Transcript of Episode 66: Training Volume
EL: Hello, welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my cohost Mikael Kristiansen. How are things going?
MK: Not too bad. Preparing for the last residency and finishing Vald, the handstand show that has been in development hell for all of COVID. We start that the 5th of July, and premiere the 24th in a city in Portugal, I think.
It’s going to be stressful, it’s all I know.
EL: The last week of doing things, getting tired, everyone shouting at each other. Then it all comes together at the end!
MK: That is the problem, it often happens, but you can’t trust it to happen. Usually you sort of find a better solution, but you can’t guarantee it. We have a ton of work left to do, organizing, I had to weigh all our canes and plates yesterday. There are 115 kilos of canes and plates.
MK: We have to chuck that in the car and drive it down to Odense on Monday. Hopefully we sort everything out and nothing cancels. Portugal is having a COVID surge, so who knows. We are going to go ahead as if nothing happens. Fingers crossed.
EL: speaking of Odense, shout out to the Denmark Odense crew. Remember, the Denmark juggling convention was held in Odense one year. It was one of the coolest conventions ever. All the Denmark-German crew are quite nice.
A juggling and circus convention can be small or big. This one was quite small. I think it was like January 4 or something, over a weekend. Very close to Christmas. It wasn’t a camping festival, as Denmark would not be fun to camp in at that time. But they managed to get some school that would let everyone sleep in it, and had the convention there.
It was cool, they had food. An organizer’s dad was a chef. He taught everyone how to make bread because his bread was so good. Oh my god, one of the most debaucherous renegades I’ve ever been involved in hosting.
What happens in the renegade stays in the renegade. That’s an open mic show for juggling and circus. An MC hosts the event, then you get up and do a trick. It’s not really for talented stuff, but more comedy and other weird things. Yeah. PFffft. I can’t even go into it.
There was a leek juggling challenge. You had to juggle 5 leek vegetables, standing in a bucket. Unfortunately, over the night, the bucket started to get filled with beer, vomit, other stuff. It was darkness. Very darkness. That’s one thing that happened, one of the lower points.
Anyway. Today, we are going to talk about training volume. We are going to talk about how much volume is enough. Can we overtrain? If you’re listening you probably already know you can over train. Can you under train? Probably half the listeners are rubbing their wrists right now wondering if they should do that sixth training session this week or not, or take a break.
We’ll look at intensity, difference in volume for skill, conditioning, body parts that take a hit, maybe touch on what to work on instead when you can’t get on your hands.
Where do we start? It’s a broad topic.
MK: Start with the word Volume. Volume isn’t everything, intensity and frequency matter a lot as well. Think of the weekly volume. It varies drastically on the level of the performer, or capacity.
I think that handstands as a discipline and its community tend to do too much. I’ve been a driving force in doing too much. Seven days a week for seven years was not a good plan. Do not recommend.
Handstands is very fresh meat, at least on the neurological and balance side of things. The day your muscles feel great doesn’t necessarily coincide with the day your balance is sharp. It’s very difficult to know what influences this. There aren’t many factors.
I think one of the large problems with training in this sense, and with handstands and other similar activities, is they’re very enjoyable to do. If you train a lot of handstands, you likely enjoy it quite a lot, being in the practice zone, your little rituals, the thing you like to do.
That’s where it’s important to differ it from fitness strength training regimes where you get in your solid session and then rest. There is that here too. But if you enjoy doing it on a daily basis, being able to enjoy the activity might be more important than to carefully perfectly plan out two session a week that are exact so you can optimize this or that and only do two a week. It’s complicated.
EL: The thing about strength training is it’s very linear in how you calculate volume or tonnage in a workout. You did ten reps of 100kg, my volume is 1000kg. So that’s my volume.
Then if we have 1000kg of recovery capacity, and increase the intensity, the weight lifted, to 150kg, then I do 1/3 less reps for the same tonnage. Total tonnage an athlete can sustain can be worked out mathematically like this.
In handstands we can’t calculate things as easily. How do we track a total tonnage of a workout? Normally by sets. I’ll give an example of what I’m doing at the moment as it’s quite structured.
I do one day on, one off. Two sessions on the on days. Each session is 11 sets, so 22 sets a day. At the same time, I also raise reps and time under tension. I’m doing the same number of sets, on the minute. I increase the volume, coming by doing one rep or 2-5s longer on the holds every four days. That gives me a measurable amount of training.
At the same time, my wrist has been unhappy lately. It’s not limiting but with this titration up in training volume, I can easily track and know if the wrist becomes an issue or swells, then I know to do less. Very easy to control.
The other thing is I’m just working on pure strength work for handstands, literally just doing wall holds and wall flags etc, to build up duration. It’s a very conditioning and strength focused method of handstand training that is very trackable. At the same time, once I do more balancing work, if one set was really easy and lasted 10s, and another was a massive fight that lasted 10s – are they the equivalent training volume? That’s where things get nebulous.
MK: Sometimes, we want to be efficient and use less energy. It becomes a total clusterfuck.
You have a few options. One is like Emmet with a structured approach, where you know what you’re looking for. I think in any training program or phase where you work the conditioning focus, and can do 3 presses in a set but want to be able to do 10 times in a session, or as often as you like, then it’s better to just focus on press, getting volume done on that. Then you can track it that way.
If it’s pushing your endurance from 42s to 60, you can do these kinds of approaches. It will get you decent gains you can see. If you’re in a more technical phase, either learning to move your legs in handstand, or even on advanced one arms, you’re constantly working on super difficult things. Then it might be harder to use the same thing. You can say you moved your legs 3x back and forth from tuck to straddle – but the quality, how was that?
Just in general, to give some numbers. What do you do, how many sessions a week? Very common question: should I train handstand every day?
In general, no. Daily is not a good idea, even on very high levels or high capacity, at least one day a week is off. To reduce the risk, preferably two.
A staple thing that is commonly pushed in the handstand community, by even me, is the standard 5 days a week training handstands. It can certainly work. I rarely make newer people do it.
If you’re working on one arms, your capacity is really good and you want a focused phase, yes, it can be a good idea. Unless you’re on that level, there is not much point training 5 days a week.
Then you have the extra stupid thing to add on top. Is doing a couple handstands in the park training? Not really. Going in and doing 7 sets of squats is training. Picking up a heavy weight in your back yard to move it to the garage isn’t training. You do need to be good at pacing yourself if it comes to these random “I just want to move around” sessions. They very easily turn into a full on training session.
“I’ll just do two handstands.” “I feel a bit warm; I’m just going to do a couple of this”. Suddenly it’s an hour, then you have tomorrow’s session you’re supposed to do.
On average, the more days a week you train, the less you do of that kind of stuff. It’s better to do 3 sessions a week, and 2 where you might mess around a bit, but nothing structured.
EL: One way I program for people a lot is a different focus everyday. The more advance you are, the more choice you have on things to work on. You can have a different focus on each day.
At the start of the week, we work on stuff that demands higher skills. Then the next session might be working strength stuff or pressing. The third session might be back bending shapes. You get a sort of different strain and stimulus across the body, but not repeating the same workout over and over again.
This is what gets people a lot. “I’m working on one or two things,” then just do that every session. This is, even introducing constraints to training works great on this one. For some people I say, today I want you to fight for balance today. Do everything you can to stay up. Other days, no big saves. If you come off your precise balance point, it’s gone, come down.
This is one way to control, particularly in hands and fingers. We’re doing precise set ups, one arms, onto straight arm support. Push up and if you start to rotate or twist, come down. Other days, you’re on block or whatever, grab that thing and ride the donkey. I’d like to say tiger but let’s face it, it’s an unruly donkey that doesn’t want you on its back.
MK: That is a very good point. Having these different focuses can also help you to keep yourself in check when it comes to energy expenditure. If you’re doing handstand you are on your arms. Unless your strength to weight ratio in your upper body is so high that it’s basically nothing for you, then you’re going to fatigue over the week.
Me too, I started to change this approach as I got older. When I was 25 I could go and go and go, several sessions a day. It didn’t affect me much, but nowadays it does. I cannot train as much, and when I do, I can’t recover. I get less done, risk injury. The injury I’m working is due to that. Guess what is starting to fix it? It’s taking time off and allowing the recovery to happen. Then it’s the tricky thing a lot of people experience of feeling off when you haven’t balanced for a day or two. It’s common, and I experience it to a rather extreme degree sometimes.
Having that factored in is also something. People are very obsessive with handstands, feel bad when they have a bad day. Then you feel the urge to do a lot or to condition, and that gets you in a fatigue loop. It is very tricky, definitely when you work on more than a couple elements at a time.
EL: managing fatigue and listening to the body is very important.
I think this idea of having a constraint or focus on what you’re doing, then making sure you’re not repeating the same focus, even when your workout is the same or very similar, can be good. The problem is when working on skill and technical stuff. If something starts to work, people start to chase it, and get off the focus.
You go in with good intent, no big saves on the one arm. Suddenly it starts feeling like it’s going to be working, even if it’s just correcting under or over balance for the first time. Then, shit, the temptation to do more kicks in very hard.
MK: I’m a big self inflicted victim of that. Or it doesn’t work and you just want to try one more time.
For press the handstand, that one is huge. You could press off one block last time. You try and fail. You told yourself before, if it doesn’t work on one block, I’ll go back to 2-3. But no, god damn it, didn’t manage, going to try again. You’re going to try your 1RM once more. You try, try a third time. Then you’re pretty fried for doing max effort but failing.
Then you go back to 2-3 blocks, fail at that again, then go home feeling like a Piece of Shit who lost their press to handstand. That is very common and huge to consider when pacing those things.
As a general thing, it’s a lot easier to reflect on with weights than handstands, but if you’re doing plate trainings, don’t try your maximal shit. You just go the gym and stretch a bit. You go on the treadmill to jog a bit, that was all you were supposed to do. Then you go hmmmm, I’m going to 1RM my squat right now. No one is going to do it.
EL: Hold on, sounds exactly like something I would do or have done in the gym.
It comes down to this idea of having a training plan, either detailed or a time constrained one, or something. The training plan could have room for adaption, and this is what gets people.
I always think of one arm people, because of the number of people who injure their wrists just as it starts to work is immense. Something works, the first day it clicks, four finger support feels great and you get the transition right. Something, you feel the balance the first time. You want to ride the snake a little and go for it.
You have to look at your training plan. You added extra one arm hold practice, or two arm, whatever, and it’s working, but I did an extra ten sets because it felt great. Then they go on to their fulll conditioning program after. But if they see they did more sets on the one arm, they should take sets off other stuff – less conditioning or holds or something like that. The plan can be slightly flexible. This idea is quite good.
Like measuring sets, if I say 20 correct holds is my workout, and I meant to split it 4 exercises at 5 sets each, but one exercise I did 10 sets, then you have to reduce elsewhere or stop doing something to pay the piper. That’s one way I like doing that at intermediate stages of workouts.
You get a plan of ’20 sets’ in the plan, with freedom to redistribute them if you want.
MK: It’s certainly a strategy that can be used. Ultimately what you want to do is avoid getting into that pit where you’re frustrated, annoyed and tired, for days on end, because you keep trying when wrecked. It’s what I call a Fatigue Loop.
It easily happens. It’s a skill you want to be able to maintain and hold onto. You work hard for it. It’s important you manage to reset yourself properly and ensure some degree of complete recovery. If not you end up too smashed.
Let’s say 4 years ago, I would be somehow fine with one day off a week, making good gains. Nowadays, one off is too little a week. I was trying to fight that for a while, trying to constantly get back on that 6 days a week track. It wasn’t working.
Nowadays when I take more time off, I often need one day of calibration to make sure I’m feeling ok. On that day I used to do a ton, finish that with endurance etc, and come in the next day to train properly. No it doesn’t work.
On the calibration day I now have to take it really easy. Like, go up, do all the one arms I do, once or twice, then wrap it up. No doing ten presses, or 2 min of this or that. Just finish it up early. I’ve “calibrated” so I’m more ready for tomorrow but didn’t spend a lot of energy.
I’m also stubborn; I wanted to keep this kind of pace I used to have, and it didn’t help me. It’s really important to swallow your pride on that and take it from an idiot who spent much more time than necessary. Allow yourself to consider that if you tend to end up too tired.
There is this common notion of doing a 2min endurance hold to start every session, with the logic that once I get used to that, I will be a lot stronger. Then you do 5 sessions a week with a two min hold to start each. If you don’t recover from that, you won’t get stronger. Either you stay on it and nothing further happens, or you increase your injury risk. So making sure you can find a sustainable plan, because as always, the long term perspective is what matters more – in terms of progress and also the enjoyment of the practice itself.
If you are constantly feeling you need two months off, that isn’t enjoying your process. That also leads you to get stressed. Oh shit, lost so much time, when I get back I need to train extra hard, so guess what you do, repeating yesterday.
EL: The idea that if we talk about hyper general training, we have minimal effective dosage, the least you have to do to make progress over time. Then we have the optimal amount of training, the optimal number of repeat sets or duration to build strength and endurance etc. Then you have the idea of maximal recoverable volume.
There can be quite a big gap between optimal and the maximal recoverable volume, then once you exceed the latter, ti could be a line of doing a lot of work, recovering, but not compensating. The body is not adapting because the energy just goes into recovering from he workout.
A lot of people hit this line on handstands. Nothing is getting better for quite some time, or I haven’t added reps but can still do my 5 or 10 reps of this thing. That’s when you have to start asking if you’re doing too much.
Progress can be slow obviously because it’s a complex skill, but is it too much? In a lot of handstands, we take nearly every set to failure. How do we stop our sets? Usually because we fell out, not hit a time. It obviously comes down to skill, you might fall of your balance point and not compensate quick enough.
One of those things you said before – every handstand looks shit in its last 10s. If you can hold it for 10s, then you’re on your last 10s….
Learning to terminate your sets early before reaching that point, making that choice. I done 75% of what I intended to do…you can generally stop the set there. You wanted 60s but hit 45 or 52s and feel the technique is going to go fight-y and break down, you can choose to come out of the balance. Not taking everything to total technical or muscular failure is a way to control intensity and energy management as well.
There is the difference too between skill and conditioning work. For beginners this kind of overlaps, but as you get intermediate and working on shapes and other stuff, for the skill work you have to be very clear. You work straddle to tuck, or tuck to straight, and want it to be really easy, no fighting. Make the skill as nice to do as possible, not have it all be terrible.
Don’t make the set challenging, no aiming for maximal holds. At the same time, not fight-y or difficult. Things will be messy when learning stuff, but choosing to end sets before reaching that line will be great for energy management.
MK: One thing I’m a proponent for – I do value endurance, but past a certain level, depending on the practitioners general level, it’s a very good way to add loads of fatigue without getting anything done.
An example is someone who can do one arm handstands and working on that, but add a bunch of sets of longer 2 arm holds. It’s not wrong per se, but you could use that energy better in my opinion. If you can do a 2+ min two arm handstand, you can do it, but you don’t aim to do it all the time, then it’s basically busy work. Unless you want to push the time on two arms, it’s better to work on one arm technique and endurance on one arm. You’re going so into…
In hand balancing terms, beyond 2 minutes starts to get into long distance running, to use that equivalent. Long distance running is important for those who want to do that, but in general, hand balancing, towards higher levels, it happens much more in the sprints. You’re better off working there, getting better at those skills.
Getting better at one arm endurance will increase your two arm endurance more than two arm endurance will increase your one arm. I know people who can two arm for five minutes but can’t one arm.
In terms of your joints, in my experience, the things that wreck my wrists and elbows and shoulders can just be really long holds. You need to strain those last seconds, you won’t be efficient the last seconds, just roughing stuff out when mega fatigued. If you’re doing an actual long distance run, your form will be worse the last few km you run, but the difference doesn’t matter as much as handstands.
EL: Also, random endurance work in a workout is not good. Once you’re into the minute zone, endurance can be very structured to train. It’s no longer technical break down causing big mistakes. But if I just want to hold it as long as I can at the end, versus focusing on endurance with a structured plan. Today is endurance day, I do this many sets, this much rest.
Generally the rule to thumb is 1:1 rest:hold time, or looking to get to a point where you’re 90% recovered. If you’re trying to go from 1:10 to !:20, do 1:10 and rest a minute, then I see my hold time goes to 1;05. Yes you are reducing your time, but you are building fatigue to cause compensation if you recover from it, and will see things going up. The last 10s issue, when form breaks down to the point of doing big corrections – are you building useful endurance there?
If you’re holding this long you know how to fight already, so maybe you don’t need it in your endurance sets. Last 10s, form goes to shit, so stop there.
Introduce constraints. I will take two attempts to reestablish my line correctly. If I don’t I won’t stay fighting a 10s fight.
MK: There’s many different ways to go about this. It isn’t easy. We’re not saying this to confuse you. There isn’t a secret proper method, which is why we discuss this. Within certain trainings like weights, there aren’t perfect methods but there are a couple that are tried and tested and, on average, useful and produce consistent gains for a good coach who can apply it.
For handstands it’s really complicated. Getting to know your own body is part of this process. We wrote the programs the way we did to not try to control everything – we know it’s not possible. It isn’t possible to account for all the differences in time constraints, will, body structures, drive, lifestyle… by default it means it’s to a degree up to you to learn how to deal with this and go about it.
If you want to enjoy hand balancing you need a sustainable way to enjoy it. It isn’t something someone can directly teach you. Of course, if a coach works directly with you, they know you and you communicate and know what works, then you can talk about these types of things.
It’s super tricky. We haven’t even mentioned the entire mobility component. Someone learning handstands needs to spend a long time developing mobility so they don’t ruin their wrists. There are people out there whose shoulder flexibility is so bad that it will take them enormous time. They have to get on that shoulder mobility, and if they can’t then parallettes might be necessary so the wrist isn’t in semi planche the whole time. Wrists do not like semi planche position for a prolonged period.
EL: With handstands, even a subtle diagonal or forward lean of shoulders off ideal placement – this happens in intermediates a lot who constantly grip the ground to correct over balance – building serious time under tension on the wrists and fingers slowly accumulates. Collagen turn over, to get to recovery, takes 72h. Muscles are ready to go in 24-36h. You can overtrain the connective tissues, accumulating slight fatigue.
What are the warning signs when I train too much? That I need to do something a bit less?
MK: One of the most common ones that I feel is the constant soreness everywhere, especially the back and around serratus and shoulders. A deep soreness that doesn’t fade.
It’s not a perfect way to view it, but I remember this amazing old school gymnast in Norway, who’s like 50 and still a tank. He told a friend of mine, if you’re sore, don’t train. If you’re not, train. It’s not perfect at all, but there is something to it. If you’re super sore, it’s not the greatest because you want to feel reasonably fresh.
Then again, last workout when I wasn’t sore it was garbage. Day after I came in, pretty sore from the day before, and I killed it. It’s not perfect but I didn’t have that really deep, holy shit, it’s strenuous to move my neck and scapula thing.
EL: Joint by joint, wrists and fingers are highest on hierarchy of protection; they take the longest to heal. Forearms after that. Everything is connected.
But, what I look for when I know I need to back off is the very clear feeling when my wrists are inflated. They feel they have some inflammation, like they bulge out. This is a key sign for me to back off. I encourage people to find theirs.
It’s not sore, still full ROM, can load weight. I do training sessions, it gets sore after or feel worked. But if it lasts 2-3 days, then I know. I’m probably doing a bit too much. Either not do so heavy or take more days off to rest.
If the wrists feels weird I do more mobility and warm up longer. This is a strategy that does work. Buuuuuuut, it’s better to take a few days off now, early, v a month off later when you’ve done too much and the wrists can’t take weight.
MK: My main wrist warning sign. When you press the two tendons by the thumb and it hurts, or when you put pressure on the floor, that’s one to watch out for. I’ve had dozens of small injuries of that area. Another is on top of the wrist, where the tendons connect to the fingers. That area also feels a kind of pressure there when you put weight on the hands, that’s another area. Those two are the most common ones for the wrist.
If your wrist is busted and you don’t know and you put 20% of pressure on your wrist here and there for ten minutes, you’ll know about it directly and can either mitigate it or do nothing..compared to YOLO one arm right away. Woops, it was very painful, and it’s over.
Forearms, one I seen there is if you turn the palm towards the ceiling, the inner forearm muscle like a tense guitar string when you get wrecked there. Often you do a handstand, grip, come down and release the grip and it shoots a pain through that side of the forearm.
EL: A big warning set is if you do the set and it feels fine, then shit, you come down and have pain. That rings alarm bells for me.
MK: Make sure you do something lighter to warm up so you know what your situation is before doing heavy work.
For shoulders, rotator cuff issues. Pain in anterior deltoid is classic, a line of pain down the front of the shoulder. This one is common – pain lifting arm above head, when elevating shoulder, going into Mexican…lots in the shoulder.
As soon as you feel some of these, or their indication – this is where knowing your body comes in, to know this – I know very well when I feel a certain level of ‘pressure’ in my wrist and if I do something on it it will hurt.
I remember a few times doing a set, one arm, one arm, put the hand down again and feel that pressure. I usually cave in by bending the elbow immediately. I know that I’ll have to do my wrist crack or I end up in pain if I apply pressure to it.
EL: When you get intermediate and can hold, looking at videos and where weight placement in the hand is – the body knows it’s going on before you’re consciously aware of it. You will see the weight shift going towards the ring and little finger. Maybe your elbows don’t lock fully to avoid loading that segment.
These clues on how your form changes, in ways you’re not conscious of. Or the classic one, the right side is janky so I shift to the left. “Oh my form is terrible.” Maybe the body is trying to avoid that for that reason, you’re just not consciously aware of it yet.
With wrists, getting your thumb and poking all the tendons and bones there is very useful. If you have pain and get in there and touch things and they start hurting, there’s a warning sign. As part of my warm up before even doing a plank, I just feel my wrists by squeezing. Is anything there on a sub awareness level?
If I find that kind of thing, and put the weight on my hands, even on a plank or basic wrist stuff, I notice I might be shifting or going more into supination to avoid these things. These early warning signs can be found in different ways.
Then you can warm up a bit, resqueeze, see if it gets better. Then I know what to avoid or not, but because I’ve done this so long and have gone through a lot of busted wrist periods.
For those anatomy nerds out there, the flexor carpi ulnaris, on the edge of the forearm when looking at palms up by pinky finger, if that feels like a tight banjo string that you can’t squeeze into, it’s a very early warning sign things will go bad in the forearm.
Constant chronic forearm tightness that doesn’t go away..if you train too much or climb who listen also know this, if I squeeze my forearms and they’re rock solid hard, I may have a problem and have to do forearm release etc to try to clear it up, or space sessions out more.
The muscle tonus from training isn’t reducing, and that needs to go away.
MK: There’s so many of these things. There are unique ones as well; impossible to list them all.
Hand balancing is a discipline of body awareness, and getting acutely aware of signals are part of it. You also develop a lot of pain tolerance and resilience in a way.
If I stand on my hands and an equally heavy guy stands on his, the amount of pressure going through wrists is the same, my technique is better so it’s better placed. My joints, bones, tendons are used to this pressure so it won’t send the same pain signals as another might get.
EL: equating training volume, say a 50kg v a 100kg person doing the same duration – that’s a very different stress load on the body. To throw that out there.
I lost a huge amount of weight lately, getting it as low as possible. It’s night and day doing the stuff I’m doing. Super easy, nothing feels heavy. Even if it’s 10% of my bodyweight..if I had my strength and levers but at 75kilos not 95 kilos, I’m diong the same thing and holding the same time, but the load and weight and force through fingers to correct centre of mass is very different.
Even length of fingers and arms. Hand size. The point of today’s podcast is we can give rough guidelines and want you to have a game plan that can be flexible. But become the expert in you, that’s the only way to succeed long term in this game.
MK: Nice way to sum it up.
EL: Become the expert in you, which only happens by tracking things. Memory fails. Journal it.
MK: Become the expert of your own body, but also listen to others’ advice. You might not be correct about everything.
EL: Let’s wrap it up there. Thank you for tuning in to Handstand Cast.
If you got this far, some reviews and ratings would be awesome for us, on whatever podcast app. It helps much more than you think for getting us around. Tell your friends if you like it.
I’m Emmet Louis, here with Mikael Kristiansen. We will see you next week.