What to loose and what to keep? That question is important when you are clearing out the house but also when you practice handstands.
When you start to practice handstands it seems like you need to use EVERY muscle in your body only to stay up for a few seconds. As you get better you will find that you automatically use less muscular tension. This can feel very strange and even wrong because you got used to trying hard but it is actually quite important when moving on to advanced moves. Once familiar with a move I encourage my students to ask: How much effort do you need? Which muscles have to work hard and which ones are you able to release a bit.
As you develop more ease in your balance and you move to the intermediate moves, tuck and straddle handstand or the handstand press, you will soon find that in order to get into a tuck shape for example you need to release the front of your hips in order to fold the knees low down into the chest. If you practice the press for example you will find that compression, or pulling the legs towards the body is not achieved by pure force (engaging the quads and pulling the legs towards you) but also by releasing the front of your hips, creating a maximum fold. Likewise in the back bends, for example the flat seven handstand, you need to release the chest to the front and focus on “sandwiching” (technical term coined my Natalie) or squishing the body down, making the body compact and lowering the balance point. If you practice kick-ups, you are better off being gentle and precise, rather than vigorous and muscular. A clean kick-up has a sense of ease, you need that ease in order to feel where your balance point is and whether your alignment is correct.
The other two important aspects of release are energy efficiency, especially in the one arm handstands and all endurance holds as well as swiftness and precision in the leg movements.
Here is an experiment: try to hold a handstand for 2 minutes, against the wall or free-standing, and notice how the muscular tension in your legs changes. In the beginning all the muscles are firmly engaged but as you get more exhausted you body tries to switch off every unnecessary effort in an attempt to save energy. The same happens in the arms and in the back, but it is a little more subtle. The body is very good at this, when confronted with a challenge the automatic response is to get you through the task. It is geared towards making movement more economic, finding the most efficient pathway, using the least effort, cutting the sharpest corners.
Sometimes this can of course lead to bad habits and bad posture and alignment but as a mechanism it inevitably shapes your training and your learning process, so it is worth to examine it well.
You don’t really need every muscle in your legs to keep them up in a handstand, you only need a few muscles at 60% capacity to keep them up there, unless you are a beginner.
I love how when I practice one arm endurance I can feel my body shutting down every muscle I don’t need. The more I push myself in training, the more my body prioritizes muscular activity that supports the posture best. I often feel like the muscular tension moves one level below the surface. That is also one reason why I am very much in favour of endurance training. It switches on the deep posture muscles that you need to build in order to make the handstand balance second nature to you. Endurance holds will surpass the surface muscles very quickly in favour of the strongest muscles at work in your body, the deeper muscular tissue that holds you upright every day, except now it is holding you upside down.
I would like to encourage you to trust this process and examine it well.
The journey of your handstand practice is not like building a brick tower, where you keep every block you build as a foundation but more like the history of aviation, where over time planes got smaller, lighter and faster in the process of optimizing something people once considered impossible: Flying.
What to loose and what to keep? The harder the task, the more this matters.
Here is a selection of my Youtube videos that focus on tension and release:
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How to do a handstand, handstand for beginners, straddle stretch, handstand progressions