In this episode of the Handstandcast Mikael hosts a solo episode while he is staying in Turkey. He discusses his injuries and how they’ve affected his performing career. While also laying out how he’s overcome his previous injuries, his training history and his current injury.
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S2E59 – Performing and Injuries
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Transcript of Episode 59: Performing and Injuries
Hello, and welcome to the Handstand Factory podcast. This time, I am only with me. Emmet is not here. I basically have buried him behind the house, so you will never hear from him again.
Jokes aside, I’m in Turkey at this artist residency called Tadah. It’s a place run by two friends of mine. They basically built up, from a large house here, an artist habitat with loads of various artists or other interested people who come and live for a while, volunteer, and/or work on their artistic project, and so on.
I’m here, primarily to volunteer. They are building some new houses, as they host retreats here. We’ve had the Handstand Factory retreats here, for two years in a row. We are also planning to have our next ones here.
I got the idea that, fuck it, I can go here. It’s very out of the way. There’s basically nobody coming in and out of this habitat. Everyone is tested, so essentially the little bubble here of seven people neither leave nor go anywhere, so it feels almost as if living with COVID, which is kind of weird.
It’s in the middle of the forest and I am helping with construction work. I’m certainly not experienced in that; I’m learning a lot. I’ve been spending the last 3-4 weeks here, and I’ll be here a while longer, essentially not leaving the habitat until I go home.
They have a huge training space. The houses they’re building are really beautiful. I’m working under a guy named Tills, who is an absolute genius at construction and making his construction look very artistic. It’s pretty cool to be able to partake in.
This is also the reason why I’m sitting here looking at the computer screen, pretending to have a conversation with myself.
I thought of talking about a few topics today that I’ve loosely mentioned here and there throughout the podcast. Those of you who have listened, or followed us for a while, might have heard me talk about this stuff before.
The topic is about my performance career and injuries. If you are a performer and put yourself through all that nonsense and strain, which you will be forcing yourself to if you’re a full-time performer. You are going to get wrecked sometimes. I have.
It’s basically part of the game. It’s not about no pain, no gain. But as we’ve said before, you’re basically operating in a risk zone when you do these types of activities. You are exposing yourself for an amount of training for a lot of variables, that will interact with your physical work.
Just over a long enough timeline, the likelihood of getting injured is high. I’ve talked about how I’ve dealt with various mitigating factors, and the way I did was not particularly smart. I will share a bit of my experience, and also the injury I’m currently working through.
I will start by saying a bit about my career as a performer, or an athlete. I started doing karate at 14 as an out of shape kid, video game kid. I had back problems, then I went to a physio who said Karate is good for your posture. I checked it out and became obsessed from day one. And essentially became a weeb of the 90s, totally into Japanese culture, reading all the texts on karate, learning as much as I could about it.
Through those years, I was very young and the injuries you might get…most karate styles aren’t full contact and you’re not trying to beat the shit out of each other. Sure, I got a blue eye and sprained toe, but nothing significant.
Then around 19 started doing breaking, got into that through a VHS Freestyle Session 3. I saw that with a friend of mine who was into hiphop. Holy shit! I need to do exactly that thing.
I saw a guy named Pablo Flores on that video doing flares; he has some of the best in history. I needed to do this. I started getting into that. I was 18-19 years old, no methodology, no resources like YouTube.
I just did the pause, play, pause, play on the VHS, to try to figure out how to do a 6 step and windmill, and so on. I came across some tutorials on 56k internet for windmills, and started training that.
Later on…breaking did offer me loads of injuries and very little wisdom to deal with those injuries. I was thinking about it yesterday – back then, we were like, “This guy has wrist pain. Give him some Volteran!” – which is essentially an anti-inflammatory.
People would pop a couple of those and would be good to go. Let’s just run into action.
Obviously that was not very smart when people were working on jumping into freezes, doing air flares, and all these very high impact wrist moves. It doesn’t go very well. Your wrist is busted, you take pain killers, and go at it again.
People got more busted wrists. We were kids, we had no method or thinking about it. It was just, kick your leg higher. We didn’t stretch. There was such little thinking regarding learning things. The ones who got good either had higher levels of talent, or were lucky to stumble upon certain methods or had good bodies from another way.
Everyone trained really hard. But looking back, if you look at YouTube nowadays there are tons of tutorials…just because the community became large…of course, analytical minds will get into it. A lot of guys dancing back then are still dancing, but they have 15 years of experience, and see there are smarter ways than just throwing yourself at the floor.
During those years, I remember I had a lot of wrist pain that would come and go. If you train flares, you are going to get wrist issues. You’re slamming your hands on the floor, and until you’re really good, there’s no way to make sure your centre of mass is being lifted as you put down the hand…as will happen if you’re good at it.
There’s a lot of that, some shoulder issues here and there, but those are not as prominent for me back then. Breaking uses a lot of bent arm movements and you go up and down in freezes and air babies, but I never had much issues with shoulders.
It was mainly wrists and you’d pull your groin from doing power moves. That was a classic.
Then, I got into circus, my main topic for the last 12-15 years of my life, hand balancing stuff. I was 23 when I got properly into it. By that time, I had understood, largely through failure, or feeling like I never got to where I wished I did with breaking back then. Perhaps it was never my thing to go into battles and do that stuff; I think it’s really cool to see though.
There were many things I did not manage, and I was always interested in the analytical part of it. As I started this new endeavour, with learning hand balancing as I met these few circus people in Norway that were very young at the time.
They introduced me to this guy named Cory Tabino from the states. I started to train with him, and saw I was learning this hand balancing thing really fast. It’s loads of fun, but I knew I was 23, and apparently people who go to circus school are like 17.
I wanted to analyze and understand and get depth knowledge on how it works. I was basically figuring, if I don’t understand how it works at this age, I’m not going to go very far. Also, I had a misconception: I am 23, I am too old. That was my way of thinking.
That is nonsense, now having seen how many have started much later in life and got pretty good. Obviously you have an advantage when you start really young, have a higher capacity of training, and have more training years you can do at full quality than at a bit later. But then again, the differential between those two categories starts to get relevant once you get towards very high levels. That mid to high level stuff is going to be accessible, even for someone starting older. You just might need to be smarter.
That’s exactly it. In my early days of circus, I wasn’t so smart. I trained 7 days a week for 7 years, something like that. I got good but it was more in spite of my methodology than because of it.
I was too obsessed, so focused, and so much drive. I could not let it be. I wasn’t smart, and had to struggle with it for many years, because of habits I built up through those years.
It was joy, but also the sensation of being in the practice mode, that I absolutely love. It’s kind of a meditation mode, and a way of expressing myself. It’s a zone that is important for me to visit, if not on a daily, but a very frequent basis.
With all that, I would end up with injuries. I had such a high capacity back then that I could just smash it so hard and so much. I wouldn’t budge. I was barely injured during circus school; I had one shoulder issue that took a couple months. I have a couple of smaller wrist issues, and can only remember one specific injury from circus school of my shoulder. The rest were smaller niggles and pains that would come and go.
I attribute a lot of that to luck and having a very high capacity at the time. If I did have better methodology at that time, I would certainly be able to avoid a lot of those problems.
However, there is something interesting in that kind of age or energy I had back then. I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that nowadays, I’m older and think about what I do, the consequences of how I practice, and so on. It happens with maturity for most people. It’s part of aging.
I think it’s a common notion; I wish I knew X when I was younger, or was smarter. But being younger is by default not knowing those things. Something I really thought about when I see the crazy B Boys and trickers and street workout people, that don’t have an external eye telling them what to do. You see these extreme people just become so damn good at their disciplines, and so dedicated, and their practice methodology may not be the best. But they still become super heroes.
I’m not saying this is for everyone, but what I have thought a lot about is, too much methodology for someone young and full of fire, can actually be detrimental. They are so..if you are that driven, having someone tell you what to do will make you rebel.
When the gymnast coach in school told me, idiot, you need to rest. I said no, I know my body. I’m going to keep doing this. OF course he was absolutely right, and I wish I listened to him now. But that fire and drive I had at the time, there was no stopping it.
I’ve seen so many people who are young, and have that drive, and cope with that and become insane. One Japanese tricker in particular I can think about, Shosei Iwamoto, is like 15, and unstoppable. I’m sure if you had this guy being told what to do, I assume it would not turn out in that extreme, same way.
On the other side of things, of course, you have people in sports like gymnastics or other types of sports, who do have a coach, and are trained, and get really good and have the follow up and so on. I don’t think there is a better and a worst. Certain things fit certain personality types more than others.
That was a long rant about those things, but I do find them relevant about where I was, and the mistakes and things I went through in training along the way. It’s so funny and classic; you make a mistake and then say, now I’ve learned from the mistake.
Well what I learned is it takes a couple of years, or even a decade, to apply that “wisdom” you received from whatever mistake you were making. These tendencies are seemingly harder to apply than they might seem, since you need to use your rational intellect to override your emotional response, like if you’re too focused or excited about something. Or you want to try one more time, because it was so fun. Overriding that can be hard.
Very relevant and important at certain times, but at other times it might be important to go full into what you do. You love it, and if you have that drive for it…
It’s a difficult balance to keep there. It doesn’t just take a year or two to find your rhythm within that. I can certainly say it’s taken me over a decade and I’m still struggling with the same problems.
The amplitude of the problems are slightly smaller, like I’m making smaller and shorter term mistakes, but we are all human. No one is perfect in these regards.
When I was in circus school, I was training loads: aerial straps, handstands way too much. I was also in the early days of internet and movement-y fitness internet stuff. I started learning about pre hab, rotator cuff exercises… Naturally I heaped on 100 000 of them for a period of time, which didn’t help at all. I just added more training onto a fatigued body.
I did look into a lot of the anatomy, the joints, how it all fits together. For a period of time, I was really into that way of thinking – structural balance, the push and pull. I added tons of pulling training onto a half dead body – it did not help. Over the years I stripped it down to more basic things, like stimulus v recovery.
Some variables are relevant, which I will get to as we go along.
Moving into my performance career, this was an interesting shift. In circus school, you basically have all your life delegated to doing your training. You are set up in a scenario in the school; everything is provided for you. You have facilities, classes, teachers, all that geared towards you getting as good as you can. I had a part time job on the side teaching, so everything was streamlined to get really good at this.
Boom, suddenly you’re in the performance field. You need to handle all your admin, that stuff. The whole stress of getting a job, you’re insecure, school is gone, everything is real, my friends are spread out.
I was lucky and had a job with the company Seven Fingers, that I was going to do a few months after finishing school. That gave some level of relief. I got that through luck, and another guy I know who saw an act I did. He liked it. He got the offer from Seven Fingers, couldn’t take it, and gave them the tip that I was finishing school.
Going with them was great. I got to try my skills ons sage for real, in a show, several times in a row. I feel I was very unprepared for the real world, very similar to when you finish uni or trained for a job. You think you know stuff, then you come into the business and things are very different. There are loads of things you basically need to crash course yourself through during the first months, or year, or years.
School and the real world don’t always correlate, though school is of course important. So I went with them, and I was lucky. The workload was chill; we didn’t have that many shows and so on. I got to try to play an act and feel how it was to be on tour. It’s much harder to do your training; I was used to being this guy who was always prioritizing training in front of everything.
Suddenly you don’t have the facilities so easily; you have to get by with janky hotel room set ups, or make it work somehow.
Naturally I kept on doing way too much, because that’s how I rolled. That time was pretty chill.
Later on I moved into a show called Knitting Piece, which I performed in for three years. This one had heavy schedules, several long runs of five shows a week, where we would be in one place. We played 25 shows in one place. In another we played 40 shows, basically four weeks of five shows a week. No, eight weeks!
Those were pretty heavy. Again, I tried to keep similar training structure to what I was always used to. Seemingly I was surviving it, though I didn’t make progress.
With Knitting Piece, I started getting issues. The show was really heavy. I put in way too much stuff. It’s very classic. In circus you want your cool stuff in your act, to perform things you trained and worked for and like.
You come out of school where everything is set up for you, then enter into performance arena. Not only do you have to perform your shit and be consistent, but several days a week, fatigued, sick, all these variables are added on to what you do. It’s very different from being a sportsman.
You have a coach, train up to peaking at competition, do your absolute best there, and then can take it easy. With this, when you have 5-7 shows a week, you go on stage and will have adrenaline and push through and do stuff you should not.
Most people that have performed know the sensation of being on stage. You’re doing your routine, you pull off the move and feel HNNNG, that was not nice. But, it didn’t hurt that much because your adrenaline is pumping and the audience is there. You’re running through the motions, on super strong adrenaline based body pain killers.
That stuff, over time, starts getting to you. I got a shoulder injury through Knitting Piece. Back then I was able to just rehab it by keeping playing shows, training similarly. I did some random supraspinatus exercises, but I just got through it.
Now I’m going through a similar injury as back then. Now I need to be a lot more methodical with it and it’s taking a lot longer. Back then I was just smashing and made it through.
Then I got to the worst injury I ever had, which also happened in Knitting Piece. It’s hard to explain what I was doing, but essentially I had a climbing harness attached to a slackrope, attached to the other side of the stage.
If I walked forwards, the slack rope starts tightening. It’s not a problem when there’s nobody on the slackrope. But if there is a person lying on the slack rope, I’m pulling him off the floor by walking forwards, then grab onto the truss, the set up the stage is made of – bars you climb and attach lights etc.
The scene would be funny, I’d come out with the harness on. He’d lie down on the rope, it would be obvious what is going to happen. Then I charge forward and it pulls him off the floor, while he lies on his back, balancing, as I walk forwards. The walking is heavy but not too bad.
Then you start climbing the truss, maybe 3m, then attach a rope to the truss, to take the weight off of me.
The interesting thing is we barely did it in rehearsal, only a few times, but it’s not that technically complicated, just a lot of brute force, and knowing where to put the legs.
I never felt it was very heavy to do. It was the middle of the show, I was drenched in sweat warm, the perfect conditions. I was not breathing heavy, but had been on stage several times and was fully alert and warm. We’d go on and do this. Every time you’d also play it a bit for the audience, sometimes pretending to slip, all sorts of stuff to make it alive.
I remember way later we did it once in rehearsal, and I was like, Jesus this is heavy. I had no idea this was so heavy, because I had to do it without the performance buzz giving you super powers.
When we were doing 40 shows a week at this one place in Sweden, I was really tired and sleep deprived. It sucked to play out there, many things made it hard for us to perform. We had to travel quite far, got home quite late, etc.
I did the scene, and my hip was lagging behind as I was climbing the truss. I was feeling to get the rope, or the hips to a position where I could take the rope hook and attach it, I had to push my hips forwards towards the truss.
I basically did a jerking motion forwards to get me there. I felt a mini detonation close to my spine. It hurt quite a lot, but wasn’t that bad there and then. Shit, that hurt, fuck it. Finish the scene, then another hand balancing act later on, where I’d finish the act with a turning one arm on one cane, and had to press down the one arm to finish.
When I pressed down, I felt it was really painful in my side/back, on the side of the spine on the right. I finished the show and didn’t feel so great. Whatever, that was my attitude.
Next day we do the same show, same act, and after that, when we were finished, I was still not feeling too terrible. A friend of mine told me, maybe stretch your hip flexor. I did, I was lying on a foam roller under my sacrum, pulled one leg to me and let the other elongate.
After I could not get off the floor, because I had wrecked the hip flexor or something in the QL psoas region. I tweaked it badly, then stretched it heavily afterwards, still while being very warm.
Voila, wrecked. Could not get out of bed in the morning. We had to get a replacement to play a super ghetto version of the show. I was basically out of hand balancing for six months, as I could not bend in the side. I could not do any leg lifting action either. It was rather terrifying.
If you hang in a bar or rings and do that pelvic tilt under and then start lifting your legs upwards – that action was absolutely horrifyingly bad. Doing a sit up was ok, but the kind where you hook your legs under some stall bars and actively pull with the leg to get higher up – also undoable. Bending in the side, absolutely not, any flagging action – forget about it. This was on the right side, my strong arm.
Naturally, I was pretty down. We didn’t have any shows with Knitting Piece so that was lucky. Nothing worked- physios, all kinds of rehab, anything where I would round my lower back would fuck me up.
I remember once, me and my ex-gf went to the cinema. I brought two handstand blocks to put in my lower back so I wouldn’t slouch because it hurt so much after. I was always 70 years old after standing up from a chair.
It was weird, because it felt like nothing worked. If I did arching exercises, it didn’t do anything. Front, side, couldn’t do.
I remember it was closing to autumn. I had hurt myself in November, and by next August I was still not doing much. Then I was in this gym, bored, miserable. There was an ab wheel there. I did a couple of reps on my knees, just rolled out light. I was like, shit, I can bend in the side.
To this day, I have no idea exactly why, but I am doing ab wheel. This injury is still there, I had some issues with the same thing now, about three weeks ago. I had not done any ab wheel or psoas stretching for quite a long time, but started doing that again.
It basically handles it. What is interesting is even back then, if I only did stretching on the psoas, it would feel terrible. My only bro science explanation, from experience, is that any kind of muscular action that shortens the psoas, like leg lift, or the hip flexors are allowed to contract, it would cramp the entire area.
With the ab wheel, since you keep a straight line from knee up to the torso, as you roll out you apply pressure on the stretched muscle. Somehow, in my experience, it seemed to do something. It was the only thing that significantly changed anything.
I did literally 3×10 reps of wheel rollouts on the knees for 3 weeks, and went back to performing, back then. I kept that around ever since. It just hits right, somehow. Combining that with hip flexor stretches, which I started the last three weeks, since my hip flexors are so stiff. It also helped build back some general mobility.
No one knows enough about all these perfect relationships between pain and the ability to control your muscles in various lengths, but I do know it worked. I’m really happy that I have a tool to deal with that whenever it arises, as it is something that will probably never go away.
Right now, sitting here, doing the podcast, I can feel that area. It’s not painful but I can feel it.
That was maybe my worst one ever, in terms of how long it took, and the fact that I had to stop completely. I became a sulking, sad face man. Instead of finding things I could do, I would just be sad face man.
So over the years, I’ve tried to develop other things instead of the tendency to obsess over the thing that didn’t work. There are many other things I can do, and I keep myself busy/interested.
Another was when I hurt my wrist really badly in Copenhagen, when I did a jump switch on canes. I made what I thought was a good idea – a cane plate I could fold together. I put a hinge on it, and a lock. I thought it would work very well, but it obviously did not.
The cane moved and I destroyed my wrist. It took 8 weeks to get it back in action.
I had to perform on it on the cruise ship during that time. I remember I even wrote Emmet, “how many mg of ibuprofen do you think I should hit myself with, just to get through the act?” I didn’t have a choice. He just said, “load up 800mg for a couple days.” So I did.
I did that, put on this heating cream, which also has painkillers in it. I put on a bandage around the thing to support it, then used more tape around it, so it was literally a cement block in the position I would handstand in.
I got through the act and didn’t need to do many one arms on it. It was on a fucking ship, and anyone who has done hand balancing on a fucking ship, you know what I’m talking about. It’s not exactly precise.
This one took weeks to recover; absolutely horrible. I would really have to scale back all movements with the wrist, to the point where in the end, I was doing this test in the morning:
I would put my hand on the wall at whatever angle would feel comfortable, and see, ‘is this ok?’ Then slowly but surely I could get back to full flexion, start putting weight on it, start putting it on the floor, start doing knee supported push up position, normal push up, and so on. I really had to take it very gradually. Whenever I did any overboard it would kill me.
By far it was the worst wrist injury I ever had. It was a total of 6 weeks before I could two arm, then a couple more before a small one arm. Slowly but surely, the wrist came back to full function.
That is also a very important takeaway of injury related things. If you do apply the correct amount of load and build your tolerance back, you can recover fully usually. But it needs to go a lot slower than you might wish it did.
Fast forwards to now, where I got my supraspinatus tear, which is also the injury that lasted longest, in terms of annoyance. I did go to physio, and they did an ultrasound. He did see a small tear there, in the attachment to the humeral head. He basically looked at the other tendons in the rotator cuff. He could not see the labrum, but said it’s likely the issue is here.
He gave a couple of basic external rotation exercises that I was working on for a while, but this one also proved to be very difficult to get fully through. It left me with some instability in the arm.
Literally, I will drop without knowing why, from handstands.
Doing a one arm, I can’t control my balance like before. It’s getting better, but the variance is extremely high. I have days where I fall out of everything, then others where I am almost perfect. It’s also to be expected during a recovery process of such a thing. I’m not expecting to be fully well for at least a couple more months. I’m going slowly with it.
Since then, I’ve been able to do almost all my vocabulary. The only thing I cannot do and might not ever do is lower down to crocodile on one arm. That exact angle of resistance is something that feels dreadful.
I’m sure if someone put a gun to my head and told me to do it, I could do it, and my arm would be wrecked, and unusable for a very long time. So I will definitely leave it for last.
I hope I can, but also need to be realistic at this stage and take it slowly. I’ve done all these things for very many years, and at one point you have to start fading out certain things. I’m pretty fine with making certain sacrifices, in terms of health.
I’m trying to keep a reasonably high level of practice anyway. It can certainly be frustrating. I’m not immune to frustration, and making mistakes. It’s something where building patience and resilience to your own bullshit is one of the most important things.
“I must try the thing because now I feel good” is something I fall prey to, even over the last few months. Not very smart. Sticking to the plan, making sure the things you work on are at a lower level than your maximum, and you stick to that, is super important.
Finding a minimalist type of approach, as we talked about in a recent episode, is a strategy to use when dealing with this.
Long story short, injuries suck, but happen. They happen to everyone. Some are less injured than others. On average, the older you get, the less resilient you are to injuries. Things might take longer to heal. You need to pay attention, and be realistic in the end. Trying to just gung ho yourself through this is not the best option, particularly so if passing into your 30s and over.
You can see this in other sports and athletic activities; the best athletes will be younger; it’s natural. Take your time, and even the best athletes you might know of or follow are also prone to getting wrecked. There’s nothing abnormal about it.
Take your time. Don’t be an idiot.
This was my rant on bits and pieces, and things and thangs. Thanks for tuning in, see you next time.