Thursday, May 1, 2014

Handstand lessons learned the hard way from one who is not done making mistakes (and learning from them)

I love handstands

In that, there comes no surprise. To me standing on my hands is my yoga. The intense focus required makes it a wonderful form of meditation. In fact friends and family members have commented on the change in my mental state since I began practicing regularly about two years ago. 

Andre Moraru has described the feeling of hand balancing as being akin to flying and I have to agree. There in something about the feeling of inverting your body with such control that I haven't experienced since i was training capoeira regularly.

It wasn't an easy road. I may have advanced fairly quickly but there were many bumps along the way. To this day I still have never learned to kick up into a handstand. This is one of the preliminary steps to getting a freestanding handstand and I still haven't learned it (please don't tell my readers).
It seems somewhere down the road I decided it was easier to do a bent arm press and finally settle on straight arm pressing as my entry of choice. Maybe some day after I become a master I'll decide to finally learn to kick up.

Since pretty much everything I have learned about bodyweight training is self taught, I'd like to share some if the insights I gained about learning handstands the hard way. It seems every article I have ever read about learning to stand on your hands says pretty much the same thing. Never has I read an article that has helped me iron out the snags that I had to learn through personal A-Ha! moments.

If you are attempting to learn the freestanding handstand or are thinking about starting, I hope I can shed some helpful insights.

Rule #1: you have to learn to use your fingers the same way you would use your toes. Stand up for a moment and lean your weight forward just a bit. How do you stop yourself from falling forward? You dig your toes into the floor. Your fingers will have to learn to do the same. When you overbalance (fall too far forward) you have to dig your fingers into the floor with all your strength and fight to lush yourself back into balance. For a while it may feel like you have nothing. Then, one day your body will respond.  Congratulations, you are now learning control. While developing the strength in your hands to do this my hands were so sore for a few months. Bare with it. One day the soreness will be gone and you will have developed crazy grip and forearm strength.

Rule #2: Total body tension. If you have been doing calisthenic training for some time, this should be pretty much second nature. In the world of handstands your whole body has to be rigid. Think of balancing a piece of uncooked spaghetti on your hand versus a raw piece. If your whole body isn't rigid you'll be that raw spaghetti. Don't be raw spaghetti. Brace your abs, glutes, quads, hamstrings and point your toes. This will be mentally and physically taxing at first. With practice, it will come naturally.

Keep these two rules in mind through every step of the way and your development will come much faster.


The bent arm frog stand.
This is where you begin to learn how to use your fingers and develop the strength to control you body. This is the foundation and you want to master this first step. Practice it until you can hold it for at least 30 seconds. Believe me when I say that mastering this first step will seriously set you up for success down the road.

Mike Fitch. Oh why don't you even know I exist?

Straight arm frog stand
Again this is where you learn strength and control. I can not overstate the importance of mastering this progression. I still practice this position before every handstand session. It further strengthens your wrists and hands, begins to strengthen your chest and shoulder girdle which are the key players in supporting your bodyweight in a handstand. Finally this pose will develop the flexibility in your wrists required to do some of the more advanced presses. 30 seconds is the minimum you want to be able to do here. But I'm sure you will use this pose regularly for the rest of your handstand career like I do.

The headstand

This is where you begin to get comfortable being upside down. everything changes when you invert yourself. You can lose your bearings at first. Up becomes down, right becomes up. That's you you should be doing this as often as possible and you will adapt very quickly. Begin with the teddy bear headstand pictured above (Thank you and don't be afraid to hang out for a while. Don't be in a rush to extend your legs. Soon you will become more comfortable in this position and you will begin to straighten out.
One word of advice here is to make a nice big triangle with your head and hands. The bigger your base, the more stable you will be.
The wall handstand
Begin with your hands about six inches away from the wall and bend your dominant leg to 90 degrees. Keeping your leg bent kick up towards the wall. Don't be afraid of hurting yourself. If your  kicking leg is bent, the bottom of your foot will contact the wall first. I make my students practice kicking up to a wall handstand ad nauseum. You have to get uber comfortable doing this. Kicking up to a wall has to be second nature to you before you even think about trying to go freestanding. Make sure you keep your elbows straight. Locked elbows will support your bodyweight with very little muscular involvement. Don't worry about holding this position yet. Go Kick up, come back down, repeat a bazillion to the power of a bazillion times (That's scientific notation for all you math geeks).
Chest to wall
once you are super comfortable kicking up to the wall you really want to consider switching to chest to wall handstands. If you compare the two pictures above you'll notice that the top character in the top photo has a pronounced arch in his body while the other fella has his joints stacked on top of each other. The belly to wall handstand is not only more aesthetically pleasing but also easier to maintain a rigid body. Also having proper alignment makes the handstand much less fatiguing to the chest and shoulder girdle. Just set a mat up behind you at first until you learn to roll or cartwheel out if you lose balance. 

I recommend practicing both the frog stands and inversions together, they will only improve each other. Once you are comfortable enough in the headstand that you don't lose your bearings anymore, feel free to attack the wall.
No matter which handstand you choose (chest or back to the wall), you can begin to work the freestanding handstand by removing one foot from the wall first and then begin taking the other foot off the wall a tiny bit. Not enough to overbalance and fall over. Now dig your fingers into the floor and begin to feel for the control through your fingers that I spoke about at the beginning of the article. At first it will feel like you've got nothing but if you have been doing your frog stand work, it will start to come together.

Getting away from the wall

As I said before, I never really learned to do the traditional kick up to a freestanding handstand. If you want t learn that method youtube it there are currently about 25 000 videos dedicated to it.

The method I used was the bent arm press. It requires a bit more strength but it is really an extension of the bent arm frog stand. so if you really worked that position, this should be fairly natural. That might be why I gravitated to learning this entry.
Begin by setting up for  bent arm frog stand and kick your feet up together. You are really going to have to brace your core and shoulder girdle. Begin by moving slowly and really try to feel the control through your fingers.
I took the liberty of filming a video of myself doing this movement. Do try to ignore pink mess that is my daughter's toys

Grip the floor 

Look at her hands, they are not flat but they are gripping the floor. This tensions the tendons in the finders. Taking up the slack so you can transfer more strength to the floor. This will help you correct over balance.
If you under balance and begin to fall with your stomach towards the floor, correct by bending your elbows and moving your shoulders forward. This is harder than it seems and I find it to be easier to correct overbalance. But it does come with practice.

Final word

Patience. Learning to stand on my hands is one of the most difficult and frustrating things I have ever tried to pursue. Yet also the most gratifying. To get proficient you need to wrk at it almost every day yet know when to back off. At one point I took six weeks off of all other training and did two hour long handstand workouts a day. There is no need for you to do this. 20-30 minutes a day will bring great improvements and the benefits extend to almost every other aspect of your life. The focus, concentration and patience required will enhance all your mental faculties and clear your mind like meditation. The strength, balance and coordination translates to all your athletic pursuits. this is no exaggeration