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S2 Episode 70: Tracking Progress


In this episode Mikael and Emmet discuss various methods to track progress. Also discussing the ideas of finding the right variable to track is as important as the idea of tracking.

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.

S2E70 – Tracking Progress

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Transcript of Episode 70: Tracking Progress

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

MK: They are going pretty well. I’m sitting here in a complete mess of all my stuff I’m going to move apartments hopefully tomorrow here in Stockholm. So that is pretty good. For the show Wald, I was in Portugal last week was it – so that was pretty intense. Finally getting to put it on stage after all this time. It was pretty special I must say. It’s been surreal and it still doesn’t feel like it’s actually real, but we do have a show and that’s pretty fun.

EL: That must be strange to actually be in front of an audience. Were you in front of an audience? It was an outdoor show wasn’t it?

MK: It was outdoors. We had a fair amount of audience. I think every show was sold out but that’s not saying much since there were rather limited amount of seats. All the venues were good but none of them were entirely ideal for this show. It’s designed for an indoor setting where – because it’s light-heavy, the lighting design of the show, the smoke, the aesthetics revolve a lot around that. I think the light designer that we had, he’s really good and he was able to tweak and sort out an alternative set up based on the stuff that he had. We got it to work. It’s a tough show to play in terms of – everyone needs to be really tight for it to shine. In one sense, if one person messes up one thing in this show, it doesn’t really matter because there’s so much to watch and so much going on but at the same time it really dents the performance quickly if we are not really in-sync and feel each other as a group. I think we were pretty satisfied with the premiere. Premieres are always premiers; I mean you know how it is. A show is never really good on premiere day unless you are extremely lucky. That’s the first time you try it in front of an audience, and you need the feedback to understand how to micro tweak things. That’s the case for us, too. We are not going to make significant changes to the show at this point but over time as we learn how people perceive things, we might change minor details to streamline it more in the direction we want. Usually happy if we’ve gotten to the point where the show exists and that feels amazing.

EL: I always find with shows, the premiere and the first three shows you get carried by the Holy Shit We’re Doing It energy. And then the problem is once that fades that’s when you start beginning to get like, “Is the audience getting it?” And that’s when the tweak starts to happen. But that’s always a bit… It’s interesting, I think. I think if you play a certain amount of times, I would expect a more polished product instead of literally throwing shit on stage.

MK: Let’s hope so. I think the more we play the better it’s going to be. I was pretty happy where it was at that premier date though, of course. Very much aware the places, shortcomings is maybe a strong word. We know what we needed to work on. Having an audience respond to that really helped us. By the time we played the third show it felt like we were really a lot more together. A couple people that saw the first and third show said the third show was basically a different show. It felt pretty cool.

EL: Awesome!

MK: How about you?

EL: I would like to say I have stuff going on but no. I’m going to share my big success of the week and only dog owners will understand this one. So, we brought our dog for a walk in the forest and were able to get him off lead and not lose him for the first time on an adventurous, non-controlled environment.

MK: Wow!

EL: It’s always good. He’s six months old. He’s still a pup. His recall is good. There’s recall that’s good in a back garden. And then there’s recall that’s good in a controlled park or a beach. And then there’s recall that’s good in a forest, with bunnies and squirrels and stuff. So, we didn’t lose our dog! I’m very happy with that actually! I’m very happy. Albus gets a gold star. We won’t lure him with sticks tonight. We will refrain from the stick beating. Just beat him with our hands. That’s how we roll with dog things.

Speaking of which. Some woman, at the beach the other day, she was in swimming and her dog was tearing around. Our dog ran over to play with her dog. They’re friendly. Off-lead — fine. But then she emerges from the water and she has this big ass stick in her hand that looked like – this is probably only meaningful to Irish people or people who know these things, but there’s this type of Irish walking/fighting stick called a shillelagh. It’s a stick that has a big root ball at the end. She emerged from the waves holding one of these things. It was very dramatic. I thought she was going to go beat my dog. She’s probably in her fifties, sixties, one of those people who likes to go swimming in cold water early in the morning. She was swimming with her massive stick and just emerges like Aqua Man but the Irish Aqua Woman. Aqua please don’t beat me. I was thrown back to Irish childhood. So there’s my successes of this week.

MK: We have a topic somewhere here don’t we.

EL: We have a topic for once which is strange for us. The topic for this week is tracking and measuring progress in the handstand I suppose but there is an extent to a bit of everything, really. This is an interesting thing. One, obviously we need to find a way to measure our progress. And we need to think about ways of tracking. And not every tracking works for everyone. But then it is this business phrase: What Gets Measured, Gets Optimized. But there is a corollary to that. What Gets Measured Gets More Value Placed Upon It. Possibly means you neglect other things and something is raised in value and it’s not as important as you think. I always find this in skill training and other stuff. There can be easily quantifiable stuff. Like I stayed on my hands X amount of time. But then there’s harder to quantify things. Like I stayed on my hand X amount of times but my rate of correction was slower because I was more imbalanced the whole time. And these soft tracking is almost more important than the pure quantity. The quantity will always go up but quality can be this hard thing – hard to nail down sometimes.

MK: I think it’s in general – there is many topics that emerge from this. It doesn’t always have to do with tracking progress but that relates to it and one of those is really – I was thinking of you – I saw various ways of training for the pressing for handstand and other handstand related skills where you focus on one single parameter. And in this example, it was just Get Really Strong. So, you brute force your press to handstand. You see this a lot in calisthenics circles where people are really strong in planchet and favour the strength component rather than flexibility and specific technique and so-on that leads to the handstand side of things. Even though you see people crossing over and knowledge is increasing. But basically, by getting really strong and planching and getting just muscle development you can brute force the press to handstand. It’s going to be tough. And it’s not going to work for everyone. Because of people being built different. But it is possible to just develop it by one parameter. Make it strong. And beef it up there and you get it.

Or you could even do the opposite. It’s a classic one among people who can do really good standing presses, but have no chance to do a stalder, they have developed their mobility and their handstand stack so much that it equates to pressing to handstand perfectly but have them go below the standing level and they have no force. Both of those depending on you goals can be doable but I think that in terms of how this relates to tracking progress is basically this: Are you looking just at the de facto ability of going from point A to point B or are you also focusing on how you are going from point A to point B? And that elusive quality dimension. The more complicated the skill is the harder it is to pin down. Again, I love the guitar playing metaphor because it’s towards the end spectrum of skill. You need the finger dexterity in all of that but then you need this to be so engrained in you that you don’t think at all. And it’s very finely metorical but you can’t really give someone three sets of ten and that is going to equate to being able to play Sweet Child of Mine or whatever the fuck.

EL: That’s basically how you do it. You learning the guitar. Just grind out Sweet Child of Mine. But the harmonic version if you’re really cool. It’s the guitar hero method of playing.

MK: Just smash the buttons enough times eventually something will happen. I think the measurement of progress that relates specifically to hand balancing practice – I think it’s certainly good to have some numbers but past that… As we talked about before – for two-minute handstands, you’re going further just for your own personal interest. It’s rarely going to equate into necessarily perfecting the skill further. This is also something I find fascinating where I’ve seen this type of idea: “Like ok, I can do the two-minute handstand, but I want to be able to do five minutes because that will make my handstands so much more efficient.” There comes a point of diminishing returns of the efficiency where actually you’re going from “I’m not strong enough I get enough endurance to stay for 30 seconds.” You go from thirty to sixty or one minute thirty or something – where you’re getting a bit stronger but you’re actually getting more efficient. Then as you start passing two minutes again, yes there is efficiency but the further you go, you’re actually back into the endurance territory quite a lot and just a lot of making sure that your muscles have the energy to keep the tension for that long.

EL: It’s definitely one of these things I think there’s probably a bit of confusion when we’re talking about. We have vertical skill development, horizontal skill development and skill endurance development. These are separate things. And people mix up horizontal development so horizonal development is having a broad base of things I can do on my hands. It’s like, I can do transition between loads of shapes as I want. I can stand on my hands for a minute while doing this. I can do all the shapes. I can move with a choice of speed. I can combine different join articulations in different ways. Ok, that is all horizontal development. I can hold the straddle handstand for four minutes. That is endurance development. It doesn’t necessarily translate to vertical development or vertical development as skillful we are on our hands, relies on variety and not just linearity of one specific zone. So, it’s something to watch out for.

I got caught on this in the past as well like, “Oh I need a three-minute handstand to train two arms and I need, blahblahblah, whatever, all this kinda shit whereas what you see is the people who can express more variety are generally wanting to get the advance skills faster.

MK: It also makes me think a lot of one of the more common misconceptions with handstands. That misconception comes partly out of discussions like the one we are having now and that is this constant refinement. Then refinement becomes a value and a virtue that you’re supposed to do and then you refine, and you refine, and you refine and you don’t really go anywhere because you’re not ready, you’re not ready, you’re not ready. There is of course a lot to getting a level of refinement in your stuff to be able to notice that, ok I’m much calmer in my balancing. I’m much more consistent. I can do it more often. I can do it with less warm-up, etc. etc. These types of things. There’s less effort involved in what you do. That is a huge and elusive parameter of progress but at the same time if you’re looking for the effortlessness within everything that you do you might not just be challenging yourself to going further and trying out more things and this is the delicate difficult balance because you need to refine enough so that you have the level of readiness required to go to the next level but at the same time, if you don’t try to spend time on the next level you’re never going to get there either so, one could say it like this: That if your level of readiness, your level of preparation is too low and you try on the too-hard thing, forever, like, you might be able to break through, but it’s going to be almost impossible for sure — but you might be able to break through —  by smashing your head in a wall until the wall breaks. That’s the technique for then.

Or you could prepare forever, and I think there’s a thing with preparing forever, that it’s actually not going to solve the problem. Perfect example is fingertip holds on one arm. Like you can do fingertip holds in one-arms until the eagles fucking choke and it’s not going to – I don’t know –

EL: What are the eagles choking on? The eagles are choking on the one ring…(laughter)

MK: I don’t know. I just imagine them eating a squid or something and it didn’t work. (laughter)

EL: Eating a hobbit to carry the one ring to Mordor and they choke on the ring. (laughter)

MK: What was I trying to say. In the preparation scenario, a fingertip-hold one-arm, I have seen people be stuck at trying to do that for over three years. Their fingertip one-arm is just really good. But there isn’t anything more to learn from it. You’re not giving the stimulus to the body that it needs to get to the next level and therefore it isn’t going to either. So, could there exist a person that would do fingertip holds so that they would have a five-minute fingertip hold and then be able to one up?

EL: I met someone who had a two-minute fingertip support for four finger support. They were trying that method. I don’t where it came from. I’ve never seen it. They went to do four finger support and then take a thumb off, so it’s five finger, four finger and then hopefully you have one-arm. As far as I know, they still don’t have a one arm. I think they gave up after a while. But they kept two minutes on that finger support.

MK: That’s a long ass time.

EL: That’s the ballroom. A two-arm handstand even if you’re only on fingertips, it’s still a two-arm handstand, it’s not a one-arm handstand. It’s an interesting one in terms of development, one of the things I use a lot in terms of thinking about it is – something credit where credit is due, I got this many years ago from a UseNet article by a juggler called Steven Ragatz. Steven Ragatz is a very well-known juggler in the scene. Very technical, very creative. But he put an article out talking about how he does it. And possible I’ll be able to find it – maybe not. He talks about a pyramid. You are trying to pyramid or triangle. Say you want to work on your skill – what are you trying to develop? The stuff that leads up to the skill which are things you should be able to do. These are quite quantifiable. So, say I want to work on seven bowls. Ok, I will do the all the six bowls lead up drills, I will track them, and I will have a quite strict practice schedule for it. Everything should be doable. I’ll go in and I’ll have my training session. I’ll do it. Then I’ll have a small chunk of the pyramid — Say that was 70% of your time. Then 20% of your time would just be doing seven bowls and keeping a rough track but not worrying too much about it just letting the training of the lower stuff infuse into it and keeping a rough count to see that you’re improving but not letting chaos happen. If you have to walk around or elbows are flaring out or whatever it is. And then, you find that maybe 15 or 10% or 20% and then the last 5-10% would be try stuff that’s completely above your level with no expectation of it working. So, 9 bowls, 8 bowls, 10 bowls, 7 clubs, whatever. Just try stuff and don’t even bother tracking this super hard stuff and just give your body an experience of OK I’m doing the stuff leading up to it I’m trying to now do the thing with not that much expectation. That idea of doing my lead up drills but occasionally – I’ll do my four finger supports, my flagging, whatever, I’m doing my kick up drills, whatever and occasionally I’ll just try a handstand and just see what happens. That’ll give you a hint! That’s the motivation that your training is working. Your quantitative training is working. And then you’ll try stuff that’s crazy. Ok I’ll try a tuck jump up to a tuck handstand and a straddle and I can’t even hold it straight. Or a tuck and straddle and see what happens.

And that just goes OK I’m doing stuff that’s so far beyond me but I’ll get a hint of what’s to come. And that model I use a lot in terms of planning stuff out because there’s enough that I can then go: Ok I can have things that I can quantify and force quality control. I’m doing these lead up drills that are well within my ability to do multiple raps of and I’ll also force the quality of – I have headspace to force quality of technique. Then I have the thing that should be at the threshold of my skill level so it can only rally track one variable with success here. It might just be quantity. Or a certain quality. OK I kept my leg straight in this drill and that’s the only thing I was worried about. Or I couldn’t keep my leg straight – blah. And then I just have things like OK I’m going to try a figa and I don’t even know how to start a figa and if it works it works if it doesn’t it doesn’t but you are giving your body a taste of something beyond its grasp.

MK: It’s a little bit I think because you can include play within your more structured sessions. It is important. Within that play I think it’s definitely worth it trying stuff that you haven’t tried before. Exposing yourself to stuff that is new and it’s often fun and interesting and it gets you, like you said, it gives you a little bit of preparation for later stages. It gives you kind of a taste. Suddenly you will also find, holy shit, I actually feel a lot more stable in this new thing. And I didn’t feel like that before. Suddenly there are many of those kinds of things that can happen. But also, I was thinking in terms of the tracking of progress because if we speak about the general methods of – how long you stay, how many presses you can do or how can deep you can go in let’s say, a negative press. How far down you get before you lose control. What’s tricky with stuff like that for example is that it’s very subjective as well because very few people will actually film their pressed handstand from the exact angle every training, they work on it.

EL: I think you are underestimating our audience here. (laughter)

MK: I’m sure some will. Getting that kind of thing where it’s like, OK yeah you will literally use an angle app to see what angle your legs got to and stuff – I think that’s for the more specifically interested? The funny thing too is that you might even get to a deeper angle with the legs with a better shoulder position because you were more flexible in your pancake one day than the other. It’s hard to get to like – or it’s hard to equate those types of movements to weighted strength training drills? So, there is of course a certain degree of — where you can use similar measurements, tools, in terms of how you number it and so-on but –

EL: Yeah, this is the kind of thing, just to quickly talk about the strength training thing. Basically, a lot of strength training — the reason that it is strength training — is because it’s so simple. A lot of people say, “It’s not simple, it’s very technical.” It is very technical but your general exercises that you’re using for strength training where you’re playing on the techniques of linear progress, incremental increases, block periodization, whatever you’re working on is like, “Oh! I can do a bench-press for the bar. Or basically a thousand reps, or a broomstick.” It’s a very simple movement that you already have capacity on whereas we’re trying to do: Here is a movement that we start off with a lot of load on and you can’t actually even do the technique or a closer proximation to it with the actual forces through the correct contact points. Like yes, we can do shoulder flexion raises and other kind of accessories and spinal articulation drills, but we can’t actually do – your weight is being pushed through your hands and even spotting doesn’t replicate it exactly.

We can do effective spotting but at the same time it’s not the exact same thing because there’s a second contact point to the spotter’s hands. It’s not the same movement. It’s very similar and a lot of rules apply but it’s still not the same. And that’s something a lot of people need to think about. That’s the thing. Say, Olympic lifting. I want to learn to snatch. Ok I’ll groove the technique with a barge, an empty barge. It’s really light. I’ll get it really good. I know all the stages. I know the bits. I know what to work on. Whereas with a lot of handstand skills, you just have to do it. You don’t really get a taste or a flavour for the actual technique you just actually do it.

MK: It’s very counter intuitive in that sense. To circle back to the things we were talking about with the more nuanced kind of ways of tracking progress that I do think are very important. Is really this sensation of control. That is one of the most important elements to focus on. Because it has a lot to do with where is your concentration and for long are you able to maintain that easily? How long are you able to keep that muscular tension and so-on. I think what’s ultimately important is to identify and to be aware that there are many areas where you can track your progress. And it can be important to in terms of dealing with the frustration. Sometimes, I suck I haven’t gone anywhere lately la-la-la. But if you look back, ok, what happened? I actually felt a little bit – like this one thing I did, this training was really easy. Interesting. I’ve done this quite a lot with – even still working through this shoulder injury, which is painstakingly slow to get properly back. Before the shows, I had one day where I practiced a bit on the floor, and I did a figa and it felt exactly like it should. I was like, oh wow, this is exactly where I want my shoulder to be. It didn’t move and it felt really comfortable and stable and all that. I could only replicate it about twice, that training. And then it started to be all junk and bad again. But it happened.

This is what I’ve been using as my progress tracking for this because I know it’s all over the map and it’s up and down depending on the day but there are these moments where I really feel, oh hey I haven’t been able to feel this in a long time. I’m using that to track the progress and I’m also seeing that the consistency or the bad days will be spread out further compared to before.

And even on bad days there will be a couple of good sets and then whatever structure that isn’t that big, gets too tired quickly or whatever happens. But I can notice oh yeah there was a couple of things that were effortless in there. I think these things can be really important to think about when you analyze your practice a bit. Like hey okay I wasn’t able to replicate as well as I did last week but I had these two moments that felt like this and that was interesting. I think that that can be an important one to keep in mind especially when, during those periods – I’ve seen this a lot with people that got their first one-arm holds and they’re all excited and stuff – and then they drop back and kind of lose it, let’s say they have some issues in the wrist or something made them: “Oh yeah I kind of lost my one-arm I don’t know what’s up!” Okay, yeah, usually that happens because people try to one-arm instead of focusing on getting there in an effective manner.

EL: They’re skipping ahead on the pyramid.

MK: It’s very common. “Oh but I held it a couple times now I’m going to stress myself into the position and hope –” instead of doing the fucking things that brought you there. But to be able to see what feels different. This is why handstands is such a sensory practice. Keeping or focusing on what is happening, what is going on, how does this feel – is really important.

And then of course you have also the entire dimension of tracking your progress either by adding or subtracting from the skill that you’re working on. I think this is the most relevant on two arms. Like, I can two-arm handstand. Can I tuck up to straight, go back to tucking, go back to straight. Okay, that is a clear thing. Because I add to the handstand and see if that works. Or you can subtract to the handstand by, I’m going to let go of my hands so that I have less surface area to balance on. That will make it harder. Can I do that. Can I close my eyes? This is also subtracting. Can I grip with the fingers and do a fingerless handstand? That’s also removing a thing from the handstand which makes it slightly harder. There’s a myriad of ways to track this. As you hear about this discussion, too, it is a very open ended and loose thing which it should be if you actually look at what this type of practice is rather than try to pin it down in to drill A, B and C and those things to be and look exactly like this for thirty seconds.

EL: It’s one of those things I do a lot and I encourage everyone doing is to take a joint-by-joint approach of assessing your shape. This is one of the ways you can find hidden progress as I would call it where you’re progressing but you’re not. We’ll take an example of a press, but this applies to every kind of thing. I’ll do a press. Okay so, I’ll look at my press. Let’s say I can do two presses and I haven’t been able to get a third one, but I want to be able to see if I’m making progress. So, we would start, okay we’ll go forward we’ll go into press then we look at what happens when the feet come off the ground. The first moment the feet come off the ground, is there a bounce or is it smooth? Ok, I look at the wrist. Am I going really far forward in the wrist or are my fingers getting strained because I’m having to grip really hard the ground? Or am I staying more stacked? Are my elbows bending or are they staying straight? Are my shoulders going too far forward or losing their elevation? Or are they staying in the elevation I want? Is it a choice that I’m going forward? Am I doing what I want in the shoulders? Am I articulating the shoulders back and then the hips up or are the hips going up and ending in a closed shoulder and then pushing out? Is the pelvis going to the right position or am I arching the lower back? Am I extending the hips and using all my flexibility by going all the way out to the side and split or am I staying kind of piked? Are my knees doing the same thing? Is one knee extending on one bending? Is one leg bending to get a bit more leverage up on top or are both legs bending into a bit of tuck? Are my legs staying straight? Are my toes working? And you can apply the same idea – like are they pointed, are they flexed, are they doing what I want – that’s basically what we’re choosing.

This is where you can start seeing progress. It’s like oh, I can still do two presses but last week I was doing two presses, but my elbow was bending on thumb. Now this week, oh, my elbows are staying straight. Next week I can still only do two presses, but my knees stay straight up until the legs get parallel with the belly button and then they bend slightly. Oh, a week later, my knees stayed locked all the way down. This is when I would consider the incremental loading of a bar bell. All of this is small plates. Your one and quarter kilo plate or your 2.5 kg plate. All of these things are adding to the skill and the control and the refinement and also possibly the leverage because some of them add leverage to movement.

And it’s the same with – oh, you’re going from straight to tuck. Do my toes go weird as they’re coming down? Do my knees move but then my hips don’t go so I end up with a weird circle thing? Or is there coordination between the knees and the hips? Do I end up sticking my butt out, so my knees are pointing up? Am I arching in the lower back? Are my shins vertical? Breaking the skill down and looking at it joint-by-joint, muscular. Generally, I will start from whatever’s in contact with the surface and this goes for all strength training as well. What’s in contact with the main exertion surface? What are you exerting against?

You can go from the top down. That’s just the way I do it. Just by picking each detail. You can go through. You can watch a video a couple of times. Going, “What are my knees doing in this?” A week later, I’ll compare my videos. What are my knees doing this week compared to last week? Have I got the brain space now to actually focus on the details of the knees or am I just surviving doing the transition? Oh, I’m still just surviving. Two weeks later. Okay, I have headspace and I can actually focus in my attention in on my knees ad pay attention to what they’re doing and change what they’re doing. Okay that’s definite upgrade in your skill because you’re not just surviving the movement. You’re actually picking details. And that’s a big changeover from anything.

This goes from learning kick-up, doing a one-arm, doing something advanced, doing any transition, doing a press. Going from literally just doing the skill and skill start to skill end to multiple details in the skill that I can pick. That’s where you put a gold star beside… I’ll give you a silver star for that one but not a gold one. But a silver star for progress. Ok I can pick details and noticing that point in the movement is very important. Particularly if you’re coaching people as well. Knowing that someone is at that point wouldn’t actually give them details to focus on vs. knowing they’re still at the stage of just keeping up so that analogy Mikael uses. You want to cut them a tree you have to start with the ax and not the sandpaper.

MK: Yep, I like the analogy there of all the micro issues with the movement as if loading the small plates and the bar bell because if you think about any kind of skill-learning there will be a lot – it will be twitchy and weird and awkward at first. For most stuff that you learn. And the fact that you go from not being able to keep your legs straight to being able to keep your legs straight means that there is the skill for whatever reason that’s become easy and accessible enough for you so that there is enough brain space to do this.

Let’s face it. Keeping straight in a press is secondary. The primary thing of a press to handstand is exerting the amount of force through the angles so that you can reach the handstand position. Keeping your leg straight is really nice but it’s not a necessary function to do the press. It can be done without it. Having the brain space and the focus to do so may not be possible at first. For a person who is standing there, they’re super pumped, they’re ready to do their first press ever. You could be ready for a bunch of giving, a little bit here or there because they are putting all their effort, all their focus, to just getting up there and there might not be literal brain space to do all the details.

I really like this analogy I came up with once in relation to dilation of the nervous system and so-on as you’re learning. I can’t remember where I got the primary concept for the metaphor but basically as your brain is trying to do something, it activates a lot of neurons in a specific network to make sure that you’re trying to do the correct action. It’s going to activate a lot of stuff that doesn’t need to be activated. My analogy was basically your brain is trying to solve the thing by shooting at the target with a shotgun. So, there’s going to be a lot of spread. There’s going to be a lot of stuff happening. There’s a lot of stuff not hitting the target, but you might hit the target. And the more times you shoot the more the spread will center in and in the end, you end up with a sniper rifle, instead of a shotgun. Since at that point you’re very good at it, your brain knows exactly what to do, exactly what sequence what to fire, what muscles to tense when. And all of this is things that are…This is just a stupid metaphor for it because it’s impossible to say how exactly the brain does these things. The brain, the body.

One thing that frustrates me very often when people speak about this is like, “Oh, yeah you just need to know what muscles to activate, when.” As if it’s a conscious thing okay now I’m going to push with this muscle and then activate this one. It all happens in a sequence. You need to focus and do the thing. And let your body figure out the rest of it. The more – the better you are prepared for that in your understanding, of course it helps but it’s a sensory thing – you need to concentrate on doing the task and overtime you will improve it. But, I think it’s really important just in general that thing of allowing these kinds of small mistakes. Just as you do with children when kids are learning their first whatever it is, the parents and the trainers are like, “Yay, so good!” and then overtime if you’re trained in a serious fashion, it gets stricter and stricter but at first it’s not going to be perfect. Allowing yourself that range is really important.

EL: Yeah, funny thing, shout out to one of our top fans at Tenix on Instagram. He’s been sending me videos of his kid using task-based learning to help teach his kid to crawl and walk. I just want the kid to learn how to climb up on the sofa. He really wants the remote. So just put the remote close to the edge. He climbs up and then moves a bit further. Then climbs a bit further up. This kind of stuff. Take what the kid is already doing. And then adding a little bit on. Putting a task that the kid is doing and then the body repurposes what it can do into standing up and walking using the sofa.

It is interesting to add a bit to what you were saying on when we’re learning motor patterns. Particularly skillful ones, that we’re not just repurposing a motor pattern we already have engrained, so a new one. The body goes through two basic phases. It goes through a co-contractive phase where it’s basically everything is firing at once on both sides of the joint to try and figure out what is the correct amount of thing. You see this on tool usage you see this on skill usage. As you get more skillful the body then begins to understand what is the actual sequence of activation and what is the speed of activation. So, the muscles on either side of the joint. This goes for sewing, for hammering, it goes for handstands, for Olympic lifting, everything. Oh, I’m really tense – okay – because the body is trying to figure it out. And then it begins to reduce this and then it begins to turn kind of 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2 turning off the other side of the joint in the right sequence it needs to happen and this kind of thing. It also depends on speed of movement as well. If you’re moving fast there’s generally a three-phase thing of co-contraction stabilization. One turns off one turns back on to slow down the motion at the top and these kind of zones. While the body is figuring out when it needs to do all this. Then it will actually fire both sides of the joint at a certain amount much more than they need to be to take keep stability and safety. This is one of those things where getting there is great but moving smoothly and getting obviously – resources available to the organism in terms of strength, pure power eventually turns into skill by practice and aiming to be smooth.

MK: I think that as I’ve said before dancing is one of the best examples. A lot of these types of skills where you slowly but surely can feel your level of progress with coordinated effort where you can practice for a very long time without getting physically too tired to do it. Acts as a very good analogies for how handstands efficiency and effortlessness functions. It’s just that you also need the energy and the power in a handstand. I think it’s very good for anyone listening if you have the memory of having learned a certain skill over time at some point where you remember that the first time you tried you felt like Bambi on the ice and then after three weeks you were a bit more confident but still not very good at it. Three months passes and you’re alright, comfortable and you start doing a couple more advanced things within it and you’re equally as wobbly at that as you were first on the very basics and so on and so on. It’s basically how the organism functions and how it learns. So, realizing and allowing that while at the same time being very aware of all these various ways of tracking and monitoring what’s going on. It’s super important.

Also, which is very important is that thing of frustration. It’ll be annoying at certain points where you have, you either regress, or you don’t feel anything is going anywhere or injuries. All this stuff can affect how you feel about what you do. When it comes to that, the ultimate thing it is a slow thing to learn and it’s very punishing in the way that also some people learn it very quickly and some people spend a significant amount of time on it. It’s definitely not fair in that sense.

EL: The thing about handstands though is everyone will basically get there in the end. And when they get there, I can’t think of a reason why someone would not be able to hold a decent one-arm and a decent combination of shapes on one-arm unless they were massively obese. But then again if you spend long enough training, you’ll lose the weight and get there in the end. In terms of literal handstands, it just doesn’t really have a super high genetic cap or doesn’t kick in to the very end vs. some other skills which are you’re just not going to qualify for the event regardless of how… Basketball or trying to play gymnastic rings.

MK: Rings are miserable.

EL: We got one question. Normally we are grouping questions into topics more so than anything else when we get them. One of them though I got something to say so I kept it in. So, I’ll read the question out:

  • Can handstand progression be quantitively measured?
  • Hi, I love everything you are doing here. If I didn’t have a local handstand coach, I would have already signed up for one of your classes. I might still do it anyway.

Sign up for our courses! Always.

  • I’m currently working on 1) getting more consistent with kick-up and 2) holding free-standing handstands for longer. Five to twenty seconds is my usual time. Sometimes as long as thirty seconds. What I’m wondering is if you have a system for measuring improvement at this stage? At first, I was tracking kick-up success rate as a percentage total kick ups but that doesn’t take into account hold times or successful number of kick ups. So now I’m wondering if there’s a system that takes into account total hold time and number of free-standing handstands in a session or maybe I’m overthinking it and should go by feel. The post about meditative handstands was terrific. Anywho, thanks again for all the great content.

So, this is one of things I toy around with doing. At the early stage I found this beneficial. That’s why I kept this question in. You can track total duration of time spent on the hands in a session as a measure of progress. Then you can also track density.

I spent three minutes on my hand in a session and I done ten handstands. Ok that gives me – shit, I can’t do maths anymore – it gives me eighteen seconds per handstand or something like that. Does it? Anyway, or you could split it over. Oh, in three minutes, I’ve done five handstands, that makes thirty-six seconds. I hope my maths is right here. Otherwise, I’ve proven myself a prude-mathematician by not being able to do calculations. So, the density of the duration has increased.

The other thing I was working on as well and I still use this for a lot of the early trainees is a conditioning capacity. So, what I would look at is let’s say a very simple way to do this is it’s a bit more complicated than this. But let’s say I have someone who can do five one-minute chest to wall holds and that gives me — and they do good technique, straight body, shoulders don’t bounce up and down. So, then I know no, I have someone who has capacity to do five minutes of handstands on the floor based on their wall capacity so this might mean… This someone I go okay; we now have five minutes of handstand conditioning. Obviously, this doesn’t count for fingers and other stuff. But now we can go, “Okay, I want you to do ten sets of thirty seconds.” Rebalance drills where someone’s holding your legs. Balance, come off, balance, come off. So, I know they have the endurance in their upper back to sustain that amount of training. So, it’s one of the ways I was using this kind of total amount of time on hands. Obviously, you would aim to increase your conditioning as you were going and ease of motion.

The other tracking mechanism in the earlier days. Actually, I stopped doing this because I lost my heart rate monitor. Was heart rate. And seeing how low you could keep your heart rate in a session. You’d know you’re working easy in a session when your heart rate starts dropping when you’re holding a handstand. That’s a very good measure. That means the handstand is getting easier than standing or easier than the kick-up for yourself. If you want to get over-correcty – you can and there are a few ways to think about it.

MK: For me personally, I think the last sentence of overthinking it, it does sound a little bit in that sense because again if you’re trying to make an equation out of how many times did I kick up successfully times how many seconds was I up, and so on, it gets fiddly whereas you don’t need the exact number unless you’re interested in doing that. It’s totally fair. It’s certainly an interesting experiment. And as Emmet said, it is used. But you can also just concentrate on practicing your handstands and enjoying that. And enjoying the fact that, hey, I’m more consistent now than I was before. There is something to both sides of the equation here and this will hugely depend on what kind of person you are, really. Some people just enjoy having the numbers to track. The fact that you are now able to pull off the task often and the fact that you have twenty-thirty seconds of handstands. It means that – you can also start thinking about “hey maybe I’ll add something to the handstand?” can I go up and straddle my legs and keep the handstand under my control and come down when I choose to? For example. Again, here is where the paths start to branch, and you can make a lot of different decisions with it. I guess ultimately what I want to say is that you do not need that specific of a mathematical tracking system. And if you want to have that, that is more a specific thing I’d say in terms of your personal interests.

EL: Yeah, that’s it. Tracking at some points can be… Tracking some things can be helpful motivations like, “Yes I am getting better. And I have a way to say I’m getting better.” And I think for the coaches out there it’s good to be able to particularly when someone is getting disheartened. “I can’t kick up! I still can’t hold a handstand.” That you can actually break down someone’s shape and go: “Let’s just see your kick up now is much better, you’re getting a couple seconds of airtime, your knees are straighter.” So, we can inform the person where they are progressing before they feel it because for a lot of people it can be hit and miss.

But then at the other side, if you start… Once again, “What gets measured, gets optimized” but then what gets measured gets given undue performance or undue things. So, you can think of someone who is trying to hold a one-arm. Maybe they’re in the zone where maybe they’re able to get three to five seconds and they’re focusing on their knees and toes rather than focusing on something important. “Oh, my knees were really sloppy on that and it wasn’t great.” And it’s like, “Well you held them for four seconds and you corrected three times in those four seconds.” You know, this is the kind of thing we have to be careful what we give value to. But at the same time we have to assign value to things. And you have to be willing to get rid of the value assigned to something more important rather than just sticking with one thing I think.

MK: That thing you said before keeping quantifiable with the simpler things you were working on and allowing yourself to play with more complex things. Even things that are outrageously difficult for your level, occasionally, is a good combination because that will also +act as a micrometre and allow you to sense on several different levels of difficulty how much better your control has become.

So, you could go down all the way to the most basic thing: “Ok can I hold a handstand for longer than I did before or as long? You have a baseline. Is that possible? That is low in terms of your skill level. You can do it but how long. You can try to challenge that position significantly by adding a bunch of things to it or even ok, I’m going to go as long as I possibly can on my hands. That is also taking it a step up in terms of difficulty. To challenge it. Or can I do fingerless? Can I go low with my legs in a press or not? And then going super far for that person might be like, “Okay yeah I’m going to try and shift sideways and go to fingertips.” That’s going to be radical and way too hard. And then the person flops over and falls but hey they tried a bit. They might do the same six months down the path. Oh, ok, they also fell out, but they at least actually managed to do this side shift sort-of correctly so then that doesn’t mean they should only train the side shift because they are not ready for that. And that is why this should be on the outer limits of your practice. But perhaps the most important stuff at least from my perspective is sort of in that mid range. You’re developing skill but you’re doing it within a range where you’re able to create enough consistency that you’re still working physically quite a lot too but you’re not only going on the simplest, lowest level of your capacity as you do so.

EL: Yeah, I think that sums it up perfectly.

MK: Great!

EL: Other than that, let’s wrap it up there. It’s good to catch up this week and other than that, hit the music!

MK: Cheers!


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