Handstand Ups & Downs

Sep 20, 2019

Last week I had an awesome handstand week. I was holding everything. I was able to progress with new shapes on one arm. It felt so easy.

This week it is as if all of my gains are gone. I feel unstable. I'm falling on skills that usually feel effortless.

In my Master the Handstand online coaching group, these ups and downs are what my students struggle with the most. They recognize that learning a handstand will take time. They all know it is going to be hard work. What surprises them is the randomness of whether or not they have a good handstand day.

Handstands can be frustrating. Something clicks one workout and then you struggle to recreate that feeling. You make huge gains one week and then plateau for what feels like forever. You are not alone! I have never met someone who trains handstands who hasn't experienced this.

There is no magic answer to this problem but there are some strategies that have helped both me and my students maintain our sanity while riding this handstand rollercoaster.

  • Do "judgement-free" handstands
  • Approach balance with curiosity
  • Distinguish issues with your technique versus strength/flexibility challenges (i.e. find a coach)
  • Build a solid foundation to help avoid injuries

Acceptance

When I did gymnastics as a kid it always took me a long time to learn new skills. Initially I'd make progress, then I'd regress, then I'd plateau. My approach was to train harder, do more reps and of course get really freakin' mad at myself. One day my coach said to me "you're not someone who learns skills quickly. You take 2 steps forward and then 1 step back. But when you get a skill it is solid". There was absolutely zero judgement in what he said. He wasn't suggesting that the fast approach was better (as I always assumed). He was just stating how I learned. He gave examples of really great gymnasts who learned the same way I did, as well as other great gymnasts who learned things fast but then took more time to get consistency.

Since then I've always accepted these random ups and downs, and painstakingly slow progress, as part of the way that I learn. I even see it as a good thing because the extra time spent learning makes it more solid in the end. I don't get frustrated (sometimes this is hard). And I enjoy the fact that I'm a 40 year old woman balancing on one arm.

Accept that these ups and downs are part of the journey. Stop focusing on the goal and start focusing on what you are doing in that moment. When you can do these two things you will start to enjoy all of your handstand practices.

Approach balance with curiosity

When I first started training my one arm handstand most of my handstand training was in the evening. After work I would have supper, chill out for a bit and then do my handstands. Sometimes at the weekends I would do my handstand practice in the mornings while drinking coffee. I started to notice that the more coffee I drank, the worse my balance became. If it was a choice between coffee and handstands then for sure handstands would come out on top (obviously) but I started to experiment. How much coffee could I have without affecting my balance? Turns out 2/3rds of a fairly large mug is my tipping point. As a scientist my wife questioned my methods and the real significance of my findings (n=1, accuracy of measurements, no control etc.), but my colour coded spreadsheet design was on point.

More recently I have been working on lengthening my exhales with breathing drills. One day my exhales were 25s, which was by far the longest they had been. The same day my balance was amazing. And this makes sense. If my muscles of exhalation are working optimally, they will also be doing a better job of creating stability when I am upside down. I am still investigating whether extra breath work on days where I am getting 10-15s exhales can help but it is something that I am curious about.

Sometimes it can seem random but if you start looking for patterns you start to notice things that make the most impact. These are things that negatively affect my balance the most: being hungover, my period, getting a massage, coming back to handstands after a week off and being in a bad mood. This information can help me increase my chances of success or help me avoid being frustrated when my balance does suck. "Those 10 tequila shots I had last night suck!" vs. "I suck!".

Learn to assess strength and mobility issues vs. technique issues

Most of my one arm handstand progress has been very slow and steady. The one arm handstand is a real test of patience. For weeks you will do the exact same drills. And when you are ready to progress you do exactly the same thing with one less finger on the floor. While most of my progress has been slow two things have given me a huge jump in progress.

The first was a technique fix. Mikael Kristiansen noted that I was shifting my shoulder sideways vs. keeping my shoulder fixed and rotating my body around my shoulder. This had a huge impact on my consistency.

A good coach will be able to assess your technique and let you know if there are issues that are holding you back. This is why finding someone who is an expert in the skill is so important.

The second jump in progress happened when I wasn't even training the one arm handstand. At the time I was working with Kate Galliett to overcome an issue I was having with my right shoulder. My right arm improved to the point of being better than it was before my injury BUT the surprising result was that my one arm handstand on my left arm improved drastically. Kate didn't just look at my right shoulder in isolation. She looked at everything I was doing. She knew how much handstand work I did and the demands that put on my wrists, hyper-extended elbows, shoulders, spine, core etc. A small improvement in strength, mobility and control of my wrists and hands (the foundation of my handstand) plus a small improvement in my elbows, plus improvements in my shoulders all compounded giving a significant improvement in my handstand.

This changed both the way that I train and the way that I program for my students. Fix the big items for sure, but also work on the little things that compound and make a huge impact.

Build a solid foundation to help avoid injuries

There's a lot of information out there about the skill of learning a handstand: how to get into a good line, how to kick up, how to balance, how much you have to push. And these things are fantastic. But what if you do not have all the attributes that you need in order to do these things? Maybe you lack the shoulder mobility to get into a good line. Maybe you do not have the finger and hand control required to form a solid base. Maybe you have a really strong core (can hollow body forever) but upside down you feel like a wet noodle.

Think of your handstand as a tower and all the components that make up your handstand as building blocks in that tower. Imagine that one block is not in the right place, is not strong enough or is not there at all. The tower that you build is not going to be stable. The blocks either side will have to do extra work, work that they may not be designed to do.

When one component of your handstand is not optimal if affects everything in the tower. Over time this can lead to problems with your technique and even potentially injuries. From personal experience nothing derails handstand progress like being injured.

So what can you do? Build a solid foundation. Work all the components that make up your handstand tower. Find an expert who can assess and let you know what you are missing. Because when you have everything that you need to build a handstand the actual skill becomes so much easier.

Handstand Building Blocks is a program created to help you build a better handstand. From assessment, to application, this program is tailored to give you exactly what you need in order to reach your goals. You can find more details about this one of a kind program here.