Support and Control in the OAHS
There are a lot of things that go into holding a one arm handstand (OAHS), but there's often one critical aspect that separates those that can hold (or are at least actually making progress towards holding) a one arm handstand from those that have simply been working it for a very long time with little progress.
There are two concepts that are important to understand: support and control. Both of these concepts can be broken down further, and there is an important relationship between both support and control.
I'll speak to how I define control more later, but for the time being and for the discussion about support, consider control to be the ability to remain upsidedown by using actions at the hand(s) and fingers to control the sway of the body. I include hand(s) when talking about where control happens simply because the hand(s) must remain engaged and connected to the fingers for the fingers to work, though control will primarily come from the fingers.
When I speak about a progression to a OAHS, I'm most often referring to the method of subtracting fingers. That is, a progression where one starts with using 4 fingers on the non-support arm to assist with support/control, then 3 fingers, then 2, then 1, then a very light 1, etc. Each of these different steps constitutes a level, though note that there could be sublevels at each of the levels where the amount of support and control on the assisting fingers is attenuated. There are other progressions, but I like this one and I think it's a useful example progression when discussing incremental steps towards the skill.
I want to keep this post very conceptual, so I will not go into many details regarding specific physical cues to enable certain actions, but I may do so in the future. I don't include a lot of visual content as it is important to understand these concepts in detail beyond what can be shown in videos and pictures (I also didn’t want to try to emulate poor technique or to grab someone else’s poor technique just for a visual).
As I wrote this, I realized that there are a lot of details in what I'm trying to communicate, and that there are a lot of variables and accessory details that affect and provide exceptions for what I have written. I will lay out the general case, but it should be noted that there are confounding details that will not be addressed.
There are two broad categories in terms of support: weak support and strong support. Technically there's a spectrum of support, but understanding these two end points is sufficient.
Weak support has the body passively resting on and bottoming out the shoulder. The individual does not have a strong connection throughout their body, with the primary reasons being that the shoulder is not sufficiently engaged and tall. With little or no connection through the body, there is no ability for the hand/fingers to manipulate and control the body to remain in balance.
When someone is working at some level of a progression to a OAHS, regardless of where they're at, weak support typically results in almost immediate motion somewhere in the body that is not simply characteristic of balancing sway. Sometimes there is a leg starting to fall over the back; sometimes there is motion at the shoulder as a twist or as a loss of a tall shoulder push; sometimes the upper body will start to fall into extension and open.
The position in which someone is working the OAHS is both important and related to the quality of their support as well. A straddled OAHS is often a good way to begin training a OAHS, and there is the high straddle (where the legs are nearly in the same plane as the body and there is no hip angle) and the low straddle (which used a little more piking of the hips). The high straddle tends to be a more unstable position due to the legs being in the middle of their range of motion, and this often results in and unstable upper body that is prone to opening or extension (which also may induce a sunken shoulder).
The low straddle uses near end-range of motion of the hips as a mechanical stop for the legs in a straddled-pike position, and this can assist with gaining stability in the lower body and midsection. The rationale behind using the low straddle position is that, when learning a OAHS, you need to find and use stability wherever you can in your body. Sometimes it comes from muscle activity, sometimes it comes from joint range of motion limits. (Yes, there is slightly more of a flexibility prerequisite for the low straddle, but ideally, if you have a strong two arm handstand base and where working a OAHS is appropriate, then hopefully you've devoted some quality time towards flexibility as well.)
In any case, with weak support the individual may remain upside down for another second or two, but there is little or no ability to actually control balance and the attempt becomes just a slow and prolonged fall.
Strong support involves a tall and elevated shoulder where the body is tight and connected. Appropriate positioning of the upper body and midesection is critical as well, however. There should be no shoulder angle and very little spinal extension, if any at all. The shoulder push should not be excessive to the point of contorting other parts of the body. The upper back must be set so that is stable on top of the shoulder and must avoid sinking into cervical/thoracic extension.
While the shoulder is a primary component, the midsection and lower body cannot be forgotten. The legs must stay in place to not pull the body into overbalance, nor should they persuade the body into a twist. This can be achieved through appropriate leg positioning and hip control, but also the shoulder push. Pushing tall through the shoulder automatically induces some midsection tightness that helps to connect the solid shoulder and stable hips/legs. This midsection tightness through the shoulder push should be familiar in a two arm handstand. This strong and connected posture allows for the body to be aware and attentive, to listen for any positional or balance deviations that need attending. The description above should be sufficient to understand the concept of strong support in comparison to weak support.
If you have good control in a two arm handstand where your body remains solid and where your balance control comes from only your hands/fingers, then you should understand the concept of a body that is tight and controllable. It is this notion of a tight body that must be learned in a OAHS in order to understand strong support.
Control was briefly defined above, but I'll elaborate on it slightly more. For this brief description on control, consider a two arm handstand, as the concepts and feelings may be more familiar.
One form of control is called gross control. This method of control uses large limb or body movements (i.e., shoulders, hips) to drastically manipulate one's center of gravity (CoG). The CoG moves one way, there is a massive change in limb or body position, and CoG follows, and so on. A common example of this is a beginner in a split handstand that has an arched back and where the legs (used as counterbalances) are used to throw the CoG forward and back; this method can also be used in handstands where the legs are together. This method of balance is stressful, reactive, energetically taxing, and I wouldn't recommend it.
A second form of control is calm control, which uses only actions at the hands/fingers to remain in balance. The body remains as rigid as is necessary so that there are minimal positional changes in order to minimize the potential of increasing the complexity of the balancing task. Because the body is completely rigid, it takes on a true sway, just like when standing on the feet and balancing. The handstand sways towards the fingers, the fingers push into the ground, and the body sways back towards vertical...and this process repeats over and over. This finger-isoloated method of control is predictable, efficient, proactive in a sense, and can become very calm and mindless. This is the type of control I prefer and what I guide people towards. (Note that although I refer to this type of control as calm, it may not feel calm when first attempting it or when working at your maximum ability level.)
The relationship between support and control
Support and control are closely related. More specifically, the quality of the support (namely at the shoulder, but also the midsection, hips, legs) and the ability to control are closely related: Strong support is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition, for calm control. In other words, calm control is only possible with strong support. (Technically, gross control is possible with strong support as well, and although it's interesting to play with in a OAHS, calm control is still my preferred control method.)
For control to be isolated at the fingers, it is absolutely critical for the body to be connected, and the critical component of this connection is the shoulders. I think using the example of a beginner learning control in a two arm handstand is an effective way to convey the critical connection between the shoulders and control at the hands/fingers. A prerequisite to this is that the beginner understands the concept of a tight and stable body.
This learning process of a beginner understanding how to effectively use their fingers often involves a bit of struggle for a variety of reasons, though one essential component that all must realize is that the shoulders must push tall enough in order to connect the fingers to the body. Hence, there must be sufficient connection between the arms and the rest of the body for the actions at the fingers to translate to the rest of the body to control body movement/sway. As soon as the shoulders sink slightly, the connection between the fingers and body is lost, and balance cannot be effectively controlled at the hands/fingers. In the beginning, the individual experience mere glimpses of this connection, but soon the appropriate amount of shoulder push for solid finger-shoulder-control connection becomes ingrained in their body.
We can take the above example of the beginner learning this connection in a two arm handstand and extend it to someone learning a OAHS. If the individual, whatever the variation or progression in which they are working, does not have sufficient support in the support shoulder, they will not have ability to effectively use their fingers to control sway and their body to remain upsidedown. As soon as they have sufficient support through the shoulder, they can use their fingers to begin to control their body. If the connection between the fingers and the body in a OAHS is new, like with the beginner learning control in a two arm handstand, this connection will pop up sporadically here and there. With practice and with working at an appropriate level, the individual soon understands appropriate use of the shoulder to enable use of the hand/fingers for control.
If we think back to a typical example of an individual that is working a OAHS with weak support, the near immediate motion somewhere in the body likely occurs because the body is not fully connected, with the primary and critical component being the support shoulder. Due to the weak support at the shoulder, there is likely weakness elsewhere in the body and the body is free to move in an uncontrolled manner because the hands/fingers have no influence on controlling body sway or breaks in body positions.
The posture of the free hand (non-support hand) can also indicate weak support and a lack of control an individual might have when attempting some variation or progression of the OAHS. A common hand posture of a stressed individual who lacks any real control in a OAHS has the fingers glued together, the thumb may be tucked in tight as well, and there is as much ulnar deviation as possible (fingers pointing away from the midline of the body), as if bending the wrist in this manner will assist in keeping their body tall and delaying the inevitable fall. There are variations of this little-to-no control hand posture, but this is a common one.
What is written above is an attempt to communicate the conceptual aspects of how I think about two critical components of the a OAHS. Beyond the conceptual understanding is the practical application. When learning a OAHS, the working level of the individual must consider both the quality of the shoulder support and the ability of the fingers to control. One may be ahead of the other, but both of them need time to develop, with sustained and patient work. The application should take a close look at whatever variation or progression is used for training a OAHS and consider the following:
Is there weak support or strong support for the majority of the work set? If there is weak support with no effective control at the hand/fingers of the support arm, this particular level of the progression is probably beyond an appropriate working level of the individual. Refer back to the beginning if you need to understand weak support again, which includes near immediate motion/breakdown of the position and results in a delayed and muscular fall of the body that can last a couple seconds.
If there is strong support, how much control is there at the hand/fingers of the support hand? Is some degree of movement or sway control possible? If the strength of the hand/fingers simply isn't there to sustain control of movement or sway, this level of the progression may be beyond an appropriate working level. With more assisting fingers, you likely have stronger and better support and more control in the support hand/fingers because the control is shared to a greater degree. As you subtract fingers, strong support becomes degrades and may turn into weak support, and consequently, control at the hand and fingers becomes more challenging.
What I see far too often is that people are overreaching their ability level when working the OAHS, where they are working at a level that is frequently putting themselves into weak support territory and where they lack real control at the hand/fingers. In this case, they are probably learning very little in terms of strength, control, and technique.
What is an appropriate working level? In my mind, an appropriate working level is some level of a progression where the individual can get into strong support, and ideally sustain it for about 5 or more seconds. This implies that there is some level of control at the hand and fingers. A good milestone at any level of progression is around 10-15 seconds of solid and strong support before moving onto the next level of the progression.
There are of course some gray areas where someone might be reaching slightly beyond their ability, and I understand this. Knowing how to find and to work at the edge of your abilities is a critical skill and a necessary part of effective practice, and this comes with practice as well. There will be times when someone may be reaching slightly beyond their level and they need to apply a bit more effort and concentration to sustain strong support and having control. This is a reach that is possible if your mind and body are in the right places.
Things to consider as you work
Understanding these the concepts of support and control is simply one step. Then next, and critical, step is to actually feel the difference between strong support and weak support when training, and also how strong support allows for control. Understanding these concepts through thought is much different than understanding them when upsidedown.
Moving forward, here's my advice for utilizing this information in training: Don't reach for a level of progression that is beyond your level, where the vast majority of time is spent in weak support. Be honest with yourself. This restraint may be the toughest part. Once you understand how to reach (as opposed to overreach) for a skill and know an appropriate working level, you will likely see more progress.