The mindset for efficient handstand training

For a while now I wanted to write about the difference between habitual repetition and intensive practice. Understanding the difference between the two can mean that we get more out of our daily training. It took me a while to know the difference myself. When I read Daniel Coyle’s book “The talent code” I realized that what he calls “deep practice” comes very close to what I call “intensive practice”. Daniel Coyle tries to pin down what exactly leads to excellence across a range of fields from writing to basketball. His conclusions are that what people call talent is in fact mostly the result of a specific type of practice that breaks a skill down to manageable small parts. He also talks about how operating at the limits of your ability and actively processing mistakes intensifies your practice and strengthens the neural connections you need for that specific activity. Anders Ericcson calls this type of practice “deliberate practice” in his 1993 essay The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. Both their findings resonate with what I have experienced throughout my training and education. So this post will be inspired by their ideas as well as my personal experience and will hopefully tell you more about how to progress faster in your handstand training.

Before I continue I would like to point out that training does not necessarily have to be focused on progress. If it is fun, keeps to fit and gives you quality recreational time that is great! Rather than ideologically advocating self optimization (radical optimization and climate change have in common that they are guaranteed to ruin you and everyone around – so please, my friends increase your carrot cake intake!); rather than telling you what you have to do, this post is a quest into my ongoing fascination with what makes my students progress. Alongside that quest I am also trying to remember how I progressed and what the crucial moments in my learning curve were.

When I was 12 I was determined to become part of the German sports-acro national team. Our sports-acro club had a six week long summer break and I was in total despair over how much training I was going to miss out on. So I wrote myself a summer practice plan to keep fit and improve, so that I could go right back to training properly after the break. The practice plan consisted of precise exercises for every handstand move I wanted to learn, with an exact amount of repetitions that I would increase every week and the plan also included targeted conditioning exercises. I had a laser focus on everything I did with a really vivid picture of the moves I wanted to learn in mind. The practice plan was set out for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. My grandmother was deeply concerned about this “training obsession” and thought I should be outside playing with the other kids. She had a point there! BUT in those weeks I learned a one arm handstand by myself as well as many other handstand shapes and I set the base for more than twenty years of handstand training to come. In these six weeks I became a handbalancer, I still stick to the structure of training I wrote for myself back then and it took me a long time to realize how remarkable and important these six weeks were.

What made this summer so important was not just the time I put into the practice. I was very focused, I practiced without music playing in the background or any other distractions purely focusing on what I would now call an efficient body mind connection. I was really trying to figure out each move in a physical, not in a logical way. It is hard to pin down what happens in the complex flux of muscular impulses and in the split second feedback between body and brain. Bodily learning means that you need to find a system to make sense of what you feel in order to know the difference between right and wrong movements.

Within that system you then need to break a move down into parts that make sense to you. So when you get a correction or feedback your job as someone who wants to learn a handstand is to break the information down into digestible bits and have a laser focus on the body part that needs to implement the correction. In order to facilitate this process as a teacher I try to give precise visual examples (show the student), provide somatic images (“imagine your legs are like laser rays”) and precise physical instructions (“curve your upper back”).

When you have this type of focus in your practice, you don’t need to put in long hours. I don’t ever practice for more than three hours a day. While I have accumulated many hours of practice over the years for sure, I do not think that long hours of training are useful. Regular practice is important but not for hours at a time. What really makes a difference is the quality of the instructions you get and the sharpness of your awareness while you are training.

When you are engaged in deep practice your awareness is entirely in your body. This does not mean that you are actively thinking about your body it means that you are actively feeling it. This feeling is not the equivalent of merely observing your body. While it is important to be a good observer, you need to develop a holistic feeling of your body as one whole connected space. It means detailed, intrinsic, felt knowledge of the body so that it becomes both a database and a map upon which you mark new territory. Your body becomes a canvas onto which you draw a picture. Learning a knew physical skill, especially as an adult means that you need to find a method of processing instructions and images in a way that allows you to translate them to bodily knowledge or kinesthetic intelligence. So this poses the question of what happens to information within the training process? If a handstand student is told to tilt their hips more to the front how do they make sure this actually happens? Why does it not happen sometimes even though we have clearly understood the theory of the handstand and the importance of tucking the hips in? Once upside down the world is suddenly different. Even though it is the same body, standing on your feet or upside down, one is in control the other is not. How is it possible to bridge that gap?

What I suggest is to consider yourself an explorer, a cartographer of unknown territory. Your body is foreign land and you are trying to create a map that consists of intrinsic, bodily images, not words. The words sit in your brain, the intrinsic images are your physical map and guideline against which you can execute corrections. Try this: when you practice break the movement down into sections. Work on two pieces of information at the most. Say you want to correct your straight line handstand, pick two very specific areas you want to work on, let’s say pushing the shoulder out and pushing the ribs flat. Before you do the movement think of what it means to push the shoulders out or to keep the ribs flat. Physically try it out whilst standing or in a prep exercise. Put all your awareness onto that specific movement/body part. Try to be very clear about what this feels like! What it feels like! Ask yourself: “What is the physical sensation of my body being in this position?” Then memorize it! Press save! Then press copy! Now do the move and try to recreate that feeling when you are doing the handstand with your mind completely focused on the thing you want to correct. This is the process of learning: 1. understand the problem 2. understand the correction 3. while standing or in a prep exercise execute the correction 4. save the feeling 5. copy and paste into the move 6. repeat it a hundred times to anchor it in the body. While you repeat the movement, also repeat the correction feedback process every 30th of 40th repetition (roughly) to make sure that you are still on track. With each repetition the correction will become more body and less thought. It becomes automatic. If you stick to this process you will improve, it is an incredibly efficient way to physically learn. Make it a habit to have your mind like a laser on the body part that has to execute the correction. When I struggle to coordinate a movement and my limbs keep doing the wrong thing I sometimes stop and think with big, bold, loud words: “At this point (picture the physical position) your left leg will do this” (kind of do it + picture in which direction it will go = towards he corner). Think again: “Towards the corner! This one is my left leg!” (I then pinch or pat my left leg). Then I do the movement and think: Left + corner, left + corner. – This is much faster than it sounds and it becomes a habit.

The physical map you create will be the base upon which you apply further learning and corrections, so that your physical knowledge builds in complexity just like your knowledge of a language builds. So even if you are processing feedback about what you are doing from a teacher or from watching yourself on a video your awareness should be in your body. You are not trying to solve a logical problem, understand an abstract theory or construct any other framework outside of your body. Your thoughts have to refer to the great unknown which you are trying to map: the body. This way you can break a big goal like mastering a handstand down to a thousand little steps of which you can take two every day.

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Intensive handstand training

Every type of physical activity has its own charm.

One of the charms of handstand training is the intensely strenuous, grinding work.

Handstand training creates a pumping heat in your body, your muscles burn, you feel the pressure in your joints, and there can be that ill feeling of your body tearing at its seams that comes with touching upon your physical limits (sounds like a fun activity right?). All of it is paired with an intense mental and physical focus. In this post I would like to talk about the states one passes through when trying to advance in handstand training as I feel like understanding them better will enable you to value each state more as part of your progress.

We love the fleeting moments of lightness in our handstand training. Some days it all just feels effortless, our body is light like a feather. We wonder what all the stress was about, this feels so easy. These are the moments we work for. Moments when we appear to have full and effortless control over our body. These moments of lightness often come as a result of descending from the peaks we have climbed in previous training days. When we have recovered from a very strenuous training time or our body has adjusted to a new level of training intensity we can feel light, powerful and almost weightless in our handstand training. As much as this feels pleasant I think the moments when training is hard offer valuable experiences and should be seen as more than just a chore.

In handstand training, after having learnt the basics, you cannot progress without a tight training routine that systematically pushes your limits further. Let me repeat: you cannot progress without those training sessions where you feel close to the absolute limit of what your body is able to cope with. When you get this pumping heat all over your limbs, your forearms swell and you feel a bit like a jelly fish in a sauna, strangely lacking in substance, close to melting and very help-and hopeless, that is where your handstand training starts. Such high intensity training does however contain the risk of damaging your mental and physical body. Your awareness narrows, your movement precision decreases and you are entering into a mental dialogue with yourself about having-to-become-more-than-your-are which can be harmful if you are not paying close attention to it.

So how do we challenge and push ourselves to work very hard without injuring ourselves, without crushing our joy, our self-esteem and critical judgement? My answer to this is: slowly and carefully get used to working with a quiet and self assured ardour.

Ardour comes from the Latin word ardere which means: to burn. It translates to anything ranging from enthusiasm to passion, devotion or zeal. Ardour is the burning heat in your body and mind. Ardour means to love or want something so much that you are ready to take whatever hardship it requires. You want to progress at handstands, you want to have more stability, endurance or learn how to do a one arm handstand. This is what you want on the surface. If you cannot connect to the underlying personal goals that your wish, goal or passion is based on you may fail to hold up the discipline it requires to do the necessary work. Now I have dropped the second most important word: discipline. Discipline sounds rather grim. Its connotations range from control and enforced compliance to strict rules and punishment. Discipline (you know by now, I pride myself of my Latin ;)) comes from the Latin word discipulus which simply means student but not just that, it also defines a person who learns from another in order to then become a teacher themselves.

It is important to note that ardour and discipline are both in essence directed at something and describe a process of becoming. Discipline has an idol in mind, a teacher, another athlete or a clearly outlined achievement. Ardour envisions a future self or a new way of being that comes about by fully immersing yourself in the object of your passion. The physical process of training hard is thus a process of becoming. Your hard work always happens in dialogue with a vision of you, your future self. What motivates you is a sketch that you have drawn of yourself of what you may become in the future. This is very different from ticking off a box for having achieved a higher number of repetitions or more seconds in holding endurance handstands. It is a process alive with personal reflection where you continuously need to check in with your future self-to-be along the way of hard work, pain and sweat.

This may seem obvious but it is not. A lot of people are disconnected form the hardship of training as a tool for leverage because they do not understand the dialogue and introspection that needs to take place on the way. In that case handstand training will be very mechanistic and merely toying around with exercises, training tools and drills. If you really want to benefit from the intensity of handstand training, do understand what you are aiming at, who you want to become (not just a better handbalancer) and who you are doing this for (not just the Instagram likes). I like to call this process “developing a perspective”. It means that you start to understand yourself and your unique set of circumstances as a person and in life better.

On a very practical level “developing a perspective” means that you have to pay very close attention. The biggest potential intensive training has for personal development is the hyper-awareness and focus it requires. When the training gets tough your awareness needs to sharpen, your body is in a more dangerous place than ever, you may get injured, you want to push your limits but how far is safe? How much can you toe the line of what is safe? That is the main question body and mind try to negotiate throughout strenuous training: What is safe? It is a very exciting state of mind.

If you accept this as not just a physical but also as a personal process, you can welcome the strain and the pain to teach you more about yourself. That way hard work has a taste of discovery and becomes a stepping stone to progress rather than just a tedious chore to get to a higher skill level. Finding joy in strenuous training, finding meaning in ardour and the potential in discipline means you need to find your personal project.

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Developing your own practice

My students sometimes ask me why my online handstand course is only available for streaming for twelve months. (online handstand course available here) This is not because I want to restrict access to the program or get people to buy it a second time. This is because on the one hand twelve months are a good time frame to prevent you from procrastinating. Ten year gym contracts calculate on the fact that most people don’t start until nine and a half years have passed. Limiting time means that you will make better use of it. On the other hand there is a more fundamental concept behind this time frame:

I hope that in a year’s time you won’t need this program anymore because you will have moved on to more challenging ways of moving. I hope that your understanding of handbalancing as well as the knowledge of your body will have expanded and you will have developed an appetite for learning other things. I hope that by that time you have built your own practice from the tools I gave you and that you will be off on your own journey to discover and explore your physical homeland.

Let me explain the mindset of learning that theses thoughts are based on: I believe that your competence in making critical choices about the way you want to train grows with every hour of exercise you put in. So do trust that growing knowledge of your body and use it. When you have understood and mastered a skill up to a certain extent you don’t need to go back to square one all the time to remind yourself of the exact wording of every phrase, the exact task, the exact exercise. By the time you are in college you don’t need to keep in touch with the wisdom of your primary school maths books.

Learning by copying someone and by repeating exercises hundreds of times is often the way to acquire a new physical tool. That is a fun and very important process in itself. You can really dive into a new way of moving and trust someone else to guide you through it. This is the stage of learning where you expand your physical horizon, you discover a whole new range of moving and being. You practice being precise, accurate and goal oriented. Every athlete and mover knows times when one is totally obsessed with perfect technique, maximum repetitions and optimum training plans. I believe that this a very important stage but only the first of many steps of physical learning and personal development.

So here you are doing my handstand exercises that are supposed to serve you as a tool while you learn and familiarise your body with new pathways of moving. For a while you follow my patterns and build the awareness as well as the muscular grid to safely execute more and more advanced exercises.

Then comes the point where you are ready to move on.

The next step to master is to take critical choices about how and what you would like to continue practising. This sounds easy but it requires a lot of trust in yourself and also courage and determination. It is in a way a lot harder than just copying something. You need to check in with your goals, assess your needs and abilities and take decisions about what suits you and what does not. You need to be creative and write training plans for yourself. You need to develop a vision about where you want to go next with your training. This is nothing you need to rush towards. To start with you should continue to do all those new exercises until you feel like you really understood what they are about. When you feel like you know them well enough you can take your own decisions about whether to take or leave them.

You will be able to tell that it is time to move on when you notice a growing impatience with what you are doing (not to be confused with the challenge and potential discomfort of learning something new). As time moves on you will find yourself losing interest or find yourself just less intrigued by your teachers training plan. The whole things just gets a bit boring. That is the stage at which you are ready to examine what you have learned, take what has proven useful, make it part of your own practice and then move on. I would be very disappointed if you stayed my student for ever.

Tailoring what you have learned to suit your needs, your life and your goals can be a joyful and empowering process. Once you get used to it you will find that it becomes a habit which leads you onto a path for continuous development. This development is the process of becoming an independent mover and of creating your own practice. Becoming a confident and independent mover (and person) means that you learn to trust that your body “knows”, to trust that it stores and owns the knowledge that you have exposed yourself to. Starting your individual journey of physical learning and development does not mean that you stop to acquire knowledge from others via copy and repetition. It just means that you are aware of your own path and actively work towards crafting your own personal physical journey.

My beginners online course for handbalancing is only a seven week training program and it may take more than that to rock your boat. I hope that in between the lines of my exercises you notice that I would like you to become an independent, reflected and confident mover. I would like you to become a person who knows their body well and has enough confidence to take decisions for themselves. Within everything I teach there is a core principle: Get to know yourself. Know what is good and necessary for you, for your particular body type at this point in your life. Learn how to listen to the repercussions any movement has within your body. Be aware, curious and critical and actively shape your future training.

Now go and forget about all the words you have read and dive into your handstanding body! Enjoy what you have learned, trust what you are building and expect much more to come.

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