Sie sind auf Seite 1von 169

The Little

Handbalancing
Book
Copyright © 2016 Nicolo Kehrwald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1541175980
ISBN 13: 9781541175983
Library of Congress Control Number: 2016921045
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
North Charleston, South Carolina
CONTENTS

Acknowledgments
Introduction
Why Handbalancing?
Foundation: The Basics
Next Steps: Intermediate Exercises
Advanced Skills
How Much To Train?
Training For Small Successes
“Pre-Hab”
Stretching And Warming Up
Conditioning And Cross-Training
Training When You Don’t Have Time To Train
Spotting And Coaching Handbalancing
Unique Drills
Handbalancing Equipment
Closing: A Story About Patience
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Much thanks to my wife Jacki and my good friend Jason Stein for all of their
editing expertise, as well as their infectious enthusiasm for handstands! A big
thank you to Danny Boulet for the beautiful photographs. And my undying
gratitude to all of the talented coaches and instructors who have shared their
handstand expertise with me: Robin Lane, Chuck Johnson, Stefan Furst, Cory
Tabino, Lui Yi, Yury Bozyan, Elena Borodina, Bileg Batmonkh, Tumurbaatar
Bud, and Claude Victoria. Thank you!
INTRODUCTION

If you’ve ever been to Portland, Oregon, chances are you’ve heard of
Powell’s Books. This huge, hip bookstore is known for having a large
selection of cheap used books that sit on the shelves alongside brand-new
releases. As a kid, I would wander the aisles and invariably end up in the
martial arts section. I was fascinated by the allure of Eastern mysticism and
physical prowess, as well as by the suggestion that I could learn to move like
Jackie Chan or Jet Li. I would spend hours flipping through the pages of
those books. I remember a lot of black-and-white photos of people with out-
of-date hairstyles demonstrating a multitude of attacks and defenses.
However, even then I knew that successfully learning a whole art form from
a book was extremely challenging at best — and completely unrealistic at
worst. So the books I took home and actually learned from were the ones that
offered more than a sequence of katas with step-by-step pictures. These few
precious finds contained glimpses of wisdom gained through the experiences
of their authors. These books not only delved into how to train, but how to
find deeper meaning in the practice. They shed light on why one would
devote themselves to an art form.
This is what I hope to accomplish with this book. I will, of course, include
the technical information necessary for a thriving handbalancing practice, and
if you’re already on this path I hope to add some unique tools to your
repertoire. But I also hope that by providing some anecdotes from my own
journey you will find a few insights that resonate with you.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the irony in my statement that, shortly after writing
about the difficulty in learning an art form from a book, I will provide the
exercises necessary for a successful handbalancing practice! I think there’s no
way around this. The best option is to find a talented coach, in which case
this book will hopefully be a useful supplement to your training. Whether or
not you’re able to find a coach, or have the means to travel to one, I
encourage you to explore all the other information out there, including on the
Internet. However, to my knowledge there’s no other up-to-date book (at
least in English) about the beautiful art of handbalancing. So despite the
challenges and shortcomings of learning from a book, I still believe this one
can be useful and helpful.
If you’re a coach, I believe this little book will also be of assistance to you. I
often write as if speaking to the solitary practitioner — I suppose because I
imagine how grateful I would have been to have a book before I found my
coaches — but the information herein is equally applicable to teaching and
assisting others.
So with that, bon voyage! This is an art form I truly love, and I wish you all
the best in your exploration of it.

A Brief Note About Who I Am
I am a professional circus artist currently traveling the world and performing.
I specialize in handbalancing, and duo aerial hoop and straps with my wife,
but I also perform a wide range of skills as the job requires. As I write this,
I’m touring North America as an artist with the show Odysseo and
performing under the largest big top in the world. I began my movement
training with dance and capoeira, and then for 12 years performed for a
company in Portland called Do Jump Theater. During this time I became
more and more interested in the traditional circus arts.
Do Jump Theater, founded and led by Robin Lane, was one of the first
movement companies to pioneer a contemporary blend of theatrical structure,
dance, acrobatics, and aerial arts, a blend that has become very popular in
recent years. My time there provided me with a wealth of expert instruction
and performance experience, and gave me a fertile creative environment to
explore my own interests. It was through Do Jump that I also began teaching
regularly, and so gained experience working with a wide range of students,
from children to adults, and from beginners to professionals.
It was in my first few years working at Do Jump that I became particularly
interested in handbalancing. Our performance schedule afforded me some
time off each summer, so I was able to travel to some of the best
handbalancing coaches around the world. I was fortunate to train with Yury
Bozyan in Montreal, Claude Victoria in France, and Bileg Batmonkh and
Tumurbaatar Bud in Mongolia, as well as other accomplished coaches in
China and across North America. I’ll talk more about these inspiring coaches
throughout this book.
The more I learn and the more I travel the more humbled I am. To put it
bluntly, I am not nearly the best handbalancer out there. However, because of
my experience starting as an adult and working with various coaches, as well
as spending years teaching my own students, I’ve become good at breaking
down training techniques, both for myself and others. And so I will break
them down for you. Enjoy!
WHY HANDBALANCING?
Why do we do handstands? Everyone has their own reasons, which I won’t
pretend to know, and yet I still find it a question worth exploring. People
offer the usual answers given for most physical endeavors: to get in shape, to
have fun, to feel accomplished, to achieve goals, to conquer fears, to build
coordination. People also offer more artistic goals, such as to express
themselves, to perform something unique, or to create with the body. People
also have professional and performance goals, such as to learn skills that will
impress and draw in audiences, to find work using a skill they love, to work
in the circus arts in the first place, and so forth.
While all of these are true, for me none of them truly satisfy the question of
‘why’, mostly because handbalancing is so difficult! There are easier ways to
get in shape, express yourself, and even find work in the circus. There are
some who didn’t have much choice in the matter, as they started at such a
young age and were told in circus school they would do handbalancing. I also
imagine there are some talented individuals out there who really can and do
pick up handbalancing as a casual hobby. For the rest of us, though,
handbalancing is hard and it is a choice, a choice that maybe doesn’t make all
that much sense.
When I first became interested in handbalancing, I didn’t realize the
difficulty. However, deep down I must have known it would take real effort,
because I reached a definite turning point when I stopped dabbling and really
began working to become a handbalancer. This happened after I met Cory
Tabino, a handbalancer traveling through Portland who was able to give me
some lessons before moving on. To have pointers from a coach made it all
seem possible. At the same time as my lessons with Cory, my mother gave
me a book about positive thinking and manifesting desires. A coach was
instructing me and my head was filled with affirmations, so I naively thought
I would get my one-arm handstand in a manner of months. I would simply
increase my time in “piano fingers” by ten seconds each week until I could
hold it for a minute, and then I would be able to do a one-arm! Easy!
This, of course, did not happen so easily. But what I remember about this
time was that I allowed myself to really want it, which also meant it would
really suck if it didn’t work out. So I was committed.
A second turning point happened for me while training in Montreal. Cory
connected me with one of his teachers, Yury Bozyan, with whom I have since
trained extensively. After my first lesson with Yury I was ecstatic. The lesson
had been intense — he had stretched my limits further than anyone before,
and we had done a lot of handstands, but I was still filled with energy and
excitement. After the second lesson, however, I got a taste of what training
with Yury really meant. During that first lesson he had just gone easy on me.
I was physically destroyed after the second lesson, and I struggled
emotionally as I realized just how difficult this practice really is, and how
long it might take me to get “there.”
This was the second pivotal time for me because, despite the difficulties, I
decided to keep going. This wasn’t exactly as simple as “Stick to your
dreams,” “Reach for the stars,” or some other pithy catch phrase.
As a performer, I knew that handbalancing would take longer to learn than
many other disciplines. Even if I succeeded in learning a one-arm, in the
world of handbalancing this is only a baby step towards performing an act,
and audiences often don’t even realize how difficult one-arm handstands are
— in fact, despite being an acrobat myself, until I trained with Yury even I
had not realized how hard one-arms were! To put in years of hard work for a
trick that lasts five seconds, and that people most likely won’t truly
appreciate … was it worth it?
This second turning point with Yury was an opportunity to check in with
myself to ask, “Do you still want this, even if it’s hard, and even if you might
not get there?” And truthfully, my decision to keep going wasn’t based on
some logical conclusion.
The logistics of these questions stick with me to this day. For example, it’s
often easier for me to find work as an aerialist than as a handbalancer, and
performing a duo aerial act allows me to be with my wife in a profession that
requires traveling for extended periods of time. Also, when I do perform
handbalancing, I find it one of the more stressful disciplines. Adrenaline
usually makes it more difficult instead of easier, and the mistakes are very
obvious and harder to cover up.
And yet, whenever I can I come back to handstands. I love the simplicity. I
love the surreal shapes the body makes when turned upside down. I love the
athleticism combined with focused precision, like an archer shooting an
arrow, except instead of finished in an instant, the motion is suspended in
time. And perhaps I love that it is so hard. There is a perfectionist side of my
personality that loves to sink its teeth into the never-ending puzzle of
handbalancing.
Of course, I wish I was a better handbalancer! I wish it was easier for me, or I
had started when I was younger, or I could build strength more quickly. In
the end, no matter how hard I train, there will always be people better than
me, who started younger, are naturally more athletic, more flexible, and on
and on. This train of thought can become a real downward spiral, and part of
the journey, for me, is to turn my attention back to the moment-by-moment
joy that I find on my hands. This is why handbalancing, despite being part of
my career (and so inevitably inviting comparisons with others), is also a
“practice.” While I don’t know how it is for others, or for you, I imagine that
for many it’s a practice as well.
Many things can be a “practice.” We tend to think of yoga or meditation, but
most any activity could be a practice — even eating, or watching football!
However, unlike many hobbies, handbalancing tends to weed out those who
are not, on some level, coming to it with the reverence one approaches a
dedicated practice. A practice is about more than the goal at the end. It is also
about the journey along the way. Through this journey a practice offers us
many opportunities for self discovery and personal growth.
I don’t want to take this thinking too far. I’m not going to get a tattoo of a
handstand, or make balancing upside down a metaphor for everything in my
life. But for me, when the question of “why” pops up, the answers I come
back to are “love” and “practice.” I love doing handstands, and they are more
than just handstands.
FOUNDATION: THE BASICS

Technique
One of my first coaches, Stefan Furst, conceptualized for me the image of an
acrobatic practice as a pyramid: the higher you want the peak, the wider the
base needs to be. This concept informs my definition of technique.
Essentially, technique is the healthiest and easiest pattern of movement — it’s
just not always the easiest at the moment. Some handbalancing techniques
seem counterintuitive at first, but make the harder movements down the road
easier.
For handbalancing, the base of this pyramid includes more than just
performing handstands with good form. It involves everything from wrist and
abdominal strength to shoulder and elbow flexibility, as well as mental
understanding and perseverance. And everyone starts from a different place.
Children are different than adults, and former gymnasts are different than
former skateboarders.
What I often see is that students progress in alternating stages of
understanding and strength development. At first a few pointers about how to
position one’s body and balance go a long way, but then more detailed
information may or may not be useful until another level of strength has been
reached, at which point the next layer of knowledge can be added.
So as we explore the correct form for handstands, keep in mind the wide base
of the pyramid and try not to skip the uncomfortable stuff. In addition to
attempting to balance, it will be beneficial to work on strength and flexibility
from the beginning. It’s deceptive how much strength handstands require,
and to have a wide range of mobility usually means less strength is needed.
Perhaps if we walked everywhere on our hands, like we do on our feet, then
balancing on one hand would be as simple as shifting our weight over to one
foot! In later chapters we will explore the topics of stretching, conditioning,
and other exercises. However, I find I’m better able to focus on these aspects
of the “pyramid base” when I see how they relate to the goal at the top — so
let’s dive into how to do a handstand! Just make sure that you warm up first,
especially your wrists and shoulders, and keep listening to your body.

Getting Upside Down
One of the safest ways to get upside down on your own is to kick up to a
handstand against a wall. Once you’re leaning against the wall, you can get
accustomed to being inverted, and you can focus on your body position
without balancing.
The essential concept that will help you get upside down, regardless of
whether you’re attempting your first headstand, handstand, or even one-arm,
is to first get your hips up. A common mistake is to throw your feet and legs
over your head. This will leave your center of mass behind, which will pull
you back down to the floor. Be especially aware of this if you start by kicking
up against a wall, because we tend to throw our feet over in anticipation of
striking the wall.
Instead, think of lifting your low back towards the wall. Similarly, if you
have trouble staying inverted, try to bring your hips closer to the wall. When
you bring your hips and low back towards the wall, you will engage your abs
and lift the center of your mass over your hands, rather than just your feet.
An exception to this concept is found in contortion handstands, which utilize
an extreme arch in the back. However, even if you are interested in pursuing
contortion balances, it’s best to start with straight positions and learn to
control your center before moving to these more advanced positions.
Remember the wide base of the pyramid!
Focusing on the hips also applies when spotting handstands. If you are
fortunate enough to have someone to train with, it is best to spot your partner
at the hips and not at their feet or ankles. This way you can guide the center
of their mass to a balanced place over their arms. Also, if they start to
collapse and need to bail, you aren’t holding on to their landing gear!

Troubleshooting Kicking Up To The Wall
If you find that you can’t yet kick up to a handstand against the wall, chances
are you are struggling with one or more common problem area for those new
to handstands. These areas are proprioception (the awareness of your body in
space) while upside down, strength, and fear of going upside down.
We already talked about one proprioceptive cue: getting your hips up first. If
this is not working, it may be that your shoulders are collapsing forward,
which makes it impossible to lift up your hips. Try to notice if your shoulders
move beyond your wrists towards or even into the wall. Instead, keep your
shoulders on top of your hands. If this feels impossible, you may need to
build more strength, which we’ll talk about in a moment.
Another body awareness cue is simply to kick your leg up higher. Make sure
you kick one leg at a time so that you can really swing up on top of yourself.
I know I said it’s a mistake to just throw your legs beyond you while leaving
your hips behind, but if you just aren’t getting upside down, it may be that
you need to kick harder. Sometimes what feels like upside down is actually
only partway there!
If none of these awareness cues work, it may be that your arms are not yet
strong enough to support you upside down. This doesn’t necessarily mean
you should stop trying to kick up to a handstand against the wall. Just bring
your feet down immediately if you feel your arms start to collapse. Also,
build some strength and confidence in your upper body with push ups,
moderate weight lifting, or other upper-body exercises. Get used to having
weight on your hands by turning away from the wall and walking your feet
up part way. In the meantime, you can still develop the proprioception for
going upside down by exploring headstands or other inversions. As you build
strength and confidence it will be easy to kick up against the wall.
If fear of going upside down is what holds you back, then don’t worry — this
it totally normal. As you work on your body awareness and strength, your
fear will dissipate. This is also when a coach or friend can really help. To get
a spot through what a handstand feels like can reassure you that everything is
okay.

Body Position
Now that you’re upside down, we can start perfecting your handstand
technique! In modern handbalancing the ideal body position is perfectly
straight. This means the shoulders are directly on top of the wrists, the hips
are on top of the shoulders with no arch between, and the toes are directly
above the wrists. This requires engaging the abs to flatten some of the natural
curve in the lower spine, and subsequently squeezing the buttocks to keep the
hips straight.
It is admittedly easier to balance with a long arch in the back, a shape
affectionately dubbed the “banana handstand.” But this is a classic example
of a habit that will make future positions and transitions more difficult. Also,
I’ll be the first to admit that handbalancing is a performance art that has styles
and fads like anything else, so the aesthetic of the straight line may be in part
simply that: a desired aesthetic!
One major technical advantage of the straight body position, particularly the
rounding of the chest and engagement of the abs, is that it brings one’s
weight more over the center of the wrists. In the ideal handstand, you will
balance using only the movements in your wrist while the rest of your body is
tight and still, just as when standing we balance with just the movement of
our feet, without constantly moving the whole body like a tower of Jell-o.
To illustrate, if you stand on your feet and let your belly arch out, your
weight moves more towards your toes. It is then easy to keep from falling
forward — you simply press your toes into the floor. However, when you’re
on your hands, if you arch your belly you then fall towards the “heel” of your
hand, and so have nothing to push into the floor to reclaim your balance. In
this case, most people resort to arching even farther in an attempt to throw the
weight of their legs beyond their body, but this tendency only compounds the
problem. Rather than arching more, if you pull in your belly and ribs towards
your spine, you will move the weight of your body over the center of your
hands. From here you can prevent falling by pressing your fingers into the
floor.
The correct technique of a straight handstand usually takes some time for
people to truly internalize, and it is worth the work! The straight handstand is
not only aesthetically beautiful, but it is easier to balance with subtle hand
corrections and will allow you to progress towards more challenging
positions and movements.

Wall Hollow Body
A great way to feel this straight-body position (as well as strengthen it) is to
stand with your heels against the wall and your hands up over your head, as if
you were doing a handstand, but on your feet. Try to make your whole back
touch the wall, especially your low back. Also, press your arms into the wall
without compensating by bending your elbows or knees. I call this the “wall
hollow body.”
This drill sounds simple, but it takes a surprising amount of engagement! At
first you might not be able to make everything touch the wall. It may be that
your shoulders are stiff, or you are still figuring out how to engage your abs
in this new way (or like many people you feel your butt is too big! Don’t
worry, it’s probably not.) Regardless of where you are in the process, this is a
great exercise. For those starting acrobatic training as adults, shoulder
flexibility is often a limiting factor. However, even if your line is not
perfectly straight yet, the act of pulling towards the straight position will still
engage your muscles in the right way and teach your brain the correct
sensation of engagement. The act of pulling your abs into the wall creates the
position that will shift your weight over your wrists when you are in a
handstand so you can better balance.
Another helpful body position exercise is the traditional “hollow body.” To
do this, lie on your back and press your low back into the floor while lifting
your legs, head, and shoulders a couple inches off the floor. Your arms can be
at your sides, or for a little more challenge, over your head. Your first priority
should be to keep your low back on the floor. If this is too difficult, start with
your legs higher and/or bend your knees. As you build strength in this
position you will be able to lengthen and lower your legs while keeping your
whole back on the floor. The hollow body will strengthen your abs more than
the version against the wall described above, but the wall version is better for
feeling the ideal alignment for a handstand. I would recommend the
traditional hollow body for building abdominal strength, especially if this is a
weakness for you, and the wall hollow body for getting used to the ideal
handstand position.

Shoulder Position
In a correct handstand, the shoulders should be pushed out and shrugged up
to the ears. This gives you more control over your balance, helps protect your
shoulders and wrists, and also helps with your straight body position. In fact,
this is one of the first ways you can recognize a good handstand.
In addition, when in the handstand, try to pull in your chest as you shrug up
your shoulders. This will help keep your weight over your hands. Often when
the shoulders sink the chest pops out, and then the weight falls towards the
heel of the hands. The result is we fall “under,” or towards our belly (as
opposed to “over,” towards our back).
A good exercise to feel the proper shoulder position is to stand in a doorway
with your hands over head. Press as hard as you can into the top of the
doorframe without losing the straight line of your body. As you press into the
doorframe, engage your abs and pull in your chest. You can also think of
broadening your back in order to better feel the hollow position. If you
extend your shoulders all the way, you’ll feel them touch the edges of your
ears.
Having said all this, I should mention that sometimes the emphasis on
shoulder extension is over-done. Once you’ve learned to push out your
shoulders and engage them, it does not need to be a constant struggle to push
them as hard as you can into the floor. In fact, once you start working on one-
arms this will cause you to twist! So push out your shoulders, and then hold
them there.
In addition to elevated, your shoulders should be in a straight line with your
back. This way you can stack your body without straining to hold the
handstand. This can be difficult if your shoulders are stiff, which for many
people means working on stretching them. On the other end of the spectrum,
flexible students often open their shoulders too far. Sometimes even
individuals who have tight shoulders will lean into their shoulders too far,
perhaps in an attempt to open them. This either causes them to fall “over”
towards their back, or to pike at the hips in an attempt to compensate. So
notice if your weight falls towards the heel of your hands, and your knuckles
and thumbs pop up off the floor. If so, chances are you actually need to close
your shoulders a tiny bit.

Hand And Elbow Position
I was taught to place my hands shoulder-width apart. This means that when
my shoulders are in the pushed-out position, my hands are actually very close
together, with only a few inches between thumbs. However, if your shoulders
are tight, you should start with your hands wider, and gradually move them
closer as your shoulders open. The main reason to keep the hands so close
together is to better transition to one arm. Once you reach a certain level of
proficiency, this becomes less important, and the distance between your
hands will vary from move to move.
The fingers should point straight forward or even slightly out. I often think of
my pointer finger pointing straight forward. Ideally the hands are flat.
However, as with the body position, what is most important is to have your
weight evenly over your hands in order to balance. Usually if your knuckles
pop up, it is a symptom of your weight falling too far “under” (towards the
heel of your hand). But it’s possible to have your weight in the right place
with cupped hands, as some handbalancers do.
The elbows should be straight. The inner elbows should be pointed towards
each other or even a little towards the thumbs, not back towards the heel of
the hand. I sometimes meet students who have one or both arms that rotate so
that their elbows splay out to the side, usually manifesting as inner rotated
hands and bent elbows. This tendency is tricky to address, and I will include
exercises for this later. For many, it has to do with tightness in the triceps and
lats causing the shoulders to twist into a more comfortable, albeit less stable,
position. If you encounter this problem, a good starting strategy is to stretch
and foam-roll the areas on the outside of the arms.

Head Position
In a handstand your gaze should be at your hands, but without craning your
neck. Or as I like to say, look at your hands, but through your eyebrows!
Looking down gives you a point of reference and makes it easier to balance.
And when you keep your head relatively in line with your body you maintain
your body position, which also helps you to balance. Looking at your hands
also means that your point of reference remains the same no matter how high
you are off the ground. As you get comfortable on your hands, you can shift
your head position as needed for various moves.

Toes And Knees
Point your toes and keep your knees straight! Pointing your toes will actually
help with your balance. It will engage your muscles and help keep your body
connected to itself as a single unit. And, if you’re interested in performing, it
is essential. You can always make intentional artistic decisions later that vary
from the traditional toe point, but for now — point! Occasionally I meet
students who struggle with over-squeezing their knees and toe point. The
feeling should be of extension, as if there is energy flowing out of your limbs
freely. You don’t want to contract so hard that it’s difficult to move. I often
use the image of a ballet dancer whose muscles are very engaged — yet they
still breath and move freely with grace.

Getting Upside Down, Part 2
Okay, so you can kick up to a handstand against the wall, and you have a
general idea of how your body should be positioned … now what? Following
are some basic exercises that will help you build strength and balance, and
help you actually start to feel the correct form. These are the building blocks
for a solid handstand.

Handstand With Belly To The Wall
This is one of the best exercises for strength and form. Either cartwheel up to
the wall, or jump your feet up and walk back with your hands until the heels
of your hands are about 3 inches from the wall. Push out through your
shoulders. Remember to keep your hands underneath your shoulders, which
might feel quite close together. Now, if you are successfully about 3 inches
away from the wall, press the front of your hips into the wall and pull your
chest away from the wall. This will put you into the correct body position.
The benefits of the belly-to-the-wall handstand are numerous. It’s one of the
best ways to feel straight handstand alignment. It also allows you to focus on
endurance while maintaining good form (whereas it’s easy to arch when your
back is to the wall). It also forces your shoulders on top of your wrists, which
for most of us is actually a very difficult position at first. Remember when I
said a lot of people open their shoulders too much, and let the weight fall to
the heel of their hands? In most cases, the wall prevents this, especially if
you’re close enough to it.
If you cannot get this close to the wall, just get as close as you can, and try to
make your body as straight as possible. In this case, don’t press your hips into
the wall because then you will sag into an arch. With time you’ll build
strength and get your hands closer. If you’re worried about falling over onto
your back, then practice cartwheeling down from the wall so you get used to
the motion of twisting out.
In general, whether doing a handstand freestanding or against the wall, try to
avoid walking on your hands or falling into a bridge if you feel like you’re
about to tip over. It’s better to learn to balance by pressing your palms and
fingers into the floor, and if this fails, to twist out. Eventually, if you’re
balancing on top of handstand canes, or on top of another person, you won’t
have the option of walking or falling into a bridge. At that point, if you need
to bail, it’s much safer to twist than go over backwards!

Pressing Off The Wall
Now that you can kick up to the wall, as well as hold a handstand with your
belly towards the wall, it is time to work on balancing on your own. To start,
kick up with your back to the wall. Make your whole body stiff, and try to
imitate the straight line you felt in the belly-to-the-wall handstand. Then,
press the pads of your palms down into the floor and grip the floor with your
fingers. If your body stays tight, then the act of pressing your hands into the
floor will leverage your body off the wall! In order for this to work, you want
your hands quite close to the wall. If you’re too far away, you won’t press off
the wall without changing body position.
Resist the temptation to kick off the wall with your feet, even a little bit. The
whole point is to learn to engage your wrists. If you can’t get off the wall
with your wrists, then chances are you’re loose at some point in your body
(likely you’re arching), or you need to build more strength in your wrists. I’ll
talk about various body position and wrist exercises later, but for now keep
trying to pull off the wall. Nothing improves your handstand more than
actually being on your hands!
If you can press off the wall, then try to balance there. Keep your body tight
and make adjustments with subtle movements in your wrists. If you’ve ever
tried to balance a stick on the flat of your hand, the concept is similar. Since
the stick is stiff, you’re able to keep it vertical by making tiny adjustments at
the base. This is how we want to balance a handstand. By maintaining a
straight and engaged body position, we’re able to correct for any imbalances
with small movements in the wrists and fingers.

Pressing Off The Wall Part 2
The previous drill of pressing into the floor and pulling yourself off the wall
is great for learning how to engage your wrists and feel the handstand
balance, all while safely close to the wall. This also drills the exact mechanics
of what to do when you’re in a handstand and you start to fall “over” towards
your back. By pressing into the floor with your hands and keeping your body
tight, you stop the fall. How then do you correct if you’re falling “under,” or
towards the direction from which you kicked up? At first this can be a little
trickier to get the hang of, but basically we use the same principle we’ve
already talked about: we try to keep the weight over our hands, where it can
be controlled.
Drill this by pressing off the wall in the other direction. Go back to the belly-
to-wall handstand, but start a little farther away from the wall than in the
normal belly-to-wall handstand. Push your hands into the floor, but allow
your shoulders to come out over your hands. From here, pull in your abs to
move your weight over your shoulders, and your feet will float off the wall.
Gradually bring your shoulders back in line with your wrists, trying to keep
your balance the whole time.
Make sure your shoulders stay pushed up, even as they come forward, and
that your body stays hollow. It might seem easier to arch and pike in order to
get off the wall, but it will make the correction harder when there is no wall!
Just like in the back-to-wall drill, resist the temptation to kick off the wall.
It’s okay if you can’t do this right away. It probably means you need to
develop more strength in your shoulders so they can move over your wrists.
This forward lean over your wrists is what allows you to move your lower
body away from the wall when you engage your abdominals. But don’t
worry, most of the following exercises work this exact shoulder position, so
you’ll feel comfortable with it soon!

Freestanding Balance
If you can correct from falling “over,” and you can correct from falling
“under,” then all you have to do is make these adjustment smaller and smaller
until you’re holding a handstand. Even a handbalancer who looks perfectly
still is constantly making adjustments. Sometimes the biggest mistake
students make is to get to a balanced spot — and then stop balancing!
One way to train this constant balancing is to combine the two versions of
pressing off the wall into one exercise. I suppose this could be done with two
walls very close together, but as this is not usually available, a partner is best.
For this exercise, the spotter helps their partner into a handstand and makes
any obvious corrections for form. Then the spotter transitions to the side and
places one hand a couple of inches in front of their partner’s legs and their
other hand a couple of inches behind them. This way they provide a “wall”
on either side. Now, if the person doing the handstand falls against one hand,
they have to press themselves off the spotter’s hand and back to the center. If
they over-correct and fall to the other side, then they have to press off in the
other direction. And so it continues until they learn to make smaller and
smaller corrections! It takes a lot of endurance to continually adjust, so use
this drill to build strength and endurance as well.
If you don’t have someone to help spot you, you can still practice on your
own. When you press yourself off of the wall, try to balance for longer and
longer stretches without coming down or falling back to the wall. As you feel
more confident, try to kick up to a handstand in the middle of the room.
Remember to lift your hips up first and press your fingers into the floor. If
you have too much momentum and can’t stop from falling over, then twist
out to the side, like doing a cartwheel. Sometimes I even have my students
purposefully kick up and immediately twist out to prove to themselves they
can bail when needed. With practice, both on and off the wall, your balance
and confidence upside down will improve.

Troubleshooting The Twist-Out
In an ideal world, every handstand we do would be controlled and elegant,
but in the real world we’re going to take some tumbles in the learning
process! As I’ve mentioned several times, “twisting out” is the safest way to
bail if you fall over towards your back and can no longer save the balance by
pushing with your shoulders and hands. For some people twisting out comes
instinctively and doesn’t need to be over-analyzed, but for others it can feel
as scary as landing on one’s back, so here are a few pointers to help it make
sense. The idea is to turn your body so that when you bring your feet down
they are in front of you. You can practice this by kicking up into a handstand
and then letting yourself turn whichever way feels natural while bringing
your feet down. You can also start in a belly-to-wall handstand and practice
twisting from there so that you have more control.
Whichever side you twist towards, bring that foot down first. So if you turn
to your left, bring your left foot down first. In this sense it’s almost like a
cartwheel. In a “real world” scenario, when you fall over backwards a
cartwheel to the side won’t actually be enough — you’ll have to turn almost
all the way around to catch yourself. In this case, it helps to put more weight
in the opposite arm. So let’s say we’re twisting to the left again (bringing the
left foot down first): we want to push with the right arm so that the left hand
is free to lift off the floor. This way we don’t torque the left wrist and
shoulder.
The twist out is a last-ditch resort. You’ll avoid landing on your back, and at
the same time you won’t develop the habit of walking on your hands or
falling to a bridge. But it’s not a practice that should become a habit in and of
itself! Sometimes students anticipate falling and so twist as soon as they kick
into their handstand. This only makes them more likely to fall, and creates a
twisted handstand. If you find yourself anticipating the fall, try to kick up
with the other leg, and if you feel yourself falling, force yourself to twist in
the other direction. And always try to hold the handstand with good form and
control without falling first!

Tuck Position
As you get more confident in your freestanding balance, start working on
holding other positions, such as the tuck shape. The ability to hold a tuck
position in a handstand is very beneficial for continued progress. When done
correctly, the shape forces the shoulders over the wrists in order to counter
the weight of the legs. Similar to the belly-to-wall handstand, this helps to
build strength in this range. As your shoulders get stronger, you can start to
work on press handstands, which is when you move onto your hands without
jumping or kicking, just “pressing” up. There are several tuck variations that
help with this.
The tuck position is what it sounds like: the knees are pulled into the chest in
a little ball. When doing a tuck handstand your back should remain straight,
although your shoulders and hips will have to lean past your fingers a bit to
counter the weight of your legs. Your shins should be perpendicular to the
floor. The tighter the tuck, the easier it will be to hold. However you don’t
want to tuck so hard that you start to round your back, because then the shape
will become harder on your shoulders as they resist the downward pull of
your hips.
At first it’s easiest to start in a straight handstand and then lower your legs
down into a tuck. Keep your shins perpendicular to the floor the whole time;
don’t let your feet pop back behind you, with your shins parallel to the floor.
Bring your thighs towards your chest. Think of pushing your shoulders up
even more as you lower your legs. Do not arch your back; rather, keep
engaging your stomach muscles. Even as you do all this, continue to breath!
As I mentioned, your shoulders will need to move slightly forward over your
wrists, but only a little bit. It’s not so much a counter-balance as it is a
counter-resistance. To bring your shoulders too far forward into a counter-
balance is actually more strenuous than what we want. We’ll come back to
this extreme forward lean position when we start work on planches. But for
now, we want to build good form using the most efficient position. This
means not allowing the shoulders to give in and shift too far in order to
counter the weight of the legs.
To illustrate this concept, imagine you have a friend — or you can actually
grab one — and, while you stand on your feet, have them push into your
shoulders with firm and continuous pressure, as if they were trying to knock
you down in slow motion. To stay upright, one option is to counterbalance —
you allow your upper body to bend with the force, and you push your hips
out, or maybe even throw a leg up in the opposite direction. Another option is
to resist the force. You can stay upright, almost straight, under your friend’s
pressure. You just have to engage your muscles more.
Similarly, in a tuck position, we want to resist the force. The shoulders will
have to move slightly, and undoubtedly have to work harder, but ideally by
resisting, as opposed to shifting too much.
If you cannot yet lower into a tuck from a freestanding handstand, you can
feel the position with your belly towards the wall. Start with your hands
farther away so there’s room to lower your legs. Your hands will need to be
about the length of your thighs away from the wall. Remember to keep your
shoulders elevated and your back flat, and pull your thighs into your chest.
If you can lower into a tuck without the wall, then you can try jumping
straight into a tuck position from the floor. Start with your feet together and
jump off both feet at the same time. Remember to engage your abs, and lift
your low back and hips up on top of your shoulders. As you go from the
ground up into the tuck, your shoulders will have to move through a position
where they’re a little farther out over your hands. So if you do not yet have
the strength in this range of motion, try lowering down very slowly from the
tuck position all the way to the floor in order to build strength and awareness
of the path your shoulders have to take. Once you have the strength, move
through this same path to go up into the tuck.

Tuck-Ups, Straddle-Ups, And Pike-Ups
These are great drills for building strength and awareness on your hands. I’ve
encountered them all over the world, from France to China and the U.S.
They’re often used as a handstand warm-up, for example executing 10 tuck-
ups, 10 straddle-ups, and 10 pike-ups at the beginning of training. We’ve
already talked about the correct tuck position. Doing a “tuck-up” means
jumping through the tuck shape all the way to a straight handstand, and then
lowering back down through the tuck to the floor. You don’t necessarily need
to balance and hold the handstand, so this can be a tool for building strength
and proprioception even before you’re able to balance for long periods of
time.
To make this drill a little more challenging, you can start from a kneeling
position on your shins. The “jump” comes when you push off the top of your
feet. This forces you to do more work with your shoulders and abs, and helps
work towards presses.
A straddle-up or pike-up is just like a tuck-up, except this time you move
through a straddle or pike position. Next we’ll go over the straddle position in
more detail.

Straddle Position
There are two types of upside-down straddle positions. One is similar to the
straight handstand position, only the legs are separated and turned out. The
hips remain open and flat. I usually call this a “small straddle,” because for
most people the legs don’t actually separate that far before the hips will pike,
or flex. In other words, when viewed from the side, in the small straddle the
feet, knees, and hips remain in a straight line over the shoulder and hands.
The second straddle, or “full” straddle, is when you open your legs in a center
split as far as they’ll go and allow the hips to pike as needed. When viewed
from the side, the feet and knees may move in front of the shoulder and
hands. The full straddle inevitably causes a slight shift in balance, and so is
worth talking about in more detail.
As with the tuck position, to bring the legs down into a full straddle means
there is more weight in front of you (towards the heels of your hands), and so
your hips will need to shift slightly over. The amount of shift will depend a
lot on your leg flexibility. If you’re quite flexible, then the shift will be
subtle. If you’re not very flexible, sometimes the shift can be even more
pronounced than in the tuck. Either way, your back should remain straight,
and you should continue to engage your abs and round your chest.
To start from a straight handstand and lower to a straddle, begin by turning
the legs out (like first position in ballet). This way your hips will move more
freely as you lower your legs. Also, it will be easier to avoid arching. Think
of pushing up through your shoulders and pulling in your ribs as you lower
your legs. Your tailbone should be pointed at the ceiling, not at the wall
behind you. In other words, your pelvis should be tucked and your abs remain
engaged. For many people it’s common to sink into an arch when doing the
straddle. Instead, keep your straight-body position and “counter-resist” any
extra weight caused by the movement of your legs. If you’re very flexible,
avoid piking the legs below parallel to the floor.
When going from the floor up through a straddle position, as in a “straddle-
up,” start with your feet both close together and close to your hands. Many
people instinctively widen their legs to prepare for the straddle … but
remember, first we need to get the low back and hips above the shoulders. If
you widen your legs, your hips actually start closer to the ground, and you’ll
have farther to travel in order to reach the handstand. It’s also more awkward
to jump from such a wide position. The only reason to spread your legs apart
like this is if your pike is inflexible enough that it’s hard to reach the floor
when your legs are together.
When jumping up to a straddle, pull your feet in towards your body (so you
are very actively piking at the hips) and roll up your spine, which will lift
your hips on top of your shoulders. As your hips get up, continue to actively
pike, but simultaneously pull your feet as far out to either side as they will go
without arching your back. This all happens very quickly, so at first it can be
hard to visualize. But the main mistake students make is to lift up their feet
too soon. You want to actually pull your feet in towards you and then out to
the side in order to facilitate getting your hips up first.
If this is hard to conceptualize, imagine you’re jumping up to a handstand on
something that’s much higher than the floor, like a table. If your hands are on
the table and you have to jump all the way up into a handstand, for most
people the most efficient path is through a straddle (as opposed to kicking up
or tucking up). In this scenario, you can see that if you widen your legs
before jumping, you only make your center of mass lower to the floor. And
then, when you jump, if you immediately try to lift up your legs, your body
will straighten out towards a planche position and you’ll likely fall back
down. However, if you fold in half, lift your hips first, and only lift your feet
after your hips are all the way up, then you can easily jump into a handstand
on the table, let alone on the floor!

Pike
A pike is usually more difficult to hold than a tuck or straddle because, with
the legs extended out in front, there is substantially more weight pulling you
down to your feet. However, the mechanics of moving through a pike, such
as in a “pike-up,” are simpler because you don’t have to think about
separating your legs. Other than keeping your feet together, the technique is
the same as a straddle-up: you want to pull your feet in towards you as you
jump so that your hips get on top of your shoulders (or in this case even a
little beyond your shoulders), and then you can lift your legs the rest of the
way up. When doing pike-ups make sure you don’t bend your elbows to
counter the extra weight. Instead, engage your wrists and shoulders through
the strenuous part of the movement. The same holds true for holding the pike
position without movement.

Tuck Variations
Although the tuck-up, straddle-up, and pike-up are common beginning drills
found around the world, I actually prefer to use a variation taught to me by
Yury Bozyan. We would start on the shins, like I described before, and then
go to the tuck. Then, in the tuck, I was to pause for five seconds. Next I
would lower as slowly as possible back to the shins. We would repeat this
three times. Then we would do another set, but this time add a straight
handstand after the tuck. So the sequence would go like this: tuck, pause,
straight handstand, pause, back to the tuck, pause, then lower as slowly as
possible back to the shins.
I find this drill more suitable for many students, because pausing in each
position allows me to correct their form. It also helps my students to
understand each step of the movement, and helps them build strength and
endurance in each position.
Another variation I like is to start in a tuck, and first straighten one leg, bend
it back to the tuck, then straighten the opposite leg, bend it back to the tuck,
and then straighten both legs into a pike. Other than the movements of the
knees, everything about the tuck position should stay the same. The
straightened leg shouldn’t pop up above the other leg. Or rather, your knees
stay put in space, and it’s just the lower part of the leg that moves. This
means when your leg is extended your toes end up pointing down towards the
floor. Also, your shoulders shouldn’t shift to counter the extra weight, or if
they need to, like when both legs are straightened into a pike, it should be
very subtle.
A further development of this drill is to go up to a straight handstand
position, and without changing form, pike one leg down as far as possible,
and then return it to the straight handstand. Repeat the movement with other
leg, and finally pike down and back up with both legs. Don’t let the top leg
extend back into a split; rather, keep it pointed straight towards the ceiling.
Both of these drills are great for working towards press handstands because
they engage the shoulders in the correct position and work the pattern of
pulling the legs in towards the body while the shoulders and wrists are under
strain.

Combining Tuck, Straddle, And Straight Positions
Another warm-up drill I performed with Yury, and that I continue to use with
my students, is to perform repetitions of moving from tuck to straddle to
straight position in a handstand — and then reverse the order. It’s important
to get used to moving your legs into different shapes while upside down in
order to build balance, strength, and understanding for later transitions, and
this exercise is an excellent way of going about this. The full drill goes like
this: tuck, straddle, straight; tuck, straddle, straight; (then reverse) straddle,
tuck, straight; straddle, tuck straight.
A few notes on this drill: when going from straddle to straight handstand,
make sure your hips don’t end up piked in the straight position. This is also
something to watch for when going from tuck to straight, especially if the
tuck is difficult for you. Sometimes, when students find the tuck position
difficult, they will go quickly to the straight position and pop their shoulders
under (away from the strain they felt when correctly positioned over their
wrists in the tuck), which will usually cause them to pike at their hips to
compensate.
When moving between straddle and tuck, your knees can bend gradually to
make the transition. Be vigilant during all transitions to continue to push out
through your shoulders and pull in your ribs and chest, and of course, point
your feet!
Whether practicing this drill or any leg movement while in a handstand,
remember to keep your hips up. When your legs move around your hips
become the top point of your handstand. Don’t allow the movement of your
legs to pull your hips off center. Even when we start extreme “flag” positions
where we bend over sideways, we try to bend close to the hips in order to
keep as much body weight over the hands as possible.
When working on transitions, some students find themselves tensing their
hips and have trouble moving smoothly from one shape to the next. This is
usually a symptom of balancing with the whole body while straining
unnecessarily. As I mentioned, adjustments for balance should be made with
the wrists. If more is needed, then the shoulders can move a little, too, but if
the whole body moves to balance, it will be hard to make shapes with the
legs. If you balance with your wrists and keep your hips above your
shoulders, then you can smoothly move your legs around. Your body still
needs to stay engaged, but as you progress you will be able to maintain this
engagement without constantly straining. Another reason some students tense
their hips is to try to stabilize low-back hypermobility. If they engage their
abs and keep their core tight, they can move more freely from their hips and
make transitions with ease. Learning to move your legs around is a good way
to understand this balance between tension and relaxation.

Fast Movements
Once you can balance and move your legs through different positions, you
can try to move very quickly between shapes. This is a great way to work on
stability, and also helps highlight any bad habits in your movement pattern.
You can do this with or without a pause. For example, from a straight
position you can snap your legs down to a straddle and back up all in one
motion, maintaining balance the whole time. Or you can snap your legs down
and hold the straddle, pause to make sure you can balance there, and then
move quickly back to straight. You can also do this moving from straight
handstand to tucks, or from tuck to straddle, or into splits, and so on.

Press-Up
I have alluded several times now to techniques that will help with pressing up
into a handstand. A handstand press is simply getting into a handstand
without the momentum of kicking or jumping. It can be done from a seated
position, from standing, up onto something (or someone), and eventually with
one arm. Pressing allows for a graceful entrance into a balance, and it can
even be a more controlled and safer way to move into a balance, such as
when on top of something very tall. Presses are great for building handstand
strength, and help inform the most efficient technique for jumping up.
For now, we’ll talk about pressing into a handstand from a standing position.
For most people, pressing through a straddle will be the most efficient. This
is because the shoulders don’t have to resist as much weight when the legs
move out to the side. The form for pressing up is almost identical to the
“straddle-up,” just without the jump.
Bend forward with your feet together, or only slightly apart, and your hands
relatively close to your feet — remember we want to keep the hips high. Push
your hands into the floor and engage your wrists from the beginning. Push
out through your shoulders as you shift your weight onto your hands. Lean
your shoulders out over your wrists a little bit, but not too much. Pull your
legs in towards you by squeezing your abs, thighs, and hip flexors. As you
pull your low back and hips above your shoulders, continue to pike at your
hips as you reach your legs to the side into a straddle. As your body becomes
fully inverted, bring your feet together directly above. Continue to push out
through your shoulders and bring them back in line over your hands.
Just like jumping up, the most common mistake is to lift one’s feet too soon.
In the section on spotting and coaching I will go over one way of fixing this
with a partner, but if you’re on your own, force yourself to be patient with
those feet! Wearing light ankle weights also helps make the most efficient
path more obvious, but of course this requires a certain amount of strength
first.
When lowering or pressing back down to standing, straddle your legs wide,
rotate your hips so that your legs are turned out, and tuck your pelvis so that
you can bring your feet down low while you keep your hips on top of your
shoulders for as long as possible. And, just as we started, finish by bringing
your feet close to your body and all the way together. If you stop the leg
movement in a wide straddle you only make your shoulders work harder to
bring your feet down slow and controlled.
When pressing up (and when jumping up), you want to roll up your spine so
that you can utilize the strength of your abs to smoothly pull your body
upside down. One way of drilling this is to do a shoulder-stand between two
chairs. Place the chairs so they face each other, and put one side against a
wall in case you fall over backwards. Then put your head between the chairs,
with one shoulder on each chair, and your hands a little in front of your
shoulders. Then press upside down from here. If you use the chairs, I would
try to do a pike press. It’s a little more difficult to press through a pike
position in terms of strength, but it’s also less complicated in terms of
technique. This way, all you have to think about is pulling your abs in and
rolling up one vertebrae at a time until your hips are on top, and from there
you lift your legs.
I often see students utilizing a press drill that I’m not fond of: someone
pushing the back of their shoulders into a wall and then lifting their legs. This
utilizes the same idea as the chair drill in that it takes the shoulders out of the
equation so you can focus on the rolling-up motion. However, I dislike this
drill because it requires the shoulders to lean much farther over the wrists
than is ideal for a real press, so it builds an incorrect understanding of
shoulder positioning. There’s nothing actually bad about this variation, I just
find it sometimes confuses people as far as learning proper technique goes.
A better option is to work presses with your feet elevated higher than your
hands by standing on something a few inches (or more) off the floor. This
makes the press a little easier, but keeps the form relatively the same by
forcing your wrists and shoulders to do the necessary work. For this exercise
you may need to start with your legs a little wider in order to reach your
hands to the floor.
The chair drill is good for isolating the work the abs need to do. The elevated
feet exercise simulates a real press to handstand. However, for many people,
shoulder strength is often still a missing link. Following are two more great
press drills that build strength and reinforce good form.

Two Great Press Drills: Wall Press-Down And Pike Walks
For the wall press-down, start in a handstand with your belly to the wall, but
hands a little farther away, and then lower down through a straddle-press to
bring your feet to the floor. The wall forces your legs to take the most
efficient path down, and at the same time forces you to engage your
shoulders if you don’t want to fall over. However, you have to remember to
not cheat by arching! Your starting distance from the wall will depend on
your straddle flexibility and the strength of your shoulders. You can always
start a little farther away to get the hang of it, and then move closer to the
wall as you become more comfortable. By lowering very slowly you will
build the strength necessary to go back up.
Finally, one of my all-time favorite drills for beginners: pike walks. Start in a
push-up position with your feet elevated on a chair or something of similar
height. Walk your hands back towards the chair, allowing your hips to rise so
your body ends in a pike position, with your hips stacked above your hands.
You must walk your hands back as far as you can, until it feels like you’re
going to face-plant! Then return to a push-up position, and repeat. The
mistake almost everyone makes with this drill is to walk their hands back
almost as far as they can, and then stick their head through their arms to
strain towards their feet. Instead, look at the floor and walk your hands back
that extra inch or two. Eventually your hands will move all the way back
under your hips and your feet will be almost weightless. You don’t have to
hang out there for a long time at first — just try to get your hands under your
shoulders before walking back out. I usually have students start with five
repetitions of these in a row, a rest, and then five more.
As you get stronger, each time you walk your hands back you can add a pike
press to the exercise by lifting your feet all the way to a handstand, and then
lowering back down to the chair. This is similar to the press with elevated
feet we talked about earlier.
The technique for a pike press is the same as a straddle press, except you will
keep your feet together instead of separating them to the side. This means
you will need to allow your shoulders and hips to lean out over your wrists a
little more to counter the extra weight of your legs. Still pull your feet
towards you to initiate the press and lift your hips up before trying to lift your
feet. If you are lifting off a chair, as in the pike-walk drill, then your hips will
already be up. Gradually you can lower what your feet are on until you are
pressing from the floor.

Crocodile
The Crocodile, or “croco,” is a great beginning balance. For the professional
handbalancer, it is almost frustratingly impressive to audiences — they love
it, but don’t understand how hard all the other stuff is in comparison! But this
makes it a great trick to have in your repertoire. It’s also very good for
developing balance with your wrists, especially once you can do the trick on
one hand.
Put your hands on the ground facing forward, just like a handstand, although
they can be spread wider apart. Then bring your body around to one side so
you’re perpendicular to the direction your fingers are pointing. Bend the arm
closest to you and place your elbow on the inside of your hip bone. Crunch in
your side a little bit to make it easier to reach your hip with your elbow. Most
of your weight will be on this hand as you then extend your body parallel to
the floor. However, use your second hand also, and don’t lift it until you can
hold a two-arm croco for a solid 30 seconds or so.
Make sure not to drop your chest in an effort to lift your feet. Dropping the
chest does not work very well, does not look good, and is much more painful
because you end up collapsed over your elbow. Instead, try to extend and lift
your chest, and in the opposite direction extend and lift your legs. It will also
be a little easier if you start in a small straddle. Your supporting elbow should
be close to a 90-degree angle. If the angle is much more acute than this it
means you need to lift up through your chest more. As you learn this shape,
be careful not to fall over your wrist to the side, as this can over-extend your
wrist in a way that makes it hard to recover balance, and can cause injury.
Keep your wrist in mind when you’re ready to take your second hand off the
floor. First just go to the fingertips of the hand you are lifting. If this is solid,
slowly reach your hand out over head. Many people instinctively throw their
arm back to the side; this can be a nice shape eventually, but it will rock your
weight over your supporting wrist and so can be dangerous at first. To start,
extend your arm overhead in a long line, and later on you can play with
different positions.
Remember to keep your body perpendicular to the direction your hands are
facing. This will help with the one-arm version, and in performance it will
allow the audience to see and appreciate the shape better, assuming you lower
from a handstand with your back towards the audience, which is most
common. Again, if you can master it this way, you’ll have more freedom to
play with variations later on.

L-Sit Hold
Another great skill to start working early on is the L-sit. This is when you’re
seated with your hands outside of your hips, in a pike, or with your hands
between your legs, in a straddle, and you press into the floor to lift your body
off the ground. Holding these positions will start to build the strength for
pressing up, not only from a standing but also a seated position. This skill and
strength is especially useful for pressing up onto something taller than the
floor, like a pair of handbalancing canes or another person. If you cannot lift
yourself off the ground at first, then try elevating your hands on blocks,
chairs, or parallel bars. If it’s still too difficult, start with your knees bent in a
tuck. As you build strength you’ll be able to straighten your legs. If you’re
doing your L-sits with straight legs, whether in a pike or straddle, remember
to keep your knees straight and point your toes. See if you can work up to
holding your L-sit for a whole minute.

Handstand Push-Up
The handstand push-up is not necessarily a beginning skill — however, it’s a
great exercise for building strength, and it will show up in some of the
following example routines as conditioning. I suggest ending your practice
with some strength training, even if it’s just a little bit at first. If a handstand
push-up seems like too much, that’s totally okay. Just start with some regular
push-ups and put your knees on the floor if needed. As you get more
comfortable with push-ups and with being upside down, you can work
towards the handstand push-up.
Start by trying some push-ups in a downward dog position. Next, see if you
can do push-ups with your feet elevated on a bench or chair. To imitate a full
handstand push-up, walk your hands back towards your elevated feet (like a
pike walk) and then do the push-up from there. In this position you can also
lift one leg straight into the air, so one leg is in the handstand position and the
other is piked down onto the bench for support and balance. You can make
this drill even more challenging by using a physio ball for elevated support
instead.
When you’re ready to do a full handstand push-up, you can use a wall or
partner at first. Make the hands a little wider than your normal handstand.
Your head should come forward as it goes down so that you can see your
hands. A little bit of arch to counter this forward motion is okay at first, but
try not to arch too much. Try to keep extending your legs long. Start with
your legs in a small straddle position, which will make it a little easier. If you
have a spotter, then a small straddle also gives them more purchase on your
hips as they hoist you up!

Endurance
The last thing we’ll talk about in the “Basics” section is endurance. For many
people endurance is one of the hardest areas to work because it can be so
frustratingly boring and painful! It can be a lot more fun to work on the latest
shape you’re starting to balance. However, I want to emphasize the
importance of endurance training. I promise you’ll see greater improvement
if you can hold a solid handstand for a minute or two (if not 5 or 10!).
There are different schools of thought around the importance of endurance
and other basic handstand skills. Some teachers would ask you to be able to
do 20 presses in a row and have a 3-minute handstand before you work on
more advanced drills like one-arms. I think there’s a lot of merit to this
approach. However, I was trained by being hand-spotted through almost
every shape from the very beginning. I have a distinct memory of Yury
spotting me through a one-arm press before I could even begin to balance a
one-arm handstand. I remember thinking, “This is so far beyond me, why are
we even doing this?” But years later, when I didn’t have Yury around, I
started figuring out how to press up on one arm, and I remembered what I
had been taught. When I work with students I try to give them as much
individual spotting attention as I can, and expose them to different drills, so
they can absorb the extra knowledge, just as I did. However, when those
students train on their own, my advice to them is to go back to the basics —
and one of the most basic basics is endurance!
When training endurance on your own, it’s important to train both on and off
the wall. Doing belly-to-the-wall holds allows you to push beyond what you
would be able to do freestanding, and also helps to keep your form. However,
sometimes I have students who can hold a handstand forever against the wall,
but who have neglected balancing! So remember to work on free-standing
endurance as well. If you can’t balance for very long yet, especially
compared to what you can hold against the wall, then try to hold multiple sets
of a doable time. For example, maybe your max time is 30 seconds. But if
you can do five 15-20 second balances, and then some longer holds against
the wall, you should start to see your maximum time improve.
Having said that, despite the various systems I’ve tried for improving
endurance, personally I’ve never seen much improvement without just
pushing to my max, way beyond what’s comfortable!

Foundation Basics Example Programs
Before I found teachers and coaches I had played around with handstands a
bit, but did not really know how to train them. I wanted to learn a better
handstand, but I also craved knowing how to train: what to do, how often to
do it, for how long, etc, etc. And while there’s no one right answer, I’ve
found it extremely helpful to see various training programs and allow these to
inform my own practice.
So I’m going to give some examples of possible training lists, starting with
the foundational basics that we just covered. What we’ve covered so far is
only part of what I would do with one of my students, but for someone
training on their own I think it’s worth pausing at this point and going over
some possible progressions. As we add more drills and skills we’ll expand
our vocabulary, yet continue to rely on the foundation of these basics.
I haven’t included warm-ups in the following lists, but it’s important to warm
up before training. For handbalancing it is especially important to warm-up
the wrists and shoulders. I talk more about stretching and warming-up later,
so please refer to the sections on pre-hab, stretching, and warming up for
more information.
Another aspect I don’t address in the following programs is how long to rest
between each exercise. A great thing about training with a coach is that you
don’t have to think about this. You can just let the coach guide the process.
However, when you’re on your own, you must play the role of both coach
and student. I’d recommend experimenting with timing your rests. This way
you don’t burn out by not resting enough or, as you start to fatigue, get
distracted between exercises. Also, you don’t have to constantly think about
it, which is just one way of making playing both roles a little easier. You’ll
have to figure out for yourself what amount of time is right, but I think
beginning with 1 minute rests is a good place to start. And if timing your
rests doesn’t work for you, it’s certainly not necessary.
Finally, the following programs list exercises in their complete form, such as
“tuck handstand” or “presses.” If, however, there’s a drill or exercise that you
can’t do yet, you can always go back over this section to remember how to
work towards these drills, and substitute these modifications and progressions
for that part of the program.

Getting To The Free-Standing Balance
(Example Program 1)
This list is designed to help you figure out how to balance in the middle of
the room on your own. Maybe you’re able to hit a balance every once in
awhile, but you still need to get more consistent! This program is meant to be
done in sequence, and alternates body-position drills with balance and
strength drills. It also includes one exercise we haven’t talked about yet,
which is the handstand shrug.
Shrugging your shoulders in a handstand is simply what it sounds like: push
the shoulders all the way up into the ears, and then relax a little, repeatedly. I
sometimes use this to help warm up my shoulders and feel the pushed-up
position.
I’ve included shoulder stretches throughout the workout because shoulder
stiffness is an issue for many people. However, if your shoulders are overly
flexible I would replace the shoulder stretching with pre-hab drills to work on
stability. (See the “Pre-hab” section for more information.) The shoulder
stretching should consist mostly of both arms overhead, as opposed to
stretching an arm out to the side. So for example, put your hands next to each
other on a wall or table with your arms straight overhead and drop your head
and chest down between your arms. This way you’re opening your shoulders
overhead in the range needed for stacking your body in a straight handstand.

Program 1

•Hollow body for 1 min

•Kick up to the wall and shrug shoulders 10x

•Stretch shoulders for 30 sec

•Wall “hollow-body” for 30 sec

•Belly-to-wall handstand for 30 sec

•Stretch shoulders for 30 sec

•Belly-to-wall handstand for 30 sec

•Hollow body for 30 sec

•Kick up to wall and press off, trying to balance each time, 5x

•Belly towards wall and press off, or at least try, 5x

•Kick up free-standing (cartwheeling out if necessary) and balance for


as long as possible, 5x
•Repeat, try kicking up with the other leg, 5x

•Belly towards wall, lower to the tuck and hold for 10 sec, 5x

•Belly towards wall, straddle “press down” slowly, 5x

•Tuck-ups (if possible) 10x

•Croco, build up to 30 sec holds on both sides

•Pike walks, 5x

•Stretch shoulders for 30 sec

•Pike walks, 5x

•Stretch shoulders for 30 sec

•Belly-to-wall handstand as long as possible

•Belly-to-wall handstand as long as possible again

•Stretch shoulders and cool down


Chinese Style — The Strength Routine
(Example Program 2)
This routine is based on my experiences training with the renowned Chinese
Acrobatics coaches at both the Circus Center in San Francisco and the
Beijing Arts School in China. There is more emphasis on endurance,
repetition, and strength building. To do this you’ll probably need to feel a
little more confident on your hands, but beginners can still work through it,
especially with a buddy to help spot. This routine would normally be done on
a bench, so the hands are elevated at about knee height, which obviously
makes jumping up a little more difficult. However, you can go through these
same exercises on the floor as well.

Program 2

•Endurance hold, either freestanding or against the wall, at least 1


minute

•10 tuck-ups

•10 straddle-ups

•10 pike-ups

•10 straddle press-ups

•10 straddle press-ups again

•10 pike press-ups

•10 handstand push-ups

•Crocodile on both sides 4x (this can eventually come from a handstand


using the handstand push-up)

•L-sit hold for 1 min


Free Standing Or Spotter-Assisted
(Example Program 3)
If you can already balance a handstand in the middle of the room, and/or have
someone to help you, then this third program is another great option. This list
borrows exercises from my warm-up when training with Yury Bozyan in
Montreal.

Program 3

•Tuck hold for 10 sec, 3x

•Tuck hold, up to straight and hold, down to tuck and hold, down slow,
3x

•Handstand: straddle, tuck, straight 2x, reverse: tuck, straddle, straight,


2x, and pike down

•Handstand fast shapes: Straddle fast! Hold. Up fast! Hold. 2x. Repeat
with tuck to straight, 2x

•Tuck: extend one leg, other leg, both legs, 2x

•Straight handstand: lower one leg, other leg, both legs, 2x

•10 straddle press handstands

•Straddle L-sit hold for 30 sec

•Pike L-sit hold for 30 sec

•Pike walks, 5x

•Pike walks again, 5x


•Belly to wall endurance for 1 min

I would suggest doing these programs, or something like them, three to five
times a week. If that’s too much, either physically or logistically, then just
perform some simple handstands against the wall (after warming up your
wrists and shoulders) on “off” days. This will keep your muscles firing and
get your body more used to working in this new way. The exercises in these
example programs can be mixed and matched as needed. The first routine is
probably most applicable to beginners. For the second two, chances are if you
can successfully do all of these drills, then you’re also ready to work on the
more challenging exercises that we’ll talk about next. This is a starting place
for working out your own training regimen.
NEXT STEPS: INTERMEDIATE EXERCISES
Next we’ll start to explore some more difficult balances, positions, and
progressions. Many of the exercises in this section are the building blocks for
yet more advanced positions to follow. However, all of these drills, when
done with good form and to the extent of your ability, will also help inform
what we’ve already covered. I often find that not only do foundational
exercises build towards harder skills, but those harder skills flesh out the
easier exercises. It’s through this feedback loop of continued understanding
that you can really start to play with your handstands and make them your
own.

Repeating Presses
Once you can confidently do several press handstands in a row, you can add a
layer of difficulty by lowering your feet to a few inches off the floor, but not
actually lowering all the way to the floor, in between each press. One drill I
trained often uses this technique to combine straddle and pike presses. I
would press up to a handstand. Then I would straddle my legs down and
bring them together so that I was in a piked position with my toes a few
inches off the floor. From here I would pike press back up to a straight
handstand. After doing this a couple of times I would reverse directions, and I
would pike down until my toes were just off the ground, and then straddle
press back up to straight. So the drill goes like this: straddle down, pike up;
straddle down, pike up; (and reverse) pike down, straddle up; pike down,
straddle up.

Side Bend Or Flag
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate “flag” handstands more and more. Not
only do they open up a whole host of cool new body positions, but I’ve found
that they can be a helpful link in the one-arm handstand journey. It’s very
common for students to “crunch” their side when shifting to one arm as their
shoulder tries to avoid the direct weight. However, if one has built up the
strength and awareness to bend sideways, then it can be easier to find the
correct one-arm position, even in a straight shape … but perhaps I’m getting
ahead of myself! Let’s start with side bends on two arms and talk about
technique; we’ll get to all the other applications later.
Start in a straddle position with your legs open as wide as possible. Then
bend your side so that one leg reaches closer to the floor while the other
reaches towards the ceiling. Do not arch your back as you bend; rather, keep
your ribs in. Try to bend as close to your hips as possible. This way you’re
countering only the weight of your legs, not your legs plus half your torso!
Like the tuck or press, your shoulders can shift a little bit to compensate, but
should mostly stay put. There should not be a huge shift in the arms, and your
head should remain in the same position without twisting, and without
creating a large gap between your ear and shoulder. You’ll naturally feel
more weight on the arm you lean towards, but for now, keep weight in both
hands. Chances are that if your other hand pops off the floor, you’ve let your
shoulders drop and drift to the side.
The most common mistake in the side-bend handstand is to twist. Sometimes
it is simply hard to tell what it should feel like to bend sideways when you’re
upside down. In this case you can film yourself, get a spotter, or, in a belly-
to-wall handstand, put your toes on the wall to guide you. In other cases,
twisting happens when students either strain to get their bottom foot all the
way to the floor before they’re ready, or when they try to keep their foot in
line with their hands, which is not the correct position unless you have a
perfect 180-degree active center split. Your straddle position should instead
remain exactly the same and just tilt sideways. For most of us, this means that
when the foot is eventually all the way down to the floor, it will be in front of
our hands, where we can see it, and not completely to the side.

Flag Variations
Once you can bend sideways in a straddle position you can start playing with
other shapes. At first bending one leg or the other is a nice place to start. You
can also bend both legs so the toes touch in a diamond or “butterfly” shape.
Doing a side bend in a tuck position is another nice variation.
A little more advanced yet common and beautiful side-bend shape is a front
and back split. For this one, split your legs in your handstand and then bend
to the same side as your front leg. Don’t let your front foot drop towards the
floor in this shape, but keep pulling it up towards the ceiling. This is another
position in which it’s hard to avoid twisting, but again, you can touch your
toes on a wall (to the side), which can help you feel if both legs are even.
This is also a position in which you can feel the value of bending close to the
hips. For most people this shape is a bit heavier, so bending higher not only
alleviates some of the weight, but allows you to get your legs parallel to the
floor without toppling over.
A good side-bend conditioning exercise is to do a belly-to-the-wall
handstand. Then, keeping your feet together, bend at the waist and bring your
legs down to one side as far as you can. It’s very challenging to do a side-
bend with your legs together, but this will greatly increase your strength and
range, and will help with the other positions. Also, the wall allows you to feel
if you twist. Pay special attention to your hip bones and make sure they touch
the wall on both sides, without one side popping away.

Hands Together
Here is another one of those positions that’s both impressive on its own and
is also great for working towards one-arms. Conceptually, it’s as simple as it
sounds: put your hands together and do a handstand! I find jumping up
through a straddle easier than kicking up. With the hands so closer together, a
more symmetrical ascent is easier to control. This trick can also be done with
one hand on top of the other, though this version is a little more challenging.
The hands-together position more closely imitates balancing on one arm
because your wrists have to start making side to side corrections, and the arm
position is closer to the head.

“7” Position
This is a nice two-arm shape, and it’s also good preparation for the Mexican,
or reverse planche (also known as a hollow-back handstand). Start with your
hands a little wider, at least at first, and then lower your legs to a pike
position parallel to the floor. From here, look up at your toes and push your
shoulders open. The more you open your chest and shoulders the more
surreal the shape will look. It’s a counterbalance between your hips on one
side and your head and feet on the other.
Personally, I find it easiest to push my shoulders open before my legs are all
the way parallel to the floor. Then I finish lowering my legs while opening
my shoulders as much as possible, and I feel the counterbalance between my
hips and feet.
Before doing this shape, I recommend practicing shifting your gaze to look at
your feet in a regular straight handstand to get used this new head position.

Full Press
Previously we talked about pressing into a handstand from standing on the
floor, and introduced L-sit holds to build strength for the “full” press. There
are many ways to build the strength for pressing to handstand all the way
from a seated position. First, start by seeing if you can press all the way
down. From a handstand, straddle your legs and tuck your pelvis. Keep
piking your legs so your feet stay elevated even as they come past the floor.
Pull in your abs and round your back. Let your shoulders come farther over
your hands than you would when pressing from standing, and keep
controlling the descent until you are in a straddle L-sit. Try to hold the L-sit
without immediately collapsing. One of my coaches in Mongolia told me to
do 100 press-downs every day and then I would be able to press up!
Another one of my favorite press drills utilizes the pike position instead of a
straddle: Start standing on two sturdy parallel objects (benches, chairs, boxes,
parallel bars) with enough space between them for your hips. Place your
hands in front of your feet on the elevated platforms and start to press up, but
then bring your feet together and lower slowly in a pike position between
your hands, and end by lifting your feet as high as possible in an elevated L-
sit, or even “manna.” Then rock back, keeping your pike, and try to bring
your feet back to standing behind your hands. And repeat. This drill works
the most difficult part of the press. If you can get your feet back to resting on
the platforms behind your hands, and you can already press from standing,
then it’s just a matter of combining these two exercises until you can go all
the way up in one continuous motion.
Yet another way to work on the full press is to forward roll into it, which
allows you to use some momentum. Start by rolling on your back all the way
onto your shoulders with your feet in the air; this is called a shoulder-stand or
candlestick. Then, as you roll forward, straddle and pike your legs. Reach
your hands to the floor between your legs and use the momentum of the
forward roll to help you complete the press to handstand. Think of pushing
your arms over your head as you roll your hips up. You can also do this on a
folded-up panel-mat so that your hands are elevated higher than your feet.
This often makes it a little easier to get your feet past the floor.
And finally, one more variation that can be used when pressing up onto a
taller object, such as handbalancing canes, is to slide your feet up the surface
on which you’re pressing. For canes this would mean sliding your feet up
along the metal poles as high as you can, and then completing the press from
there. This variation is a little easier for many, and so for this reason is also
often used in the one-arm press.

Shifting Weight
Now we’ll start exploring the building blocks for one-arm handstands. We’ll
begin by working on shifting the weight back and forth from one hand to the
other. Start in a very small straddle, with your feet turned out and separated
hip-width apart. Shift your weight over towards one hand — it should feel
similar to the hands-together position in that your head is close to your
shoulder, but only on the arm with more weight. Look at the hand you are
shifting towards. Also shift your hips and legs so your opposite leg is lined up
over your supporting arm. Don’t twist — keep your body straight. Then
repeat the same action on the other side. Also try this with legs together. To
have the legs slightly apart helps you to feel the correct amount of lean and
the slight tilt. However, some students find it easier to avoid twisting and
arching when they can squeeze their legs together.

Tick-Tocks
Next we’ll do the same drill, only this time we’ll take the lighter hand all the
way off the ground. Don’t try to hold the balance yet, just shift back and
forth, like the arm of an old clock swinging to the right and left. Your free
hand should come off the ground just for a moment and then return to the
floor. Keep pushing both shoulders out as you do this exercise. Most people
will tense up the shoulder of their free arm. This causes them to crunch and
twist on that same side. Rather, try to extend your free arm out to the side as
you take it off the floor. Don’t let this motion pull your head away from your
supporting arm.
For many people it is difficult to avoid twisting off center in this exercise.
The most common twist I see looks like this: The same hip as supporting arm
falls under, while the opposite hip and shoulder shift over. So for example, if
I am shifting to my right arm I need to avoid letting my right hip fall towards
the heel of my hand. I also need to avoid letting my left shoulder swing out
over my hands. I do this by continuing to extend my left shoulder even as my
left hand comes off the floor. I keep my whole left shoulder and arm relaxed.
Also, I pull my chest and ribs in, especially on my right side, in order to
prevent my right hip from shifting under.
Tick-tocks are a good drill to also do in the belly-to-the-wall handstand, as
this will help you feel if you’re twisting. You will notice you’re twisting if
one hip pops off the wall. It’s also very common to lose the straight body
alignment when taking full weight on one arm. Continue to think of lining up
your supporting arm with your opposite leg. The arm and leg don’t need to be
precisely in line (the most common line is slightly to the inside of the
opposite leg), but visualizing this will help you to avoid bending away from
the correct position. The point is to keep your body straight without
crunching in one side or the other, while centering your weight over your
supporting shoulder and hand. I recommend filming yourself or having
someone watch you to check for twisting and crunching.
Like shifting weight, tick tocks can be done in a small straddle, with feet
together, in a full straddle, or in any position, for that matter. A full straddle
is usually easier because your center of gravity is lower — however the full
straddle makes it easier learn bad habits, such as arching, popping the
shoulders under, twisting in the hips, and crunching in the side. So feel free to
experiment with other shapes, but make sure to use the small straddle
position regularly in order to check in with your alignment and technique.

Piano Fingers
Once you can shift your weight onto one arm, and you know you’re strong
enough to hold yourself there, you can start to stay a little longer. The classic
way to do this is to go up on the fingertips of your free hand, or “piano
fingers” — as if you’re playing a piano. You can still balance with two arms,
but most of your weight is on one arm. Keep your shoulder pushed up and
remember to correct your balance as much as you can with your wrist. Also,
remember not to tense up your free arm, even though it’s still taking some
weight. Just as before, you can do piano fingers in different positions. Stay
vigilant with your form: come back to the small straddle and think about
shifting your opposite leg over your supporting arm. Film yourself and/or get
an outside eye. As piano fingers becomes easier, start to put less weight on
your fingers, and even work up to only one or two fingers on the floor.
Eventually you can hover your fingers just off the floor for brief moments at
a time.

Belly-To-The-Wall One-Arm-Holds
My first handbalancing coach, Cory Tabino, told me I should be able to hold
piano fingers for 1 minute before starting to balance completely on one hand.
So I diligently came to rehearsal early every morning with a stopwatch and
practiced my holds. I naively thought I would increase my time by 5 to 10
seconds each week, and therefore in just a month or two I’d have my one-arm
handstand. While this obviously didn’t happen, I did increase my hold time,
and I have since found this to be a very valuable exercise. However, Cory
was only in town for a few weeks, and soon could no longer watch my
technique. I must have developed some bad habits, because when I first went
to Montreal, Yury asked me to hold a one-arm with my belly to the wall, and
I couldn’t do it. The wall forced me to stay straight, and I just kept twisting
off and falling down — this despite the fact I could hold piano fingers for a
minute! After a month of intense practice I could hold my one-arms belly-to-
the-wall, and so I could better train with the correct form.
All this to say, piano fingers is well complemented by belly-to-the-wall
holds. Just like two-arm handstands, you can train form with one-arms on the
wall, and train balance with piano fingers in the middle of the room. For
belly-to-the-wall one-arms, remember: keep both hips on the wall, keep your
head close to your supporting shoulder, pull your chest away from the wall,
and look at your supporting hand. Don’t crunch in your side; rather, try to
line up your opposite leg over your supporting arm. If you need to start with
your hands a little farther from the wall than your two-arm holds, that’s fine
— but try to inch that hand closer as you get stronger. The ideal distance is 3-
4 inches.

Block Drills
This is one of those classic handbalancing drills found all over the world. It
uses two blocks that are about 5.5 inches long, 4 inches wide, and 2.5 inches
tall. In a handstand on the blocks, your fingers curl over the edge, with your
pinky and thumb curling over opposite sides. Your ring finger can either go
on the same side as your pinky finger or in front. Make sure your whole palm
is on the block and not too far back or to the side.
For this drill we will climb down and up the blocks in a handstand. Start in a
handstand on the blocks. Shift your weight to one arm, and then with the free
hand move one block off to the side. Put that hand on the floor. Next, shift
your weight over to the hand on the floor, move the other block to the side,
and place that hand on the floor. Now both hands are on the floor with a
block on either side. From here, shift back to one side and use the free arm to
grab the block. Bring it back towards center. Then, shift up and onto the
block, grab the other one, and bring it back. You are now back on top of the
blocks in your original starting position.
Remember to keep all your technique in mind: shoulders pushed up, ribs
pulled in, toes pointed and extending to the ceiling — and don’t forget to
breathe! In the final shift you move up onto a block, so in this case you have
to shift a little more and give a little extra push with that shoulder.
This drill is excellent for building balance and endurance at the same time.
Even if you never want to do a one-arm handstand, after doing this drill for a
while your two-arm handstand will be rock solid.
This exercise can also be done with more blocks. For example, you can stack
blocks on top of each other so that you have to walk down and up several
levels. Remember to relax your free arm so it’s easy to move the block. Don’t
toss the block so far that you can’t retrieve it when climbing back up!
Handbalancing blocks often have rubber on the bottom to keep them from
slipping during drills when they’re stacked like this.
Another variation on this drill is to turn the blocks on their sides, and then on
their ends, then back to their sides, and finally flat again, all while in a
handstand. It’s a fun challenge, and it helps you keep your weight forward on
your hand, because if not, it’s very difficult to balance on the increasingly
smaller surface of the block.

Block Walking
This block drill also requires more blocks; usually I would use six. The
blocks are placed side-by-side in a straight line with some space between
each one. The space should be about the width of one of the blocks, or about
the width of the palm of your hand. Start in a handstand on the two blocks at
the farthest end of the line. Then walk across the blocks. Shift your weight
away from the direction you’re moving in order to free up your hand, and
then move that hand to the next block over. There will be one free block
between your hands. Next, shift your weight onto the hand that just landed
and move the trailing hand to the free block. Continue in this fashion down
the line.
At first glance this exercise seems easier because you don’t have to move the
blocks, or go up and down on them. However, when I was first introduced to
it I found it much more difficult. Looking back, I think this means I was
getting away with poor form when I climbed up and down the blocks.
However when I had to shift far enough onto one arm to move sideways, I
became more aware of the difficulty in putting all my weight onto one arm in
a controlled manner.

Intermediate Steps Example Programs
Lu Yi at the San Francisco Circus Center once told me to practice my piano
fingers until the weight on my fingers was very light. He likened it to a
ripening fruit, and warned me against picking the fruit before it’s ripe! After
some block drills and piano fingers you may be strong enough to quickly start
holding one-arm handstands. However, if you’re like me (and most students),
the journey will require a lot more repetition. In fact, trying to hold your one-
arms too soon will likely only build bad habits. Instead it’s better to make
sure you can successfully complete a program of intermediate steps.
The first time I returned from Montreal I was determined to continue with the
program Yury had been spotting me through. However, I had to figure out
how to adapt the exercises so I could do them on my own. I often did this
with a combination of piano fingers and wall holds. For example, Yury
would spot me in a specific position for 10 seconds on the right arm, 10
seconds on the left arm, and then again, 10 on the right and 10 on the left.
(Then we would take a brief rest before the next position.) So at home I
would balance piano fingers for 10 seconds on the right, and then 10 on the
left. Then without pausing I would immediately go belly-to-wall and hold a
one-arm for 10 seconds on the right and 10 on the left.
I would use a metronome to count the seconds. This way I didn’t have to try
to look at a stopwatch, and I ensured I didn’t count too fast as I got tired. I
also timed my breaks at 1 minute. I found this helpful because it ensured that
I rested long enough at the beginning of training, and not too long towards
the end!
This first example program is adapted from what I did that year after
returning from Montreal. It’s meant for the solo practitioner who wants to
build strength for balancing on one arm, while at the same time focusing on
technique so the building blocks are there for future development. This same
list can be completed with a spotter. In this case, instead of holding piano
fingers and then wall holds as I described above, your spotter can help you
hold one-arms. For tips on spotting one-arms, see the “Spotting and Coaching
Handbalancing” section.

Getting To The One-Arm
(Example Program 4)

Program 4

•Tuck, hold for 10 sec, 3x

•Tuck and hold, up to straight and hold, down to tuck and hold, down
slow, 3x

•Press up to handstand: straddle, tuck, straight 2x, reverse: tuck,


straddle, straight, 2x, and full press down

•Press up to handstand: straddle press down and pike press up 2x (like


a press without the feet touching the floor), then pike down and
straddle up 2x, and full press down
•Press up and side bend right and left, repeat right and left, and full
press down

•Hold hands-together for ten seconds, then separate hands and shift
weight left and right, and again left and right

•Tick Tocks left and right in small straddle 2x, and legs together 2x

•Blocks down and up 2x (small straddle)

•Again blocks down and up 2x, starting on the other side (legs together)

•Blocks walking down and back (small straddle)

•Blocks walking down and back starting on other side (legs together)

•Small straddle: hold piano fingers 10 seconds left and right, then hold
belly-to-the-wall one-arms for 10 seconds left and right

•Small straddle on blocks: repeat piano fingers 10/10, and wall 10/10

•Legs together: same thing – piano fingers 10 seconds both sides, then
wall one-arms 10 sec both sides

•Legs together on blocks: repeat piano fingers 10/10, and wall 10/10

•Piano fingers: starting in a small straddle on the right side hold for 15
sec, then bring feet together and hold for 15 sec, then repeat on the
left side.

•Hold one arm on the wall for 10 sec in small straddle, 10 sec feet
together, then 10 sec with the arm all the way up by your side,
repeat on left

•Hold the 30 second piano and wall holds again, this time on blocks

•Hold piano fingers with feet together 30 sec right and 30 sec left, then
30 sec one-arms on wall; try to have the free arm all the way up by
your side the whole time on the wall.

•Repeat the straight 30 second piano and wall holds on blocks

•Full straddle piano fingers: hold 10 seconds, two times each side

•Full straddle piano fingers 2x each side again, this time on blocks

•Side bend and hold the bend for 10 seconds, 2x each side

•Side bend holds again, this time on blocks

•Belly-to-wall and legs together side bend as far as possible and back,
5x each side

•Handstand push-ups (with wall, feet elevated, or spotter help as


needed) 10x

•Handstand push-ups again, 10x


Getting To The One-Arm Another Way
(Example Program 5)
The above program (along with the trips I made to coaches) is what got me
balancing on one arm, so I wanted to share it here. However, it may not be
for everyone. It was based on my personal experience of working with a
coach, so I always had those memories to refer to when things got tough. And
you may not be one for counting to a metronome. I am certainly not
anymore!
For this next example list I’ve been a little less specific about how many
times to do each drill, occasionally saying things like “work up to ___.”
However, I’ve suggested goals to still provide a sense of progression. The
main moral of the story is don’t rush and skip the technique! So here’s
another example program in case the first one is not your cup of tea.

Program 5

•Endurance handstand (1-5 min)

•10 repeating presses without touching the floor

•Side bend to each side, 5x

•“7” position, 3x

•Hands together: move legs through shapes (straddle, tuck, up, and
reverse)

•Piano fingers for timed endurance

•Piano fingers: work up to moving through shapes (straddle, tuck,


straight, and reverse), both sides

•Blocks up and down endurance. Try to build up to 10 times in a row!

•Piano fingers holds on both sides. Work different positions. Work up to


having only one finger on the floor. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
•Wall holds: as long as possible on one arm, both sides.

•Repeat one-arm endurance wall holds

•Belly-to-wall side bend with feet together, 5x each side

•Repeat wall side bends

•10 full presses (with spot or intermediary drill as necessary)

•10 handstand pushups (with wall or spot as needed)

•10 handstand pushups again

ADVANCED SKILLS

One-Arm Handstands
Balancing upside down on one arm can be both thrilling and frustrating.
When learning, it can feel so close, but so far. Even after years of being able
to do one-arm handstands I still feel like I’m figuring them out. There is so
much subtlety involved, and so many ways to be “better,” such as harder
positions, longer holds, changing shapes on one arm, various ways of getting
to one arm, etc, etc. So be patient, celebrate your progress along the way, and
remember all of your technique!
In a nutshell, here’s how to hold a one-arm: Shift your weight to one side and
bring the other hand up to fingertips in “piano fingers.” Feel the balance in
you supporting arm, with your shoulder elevated by your ear. Look at or near
your supporting hand. Slowly take your free hand off the floor, keeping your
free arm relaxed and both shoulders pushed up. Start with your hand just
barely off the floor and extended to the side, so that your shoulders are almost
in the same relative positioning as a two-arm handstand. Make balancing
adjustments with your supporting wrist and hand. Use your supporting
shoulder when necessary, but try to mostly keep it solid and locked out.
Especially keep your abs in so that you don’t sink under.
If you’ve built up enough strength, flexibility, and balance, then you’ll
probably be able to hold your one-arm handstand for 2-3 seconds. But
chances are, it is less of a balance and more of simply falling in slow motion!
So the next step is to not only find the right position, but truly stay there,
which means we need to talk about how to correct for falling!
You probably have a good sense of how to correct forwards and backwards
from all of your two-arm handstands. These concepts remain the same on one
arm: when falling “over,” press into the floor with your fingers and push with
your shoulder. Falling “under” is even harder to correct on one arm than it is
on two arms, so the trick is mostly to not fall under in the first place — keep
your chest in and your weight over your hand. However, if you’re falling
under and you catch it quickly enough, you can slightly widen your legs and
bring your shoulder forward in a little bit of a press to regain your balance.
The next challenge is to correct falling from side to side. Try not to make
corrections with your legs. Tiny adjustments in your hips are okay, but you
don’t want to build the habit of correcting with your legs because then it will
be difficult to change shapes. Instead, try to hold your position and make
corrections with your free arm. So if you’re falling to the side and away from
your free arm, lift your free arm out to the side to pull yourself back. If
you’re falling back towards your free arm, then lower the arm, and if
necessary lower it all the way to touch the floor, and try the balance again.
Eventually these will be very small movements, and ultimately you won’t
need them at all — then you can choose shapes involving your free arm, like
bringing it up to your side, because you won’t need it to help balance.
Finally, keep your head close to your supporting arm. Be especially aware of
this when falling away from your free arm; as you lift your arm, don’t let
your head go with it. Keep pulling your supporting arm towards your head.
Perhaps one of the hardest things to correct is twisting. Mostly this is about
learning what “straight” feels like and holding it there. However, here are a
few tips: yet again, remember to reach through the free arm. If you tense your
free shoulder you can cause that shoulder to shift “over,” which makes you
twist. So try to notice if your free hand is in line (side-to-side) with your
supporting hand. If not, chances are you’re tensing your shoulder or
compensating some other way. Don’t “crunch” in your side (the side of the
free arm). Instead, shift your legs over your supporting arm. And finally, I
think twisting often happens when one’s weight is actually a little too under.
It’s strenuous to really be on top of your wrist and shoulder. Sometimes we
subconsciously shift under a little bit, and consequently twist in an effort to
save the balance. So stay on top of your hand and keep your ribs pulled in,
especially on your supporting side.

Starting Shape
For many people, myself included, it’s easiest to balance in a wide straddle.
In this position your center of gravity is lower, and the wide shape gives you
more time to correct twisting and side-to-side imbalances. However, it also
makes it easier to get away with bad habits. It’s a good idea to return to our
starting position, the small straddle, to practice good technique when shifting
weight. When I trained with Claude Victoria in France we always trained the
small straddle, with the opposite leg in line over the supporting arm, and the
free arm parallel to the floor. It was only after mastering this position that we
worked on putting our legs together or making them wider. Similarly with
Yury, we always started with the small straddle position, but with the hand
low as I described above, and then went on to the other positions.
I would recommend starting with the small straddle position for technique
and alignment. Also train the full straddle position — chances are you’ll feel
the balance sooner. And start training the side-bend position. The side-bends,
or flags, will help with strength, and despite their difficulty, also make it
easier to feel the balance, as they’re more of a counter-balance. Training
these three shapes from the beginning is a good starting place.

A Note On Claudeʼs Shape
Even though both Yury and Claude started with the small straddle as a
foundational one-arm position, there are some slight differences that may be
of interest. What I’ve described so far is closer to Yury’s technique because
the feedback that Yury gave me was more detailed, and so I’ve found it more
applicable to the descriptions in this book. However, I also trained intensively
with the handbalancing master Claude Victoria, and I’ve found it beneficial
to work his version of this position. Additionally, it is arguably a more
intuitive shape when training on one’s own.
For Claude’s small straddle, the legs can be a little wider, although still not to
the point where the hips pike. (With Yury the legs were strictly hip-width
apart, which is quite close.) With Claude the free arm is immediately lifted
parallel to the floor. This means that one does not make balancing
adjustments with the free arm, but from the beginning balances solely with
the supporting arm. When I use the wider straddle and higher arm, my head is
slightly farther from my shoulder and I often feel a little bit of a counter-
balance. For me, this means the shape is slightly easier to balance, but
sometimes it’s harder to hold form and not fall to the side. I feel my opposite
arm and leg more precisely lined up with Claude’s shape, where as with
Yury’s smaller straddle I feel the balance is found with the supporting arm a
little more centered between the legs. Claude’s approach is to train this one
position over and over. Once you have it, your technique is solid enough to
add variations. In this sense the approach is very intuitive, and perhaps an
easier way to train on one’s own. As I said, I found Yury’s detailed
progressions extremely useful, but it’s worth pointing out Claude’s approach
in case you find it more your style.

Common Mistakes In One-Arms

Ultimately there’s no right way of holding a one-arm. If you practice enough


you’ll get strong and be able to hold the handstand. I’ve seen self-taught b-
boys with “poor” form yet amazing handstands, and even world-class circus
artists have interesting habits they’ve just learned to work with. That said, as
a general rule, there are certain techniques that not only look better but make
harder tricks easier in the future. For example, perhaps the easiest way to
hold a one-arm is to make a wide straddle and then shift very far to the side,
allowing the head to come away from the supporting arm. In this position the
head and free arm counterbalance the legs. But if you try to bring your legs
together from this position, they’ll likely be too heavy and off to the side. So
following are some tips to correct these types of mistakes so that you build
good habits from the beginning.
As in the example above, try to keep your head close to your supporting arm.
It’s easy to shift your hips and legs too far over to the side and then stick out
your head. Instead, lean your shoulders over with a small shift in your legs. If
you’re doing this right, your supporting shoulder will be centered over your
hand — not over the inside of your hand — and your free shoulder will be
close to parallel to your supporting shoulder, or not much higher. And as in
the above example, if you bring your feet together there should only be a
slight lean to the side. Don’t crane or turn your head into your arm in an
effort to keep your head close to your shoulder — in reality, you want to use
your shoulder muscles to pull your arm towards your head, and not your neck
muscles to pull your head to your shoulder.
Don’t crunch in your side. This can happen in any position, but it’s easiest to
visualize if you imagine a small-straddle one-arm handstand — only the same
arm and leg are lined up on top of each other, instead of the opposite arm and
leg. As a result there’ll be a bend or “crunch” on the free-arm side of the
body. We’re at the point where every potential issue is related to every other
issue! Crunching in the side often happens when you’ve shifted the legs too
far over, and then without realizing it you try to pull the legs back on top of
yourself. This often happens when the supporting shoulder isn’t strong
enough to stay stacked on top of the hand, and tries to shift to a more
comfortable position that is slightly out to the side. You can film yourself
doing a one-arm belly-to-the-wall handstand to check for this most common
mistake.
As I’ve already mentioned, don’t balance with your legs. Small adjustments
in your hips are okay, but try to build the habit of balancing with your free
arm, and eventually just with your supporting shoulder and hand. Crunching
in the side often happens when people balance with their legs. For example, if
you’re falling away from your free hand it can feel instinctive to throw your
legs back over. However, this bend actually pushes your hips (your center of
mass) farther to the side, and only causes you to fall faster! Instead, you
should try to hold your position and lift your free arm. If you continue to fall
to the side and need to do something drastic, then you can bend in a side flag!
It’s counterintuitive, but to bend into a flag, with your foot reaching towards
the side you’re falling, will actually keep your hips more on top of your
hands, and will make it easier to press back up to straight. This concept is the
same as if you were on two hands and falling under: if you arch, you only fall
faster, but if you pike and round your back then you can press back up. It’s
the same in a one-arm if you fall to the side — by falling into a flag position
you will do a side-press to regain balance.
Push up your shoulder. Don’t let your supporting shoulder sink or collapse
under. However, don’t push so hard with the supporting arm that your
shoulders become uneven, you twist, or you crunch in your side!
Keep your legs active. Remember to point your toes. It really will help.
Try to make your corrections sooner. It’s very common to wait until it’s too
late to correct. You’ll never be able to find the perfect spot and then just stop
balancing. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s easy to drift a little bit and
either not notice it, or not think it matters, until suddenly you wonder why
you’re falling. Keep your balancing adjustments small, constant, and
immediate.
And finally, I advocate training relatively evenly on both sides. It’s not
necessarily a mistake to only be able to do a one-arm on one side.
Nonetheless, being able to alternate hands opens up many more possibilities,
and training both side keeps you physically balanced and healthy.

More One-Arm Positions
There are many positions that can be achieved on one arm. I always find it
particularly exciting when I see a new shape, or when I meet someone very
adept at transitioning from one shape to another. Here we’ll talk about a few
of the classic yet more advanced positions. One of the first ways to make
one-arm positions more impressive is to bring your free arm out to the side so
that it’s parallel to the floor, or even all the way up next to your body. This
requires more control with the supporting shoulder and hand. It also helps to
relax your free arm so that moving it doesn’t throw off your whole balance.

Candle/Svetchka
In my opinion the Candle is both one of the most beautiful and most difficult
positions. This is when your legs remain together and your free hand is all the
way up by your side. As you lift your free hand it’s easy to tense and/or pull
back the free shoulder. Remember to keep both shoulders shrugged, and to
keep your free shoulder rounded forward so your chest stays hollow on both
sides so that you don’t twist. Claude Victoria taught his handstands with the
head position slightly more forward than Yury Bozyan. While aesthetically I
like the head more in line with the body, I personally find the Candle position
easier to balance using Claude’s head position.

Pistol

This is a more difficult side-bend variation in which the bottom leg is bent
and the top leg is straight and parallel to the floor (as opposed to pointing
towards the ceiling). This can also be done with the bottom leg pointing
straight down towards the floor. Here are a few tips for making this position
work.
As you bring your top leg over to the side, you can pike slightly in order to
bend closer to the hips. This will help prevent arching. For this shape, the
weight of your supporting shoulder can move to the inside of your wrist, or
the supporting shoulder can even sink slightly. This will help counter the
extra weight that is moving to the side. Your free shoulder should be actively
pulling towards the floor, even as your free arm extends to the side. This
position is also good for working towards both feet together in a flag.

Figa
Here’s another challenging shape that seems to get a lot of cred in the circus
world. In this position your legs are piked, opened in a small straddle, and
twisted towards the side of your free arm. The free hand is elevated and
usually reaches between the legs. Here are a few notes to help with this
position.
Really push up and extend through your supporting shoulder. Twist at the
hips, as opposed to at the shoulders. Your shoulders should stay relatively in
the same place. As usual, remember to keep your abs engaged and your free
shoulder dropped, even in this twisted position. The hip and leg opposite the
supporting arm often needs to be pulled back in order to sink into a fully
piked position with both legs even. One way to drill this shape is to put your
free hand on a higher object, like a chair, box or bench. Then you can just
focus on getting to the twisted position. Once there, you can gradually
decrease weight in the hand on the chair in order to feel the one-arm balance.

One-Arm Press
When pressing up on one arm your feet actually start to the side. Start folded
over in a pike and in a two-hand press position. Take one hand off the
ground, and then move your feet to the outside of your supporting hand. Turn
your feet so that your toes point towards your hand. You do not have to turn a
full 90 degrees so that your feet are perpendicular to your hand; they can be
at a bit of an angle. Then, as you lean in to the press, extend your free arm
parallel to the floor and a little behind you to assist as you press up. In order
to get to a full straddle position, the leg opposite the supporting arm will
travel farther than the closer leg. Remember to get your hips up first (so
actively pike a lot!) and keep your chest pulled in.
Since the most efficient path for a one-arm press begins with the feet to the
side, this usually means the press requires a bend in the side, and the
movement passes through a little bit of a flag position to get up. Because of
this, one of my favorite drills for building up to the press is as follows: Start
in a straddle one-arm. From here bend in your side to go to a straddle side-
bend. At the same time, reach your free arm out to counterbalance until your
toe touches the floor, and then side-press back up to the straddle. Repeat on
the other arm, and continue back and forth.
As the side press gets stronger, you can elevate your hands, for example on
blocks, so that your foot has to go lower to touch the floor. The next step is to
incorporate your second leg. So when your first foot touches the floor, keep
your weight in your hand and your hips high, and then pike your other leg
down to touch the first one. You can then extend it back up, and continue the
press. This results in a little twist as the feet come down to the side, just like
the starting position I described above. Remember to extend your free arm
parallel to the floor to get the most help, and reach it a little behind you to
counter the twist that happens with your legs.
Another very helpful press drill for one-arm strength, regardless of whether
you want to press up, involves an assist with your free hand. Start with your
supporting arm on the floor, or ideally elevated on a block or two. Then, with
the free hand, hold on to a solid object about shin height. Push down with
your supporting arm, shift your weight, and pull with the free hand to
complete the press. The technique for the hips and legs is the same as
described above, only now you can pull with your free hand, which makes it
a little easier to complete the press and do repetitions. You can also use this
approach to practice the more difficult flag positions, such as with both feet
together and the legs parallel to the floor.

Jumping Up On One Arm
When my girlfriend (now wife) Jacki and I walked into the room at Bud
Tumurbaatar’s circus school in Ulanbaataar, Mongolia, all the students
stopped and lined up to give us a formal greeting. Throughout the room were
handbalancing canes; however, instead of two side-by-side posts, as I was
used to seeing, each base only had one cane … As we were formally
introduced, Jacki and I stared around the room in anticipation, wondering if
what we thought was going to happen really would. Sure enough, as soon as
the introductions were done, all the students returned to their solitary canes
and proceeded to jump up onto one arm. Then, because there was only
support for one hand, they kicked their legs and hopped over to the other
hand! They also dropped down to Croco, and then swung back up to one arm!
It was incredible to see an entire room full of such highly skilled
handbalancers.
While technically not as difficult as pressing up on one arm, jumping up
offers a nice dynamic moment in an art form that can be very slow moving.
Usually a jump is used when going up onto a prop or object higher than the
floor. You can begin quite low, though, and use a stack of two or three
blocks. One way to jump up is to pass through a straddle. This is very similar
to jumping up on two arms, except your feet will start slightly to the side and
just in front of your supporting arm. Remember to lift your hips up first and
extend your free arm. Don’t tense your shoulder, even though you’re
jumping. Also, because you’re jumping to a one-arm position, you’re actually
jumping into a slight lean. This means that the same leg as the supporting arm
will stay a little lower, and the opposite leg will go a little higher. For me,
often I think about trying to get my opposite hip up first.
You can also swing up sideways. This is perhaps more similar to the
sideways one-arm press drill I described above. In this case, your feet will
start on the side, like the press. Then you’ll swing the opposite leg a little
forward and kick it straight back in a big arc, all the way up over your head,
while jumping with the other leg. It’s like doing a cartwheel into the
handstand.
For either way of jumping up, the best place to begin is to jump or swing up
on one arm, and then immediately land in two arms. This way you can work
on the coordination of getting up before figuring out how to balance once you
get there.
Even if you don’t see yourself getting to a one-arm handstand from pressing
or jumping, I find these drills to be valuable. It’s a very different feeling to
fight for your balance on one arm after pressing or jumping than it is to start
from two arms, shift to the perfect spot, and hold it. Sometimes when I have a
student who’s feeling stuck we’ll do some jumping-up drills and it will shake
things up enough that they start balancing better. Also, if you do want to hop
from one hand to the other, like the Mongolian students I described above,
then jumping up on one arm is a great way to build the strength and
coordination for this impressive trick.

Planche
The planche is a classic strength move. Your body will be parallel to the
floor, with your shoulders and chest reaching forward over your hands. Start
with your hands wider than usual. You may like turning your hands out to the
side so your wrists don’t have to over-extend as much. You can start in a
handstand with a wide straddle and then lower down as far as possible,
striving to reach the point where your body is parallel to the floor. Your
shoulders will have to lean very far forward over your wrists. Also, think of
pressing your shoulder blades away from each other.
Another way to approach the planche is to start with your knees or feet on the
floor in a tuck position. Lean out over your wrists and lift your legs off the
floor in your tuck while keeping your back parallel to the floor. The smaller
tuck shape will be easier to hold. As you build up strength you can extend
your legs behind you.
Yet another intermediary step is to lightly support your legs with the help of a
spotter, or on an object such as a chair, in order to feel the position, and to
help lean your shoulders over your wrists. Planche work does not require as
much detailed technique as one-arm handstands, but usually requires a lot of
dedication to conditioning in this position in order to build up the necessary
strength. Be mindful of your shoulders and wrists as you get used to this
shape and it will come with time.

“Mexican”/Reverse Planche/Hollowback
This is a beautiful shape that is often very impressive to audiences. Imagine
someone in a bridge, only their feet aren’t touching the floor — this is the
shape we’re going for. The secret is to open your shoulders and push them
strongly towards the heel of your hands in order to counter the weight of your
legs.
For this shape it will be easier to start with your hands a little wider and your
legs slightly straddled. Arch your feet over your head and move your chest in
the opposite direction. Continue to look at the floor, but let your gaze shift
under. It’s okay for your weight to move to the heel of your hand, but keep
your fingers on the floor. Balance with your hands as usual, and also by
feeling the counterbalance between your legs and chest/shoulders. And,
perhaps hardest of all, remember to breath!
You can build up to this position by pushing out your chest while your feet
are supported on a wall or chair. This will allow you to feel the final position
with some support. I find this to be a nice stretch, but doesn’t really simulate
how strenuous the position is. So also try to pull your feet off the wall or
chair to feel the engagement of the necessary muscles and get used to the
balance.
You can also move from a handstand into a bridge, but try to fall in slow
motion while you push open your shoulders and slow your descent. Do this
slower and slower, countering your legs with your chest, until you can stop
part-way down, and then you're holding the shape!

Contortion Handstands
Some of the best handbalancers are also contortionists. Flexibility makes
many moves easier, and when a back-arch is utilized, opens up a whole host
of new shapes. The reverse is also true — in order to increase the skill-level,
most high-level contortionists learn to make contortion poses on their hands,
and even on one hand. While I’ve had the pleasure of briefly training
alongside some of the best contortionist/handbalancers in Mongolia, I am not
myself a contortionist. I was once introduced as a contortionist when
performing my handbalancing act, but that was because the emcee had only
ever seen handstands in contortion acts, and didn’t know there was a
difference! I do have many students interested in contortion handstands, so
I’ll include a few notes here about incorporating this exciting element into
your training.
I would encourage those interested in contortion to also train straight
handstands. You want to control your back flexibility, not only for your
handstand training, but for your long-term contortion training. The subject of
back flexibility opens up a whole other world of relevant stretching,
conditioning, and pre-hab that’s beyond the scope of this book. But a general
theme that remains true is you want to be strong, not just flexible. So take the
necessary steps to build this foundation.
Also, people who are hypermobile in one area will often be stiff in the areas
directly above and below, especially if they haven’t developed the
corresponding strength to control their mobility. This is their body’s attempt
to stabilize. For example, someone who is very flexible in their low back may
actually have a relatively stiff upper back and hips. In this case I recommend
stretching the hips and upper back, while at the same time strengthening the
lower back, as opposed to continuously focusing only on increasing low-back
extension. This will not only create a more even and beautiful arch, but
should also help with general balance and stability. If you are interested in
contortion training, try to find a coach who can safely guide you through the
process.

Over-Arch Handstand
A classic contortion handstand is to bring the feet overhead. This differs from
the reverse-planche in that the shoulders are not pushed open, but rather
closed and dropped forward. To execute this, first start in a straight handstand
with your feet in a medium straddle. You should begin with your hands a
little wider so you have room for your chest to drop through your arms. As
you arch your back, bring your chest and head forward over your hands.
Look up and away from the floor. Squeeze your butt to help extend your hips
and protect your low back. Keep your shoulders on top of your wrists or
slightly forward. Aim for positioning both your legs and chest parallel to the
floor.
From here you can make several variations with your legs. You can bend
your knees and bring your feet to your head, you can bring your legs
together, you can bend one leg in a stag position, and so forth.
In an over-arch handstand, the shift to one-arm is different than in a straight
one-arm. As you shift your weight, twist your shoulders slightly towards your
free arm (the free arm shoulder moves slightly “over”); your head will stay
relatively centered instead of moving over with the rest of your body.

One-Leg Arch Or Side-Bend Arch

Many of the Mongolian students I trained with used this shape as the starting
position to work on their one-arms. I also enjoy performing a less bendy
version of this shape that uses more side-bend than back-arch. Start in a
straddle position and bend one leg overhead like in an over-arch, but keep the
other leg straddled and slightly piked out to the side. Just like in the
contortion handstand, bend your back and bring your chest forward. Shift
your weight towards the same hand as bent leg. To add the side bend, bend
on this same side as well. This position utilizes a nice arch and is a little
easier to balance because the straight leg helps counter the weight of the foot
overhead.

Contortion “Mexican”/Reverse-Planche/Hollowback
For a bendy contortionist, a reverse-planche won’t hover parallel to the
ground — their back will bend so far that their feet will probably knock on
the floor. This can be beautifully executed up high, such as on canes, where
there’s room for the legs to reach below the level of the hands. To get into
this, start in an overarch handstand, and then push your chest and shoulders
out under your wrists into the hollowback position. This can also be done on
the floor if you bend your knees, or put your legs in a stag shape, in which
case your feet arch back between your hands.
Another beautiful variation that still allows the legs to float above the ground
is the “M.” As you move from the over-arch and push out the chest, pike at
the hips and bend your knees. Your body will make an “M” shape in the air,
with the last line rounded into an arch.

Advanced Skills Example Programs
Chances are by this point you’ve figured out how best you like to train, and
examples of training programs are less beneficial than they would be for
someone just starting out with handbalancing. As you move to harder and
harder tricks you may find that the time needed to master a trick doesn’t
allow you to train everything at once. For example, I spent many years
focused almost entirely on one-arm handstands, which was also the emphasis
of my coaches, while I only just occasionally touched the harder two-arm
positions. For some shapes there was enough carry-over from my one-arm
training that I only needed minimal extra work (such as for the “7”, Reverse-
Planche, and full press-down), but for other positions, I needed to go back
and devote some more serious training (such as the full press-up, planche,
and handstand push-up).
A general rule of thumb is to continue incorporating your basics and
technique into your advanced training. For example, my training shortly after
I started holding one-arms was very similar to example program 4 in the
“Intermediate” section. Instead of holding piano-fingers or positions against
the wall, I held the positions on one hand, and if I had a coach to help me, we
held them much longer than I could on my own.
In addition to always including basics and technique, I would also advise
continuing to incorporate endurance. This is especially true when working
towards performing. Try not only to hold one-arms on both sides, but go back
and forth several times. If you would like to perform on canes or some other
apparatus, incorporate these into your practice early to make them more
comfortable for performance.
Once I was more experienced, a common drill I did with Yury was to warm
up on my own by walking down and back on six blocks in the following
positions: small straddle, legs together, full straddle, and tuck. Then, with
Yury’s spotting help, I would go down and back on the blocks again, this
time holding a one-arm for five seconds each step of the way. This ended up
being eight one-arms in a row on each side, so it became quite an endurance
exercise! After doing this in all four shapes, we would move on to flags,
shapes with the arm up, and other exercises.
The following is an example program that includes more advanced skills and
drills. Take what you wish from it and make it your own.

Program 6

•Tuck and hold, up to straight and hold, down to tuck and hold, down
slow, 3x
•Tuck: extend one leg, other leg, both legs, 2x. Then up to straight
handstand and lower one leg, other leg, and both legs (a pike
press), 2x. Slow pike down.

•Press up to handstand: straddle press down and pike press up, 2x, then
pike press down and straddle press up 2x, then do shapes
(straddle, tuck, straight), 2x, and reverse directions (tuck, straddle,
straight), 2x. Work towards doing all of this without coming down.

•Press up and side bend on two arms, 3x each side, then full press
down.

•Press up and tick tocks 3x each side, then full press down.

•Block walking down and back: small straddle

•Block walking down and back: legs together

•Block walking down and back: full straddle

•Block walking down and back: tuck

•Small straddle: one-arm 5 seconds, 2x each side

•Repeat on blocks or canes.

•Legs together: one-arm 5 seconds, 2x each side

•Repeat on blocks or canes

•Full straddle: one-arm 5 seconds, 2x each side

•Repeat on blocks or canes


•Tuck: one-arm 5 seconds, 2x each side

•Repeat on blocks or canes

•Flag: one-arm 5 seconds, 2x each side

•Repeat on blocks or canes

•Flag with variation: one-arm 5 seconds, 2x each side

•Repeat on blocks or canes

•Figa: start with one hand elevated on a chair, and then twist legs
towards the elevated hand. 3x each side

•One-arm press down, 3x each side

•Using a stack of two or three blocks, jump or swing up on one arm to


two hands, piano fingers, or eventually one-arm holds. 5x each
side.

•Easiest one-arm position for you: hold for as long as possible on each
side

•Reverse-planche, 4x

•Planche, 4x

•10 handstand pushups

•Endurance handstand

HOW MUCH TO TRAIN?


Handbalancing requires repeating the same skills over and over again. The
highs can be few and far between. For many people, a certain amount of
obsession is part of what makes it all possible. But this begs the question,
how much is too much? And on the other hand, how much is enough? While
we’ve gone over some example training sessions, we have yet to talk about
how much to train in general.
In my first few years of serious handbalancing training I spent summers in
Montreal training intensely, and then during the rest of the year I returned to
my performing job at Do Jump Theater based in Portland. During fall, winter,
and spring, I would do my best to replicate my summer training experience
on my own. However it was always difficult to balance training with
rehearsal, teaching, and performance schedules, let alone imitate all of the
drills without a coach there to spot me through them.
Each year I would inevitably have some experience that caused me to think I
was doing too much. Usually this was some sort of minor injury. Sometimes
my shoulders gave me trouble. Often I had trouble with one wrist or the
other. At times I just got sick from working so hard. So I would resolve to
have a more balanced schedule. I even thought that since handbalancing is
really all about “balance,” this should be reflected in my approach to training.
But then the following summer I would return to Montreal and once again
experience Yury’s challenging coaching, and be embedded in a circus culture
where training intensely is the norm, not the exception. I would conclude that
I was mistaken in thinking I had been training too hard — in fact, I had not
been training hard enough! And so I would re-commit to training as much as
possible.
This was a constant struggle for me, and remains on the forefront of my
mind. I find the balance between training too much and too little especially
important as a performer because I need to stay in the best condition possible
in order to easily execute my movements on stage, but I also can’t afford to
get injured or overly fatigued from training. Even for those only enjoying
handbalancing as a sport, the issue remains the same: not enough training and
it’s hard to improve, especially since there’s so much subtle balance
involved, but too much training and you risk injury, which can set you back,
and of course is no fun at all!
The truth is, handstands take a lot of dedication and consistency to see real
improvement. To progress, you will need to train multiple days a week. The
exact amount of training will vary by goals, skill level, scheduling
restrictions, etc. so I will loosely say you should train 3-6 days a week, from
40 minutes to multiple hours per session. Experiment with what works best
for you.
As you’ve probably already guessed, there isn’t a magic formula that takes
into account all the various goals and stressors in your life and spits out the
answer to the question of how much to train. Not that people haven’t tried.
There is some great literature out there about various approaches to sports
training, such as having a schedule with hard days, easy days, and moderate
days, or every three weeks working 50% as hard and then coming back to
normal training refreshed. I think these approaches are very good, and
they’ve definitely informed my approach to training. Personally though, I’ve
often found them difficult to translate literally into a sporadic performance
and rehearsal schedule, and so I’ve had to embrace the themes instead of the
specifics. I’ve learned that rest is important. I need to sleep and eat more
when I’m training hard. And I’ve learned to embrace instead of resent the
natural “easy weeks” that inevitably happen because of other life obligations.
So in the spirit of these themes, let me elaborate on two areas that have
helped me monitor my training. The first is physical: I’ve learned to listen to
my body and adopt relevant exercises to maintain healthy function. The
second is emotional: I’ve learned to differentiate between obsession and
motivation, and I’ve learned how to stay motivated.
Okay, so first, the physical. Let’s assume for the moment that you want to
train as much as humanly possible without getting injured. Needless to say,
this will hurt! This is okay, but the challenge is to differentiate between the
“good” pain and the “bad” pain, and to actually stop when you suspect what
you’re feeling is “bad” pain. This takes experience and a lot of listening to
your body. I’ve learned to be aware of pain in my wrists, particularly if it’s
on the outside of my wrists by the pinky finger. I will now stop prematurely
if I feel this pain: better safe than sorry. I can take my shoulders a little
further, but I’ve learned to avoid strenuous shoulder exercises after
handbalancing. For example, I also perform aerial straps, and I’ve found I do
better when I train straps first, and then handbalancing.
Likely your experience will be different than mine, but a good rule of thumb
paraphrased from The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery: Rest, Relax, and Restore
for Peak Performance by Sage Rountree is that pain is good if it’s in the
middle of the muscles and is symmetrical on both sides. Pain at the joint and
on one side is a potential problem. This makes sense. If you work hard, your
muscles will be sore, and likely similarly sore on both sides of your body.
But if some part is failing, chances are it’s not symmetrical, and it’s more
common for worrisome pain to show up at a joint; usually in handbalancing
this means the wrist, shoulder, or elbow.
The next step in monitoring your body is to recognize that if some part is
failing, this means it’s too weak or tired to do what you’re asking of it. While
rest is important and necessary, especially if you’re dealing with an overuse
issue, strengthening is also necessary. Over time I’ve picked up specific
exercises that target my shoulders and wrists and that keep them healthy
enough for all of the handstands I want to do. At first I often wondered how
much of this sort of exercise I should do. I didn’t want to tire myself out
more, and if my wrists were already exhausted from so many handstands,
then weren’t they getting plenty strong? Why would I wear them out with
additional exercises? But what I’ve found is that the right exercises go a long
way towards keeping my joints healthy and balanced. I don’t have to do a lot,
I just have to do some. I present the exercises I do regularly, along with
others I’ve found useful, in the “Pre-hab” section of this book.
So to recap, train as much as you realistically can, listen to your body,
actually stop and rest when you feel worrisome pain, and strengthen the areas
giving you trouble.
Now for the emotional side of things. Obviously if you train so hard that
you’re at risk for overtraining and injury then you have no problem with
motivation. However, I would like to make a distinction between motivation
and obsession. There have been times when I worked harder than I knew
possible and I thrived — but there’ve been times when I haven’t worked as
hard and yet still suffered injuries. I believe this is because these times were
more wrought with frustration and an obsessive need to squeeze in training.
Or I trained even when I felt worrisome pain that I should have given more
attention.
When you’re obsessed you can’t stop. You lose sight of the bigger picture
and goals. Training becomes less enjoyable, and sometimes even your self-
image gets wrapped up in every small success or failure. Now anyone who
has trained hard and really wanted something can recognize all of these
factors. I’m not suggesting that healthy training should only consist of
blissful and patient dedication to practice. We are not robots, and some
obsessive angst can fuel the fire, but too much and you will burn yourself out.
I think the antidote to unhealthy obsession is healthy motivation. Healthy
motivation is also what you need if you’re struggling with not wanting to
train enough. Finding ways to stay inspired, not just dedicated, will help you
know how much to train, whether you need a kick in the butt, or to slow
down and get some perspective!
So how do we stay motivated in a healthy way? To start, it helps to create
goals that are more specific than “I want to be a really good handbalancer.”
This is a perfectly fine goal at first, but over time the vagueness of this goal
can make things difficult. There are so many ways to be “good” that it can
become easy to dismiss the progress you’ve made, and instead focus on all
your inadequacies. This can lead to anxiety over every little detail, or general
ennui in the face of overwhelming tasks. If, on the other hand, you focus on
specific things you want to learn or improve, and then measure your progress,
it will be easier to stay motivated.
I’ve also been surprised by how motivating it is to see and meet other
handbalancers in person. Of course you can watch a thousand videos on
YouTube of the most amazing handbalancing feats in the world, and while
this can be inspiring, it can also get depressing after a while. Somehow, at
least for me, seeing a real, live person do incredible handstands is
simultaneously more impressive and makes the tricks feel more achievable. I
don’t know why, but that’s my experience!
The same goes for working with a coach. Working with an expert, especially
over time, will take you beyond whatever pointers you might get. It’s
invaluable to work with a coach in person, who by their mere presence alone
demonstrates belief in you.
You may not have access to other handbalancers or coaches — perhaps that’s
even why you’re reading this book! The principle is that human contact is
good! Even if it means going to the gym now and then to train with other
people who are working out. Handbalancing can be a very solitary practice,
and there is something beautiful in hiding out in your own space and zoning
in on your art. I’ve certainly done my share. However, to keep up
connections and conversations with others, even online, helps to keep you
grounded, accountable, and motivated.
TRAINING FOR SMALL SUCCESSES
Whenever possible, train in such a way that you are succeeding at each
exercise you do. This means choosing drills that are within your capabilities,
while still challenging. There are many reasons for this — we’ve already
talked about the importance of technique (having a wide base, not picking the
fruit until it is ripe, and so forth). There’s also the fact that if you train
without a spotter, you’ll get more out of a session if you spend more time on
your hands, rather than always falling out of the tricks you cannot do yet.
However, I actually think the most important reason is mental. Constantly
failing can sap your inspiration to keep going. Training for success helps you
to progress fluidly with good form, but also with good mental energy! It will
also help you if you are interested in performing.
For example, I was once cast in a role performing a solo act that had
choreography already set by the company. For this particular contract the
rehearsals were run this way: we would run the act straight through, even
before fully knowing it, and the coaches would shout instructions at me along
the way. Some of the skills were new to me, and instead of focusing on these
areas I was simply required to run the act again and again until I could
execute it fully. For several weeks I couldn’t make it all the way through the
act. In this sense we trained until failure.
At the time I accepted this as a fine, albeit unusual, way of learning
choreography. However, when I performed the act, I had some anxiety about
completing the last skill at the end of the piece. I knew I could do it — but I
had spent weeks not being able to do it, over and over again, and so I worried
I would choke! When I finally talked to the other artists on the show I found
that they felt the same frustration with the acts they had been taught. If we’d
been allowed to train each section of our acts successfully, and then pieced
them together as we built knowledge and strength, then we would have had
more confidence in our performance. And when it comes to performing,
confidence is no small thing!
In contrast, I later worked for a different show in which the lead coach ran
rehearsals very thoughtfully. I was specifically asked to do easier versions of
the difficult tricks when learning the number so that I could stay focused on
the new choreography. This was a challenging number with moves that were
new to me, but by coming at them gradually and with successful progressions
I was able to proceed quickly and perform confidently. Whenever I can I try
to set up my training and learning process in this fashion.
There are a few exceptions where I would recommend training until failure.
As I mentioned in the “Basics” section, when it comes to training endurance,
I see the best results when I hold a handstand for as long as possible. I’ve had
many practice sessions when I was going through block drills, either with a
coach or on my own, and each exercise felt like a huge feat of endurance.
After doing 20 or so of these exercises it’s easy to think, “Okay, if that didn’t
work my endurance, I don’t know what will!” But at least for me, I’ve never
significantly improved my time upside-down without actually staying in a
handstand until I shook, lost good form, and finally collapsed out of it. This is
an example of when I would advocate training until failure.
Also, as you may have experienced already with a coach (or even glimpsed
from my example programs), a serious handbalancing practice can be very
intense. At first it may seem like you’re training to failure, until you realize
how much you’re actually capable of!
So for the most part I advocate training for success, with the occasional push
until failure. This means doing three good press handstands instead of six bad
ones. Or holding piano fingers for 30 seconds instead of falling out of a one-
arm at 2 seconds. But every now and then try for those extra presses, or try
for the one-arm—maybe you’ll actually hold it instead of just falling in slow
motion. You won’t know until you try. I think you’ll improve faster this way,
and with better form, but most of all you’ll feel better about training, and so
have the motivation to keep going.

Adapting Routines And Exercises
In general, training for success, instead of falling out of everything, makes
sense. But what if you don’t know what the exercise is supposed to feel like?
How do you know if you’re “successful”? In a nutshell, the answer is: it
should feel controlled. The exercise won’t necessarily feel easy, but you
should be in control. This means that when you kick up to that handstand,
you pretty much know you’re going to hold it — because you control the
whole movement, and don’t just throw your legs up and hope you get lucky!
“Success” means that when you do those block drills, you should shift from
one block to the other smoothly, not grasping for them in desperation.
If you can’t yet do the exercise with control, then take a step back and do the
version of the drill you can control. It’s always okay to adapt exercises and
routines so that you can do them more successfully. Just make sure you
continue to focus on alignment and technique. For example, perhaps you
have trouble holding a straight handstand, but you can control your balance
when you let yourself arch your back. What should you do? Some students
become so focused on fixing their alignment that they squeeze their muscles
with so much effort that they can’t control the balance at all. Others find a
position that they can hold, and then they stop worrying about the alignment.
The key is to strike a balance between these extremes.
In order to continue improving your balance, and to spend more time on your
hands, it’s more important that you hold your handstand than be perfectly
straight. However, you also need to continue to work on your form. This can
mean you find other ways to adapt the exercise. For example, maybe you find
that if you widen your hands, you’re able to open your shoulders, which
allows you to straighten your spine. Then, with time, you can bring your
hands closer together again. Or maybe you just can’t hold the straight
handstand yet, so after each handstand you do a drill to work towards being
straight, like holding a wall hollow body and stretching your shoulders.
The point being, make adaptations as necessary so that you can train for
success most of the time. Just make sure the adaptations you make further
both your progress towards better control and better technique.
“PRE-HAB”
One element sorely missing from many acrobatic practices is a regimen of
preventative or pre-habilitation exercises to guard against injury. This was
certainly the case in my own learning process. While many formalized
programs are better at addressing this, students are often only in a program
for a short amount of time, or instead travel to specialized coaches without
one person or system overseeing their training. Even now, as a coach, I’m
often forgetful of this issue — if a student comes to me for a lesson in
handbalancing, we do handstands. We don’t touch on preventative exercises
unless they’re experiencing a specific problem, or we’ve worked together for
some time.
To a certain extent, this is natural, as everyone has different requirements for
warming up and taking care of their body. Preventative exercises often appear
time-consuming, and students don’t have the motivation to do them until
they’ve experienced a relevant injury. The easiest way around this resistance
is to adopt a few simple exercises that become part of your warm-up. Unlike
“rehab,” which can require an extensive regimen, “pre-hab” can be quick and
easy, and prevent injury before it happens.
In this section I’m going to present a series of exercises that you may find
useful. I don’t imagine you would do all of them, or that you would do them
instead of a more traditional warm up and/or stretching regimen. Rather, I
hope you can choose the ones that feel relevant to your weaknesses and
incorporate them into your training. These are exercises I’ve picked up over
the years that I wish someone had taught me sooner, before I had to deal with
some long-lasting injuries. A few of them I do every day; most of them I only
do as needed.

Shoulder Elastic-Band External And Internal Rotation
These exercises target the muscles of the rotator cuff. Start by anchoring an
elastic band to a doorknob or other firm object. Hold the free end of the
elastic band in your hand in front of your body, with your elbow pinned to
your side and your forearm parallel to the floor. Keep your shoulder back and
down. Stand sideways or perpendicular to the door or object so that the
elastic band extends out of your hand and across the front of your body to the
anchor point. Now, keeping your shoulder back and your elbow touching
your side, pull your hand away from the anchor point (away from your belly).
Find the right amount of tension in the band so that you start to feel it after
five to 15 repetitions, but not as a huge strain. We want to engage and
strengthen the smaller stabilizing muscles in the shoulder, instead of allowing
stronger muscles to do the work. This is external rotation (as shown on page
105).
For internal rotation, stand facing the other direction and pull your hand
across the front of your body. Again, keep your shoulder down and back and
your elbow pinned to your side.
If you can’t attach the elastic band to an object, you can hold both ends in
each hand. This works especially well for external rotation because you can
just pull both hands away from each other. However, in general I try to do
one arm at a time, because then I can better focus on form. If your band
won’t tie around your anchor point because the anchor point is too broad (if
it’s a thick column, for example), you can loop around and then pin down the
band with your free hand. Then perform the exercise with the other arm.

External And Internal Rotation With Arm Abducted 90 Degrees
Stand facing the anchor point. Your forearm will still be bent at a right angle,
but instead of pinned to your side, elevate your elbow up and in line with
your shoulder. In the start position, your forearm is still parallel to the floor.
Then, keeping your shoulder down and your elbow stationary in space, pull
your hand up and back so it’s above your elbow. For the internal rotation,
face away from the anchor point. The starting position will be with your hand
above your shoulder, and you will pull down to parallel (as shown on page
107).

Wall-Crawls
For this exercise, sit with your back to the wall. Engage your abs so that your
low back also touches the wall. Raise both arms to 90 degrees, like in the
above exercise, so that your elbows are out to the side and in line with your
shoulders, and your hands are above your elbows at right angles. Press the
back of your wrists to the wall. Ideally, everything is in contact with the wall:
your whole back, shoulders, arms, wrists, and the backs of your hands. Now,
keeping everything in contact with the wall, slide your arms up so they’re all
the way overhead, like in a handstand. Traditionally this exercise is done so
that you only go as far as you can keep contact with the wall. Sometimes I
have handstand students raise their arms all the way up, striving to keep
contact with the wall, because this is more applicable to handstand training.
A couple sets of ten and you will likely feel this deceptively simple exercise!
You can also make this more challenging by standing in a wall hollow-body.
You can also add a 90-degree forearm tilt at the bottom of each repetition to
combine the external rotation of the previous exercise. For even more
challenge, hold light weights in your hands.

Mopping The Floor
For this shoulder exercise, start on your hands and knees with a rag in one
hand. Keep your elbow straight and make small circles with the rag, initiating
the movement with your shoulder. After 20-30 rotations, go the other
direction. While you can actually mop your floor this way, you don’t really
need to use a rag for the exercise! You can make the small circles with your
hand lightly planted on the floor. Your hand does not have to actually move,
just engage your shoulder in the circles. I especially like this one if I’ve
forgotten my elastic band but still want to quickly and easily touch some
shoulder pre-hab.

Palm Circles
You can do a very similar exercise for your wrists. As in the exercise above,
start on your hands and knees. Instead of making small circles with your
shoulder, make circles around the palm of your hand using your wrist. Keep
your shoulder and elbow locked and stationary. You should feel weight
pressing into the floor in a circle around the outside of your palm. Go in the
reverse direction as well. This is great for experiencing how much mobility
and control your wrist actually has, which we want to utilize in our
handstands.

Fingertip Push-Ups
These are just what they sound like — push-ups on your fingertips. They
build strength in your fingers, of course, but also in your forearms. Start with
five to ten. Feel free to start on your knees and work up to the full push-up
position. Stay lifted in your palms and keep your fingers straight, as opposed
to collapsing your finger joints.

Hand Push-Ups
For this one, start on your hands and knees. As the drill gets easier you can
work up to doing the exercise in a plank, or in a push-up position. Put your
hands flat on the floor and press your knuckles into the floor until the heels of
your hands rise fully off the floor, and then lower them slowly. Try to do the
hand push-up slowly and smoothly, and keep the weight a little more towards
your pointer fingers.
Another version of this is to do the same movement, but instead of bending at
the knuckles, keep your hands straight and press all the way up to your
fingertips. Both of these variations can also be done in combination with a
normal push-up. You would do a push-up and, at the top, go through the hand
push-up. Hand push-ups are very good for building the strength necessary to
control your handstand with your wrists.

Wrist Stretch/Push-Up With Hands Internally Rotated
A common wrist stretch is to sit on your knees, hands on the floor, and
fingers rotated outwards, pointing back to your knees. Then, when you lean
back onto your heels, you get a stretch in your forearms. I also appreciate a
less common stretch in which the hands are turned the other way. From
neutral, rotate your fingers in towards each other and back towards your
knees. This moves the stretch more to the outside of the wrist, which I find
helpful. You can also do push-ups from this position to help build strength in
this range.

Rolling Down The Fist Push-Ups
This exercise strengthens the back side (posterior) of the forearms, which are
sometimes under-developed compared to the front (anterior). Like the hand
push-ups, start with your knees on the floor and gradually work up to a full
push-up position. Make fists and put your knuckles on the floor. Your curled
fingers should point towards each other. Then bend at the wrists to start to
roll down the backside of your hands. Resist with your wrists, but as soon as
the pressure is too much, “catch” the drop by bending your arms to lower
through a push-up. The back of your hands will support your weight. As you
push up, press the back of your hands in to the floor and roll back on top of
your fists. Make sure you initiate the movement from your wrists. Don’t bend
your elbows first and then crash down on the back of your hands. Instead roll
smoothly down your fists and back up using the push-up to cushion the
movement.

Extending The Hand In Elastic Band
Another perhaps easier way to exercise the opposing range of overdeveloped
grip muscles is to cover your fist with an elastic band. Hold it down at the
wrist with your other hand. Then open your fist and extend your hand as
much as possible against the resistance of the band. Keep your wrist in a
straight, neutral position throughout the exercise. Repeat 10-20 times.

Rice Bucket
This is a great wrist preparation exercise that targets a wide range of
movements. Take a bucket and fill it with rice. Then stick your hand in the
rice and move it around every which way. Make circles, open and close your
fingers, etc, etc. The rice will provide resistance and help you to strengthen
your hands and forearms. Try to make circles in sets of 25-30 each direction.

Side Plank With Twist

When it comes to anything besides a straight sit-up motion, many people lack
adequate abdominal strength. Working on side and twisting stabilization and
strength is beneficial for handstands, and core stability in general. This
exercise helps address this. Begin with your elbow on the ground in a side
plank. Keep your body perfectly straight.
Start with your free arm pointed towards the ceiling, then bring it down under
you, leading your body in a turn towards the floor. Don’t lose your straight
body position as your front rotates towards the ground. Return back to
starting with your hand over head. Repeat ten times each side.

Hard Roll
Here is another great abdominal exercise that builds strength in a non-linear
range of motion. Lie on your back and extend one leg long. Tuck your other
knee to your chest. Place the opposite arm behind your head and touch that
elbow to your tucked knee. Now, without losing this contact, roll sideways
towards the side of your bent leg. Once on your side, roll back onto your
back. Repeat 10 times. At first, the free arm can be extended out to the side.
As you get better at this exercise, bring your free arm over your head so that
you rely solely on your core to help complete the movement. Make sure you
keep contact with your elbow and knee throughout the whole exercise.

Other Exercises, And What I Do Most Days
There are many ways to strengthen your wrists, shoulders, and core. The
exercises I’ve presented are just a few possibilities. You can use small
weights to exercise your wrists in different directions. You can use elastic
bands at almost any angle you can imagine to help bolster your shoulders. At
some point, the line between pre-hab and conditioning starts to blur. To
strengthen my shoulder, Yury had me hold a 30-pound weight overhead with
one arm and then make little movements out and in. This was probably more
about helping my handstands than preventing injury, but at some point being
comprehensively strong is what prevents injury.
It’s not my intention to present all of the possible pre-hab exercises you can
do. This book is already filled with descriptions of drills. The point is to help
you become mindful of weak points and imbalances, and to try and prevent
injury with a little extra attention. For handbalancing, this usually means
encouraging you to spend a little more time on the small muscles of your
wrists and shoulders, even though you’re already doing so much wrist and
shoulder work.
In case it’s helpful, I will share what I do on most days that I consider pre-
hab and that is part of my warm-up. It’s short and simple, as well as
supplemented by a lot of other stretching and conditioning, but I think it
helps.

•Elastic band external rotation, 10x each side

•Elastic band internal rotation, 10x each side

•Elastic band external rotation with shoulder 90 degrees, 10x each side

•Elastic band internal rotation with shoulder 90 degrees, 10x each side

•10 Finger pushups

•Hand pushups, 5-10 Bending at the knuckles and 5-10 up to the


fingertips

•Wrist stretch and internally rotated wrist stretch, 5-10 internally


rotated wrist push-ups

•10 Rolling down the fist push-ups (usually on knees with emphasis on
form)

•Side Plank with twist 10x each side, or Hard Roll 10x each side
(usually alternating days)

STRETCHING AND WARMING UP


Flexibility is an important element for handbalancing. The upper body needs
to have enough wrist and elbow extension, and it’s very helpful to have a
more open shoulder angle. These are prerequisites to stack yourself into a
handstand without constantly straining. For the lower body, leg flexibility
makes jumping up and pressing up easier, and is directly utilized in many
shapes such as straddle, splits, and even tuck. For the trunk, a good range of
side flexion allows all the beautiful flag positions. Back flexibility makes the
reverse-planche and contortion elements possible.
It’s rare to naturally have all the desired mobility. For example, I’ve been
surprised to meet students who can bend in half forwards and backwards and
do incredible splits, yet still have tight shoulders. Or students who have great
shoulder and leg flexibility, but can barely bend to the side. I’ve been
fortunate enough to have relatively natural flexibility in my shoulders and
elbows, but I continue to work very hard on my legs and toe-point.
If you pursue handbalancing, it can direct and channel your flexibility
training. I was performing as an aerialist and acrobat before picking up
handbalancing, so I was already used to stretching, but handstands focused
my approach. For example, I stretched my shoulders much more, and began
to really work on my center splits and pike, as these allow for pressing up and
opening the legs wide when upside down.
So, depending on your natural strengths, of course, I would recommend for
most people:

•Opening the shoulders

•Possibly increasing mobility in the wrists and elbows (but with an


emphasis on stability)

•Gaining flexibility in the straddle and center-split positions

•Increasing side flexion


•Generally increasing flexibility in the legs and back in positions such
as splits, pike, and bridge.

•Working on toe point, especially if you’re interested in performing.

There’s already a lot of good material out there about stretching and gaining
flexibility, so I’ll keep the following section limited to a general overview
and what I can contribute from a handbalancing perspective. Assess your
own strengths and weaknesses, and look at what you need most in your
handstand practice, so you can choose what to focus on.

Opening The Shoulders
The most straight-forward stretch for opening your shoulders is to put your
hands on a wall or on the edge of an object, such as the back of a chair, and
then drop your chest and head between your arms. Note that you can either
allow everything to arch, and so open your whole back, or you can pull in
your chest (like in a handstand) and isolate the stretch more in the shoulders.
I recommend stretching both versions. You can also play with having your
hands wider or narrower for slightly different stretches, and you can turn your
palms towards each other for another variation. Shrug your shoulders to your
ears as you stretch to simulate the handstand form.
To get more stretch in this position, try one arm at a time. To increase
leverage even further, take the arm you aren’t stretching, reach across to grab
the opposite shoulder, and pull down. A variation on this basic shoulder
stretch is to put your elbows up on an object (ideally an object with padding,
like a mat), bend your elbows, and put your palms together behind your head.
Drop your chest like before. Make this more intense by keeping your elbows
from splaying too far apart. At the same time, force your hands farther apart
by holding a block or something similar between your hands.
I occasionally have students complain of a pinching feeling when they stretch
their shoulders. In this case, I think it’s best to keep stretching, but not push it
too hard. When I have this feeling I can usually get around it by spending
some time stretching my arm more out to the side, and then more across my
body. Then, when I go back to straight overhead, I sink deeper into the
stretch. I’ve also had some luck with stretching one arm while using my free
hand to press into tight spots in my pecs, lats, and triceps. I will let up from
the stretch a little, find a pressure spot to press into, and then push back down
into the stretch. After doing this several times I usually move past the feeling
of impingement. If you have intense or persistent pain consult a physical
therapist for how to proceed.
I sometimes find students who seem to have flexible shoulders, but then have
trouble with their elbows bending and flaring out to the side in their
handstand, which is normally a symptom of tight shoulders. While this
tendency can be exacerbated by stiff elbows, I think it’s also a symptom of
tight lats. In this case, I suggest stretching the lats by grabbing a sturdy
object, like the edge of a doorframe, at about hip height and then pulling the
hips back and extending through the outer side of the arm. Also, in order to
strengthen the correct rotation, I have students hold an elastic band out in
front of them, palms down and arms shoulder-width apart. Then, with tension
on the band, they rotate their palms towards the ceiling with straight elbows.
From here, they try to hold this position while lifting their arms all the way
overhead. Another tool I’ve also used are rotating disks. Students perform a
handstand on them and so have to fight any twisting off-center. I describe this
exercise in the “Unique Drills” section under the “perfect push-up
handstand.”
In general, whether you have trouble with rotating shoulders or not, it’s
important to strengthen the range in which you’d like mobility. So, for
example, you can lie on your belly with your hands overhead and lift just
your hands and arms off the floor as high as possible. I will often have
students warm up their shoulders before stretching them by doing 10 of these
lifts and then holding the highest point for 10 seconds. Wall crawls and wall
hollow-bodies are both other ways to actively work on opening your
shoulders.

Wrists And Elbows
If your wrists have trouble extending to 90 degrees with weight on them, you
may need to increase your flexibility here before making serious gains in
handbalancing. However, in general, it’s better to have slightly tight wrists
than overly loose wrists. Since you’re making all of your corrections with
small wrist movements, you want your wrists strong and responsive, as
opposed to loose and weak. When I began handbalancing my wrists often
gave me pain, so I developed a habit of constantly stretching them. It wasn’t
until I saw a chiropractor specializing in the wrist joint that I broke myself of
this habit. She told me that my wrists were so loose she was amazed I had the
stability necessary to do a handstand at all!
I usually combine my wrist stretching with my strengthening exercises, such
as what we covered in the Pre-hab section. But they can also be separate. A
nice gentle wrist stretch is to start on your hands and knees in a “tabletop”
position. From here simply press your shoulders forward so they extend over
your wrists. Press your shoulders to the side, then forward, then to the other
side, so you are making half circles and gently working into a greater range
of motion in your wrists. When you are ready for a deeper wrist and forearm
stretch, complete the one I mentioned in the Pre-hab section: come to a
kneeling position and turn your hands so your fingers point back towards
your knees. Then lean back until you feel a gentle stretch in your forearms.
You can use this same approach to experience various stretches by turning
over and/or changing the direction of your hands.
Those with tight elbows can have difficulty locking out a handstand,
especially when working on one-arm handstands. Stretching the elbows can
open them up, but should be done carefully and gradually. There are several
ways you can do this. One method is to hold a heavy weight with your arm
propped over an object that provides leverage. If you have a partner, they can
press down on your arm. Also, you can face a wall with your arm down. Turn
your palm and place it on the wall. Tuck your elbow into your hip. Then
press your hips towards the wall, applying pressure to the elbow joint in the
process.

Straddle And Center Split
When working on the seated straddle stretch, keep your knees straight and
pointed towards the ceiling, as opposed to allowing them to roll to the inside.
I also recommend stretching with pointed toes so that pointing becomes
second nature. When stretching forward, try to extend your back long so that
your belly can (or could eventually) touch the floor. Stretch towards each leg.
Reach long again and then pull yourself down. Also, stretch sideways, with
your opposite arm overhead and your chest turning up towards the ceiling.
From your straddle you can move forward to a center split by bringing your
hips in line with your feet. In this case, it’s okay if your knees are no longer
pointed towards the ceiling. Just continue to keep them straight and engaged.
You can also take some pressure off of your knees by going to a “frog”
position: keep the same hip position, but bend your knees so your feet are
behind you. You can move from frog into a stretch for hip turn-out, which
should help with your straddle, by bringing your toes together so that your
legs create a diamond shape. From here, try to reach your feet to the floor
while keeping your hips down. For different variations on this stretch you can
play with the dimensions of the diamond.
I’ve also seen a lot of improvement on my center splits by working on over-
splits. I like to put one foot on the floor, the other foot up on a chair, and my
hands on a second chair in the middle. From this position, you can sink your
hips back for more of a straddle stretch, or come forward for more of a center
split. You can put less weight in your hands to force your legs to engage, and
play with leaning over or remaining more vertical. Of course, stretch with the
other leg elevated as well. When I do this I usually also rotate through front
and back over-splits.

Side Flexion
You can stretch your sides in the seated straddle, as I mentioned above, by
stretching sideways over each leg. However, to get deeper, it’s helpful to
bend the knee you are stretching away from. Bring the foot of your bent leg
to the center, and not all the way over to your other leg. Try to keep your bent
knee pinned to the floor as you stretch sideways towards your straight leg.
Think of turning your chest towards the ceiling as you bend sideways. This
can be a great stretch to do with a partner. Your partner can help push your
bent leg to the floor while pushing your torso towards your straight leg, and
they can help keep you from twisting forward. In the absence of a stretching
partner you can put a sandbag on your knee, or even prop it under something
heavy, like a couch.
Another side stretch I enjoy is to grab a sturdy pole, or the side of a door
frame, with one hand above my head and the other at about hip height. Feet
close to the base, I then lean my hips out, holding with my top hand and
gently pushing with my bottom hand.

Splits, Pike, And Bridge
For front-to-back or front splits, I recommend stretching both with your hips
squared, such as is often emphasized in yoga, as well as with your back leg
turned out, which is often utilized in dance. Squared hips will help you reach
greater flexibility and makes for nice lines, while turned out hips will help
when you rotate your legs through positions. Alternating between the two
styles of front split can help release areas that feel stuck. Extend your legs
long with pointed toes as you stretch your splits. I recommend stretching the
front hamstring and back hip flexor individually before sinking into a full
split stretch.
For the pike position, reach out past your toes while trying to lengthen and
straighten your spine. You can also curve down over your legs, but try to
avoid tucking your pelvis underneath you and putting unnecessary pressure
on your low back. Think of sitting up and over your legs; you can even sit up
on a block as you stretch forward. Some piked positions in handstands will be
most efficient with a curved back. However to stretch with a straight back
helps maximize flexibility gains and also makes for nice lines.
For the bridge stretch, you can focus on the overall spinal arch by bringing
your feet and hands closer together. Alternately, you can emphasize a
shoulder and upper back stretch by trying to straighten your legs, and by
pushing your chest out over your hands. This upper back flexibility will be
especially important for the reverse-planche and “7” positions. I would
recommend stretching both variations. Keep actively extending your
shoulders as you stretch. And squeeze your glutes and press your hips up to
the ceiling.

Toe Point
Having good toe-point gives a finished look to your lines, and often appears
to be the difference between an amateur and professional. Perhaps the most
straightforward toe-point stretch is to take a kneeling position and then lean
back until your knees lift off the ground and you feel pressure on your ankles.
Make sure you keep your heels close together, hopefully touching, so that
you’re not stretching your ankles in a sickled position. You should feel the
stretch on top of your foot and ankle, as opposed to on the outer edge. You
can also do one foot at a time for a more intense version of this stretch.
Extend one foot out in front and then sit back on the other.
Another toe-point stretch starts from a downward-dog position. Cross one
foot in front of the other and place the top of it on the floor. Then use the
knee of your other leg to press the back of your ankle to provide the leverage
to stretch your point.
Another classic stretch is to simply put your toes under something heavy, like
the edge of a couch. This is nice for more prolonged stretches, such as while
watching TV or reading.

Active Stretching
All of the stretching I have described so far has been fairly passive, such as
folding down over or having someone push you towards your leg. It’s also
very beneficial, perhaps even more beneficial, to actively engage your
muscles in your stretches. If you can build strength in the range you’re trying
to convince your body to go, then your body will be more willing to go there!
One way to do this is to resist the stretch. Let’s use the straddle position as an
example. If while reaching forward, you squeeze your leg muscles and press
your heels down into the floor, then you create a slight muscular resistance to
the stretch. Combine this resistance with passive relaxation for even deeper
flexibility gains. After engaging your muscles for several seconds,
intentionally relax and sink deeper into the stretch. Do this several times in a
row and your muscles will begin to allow you to go further. This is called
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, or PNF.
Another way to be active in your stretches is by assisting them muscularly. In
this case you are using your muscles to make the stretch happen instead of
resisting it. For example, if you lift your legs off the floor while in a seated
straddle position, then you are using your leg muscles to make a straddle
shape, as opposed to relying on the resistance of the floor. This type of active
stretching can also be combined with passive stretches in what is called
Reciprocal Inhibition. By tensing one muscle group, you automatically help
the opposing muscle group to relax, and so stretch further.
And of course you can combine both PNF and Reciprocal Inhibition. For one
more example, let’s say you have your leg elevated on a counter because you
want to stretch your hamstring. First you can grab your foot and pull yourself
down in a slow, relaxed, passive stretch. Then you can engage your muscles
to resist the stretch by pressing your leg down into the counter and holding it
for 5-10 seconds. When you relax, you will sink deeper into the stretch
(PNF). After repeating this several times, you can engage your muscles to
assist the stretch. So this time, instead of pushing down, try to lift your leg so
that it hovers above the counter without your hands helping. Hold this for 5-
10 seconds, and then relax down into the passive stretch again, and repeat
several times (Reciprocal Inhibition).
Ultimately, in a handstand the shapes you make with your legs are very
active. You don’t get to lean into the floor or press into an aerial apparatus to
show off your flexibility, so adding active stretches to your flexibility
training will go a long way towards improving your positions.

Some Thoughts On Stretching Vs. Warming Up
Sometimes stretching and warming up seem to be the same thing, and
sometimes they’re treated quite differently. A warm up generally consists of
movements such as joint circles, kicks, and basic “limbering up” stretches. It
may also include jogging, jumping, sit-ups, or other exercises designed to
raise body temperature, increase range of motion, and activate muscle groups.
When a warm-up includes stretching, the idea can be to prepare for training,
but also to reach a high level of flexibility.
It is generally a good idea to warm up before stretching so that you don’t go
into the stretch with cold muscles; it’s also a good idea to stretch after
training when you’re naturally already warm. But what do you do when you
feel you need to be stretched out in order to train or perform? A jogger can do
a couple of ankle and knee circles and then head out on their run, and later on
stretch their hamstrings and hip flexors after they’re nice and warm from the
jog. But a hand-balancer (not to mention a contortionist) may need to stretch
their shoulders and wrists before they can execute a handstand, or may need
to stretch their legs, back, and sides before they can do presses and make
various shapes upside down. For example, when I perform I want to be nicely
stretched out so that my shapes look good. But if I’m just practicing I don’t
necessarily have to be at that same level of mobility. For some moves, I must
stretch in order to do them at all. My reverse planche would probably not go
very far if I didn’t stretch my bridge first!
I’ve worked with some teachers who incorporate a lot of stretching in their
warm-ups, while others merely assume that I train flexibility on my own.
Recreational circus classes often incorporate stretching in the warm-up
because the average student needs to stretch, and isn’t likely to do so outside
of class. This is in contrast to more professional training situations, where
flexibility is often trained separately and intensely, and warm-ups tend to be
self-directed and/or brief.
Ideally your training will include several sessions devoted to stretching so
that you can increase your flexibility. That said, for many people it’s a good
idea to incorporate flexibility training into their warm-up. While this can
make for a time-consuming start, it guarantees that you actually get to things
like stretching your splits, which can be easy to neglect after you’re tired
from training. However, I do think it is worth recognizing the distinction
between warming up and stretching. Without this distinction it’s easy to
minimize the benefits of either, and perhaps become too dependent on long
stretching sessions.
When I worked at Do Jump Theater we stretched every morning for an hour
before beginning rehearsal, so this functioned both as our warm-up for the
day and as our flexibility training in general. Over the years I became
accustomed to this consistent pattern. If I was performing difficult tumbling,
aerial, or handbalancing moves I would specifically warm up these
disciplines, in addition to that hour of stretching. This meant if I practiced all
three disciplines I spent a lot of time preparing! First I stretched for an hour,
and then to warm up aerial work, I did hanging shoulder shrugs, pull-ups,
knee hangs, and skin-the-cats. Next I went over any difficult tumbling tricks.
Then I prepared for handstands with tucks, presses, side-bends, and tick tocks
so that I could warm up my one-arm handstands. Pretty soon my warm-up
was two hours long. While this is not necessarily bad — in fact it was a
luxury that I’ve missed during busier times — it wasn’t good to depend on
such a lengthy routine, especially if I had two full-length shows to do after
my two hours of preparations — not to mention hair, makeup, and setting
props!
I began to look at how to warm up more efficiently. I played around with
different routines, and I was able to decrease my warm up time. However, I
still craved being able to warm up even more quickly.
A limited warm-up without extensive stretching is often romanticized in the
circus world. Stories about acrobats who can do amazing feats “without even
warming up” give emphasis to their greatness by implying they’re so talented
they don’t need to take the same precautions as the rest of us. They’re not all
stories, either. I’ve been utterly amazed by this quality in some of the
Mongolian and Ukrainian acrobats I’ve met over the years. For example, one
day during a training session in Mongolia, the teacher was trying to explain
to me how to hop from one hand to the other in a one-arm handstand. At that
point a stranger dropped by the school to say hello. He wore street clothes
and looked twice as old as the students in the gym, so I assumed he wasn’t an
acrobat. Almost all the students were female contortionists, too, so this
contributed to my assumption. My teacher asked if the guy could demonstrate
the move. This guy performed one or two wrist circles — and then hopped
onto a handbalancing cane into a one-arm handstand. He proceeded to hop
back and forth from one hand to the other. He had done absolutely no warm
up. In fact, his feet kept knocking into the low ceiling, which still didn’t
throw him off!
Another time, I was training straps with a Ukrainian coach. During our time
together he’d been unable to demonstrate anything because he was
recovering from an injury. After working together for almost a month, one
day he came to the gym excited because his doctor had told him he could
start working out again. After lazily hanging from the straps for few moments
he suddenly executed a big dislocate and landed with a huge snap in a back
lever position! After weeks of no training he started off with a move that
would injure most people, and that most straps artists would at least warm up
for!
Examples like these often made me envious, as though if I were able to train
without warming up and stretching it would be a sign that I was really good!
So over the years I’ve experimented with various warm ups. Such as moving
quickly to over-splits without a lot of preliminary stretching, or alternating
limbering exercises with handstand drills. Also, I found if I trained flexibility
thoroughly on most days that I could warm-up quickly and still get to a good
“stretched out” place even on days when I didn’t have as much time. In the
process I’ve built confidence in my ability to train or perform with a limited
warm-up, which is very helpful to know I can do. But I usually come back to
wanting an extensive stretching warm up. It feels better on my body, and
perhaps contributes to my ability to continue learning difficult skills even as I
progress into my mid-30s. I’ve certainly become much better at preventing
injury. In the end, maintaining a healthy practice with a thorough warm-up
that includes pre-hab and stretching is more important than whatever ego
boost might be gained from jumping straight into training. And, as long as
you change it up and challenge yourself with new routines, it is precisely this
foundation of body maintenance that will allow you to perform in a pinch if
the need arises.
CONDITIONING AND CROSS-TRAINING

Conditioning
We’ve already covered the conditioning most relevant to handbalancing, such
as hollow-bodies, handstand push-ups, endurance handstands, press drills,
and so forth. In the beginning, the specific conditioning exercises are less
important than simply creating a habit of doing some conditioning at the end
of each workout. With this practice you keep pushing the envelope of what
you can do physically. In my experience, handbalancing often includes
localized pain in the wrists and shoulders. It can also be very nit-picky and
mentally draining to constantly find the perfect position and balance. Because
of this, it can feel great to just dig into some push-ups, sit-ups, and other
strength exercises at the end of practice for some mental variety in the
training process as well.
One way to condition handstand specific strength is to do more repetitions
with an easier exercise. To use the handstand push-up as an example, maybe
you can only do one or two handstand push-ups freestanding, but you can do
10 push-ups with your feet elevated. By adding sets of the easier variation
you will improve both your handstand push-up and your strength endurance
more effectively than only doing one or two handstand push-ups. In the
“Basics” section I introduced several press drills to build the strength for
pressing to a handstand. However, these drills also make great conditioning at
the end of a work-out, even if you can already press up. For example, I often
make my students finish with sets of pike walks.
If you have a spotter to help, you can take more difficult handbalancing drills
and turn them into conditioning exercises, for example by performing reps of
full presses with a spotter to help you complete more than you could do on
your own. One of the conditioning exercises Yury always had me do was to
side press up on one arm with my belly to the wall. Doing the press against
the wall eliminated the balance so I could focus on strength and technique.
As the wall forced me in line, it also minimized the room for error, and with
Yury’s assistance we could do a lot of repetitions.
Build a habit of supplementing your practice with conditioning. This will
allow you to push beyond your limit and build the strength to improve your
handstand maneuvers.

Cross-Training
Any activity that helps build upper body strength without severely limiting
shoulder mobility can be useful cross-training for handbalancing. I’ve found
weight training beneficial. As a circus artist I’ve also found aerial straps and
Chinese pole to be natural complements. The emphasis on pulling strength in
these disciplines helps to balance the pushing strength of handbalancing.
Gymnastics and breakdancing are other natural complements, and
participants from both often take to handbalancing quickly. Activities that
increase flexibility and stability, such as yoga, pilates, and dance, are also
good. Artistically speaking, handbalancing acts often incorporate dance and
tumbling, so these disciplines can be beneficial cross-training, both
physically and in act creation.
Partner acrobatics is another great complementary discipline. Porters often
take to handbalancing because they’re already used to balancing another
person on their hands! Flyers utilize the same body positioning techniques,
the difference being flyers must relinquish much of their balancing to their
partner porting them.
Let your love of handstands inform your other interests. Balance your
strengths with activities that address your weaknesses, and you will find the
cross-training best for you.
TRAINING WHEN YOU DONʼT HAVE TIME TO TRAIN
I’ve provided example programs that likely take several hours to complete,
and I’ve advocated for thorough warm-ups that also include pre-hab. I’ve
also insisted on incorporating flexibility training, and I’ve encouraged
conditioning and cross-training. What if you simply don’t have the time for
all of this? In the “How Much to Train” section I wrote about the struggle of
knowing what is enough and what is too much. But this assumes you have
enough time in the gym for this to even become an issue! At various times in
my handbalancing career I’ve dealt with a different struggle: how to get in
enough time to train at all.
Your time may be limited for any number of reasons, such as working like
crazy, going to school, or taking care of family, but it’s worth pointing out
that time for training can be limited even if the rest of your life is not crazy.
In current “workout culture” we get mixed messages. On one hand, there’s a
never-ending supply of “quick fixes” and “life hacks” for getting in shape in
only 15 minutes a day. On the other hand, we’re bombarded by “fitspiration”
messaging, with phrases such as “The Only Way to Succeed is to Give
Everything” and “The Only Bad Workout is the One You Didn’t Do,” or “If
You Aren’t Going all the Way, Why Go At All?” While one could argue
these aren’t incongruous — you can “give it your all” for 15 minutes — I
think the resulting message is still about identifying with training, which risks
an unhealthy and imbalanced outlook.
Aside from external factors that may limit how many hours a day you can
train, you may also choose to limit your handbalancing commitment. Leading
a balanced life filled with happiness, leisure time, and creativity is as much
about the ability to “Maximize Your Potential” (yes, another one) as it is
about being the best possible handbalancer. It is important to remember that
you are more than your handbalancing skill. To quote famed TED talk
scholar Brene Brown, “No matter what gets done and how much is left
undone, I am enough.”
As a performer, I find this perspective necessary when creating good art. Art
is about life experiences. It’s hard to make art if you’ve spent your life locked
away training. You need to have life experiences so that you have something
to talk about. With these thoughts in mind, I encourage you to find a
dedicated handstand practice that augments your personal life, not one that
takes over.
The various challenges of limited time have lead me to search for the most
efficient exercises. This search has been fruitful at times, but the truth is there
is no magic bullet or life hack; handstands take time. But it is certainly
possible to chip away at your goals in a realistic and healthy manner.
Following are some helpful tips for making the most of limited time.

Maintenance vs. New Skills
First of all, with limited time it’s much easier to maintain an existing skill
than to learn a new one. So if you can keep up the gains you’ve already
made, even in short sessions, you should be able to prevent losing what
you’ve learned.
When you work towards new goals and have limited or sporadic time, be
smart about what those goals are. Try to choose skills that, once you have
achieved them, you will be able to maintain moving forward. For example,
when I came back from training in China I was very inspired by the
endurance of the handbalancers there. I decided this was as good a “magic
bullet” as any other — how hard can a one-arm be if you can hold a
handstand for 10 minutes? So despite my rehearsal schedule, I became very
diligent about working on my endurance. I began to see improvement, not
only with my time on two arms, but with my stability on one-arm.
However, shortly thereafter I had to take a break from most of my
handbalancing training for an intense run of shows. Do Jump was contracted
for a run at the New Victory Theater in New York, where we performed eight
shows a week. I had particularly physically demanding parts throughout the
show, so I was unable to keep up my endurance regimen. After the run of
shows ended, my handstand endurance time went back down and I had little
to show for this training. Given my sporadic schedule during rehearsals, and
knowing that the run of shows would force a break in endurance training, I
should have focused my handbalancing time on a new skill that I could have
maintained, instead of focusing on max-effort endurance that I wasn’t able to
maintain. Endurance work is a great way to see improvement, but given my
schedule I should have chosen small goals that did not take all of my energy
and strength to work on, such as a new shape or transition.
When maintaining learned skills, try to touch everything briefly so that you
don’t lose anything. But when working on new skills with limited time, try to
pick a skill you can practice consistently. Don’t try to do everything all the
time, and don’t do different things each training session. Focus on one or two
goals that you can give some real attention, energy, and consistency. And, if
your training time is sporadic, pick something that will hopefully give you a
benchmark you can maintain before you have to take the next break.

Favorite And Least Favorite Exercise
If you have limited time to train it can be confusing to know what to do,
especially if you’re used to a long and consistent routine. One way to narrow
it all down is to pick your favorite and least favorite exercise. Getting to do
your favorite exercise helps keep you motivated, even when time is rushed. If
you just start with your normal drills, but run out of time before you get to the
fun stuff, it can be hard to stay motivated, especially if you’re already tired
from all the other things eating up your free time! On the other hand, to
practice your least favorite exercise keeps you honest and helps you continue
to focus on your weak points, rather than spending your limited training time
only on the fun skills. If you don’t like doing it, chances are it’s a good one
for you!
SPOTTING AND COACHING HANDBALANCING
Many of the exercises and example programs in this book are aimed at the
solo practitioner. Or perhaps, like me, you have contact with coaches, but
also long stretches of solo training. I figure we’re the ones most likely to look
to a book for help. However, in more ideal situations, you’ll find training
partners who can help spot you through exercises and give you feedback, or
coaches who can share what they’ve learned. So in this section we’ll go over
how to spot handstands, and I’ll give some notes for teaching handstands to
others in case this is where you find yourself.

Spotting Technique
The first mistake people often make when spotting a handstand is to grab
their partners shins or ankles. This is not the safest way to spot someone,
since the handbalancer needs their feet available if they have to bail out of the
handstand. Instead, spot your partner at the hips and keep your center close to
them. This way, if they were to collapse, you’re able to slow their descent,
and they can safely bring their feet to the floor. Once I know a student’s
ability, I will sometimes spot at their thighs, or even their shoulders,
depending on the exercise, but the hips are always the place to fall back to.
Try to give a little bit of upward lift when spotting, especially if you need to
help pull your partner up onto their hands. You don’t want to pull them over
onto their back, so lift up on their hips as well as gently pull them to a
balanced spot. Also, if you need to help pull your partner onto their hands,
stand close enough that you can block their shoulders with your knees if
necessary. This way they can’t collapse forward over their wrists onto their
head. I find this technique especially useful when spotting the tuck position
and press handstands.
Try to maintain a very light spot so that your partner can feel where they’re
balanced. Obviously this depends on their ability, but even with beginners
you don’t want to just hold them up. If possible, try to briefly let go, or take
your hands on and off as if juggling a hot potato, or spot with just your
fingertips — anything to help your partner feel the balance and do the work
themselves. However, always keep them within a very small range of their
ideal balance point. You want to simultaneously show them the correct
placement, and encourage them to balance on their own. Also, talk to your
partner and tell them what you see. Give them verbal cues, for example push
up their shoulders or pull in their ribs.

Helping Your Partner Find The Straight Line
Once you’ve helped your partner up onto their hands, and you’re keeping
them there by holding their hips, it can still be very difficult for them to feel
where they are in space, even if you’re giving them verbal cues. A great way
to help them feel the proper alignment is to get close and put your knees on
the backs of their shoulders. Wrap one arm around their thighs and pull up
while using the other hand to gently pull in on their ribs. This forces their
shoulders open, their ribs and chest in, and helps them feel the upwards
extension through their shoulders and whole body.
Occasionally I’ve had very tall students, and so it’s been too difficult to hug
them and pull in their ribs. I found that if I stand on a chair, hover my hand
just above their toes and then have them reach to press their feet into my
hand, they start to get a sense of where “up” is. By raising my hand and
asking them to stay in contact with it, I can force them to push up and stop
arching. Occasionally I’ve even used this exercise with advanced students
during block walking or one-arm drills to provide a very minimal amount of
help, yet still provide some stability, as well as the constant physical cue to
push up.

Spotting Press Handstands
The most common way to spot press-ups is at the hips, sometimes with a
knee block to keep your partner’s shoulders from collapsing forward. As your
partner does more of the press themselves the spot can become very light.
I find that many students, even those strong enough to press up on their own,
still struggle to find the most efficient path of movement in their press up. In
this case I like to also use the following hands-on approach: block your
partner’s shoulders with your knees at a point where their shoulders can lean
slightly forward over their wrists, but not so far that the press becomes
inefficient. Reach your hands all the way around them and grab their thighs.
Pull their legs towards you as they press up. The pull on their legs and the
pressure of your knees on their shoulders forces them to stay folded in half as
their hips roll up first. It’s common for students to encounter a moment just
before their hips are actually up where they feel like they’re all the way up,
and they start trying to lift their legs to soon. Make them stay folded in half
just that little bit longer so that their hips are actually over their shoulders.
Sometimes I will even pause at this difficult spot and tell the student to pull
in their abs so they can feel that when they do so their hips pop up, and
suddenly it’s easier to lift their legs. This spotting technique can also be used
for presses from a straddle L-sit on the floor.

Spotting One-Arm Handstands
To get spotting help for one-arms can be especially helpful, both to feel the
alignment and to spend the time upside-down necessary to build strength on
one arm. To spot one-arms, use the same techniques described above: usually
assist your partner at the hips, use a little bit of upward lift, light and
minimal, and use verbal cues to help alignment corrections. Keep in mind
your partner probably does not yet know how, or may not have the strength,
to pull themselves back to a balanced point once they have fallen off-center.
You still want to be very light in your spot so they can feel the balance and
learn how to correct, yet be very attentive to where their balance point is and
don’t let them deviate from it. If you over-support your partner and they’re
even just slightly off balance, but unable to correct it themselves, they won’t
be able to feel their wrist moving to make corrections. This means that while
they can work on alignment, they won’t learn how to balance. So stay light in
your spotting, and keep it within a very small range.

How Often To Spot
I’ve worked with certain coaches, like Yury Bozyan, who spotted me through
everything. Even if I could already do the drill unassisted, I would still
receive a very light spot as well as verbal cues in order to get constant tactile
feedback on my positioning. I’ve also worked with other coaches, like Claude
Victoria, who rarely spotted anything, and instead explained the ideal
position and then gave occasional pointers based on what he saw.
With Yury I felt like I was being shaped and forced into the correct form.
With Claude it was as if I was handed the outline of the form, and then asked
to fill it on my own, like a vase being filled with water. I think that both
methods work, and have different advantages. However, in most cases I find
I’m teaching students I only see a few times per week at the most, for only an
hour or two at a time. Given this, I try to spot a lot so that the student can feel
the correct form with my assistance. They have plenty of time for their own
exploration of the form outside of class.
Whenever possible I keep my classes to 3-5 students so that I can personally
spot each student and create a lesson plan specifically for them. If I’m
working with a larger group I’ll have students spot each other so that they can
get through more drills and get more of a workout. At times I’ll step back and
make students do exercises on their own, especially if I think they’re
becoming too dependent on my spotting. But in general, I think spotting often
is very beneficial.

Thoughts About Coaching Handbalancing
Working with a coach can be a very vulnerable experience. Most of my
coaches have not even spoken English, and yet despite our lack of verbal
conversation I have felt very close to them. I attribute much of this to the raw
honesty that comes from giving everything you have, day in and day out,
until there is nothing else. You reach a place beyond posturing or pretending
— there’s only what you can do at this time, on this day, and in this moment.
And so as a coach I believe it’s important to remain mindful and sensitive to
your student’s experience. Perhaps it goes without saying, but teaching is not
a time to show off. By simply being present with your students and focusing
on them you demonstrate your belief in them, which will cause them to
believe in you more than if they see you do your hardest trick. Having said all
that, physically demonstrating handstands for your students is also a very
valuable tool. It can speed up the instruction process as well as provide
inspiration.
Some coaches seem to approach teaching handbalancing as a strength issue
— do enough endurance handstands, presses, and one-arm holds and
everything else will come. Other coaches seem to approach handbalancing
from a more technical perspective — push up your shoulder, don’t twist,
align your body, and you’ll be set. I think the challenge is to figure out how
to do both, and often with a limited amount of time.
One of the reasons I like spotting often is because I can take students through
a sequence of moves that gives them a sense of how much strength is needed,
while at the same time giving both tactile and verbal technical information.
However, it’s important not to give too much information all at once, because
then the student becomes overloaded. I often see excited spotters lecturing
their partners on all the things they’re doing wrong, rather than focusing on a
few key points and actually doing another handstand! Allow your students to
focus on the larger concepts first, then lead them towards more precise
understanding as they are ready.
If you are dealing with large class sizes where you don’t have the luxury to
spot each student and give personalized feedback, I would suggest the
following approach: Use the concepts and exercises in the “Basics” section to
introduce proper handstand alignment and balance, such as using the wall to
feel the straight line, and pressing off the wall to learn how to balance. Give
instruction on alignment and form, but don’t spend forever lecturing your
students. The time to do handstands and get inspired is now! The more
students can experience small successes (as opposed to just hearing you talk
about them) the more likely they are to practice on their own. Once you’ve
covered the basic form and balance concepts using the wall and solo
exercises, teach students how to spot each other. Continue to work on the
same concepts, and add more challenging drills if appropriate, such as tucks,
moving the legs around, and other ways of getting into a handstand. Push
your students, but check in with them often to see how they’re doing,
especially their wrists and shoulders. Try to offer personalized feedback
whenever possible.
UNIQUE DRILLS
The exercises and notes on technique that we’ve covered so far are relatively
well known and universal. While there may not be another book at the time
of this writing (that I know of) explaining these drills, they can be found at
circus schools around the world. There will always be differences of opinion
on the nuances of proper technique or the best way to train, but any
handbalancing coach will be familiar with alignment, presses, block drills,
and the general concepts that I’ve covered.
However, at this point I would like to dive into some of the more unusual
drills I’ve picked up over the years, particularly from my years of coaching
handbalancing. Some of these drills I have created in response to specific
challenges that individual students have faced, and have proven to be helpful
for others with similar tendencies. Several of these drills require a spotter, or
may be interesting to a coach who is intrigued by different approaches. There
are also drills that can still be done alone, and may be especially useful if
you’re feeling stuck in your training.

Lifting Fingers On Blocks
For this exercise, perform a handstand on blocks and then, instead of gripping
the blocks, straighten your fingers so they extend off of the blocks. Now you
are balancing just by the movement of your wrists. This can be a helpful drill
to feel the weight centered in your hands, as opposed to back on the heel of
your hand. I find this especially useful for students who are starting to
balance on their own, yet keep popping their shoulders too far under so that
their weight is on the heel of their hands. This drill doesn’t allow them to
over-grip with their fingers to compensate for their weight being too far back,
so they have to genuinely shift to a better position in order to stay balanced.
This exercise can also help with feeling how active the wrist can be in a
handstand.

Perfect Push-Up Handstand
One year my grandmother gave me a travel version of the “Perfect Push Up”
device, a set of handles that allows you to swivel your hands as you do your
pushups. I had little interest in doing push-ups this way, but I found that if I
detached the handles, which was easy to do with the travel version, then I
was left with two flat disks that swiveled in both directions. The disks were a
little small for my hands, but by putting blocks on top of them I could do a
handstand! I found this to be a great stability exercise. Handstands on the
swivel bases becomes especially challenging when making shapes with the
legs.
This exercise is particularly helpful for diagnosing if a student is having
trouble keeping their elbows from splaying out to the side. It becomes almost
impossible to stay in a handstand if you are not actively straightening your
arms and aligning them correctly. It makes poor habits clear to both the coach
and student, and is a great tool for developing the awareness and muscles
needed to counteract them.

Pushing Up Onto A Block
This drill basically repeats the very last step of going down and up the blocks.
Start with one hand on the floor and the other hand on a block. Shift your
weight and push up onto the higher hand. Only the fingertips of the other
hand are left touching the floor. Then shift back and lower down so the
weight is again on the hand on the floor. Repeat about five times in a row.
This is good for building pushing strength in the shoulder, and can be a nice
quick warm-up for one-arms.
This drill can also be very good for diagnosing and treating small imbalances
in one-arm technique that are difficult to detect when just holding piano
fingers or even balancing the one-arm handstand. The movement of
repeatedly pushing up on the same shoulder brings awareness to any twisting
tendencies or other habits that are often less clear in a static hold. For
example, some handbalancers will push up through their shoulder at an odd
angle, such as allowing the shoulder to pop under or to the inside of the hand,
particularly on their weaker side. The act of pushing up onto the block makes
it much more difficult to get away with these habits.

Shapes In Piano Fingers
I mentioned this drill briefly in one of the example programs, but it’s worth
bringing up again. For this exercise, move to piano fingers with most of your
weight in your primary arm, keeping the fingertips of your other hand very
light with as little excess tension as possible. Move your legs through tuck,
straddle, and back to straight several times, then reverse directions. This is
great for building strength on one arm and getting used to changing positions.
This drill can also help you feel if you’re doing something odd with your
alignment when in a static position. I worked with one coach who had me
warm up by holding piano fingers and moving down to a tuck and then back
up, 10 times as quickly as possible. I would then do the same drill in a
straddle. The speed made this exercise particularly challenging, and helped
me focus on not breaking at the shoulder.

One-Arm With Small Stick
This is basically a harder version of piano fingers. Hold a small stick in your
free hand with one end on the floor. This way you have a little extra balance
help, but not much, and the “free” arm is elevated more like it would be in a
freestanding one-arm handstand.

Using The Narrow Side Of The Blocks
This is yet another drill for those close to holding their one-arms: holding
spotted one-arms with the blocks turned sideways, or all the way up on end,
so that the surface area is much smaller. This has proved oddly successful
with some of my students. I think there’s a tendency to shift under (towards
the heel of the hand) when going to one arm. It’s a subtle enough shift that
it’s hard for the spotter and student to notice, but it’s just enough to make
balancing very difficult. By reducing the surface area that the hands can grip,
this shift can suddenly become more obvious. It can cause the student to
engage their shoulder and shift more toward their fingers, which they can
then better use to balance.

Shoulder Spot
Occasionally, I will spot a student down at the shoulders instead of at the
hips. I find this especially useful for students who are strong enough to not
need much spot, yet just can’t seem to control their middle. By spotting them
at their shoulders they’re forced to engage their abs in a way they weren’t
when spotted at the hips. I also use this for students who pop their shoulders
under, in which case I pull their shoulders more over their wrists so they can
feel the proper position.

Shoulder Spot In One-Arm
Similar to the shoulder spot in two-arms, this drill forces the student to
engage their core more actively. This spot involves moving one hand from
the hips down to the shoulder while the student is in a one-arm handstand.
The spotter’s hand should be on the shoulder of the free arm, gently pushing
down and in towards the head. If the handstand is going well the other hand
on the hip may be released. The inward push forces the students opposite
(supporting) shoulder to stay over their wrist instead of popping to the inside
of their hand. The downward push forces their free shoulder to stay down, yet
still allows them to make balancing adjustments with their free arm.
Sometimes a very light touch here is all that is needed for an advanced
student to really feel the one-arm balance.

“Downward Shove” Spot
This is another unusual spotting technique that is best for students who are
already comfortable on their hands. This involves grabbing the students shins
and gently pushing down towards the floor. This should be a quick test to see
if they’re staying active in their handstand and keeping their alignment.
Ideally nothing will change. Occasionally I’ll use a gentle downward shove
for more beginning students as a diagnostic tool. Sometimes, if they suddenly
feel how loose their belly, hips, or shoulders are, they can better engage and
tighten up as they resist the downward force. They are then better able to
balance because they have found their alignment and engaged their whole
body.

Block Walking With Forced Pauses
We’ve already talked about walking down a row of blocks. When I’m
working with a student who can do this with a light spot, but not necessarily
on their own, I like to add the following challenge. Every step of the way
they have to pause and find their own balance on two arms, meaning that I
can take my hands off and they remain balanced. Then I say, “Okay,” and we
move to the next step together, through the one-arm transition, and then again
pause on two arms until they can balance on their own, and so forth. We go
only as far as they can continue to find the two arm balances on their own.
This often causes students to become very motivated to see how far down the
blocks they can get, and helps to ensure they are not overly relying on my
spotting assistance.
For students who can already walk down the blocks by themselves, but can’t
consistently hold one-arms yet, I use the following variation: each step of the
way down the blocks the student has to pause and find their balance in piano
fingers. I force them to hold the piano finger balance without my help before
transitioning to the next step.
I find these exercises especially useful when I work with students I only see
once or twice a week. I want to challenge then with drills they can’t do on
their own, but I don’t want them to completely depend on me to spot them
through everything.

Free Arm In Chair-Back
This drill arose when I was working with a student who was having trouble
conceptualizing how to move the free arm to correct from falling while in a
one-arm handstand, so we developed the following exercise using a folding
chair: While spotted, have the student do a handstand with one arm on the
floor and the other on the chair. They must be aligned close enough to the
chair so that when their arm is extended it actually reaches through the space
between the seat and backrest. Then spot the student lightly in a one-arm
handstand. When the student falls away from their free arm they should lift it,
in which case they’ll feel the backrest of the chair. They may even be able to
use this lift to pull back to their balance. When they fall towards their free
arm, they should lower it, and they will feel the seat of the chair.
This drill is meant for the advanced student who is still inconsistent with their
one arms. It can help develop an understanding of how to use the free arm for
balance, and it can provide tactile feedback for how quickly those
adjustments need to be made.

Isolating Shoulders And Wrists
This is another exercise I’ve used with students who are close to holding their
one-arms, yet still struggle to really feel it on their own. I’ve also used this
for two-arm handstands. First, spot the student in their handstand, but ask
them to not use their wrists to balance; rather, ask them to just move their
shoulders to make the necessary corrections. This really wakes up the
shoulders. Then have them do a handstand in which they lock out their
shoulders yet try to be super-active in their wrists. This may even mean that
they move their wrists around randomly until they start to feel how it affects
their handstand. Finally, have them try to keep their shoulder locked out and
use their wrists to balance, but when necessary add shoulder movement to
make more extreme corrections. Isolating and feeling these movement
patterns can help to break down the coordination of balance. Afterwards,
students find their corrections more intuitive and responsive.

Over-Correcting For Twist
This is another exercise that can be used for both two-arm and one-arm
handstands. If a student has trouble keeping a straight position, or keeps
falling because they always twist to one side, you can have them intentionally
twist past center in the opposite direction — and try to hold it there. Or you
can have them start in the center and then try to intentionally twist in the
other direction several times in a row to feel what needs to be engaged to
correct their twisting tendency.

Using Flags, One-Arm Press-Downs, And Hands Together To Correct
For Twist And Shoulder Or Elbow Position
It is very common in one-arm handstands for students to twist so that their
supporting-side leg corkscrews towards the front, and falls under, while the
opposite leg falls over. This is often accompanied by an arch in the back and
a crunch in the side of the free arm. These tendencies usually stem from
weakness in the supporting shoulder and a lack of awareness of them.
Even advanced handbalancers present this twist, though it’s usually very
subtle. I found it continued to nag me, especially on my right side. So, in the
spirit of over-correcting, I started warming up with one-arm press-downs,
which forced me to counter the twist and keep my shoulder very active and
over my wrist. Then, when I went to do my other positions, I found it easier
to avoid twisting. Side-bend shapes can also have a similar effect. While
handstand training usually starts with straight positions, I found that when my
students started working more on flags they were better able to control this
common twist, as well as the common crunch, in the free-arm side. So I
started incorporating more flag work, and even heavily spotted one-arm
press-downs, into my coaching.
When working on flags, don’t let the supporting shoulder pop too far inside
the wrist, and don’t let the arms bend. Often this is part of the twisting
problem. By training flags correctly we build strength in the shoulder. This
utilizes the same counter-resisting concept I talked about in the section on
tuck handstands.
Sometimes I have students whose elbows tend to flare out to the side. This
can be caused by tight shoulders and/or stiff elbows. I’ve found that working
on flags and press-downs, as well as constant reminders to rotate the elbows,
is helpful in correcting for this. Using the hands-together position is another
great way to work on shoulder alignment in a way that more correctly
imitates the one-arm position. It also makes it much more difficult to bend
the elbows, and so can be a good tool for breaking this habit.

Hand Spot
Some of my coaches in Mongolia used this method of spotting one-arms.
Instead of holding my hips, they just held my free hand. While this didn’t put
me into the perfect spot, it certainly forced me to find it on my own! This
method of spotting provides some help, but allows the student to do most of
the balancing. Because of this, it can be very helpful for more advanced tricks
and transitions where the handbalancer really needs to feel their own weight,
such as spinning on one arm on a rotating block, or popping from croco up to
a one arm handstand. As a coach, I’ve only found this spot useful with very
advanced students.
HANDBALANCING EQUIPMENT
One of the great things about both practicing and performing handbalancing
is that you can do it virtually anywhere with little or no equipment. You don’t
need to rig anything from a ceiling, or carry heavy props from place to place.
That being said, there are some basic apparatus you may choose to invest in,
many of which I’ve already mentioned, but I’ll go into more detail here.

Blocks
Handbalancing blocks are usually made out of wood. A somewhat standard
size is 2.5-inches tall, 4-inches wide, and 5.5-inches long. Some blocks are
hollow, which makes them a nice weight for traveling. Others are solid, and
so feel more stable when stacking. Some blocks also have rubber on the
bottom so that they won’t slide. Blocks are excellent tools for improving
handstands, and especially for learning one-arm handstands. They’re also
good for building towards working on canes, which I talk about below. Some
handbalancers also utilize blocks in performance. For example, one famous
trick is to press into a handstand on two tall stacks of blocks, and then fling
the blocks out to the side and drop down to a handstand!
There are a few people selling handbalancing blocks online, and you can also
make them yourself. My first pair of blocks were just sections of a 2-by-4
piece of wood. This can be a good starting place, but the size is both a little
too narrow and a little too short. Later I found wider planks of wood and
convinced the local lumber store to cut them down for me. I glued three
pieces of wood together to get the right height. I found patches of rubber at a
stamp store, which I then glued to the bottom. This is probably one of the
easier do-it-yourself methods, but I’ve also seen beautifully crafted blocks
made out of single pieces of wood, or as I’ve already mentioned, hollow
blocks made of small sheets of wood glued together.

Bench
Benches are commonly used in Chinese acrobatics. They can be good tools
for practicing jumping up onto something higher, and can also be used in
performance. In fact, the block trick I mentioned above is often performed on
top of a bench so that the handstand and the subsequent drop are even higher
and thus more impressive. The bench also allows the artist space for their
head if they drop down into a handstand push-up position. Like blocks,
benches can be stacked on top of each other for more height and precarious-
looking balances. Two benches set up side by side also makes for an easily
adjustable press-drill station.

Canes
Handbalancing canes are metal pipes with wooden blocks on the top. A
professional set of canes will taper at the bottom and fit into matching sockets
built into the base. This way the pipes can easily be removed from their base
for travel needs, or as part of the performance. You can make a homemade
version by screwing together flanges and pipes picked up from the plumbing
section of a hardware store. (I’ve seen this style of canes snap at the threading
due to extreme sideways pressure, so make sure to use thick pipe, and try to
keep the weight bearing straight down.)
Canes are great for performance for several reasons. They elevate the
performer so the audience has a better view. They make an impressive
spectacle — audiences are often amazed to see the performer not only doing
a handstand, but doing it up high on two “little sticks” with no room for error.
Best of all, they actually make one-arms easier! Canes, especially a well-
made set, have a little “play” to them so that they shift around just a bit when
you’re balancing. While at first this can seem weird, it ends up giving you a
little more time to make adjustments. For this reason, they’re also a good
learning tool when you don’t have a spotter, as they help make figuring out
new tricks easier. However, you should also practice on the floor to ensure
you’re not getting away with bad habits.
In my opinion, one disadvantage of canes for performance is that they can
look like a sport prop instead of an artistic choice. They often remind me of a
gymnastics apparatus, and while they’re impressive, they don’t lend
themselves as easily to artistic expression. Some circus artists have found
various ways around this, and will use multiple canes to give more angles and
options for movement between handstand sequences. Or they’ll disguise the
canes themselves. Personally, I perform an act to “Singing in the Rain” and
have made my canes look like umbrellas, which I dance with in between
handstand sequences and so help justify my use of the poles as a prop.
Another feature of professional canes is a spinning block. The wooden block
is attached so that it spins easily in one direction but not the other. This way,
when doing a Croco or one-arm, you can turn your wrist with small
alternating adjustments — and then your body will follow, which will cause
you to spin in a circle. Like many handbalancing skills, this is much more
difficult than audiences realize! But it adds a very nice dynamic element to an
otherwise often static performance.

Other Equipment
That’s about it for standard handbalancing equipment! I sometimes use a
wooden board to practice handstands on carpet, and I use elastic bands and
weights for pre-hab and conditioning. Sometimes I use a chair to stretch over-
splits, but with a couple of blocks and my canes, I’m usually set. Of course
there are many creative props out there. People do handstands on stacked
chairs, ladders, and tall poles. Handbalancers use spinning platforms,
furniture, and giant cubes. It’s always exciting to see what new props people
incorporate into their acts, especially when the prop succeeds in accentuating
the strength, poise, risk, and beauty of the handstand shapes and movement.
CLOSING: A STORY ABOUT PATIENCE
When I think about the years of training that led to my ability to do a one-arm
handstand, a symbolic memory always comes to mind. I was at a party with
the cast members of Do Jump on what happened to be the night of a lunar
eclipse. Upon hearing about the eclipse, a group of us walked to the end of
the block to get a better view of the moon. I kept waiting for the eclipse to
happen, but the change was so slow that I could not see any difference. We
returned to the party, but then throughout the evening went back out to check
on the moon. After time away, it was obvious that the eclipse was farther
along, but whenever I stood and watched I couldn’t see any shift. I thought,
“This is what handstands are like!”
For most people handstands progress with imperceptibly gradual
improvements, but the results are impressive and the process is beautiful. It
can be challenging to stay motivated when progress is slow, but this also
makes your gains that much more rewarding. It can be difficult when you
don’t have a coach around to keep you inspired and organized, but I hope this
little book has offered some encouragement for those times when you’re
practicing on your own. If you’re the one encouraging and supporting others,
then I hope it’s given you some new tools. These exercises, used with
dedication and patience, will have you doing amazing skills in your practice.
I hope they help you embark on a rewarding journey.