jumps are tough for her.  For her, now she’s doing a practice where she’s training a decent amount.

If I’d choose one thing for her, I’d do two things.  That would be: tuck and straddle jumps for reps, getting an amount of those done.  Then tuck slides.  That would target the main area that she struggles in.

She’s also a hand to hand flyer, and you know what happens to them if their shoulders shoot forwards in a straddle up.  That makes it really hard for the base.  That’s what she’s being told, and what she struggles with.  That would be a interesting scenario…I should even recommend that to her, a phase of doing these two same movements over a period of time, and leave a bit behind the other things she can actually do, for a while.

Handstand training can be difficult to combine.  The regular hand balancing mindset that has been cultivated.  It becomes this ‘gotta catch em all’, train them all, approach, so many attributes and elements.

In higher levels you have to move into various ranges to cover everything, but there is definitely a lot that can be done with periods where you just do one thing.  You then do a period where you have a lot less training.  Your recovery potential is higher.  Yes, you’ll be technically rusty when you get back.  But the foundation of your practice might be much stronger, if you find that key point you’ve been lacking.

EL: It’s a challenge because a large percentage of my 1 to 1 clients for coaching generally have a job, are working.  Some only have time to train 2-3x a week, including everything – strength, mobility, handstands.  Finding those details and that lynchpin, the four things you have to work on.  You can only train twice a week, so you do 2 on a Monday, 2 on Thursday.

If you can hone in on the details, it’s difficult and you need someone to check it out, but if you work on those with earnest focus, you get a lot of transference.  But, at the same time, if we were to segue back, what is the most minimalist handstand training you can do?

It’s just a handstand.

If you have 10-15 minutes in a week to do handstands, what do you do?  Just do handstands.  No drills, just pick a shape and work on it.  Do handstands.  It works.  Sometimes we can get more tailored or-specific, but that idea of…handstands, just do it.

The most minimalist practice you can have.

MK: It’s easy to plan handstands, either directly around progressive overload fitness models, since handstands has entered the fitness field.  Or you can make it like how someone would train in circus school, or in sports.  Most people that do it, let’s face it, have a life, and a limited amount of time they can do things.

Usually they also have limited scope with what they want to be able to do, the skill level that is more than enough.  If that is the case, it’s unlikely that you do have the time and even the quality time of training to do such a schedule.

This is a reason why circus school works so well for people to develop.  All your other worries are out the window.  You are only there, only focusing on this thing.  It’s an environment that caters to you only getting good at this one thing.

If you don’t have that, why should you train like that?  Most people can have intense periods, and less intense periods, of practice.

For me, this year is the first time I’ve experienced that.  I’ve been way too extreme for 15 years, gone HAM.  This year has been a lot of ups and downs; I haven’t been able to, or bothered to train that much.  It’s been boring, no goals, been injured.  Suddenly you see, like right now, I started doing weighted chin ups.  I’m doing this thing once a week, separate from other training.

It works.  Interesting.  Maybe I can apply this to some other skills I’m doing, and I’m doing that at the moment.

EL: It’s in fashion lately, for hand balancers to do bodybuilding contests.  Pavel Stankevich has done one.  Andrei Bondarenko too.  Maybe it’s your time to shine.

MK: Hahahahaha.

EL: You should totally do it.  A bit of fun.  It can bring me back to my roots of training bodybuilders.  You can get shredded.  Do fitness, you don’t have to get big.  You don’t need big legs because you wear the long shorts; it’ll be fine.

MK: Men’s physique or whatever.

EL: The pretty boys contest.

MK: I’ll respectfully say NO thank you.  It’s interesting to think about alternating periods.

I guess they do that a lot in sports, more intense periods leading up to competition, and then less after, and so on.

Not underestimating it is very good.  One thing that sadly happens to a lot of people that train skill based things with such clear parameters of success and failure, is it can get very stressful.  You feel you’re falling behind, going too slow, others progress faster than you.  The natural instinct is to do more, if you value the abilities.  If people are getting this good, I should be doing more.

It can be so detrimental to do and think, as all you’re doing is wrecking yourself further.

EL: It depends on what you want to train at the moment.  There can be times when I want to focus on getting bigger.  That’s my skill.  Just a different fitness goal, but you want to maintain your handstand ability.

You’ll find that there is indicator exercises in your practice.  If you know you can do this and maintain it, most other things in a similar skillset are available.

You can take this minimalist idea.  You want to put all your training volume into something else, but need to make sure you don’t lose any of the handstands.

For me, once my pike handstand is good and I can maintain good shoulder position in it, then I basically know everything on two arms is there.

From observing Mikael training, you have that warm up set you do.  You go through all the one arms.  I feel like if you did that set and nothing else for a month or two, just 2 rounds of that warm up set a day, you’d still be 99% your skillset, barring some heavier strength moves.

For some people, it’s shape changes.  If you know it’s a straight to straddle to tuck to straight in a loop, maybe your shoulders are good.  Or you can kick up and hold a 60s handstand first attempt, the rest is available.

These indicator exercises are personal.  Learning to find them…sometimes it can be an exercise that appeals to you.  It can be by feeling as well.

Endurance is likely going to drop.  Strength will drop.  Feeling and sensitivity in the exercise – if you can maintain it the same and feel you’re in control of your body parts, have the mental availability for the skill…when you know you’re efficient at a skill, it’s when you don’t need a lot of mental focus, and can maintain relaxed focus during.  Or have availability of mind to scan the rest of the body.

If you can maintain a conversation while doing the skill, it shows you have the efficiency.  Handstands, it’s harder to talk upside down, but it gives an idea of what you’re looking for.  If you can maintain that availability of the skill, mentally and physically, then this is when it becomes your handstand practice or journey, and then you’ll know it has different stops on the way.

If I can still get to X stop, the rest of my skillset should basically be available, bar strength and endurance.

MK: Very good point.  I encourage everyone listening to think about that, try to find those kinds of defining abilities within what you can do.  Or these big indicators.

It gives you a lot of information too.  It can be a daily basis.  And don’t put the bar super high on it.  For example, with the set you said of me, unless I’m really tired or broken I can pull through it pretty easily.  If I put in two more positions that are really hard, then I might need to be on a good day to do it.  That’s not what you’re looking for.  You want an exercise that is somewhere in the middle of your skill level, maybe middle + range.

You know that if you keep doing this and nothing else, you might lose a bit, but won’t lose a lot.  Using that as a signifier of where you are, training wise.

A couple examples I immediately think of with this is the handstand itself, obviously, being able to hold it a certain amount of time.  Pike handstand, press to handstand.  For someone with easy access to press, if your press is still a hard rough 1RM, don’t put it there.  If you can press 5 and do 1 press, it’s not going to be that hard for you.  And so on.

EL: With the 1RM point, if you have a press that equates to 90-100% 1RM zone, if you use that as an indicator exercise, all you’re telling is the readiness of the nervous system to do maximal strength on that day.  It’s not the same.

If you can blast out 5+ reps of press…pressing can be awesome minimalist handstand training.  If you just do presses, do 3-4 of them together.  I’ll do sets, for a block of time, not even counting reps.  Just do presses.  It has a bit of strength, a bit of balance.  Unless you’re really precise you get practice on correcting mistakes.

This is quite good.  If you’re feeling fresh, get more in.  If you’re tired, do a bit less.  It depends on the situation.

MK: Also it depends on what kind of other training you’re doing.  Many people I work with want to do handstand training, but are doing a bunch of other things at the same time and want to keep them.

Usually, they end up doing too much.  They need to cut things.  You’re doing a handstand program, asking your coach to write you a program that challenges you, obviously.  Then you do all these other things.  If the other things are squats and leg work, you might fry your nervous system and be sore in the legs and stuff for a couple of days.

It’s not the same as if that regime also contains a ton of push ups and pullups, for example.  You are using your upper body.  Maybe not in the first or second week it puts you back much, but over time it’s something to consider.  You might think you’re doing a more intense handstand period here.  Well, go minimalist on your other things during that period, so you ensure the-

The minimalist thing here is more about, if you do that, it might be because you need to.  Something else has the focus, whether an intense period at work or kids or whatever, something else is demanding the attention.  Trying too hard in those periods to fit everything in, I’ve never been burnt out, but this is how those things happen.  Too much life happening at once for too long a period of time.

EL: Sums up my last 3 years.

You can also get minimalist in what you’re doing on that day.  If we look at…say you train 3x a week.  You’re doing other training, but on those 3x a week, you do 10-15 minutes of handstands.

So split up your handstand days by topic.  Instead of doing the same program, you can pick a theme to work on.  I’m going to work on balance, press strength, or entries.  Then it makes it very simple.  Today I just try to do 50 kick ups, or 20 straddle or pike ups.  Aim for quality, get your quality sets in.  No long holds.  In and done.

Today I’m going to limit myself.  This limitation is something I really like to play with in training.  You’re only allowed to do 10 handstands in the whole class.  You have to make them count.  You have 15 minutes, say in a circus class where we’re doing more skills, handstands being one of them.  Ok, 15 minutes of this block of the class is do 10 handstands.  Make them count because you are only allowed to do 10.

This idea of putting the gun to your head and going, “Handstand.”  That same flavour of, this is all you get, then you have to move in.  It’s amazing that when you put that limitation on someone, particularly if you enjoy the training, you go, “Can I make this count?”  This is when you see people get really precise and controlled.

Maybe we lose a bit of that relaxed flow because there’s tension in the thinking.  At the same time, that tension can be very focusing on one point at one time, then going for it.  That’s one thing I definitely suggest people try.  Give yourself a set amount of handstand attempts, or sets, or whatever.  If you kick up and bail, that’s an attempt gone.  Take it away from yourself.

MK: It makes me think about another way of seeing minimalism, not necessarily reducing the amount you do, but the variation of what you do.  I guess everyone sort of does this.  You do it even in regular weight training.  You don’t go in and train the same movement every day; you split it apart.

With handstands, you stand on your hands every time and use the same muscles.  But everyone starts to build up a routine, you go through the motions of various things.  You have a set vocab, doing each thing with slightly different focuses.

I found myself sabotaging lots of practice because I had the habit of going through X things before starting a certain focus.

I do my two arm a couple times, stretch, warm up sets, straights.  Then I do some figas, flags, presses.  Then I go to working on switches for example.

I could probably do lots of good switches if I didn’t use that energy on all these other things I do every single day anyway.  There is a bit of FOMO in that sense; you’re so used to doing it this way that you think you might be losing out if you don’t do it.

I stopped really doing that a couple years ago.  But even more now, I’m limiting my training a lot.  It’s partly because of shoulder recovery.  I have my strength training day on Monday, then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I kind of dabble with handstands.  It’s nothing serious.  I mess around a bit on purpose; it’s quite minimalist.

Today I did some flags to stretch my sides.  I did 3-4 sets back and forth, and was pretty much done.  There wasn’t much more I wanted to do.  Plus I know I’m going to train hard on Friday.

Being more specific with what you train per day can be very smart, if you don’t overdo it.  You need to be sensible, but you can certainly get stuff out of not just repeating the same motions all the time, with the same tired muscle groups.

It’s difficult to strike that balance, and it’s something you need to do in your own capacity.

EL: Having a theme and flavour to the day can be minimalism in a different form.  It’s a normal session, but only focusing on a subset of skills.  That’s the theme of the day.

One I wanted to drop about time limits.  For those limited on time, and also tend to extend the rest periods by fucking around on the phone… credit goes to a client of mine, Tom.  He basically said, if you get the Gym Boss Interval Timer app on your phone, you can’t fuck around on your phone.  He’d set his session up on it.

His workout had a certain amount of entries, rests, periods.  He had a minute on, minute rest, minute on, 45s rest, whatever.  The timer would be running the whole time, and it also blocks notifications on the phone.  His sessions weren’t super long; they were meant to be 30 min but sometimes crawled to 60.

By doing this and killing the notifications on his phone, he could cram his full sessions in at a set pace, with all the rest periods, also blocking the notifications.  He saves time, kills the distractions, and kept the session crammed into the time block.

We have limited focus as a resource.  If you start losing focus during sessions, which happens, everything flags.  If you keep the pressure boiler room effect somehow, you can sometimes get better quality work done in a shorter amount of time.

With weight training for me, if I keep the boiler plate on, not only do I get a faster session, but better quality work done because I have strong focus that doesn’t run out.  Tom achieved this by killing the phone distractions with a timer.  Two birds stoned at once.  The timer shows you have to get your set done, now.  Rest now.  Go again…

MK: It can be really good.  As we discussed before, sometimes you need the time to be ready, if you do very high technically difficult work, it might not always be the best for you to do.  If the technical bar is slightly lower and you’re doing more conditioning based stuff, it can be very effective.

For endurance and stuff like that, it’s probably key.  You can set the parameters pretty straight, and also monitor and track progress and all that stuff.  In terms of developing endurance, which is relevant for everyone during certain periods of practice, doing that can be invaluable.

It’s something I should consider myself on the trainings where I do my endurance work on Fridays.  I’ll take that to heart too.  It’s neat.

EL: It’s interesting.  With more skilled training, or with a social aspect, the rest periods are good.  If you want to get something done in a block of time, like doing 10 sets, minute on, minute off, twenty minutes, but let your rest periods expand by 20-30s each set, suddenly your session is 5 minutes longer than you intended.

MK: Minimalism is a way to make yourself dabble less.  That can be good, but also can lead to loads of nothing happening.

It is interesting to try.  In the other direction, if you have to have the metronome on and be super strict, maybe try the other direction.  Rest as long as you want, mess around, do whatever.  If you allow yourself to swap perspective, there might be interesting lessons to learn.

This is relevant for people who have done it a while, as you develop strong habits and specific ways of working, and know what you’re comfortable with.  Try to break that apart a bit.  That is important, or at least interesting.  You’re in a slightly new context for a thing that’s still the same.

Before my aim was to do 5 trainings a week, and I’ll likely return to that when I’m in solid shape.  Now I aim for 1 strength training, 2 proper sessions, and 2 fuck around sessions a week.  When I fuck around, I mean it.  I come in, mess in with some of this or that, 7-8 sets, done.  Finished.

For me that is a very different perspective than the mega sessions that last 4h that I used to constantly do before, try to do way too many things.  When I look back at periods where I learned a lot and had rapid development, it was periods where I was focused.

You change the focus this way, not just always trying to get the trick.  A sensible routine, how about that?

EL: Minimalize the amount of paper you use – don’t have a routine!

MK: Or cut it all out, throw it out.

EL: I’m going to wrap the podcast there.  It’s a minimalist podcast.  Catch you next week.


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