The Structure of Training
A common question in handbalancing relates to how to structure handstand training sessions. Individuals are often overwhelmed with the numerous choices that must be made to design training: what to include for content, what order to train in, how long to train in total, how much time to spend on a specific focus, etc. I get this question at every handstand workshop I teach, and while I provide an answer that I feel is sufficient (and that references the material I covered in the workshop), this discussion provides a much more comprehensive view (though not totally comprehensive) on the structure of training.
This discussion will provide insight into how I think about structuring training sessions and programming in general for individuals training handbalancing. I will attempt to lay out my thought process in a stepwise fashion, despite the fact that my mind naturally (and happily) gravitates towards a representation of handbalancing as a field that's more akin to an interconnected web of ideas and concepts. As this web is the basis for my thought process, however, I will touch on related topics that guide my thoughts on the structure of training sessions. Although I will include a few sidebars and tangents, I'll try to keep them brief, though each of them likely warrants their own discussion as well.
Scope: This discussion focuses on the structure of single training sessions. Covering an all-encompassing training plan that addresses time periods of weeks/months/years and that addresses weak links and progressions is beyond the scope of this specific topic. These topics are also greatly dependent on many aspects of the individual. If I feel I can convey my thoughts on a more conclusive and longer duration training plan at some time in the future, I may write about it.
Given the scope of this topic, I will make some assumptions about the individual:
Assumption 1: Handbalancing is a priority physical pursuit. This assumption implies a level of commitment to devoting necessary quality time to handbalancing. We will further assume that the individual has 1-1.5 hours to train (at a minimum) at least three to four times per week (again, at minimum). This training time includes warmup, stretching, handstand training, and cooldown/stretch. Ideally, whole body maintenance and accessory training is also included in training sessions at some period in the week, but that's another topic for the future, and we will limit the scope of this discussion primarily to the core handstand-related elements of a training session.
Assumption 2: The individual in simply in a training phase, and without extraneous performance pressures or obligations that may influence what needs to be accomplished during training. Thus, the general goal of a training session in this case is to simply improve one's handbalancing abilities. This is likely where the vast majority of people are at.
Assumption 3: The individual has a relatively stable training situation and environment. This means that the individual consistently has access to an appropriate training environment that is suitable for them. This further assumes that the individual has a stable enough lifestyle that allows for some degree of planning and consistency in training sessions.
Assumption 4: The individual is in satisfactory physical condition with no significant deficiencies. I'll speak to individuals that might be limited in some capacity towards the end.
I have generally broken down a training session into separate components, which each have a rather coherent purpose. I have done this with the intention of this being somewhat generally applicable, despite the difficulties and my aversion in making generalities when working with individuals that are varied in their abilities and background. The sections are presented in an order that is similar to how I would place these components into a training session, however, this depends somewhat on where someone is at and what they are working. I will speak to particularities of order, and other things I consider, throughout. That said, here are the primary components I discuss (the titles below are clickable):
This should be common sense, but I'm including for the sake of completeness. Before every training session, do some form of a warmup and mobility work to get your body going and to be in at least an okay place when you actually get upsidedown. The content you include and the duration of this will be dependent on what your body needs. For myself, at the bare minimum, staple warmup and mobility exercises include:
extended dead hang on a bar (with some accessory leg lift variations)
overhead squat with a theraband (held at a resting/stretching bottom position for hip mobility with band overhead for a shoulder stretch)
side squat/Spiderman squat (Cossack squat) for hip mobility
lots of wrist mobility and general warmup (I have relatively inflexible wrists that need a very thorough warmup)
shoulder theraband warmup
plank-type shoulder/wrist warmup
At the least, this takes me about 15 minutes or so. If I have the time and a nicely outfitted gym available, a warmup can last an hour or more though. The key is to understand what your body needs so that it is moving acceptably well prior to your handstand training. If anything feels prohibitively restrictive at the end of your warmup, add in additional exercises or movements to target these areas. If you rush through a warmup, or perhaps don't even warmup at all, you're setting yourself up for issues in the future.
A common related question concerns how much stretching I do prior to training. In general, and this goes back to when I was a gymnast, I aim to get functionally flexible for whatever I'm going to be working on that particular day. The initial stretch at the beginning of a handstand training session is not really focused on gaining flexibility beyond what my body is currently capable of, though there is an exception when I’m working handstands variations that require flexibility that push my flexibility limits, which is not something I train daily.
The warmup above may be sufficient for getting your body into an acceptable place to begin training handstands for the day, but it likely does not put your body in an ideal place to be at your best during your handstand training. In fact, your body is not in an ideal condition for a good 10-20 minutes into your actual handstand training. I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to allow and to accept this time, and to not put pressure on yourself to be at your best right off the bat. In this time, your body gets warmed up and stretch out in a handstand-specific fashion, in ways that are not possible from a non-inverted warmup.. Furthermore, given that the handstand is a complex motor skill, your body takes time to acclimate to an ideal place of body awareness, body control, and balance control. Consider this time as a period where you set your body up for the rest of training.
What do you do in this time? This will vary depending on your level, but in general, start from the basics and progress to where your body is competent relative to your level. An example progression for someone at an intermediate/advanced level might be (in order):
Focus on structure throughout the body, being solid and tall, even taking balance out of it if necessary (i.e., using a wall)
Focus on balance in a straight, tall handstand, or in a position with a lower center of gravity
Begin to challenge your balance, perhaps through leg movements, imposed sways, shifting your gaze, etc.
Review and refine entries such as kick handstands, jump to handstands, press handstands, etc.
If you've never paid attention to how your body actually feels during this time of your training, start doing so. Understand what you need for your body and mind to feel controllable in every way. Understand what you need for your balance to be on point. Understand what you need for your mind and body to be keenly aware of small perturbations. The intention is basically to understand how to put yourself in a good place for training, rather than leaving it up to luck and having significant variation day to day. Doing that is tough on the mind and it is not helpful for progressing.
A note on handstand-specific warmups: I think of the handstand-specific warmup as a very compressed version of everything you have already learned...everything that you have a pretty solid handle on (though if you are a very beginner, I understand that you will feel like you have a handle on nothing). When taking this view and thinking about progression in handbalancing, your warmup will evolve as you grow. You will be able to add things into the warmup that were once challenging and that were once part of your working sets in the main body of your training. Will you have to touch on everything that you have learned in handbalancing and included every drill, exercise, position, etc.? No. At some point, a lot of concepts will be either consciously or subconsciously included in a small set of exercises and drills, and you'll be at a level where it isn't necessary to practice relatively basic things every single training. This evolution of your warmup is a very high level view that will take a lot of time. Don't pay attention to forcing this evolution, but rather know that it will happen and casually observed how it changes as you grow.
The Definition of a Focus Area
For the purpose of this discussion, I'd like to define what I mean by a focus area, as this is critical to structuring training sessions. Some may view the concept of a focus area as synonymous with a goal, though I feel like there are differences between the two. Regardless, let's define a focus area as: an exercise/drill/progression that is strategically essential or useful en route to some grander goal in the long term, and that is something that you can chip away at and make progress on in the near term.
The terminology may be a matter of semantics, perspective, and background, and I think another way to view a focus area is simple to ask "what are you working on?" The topic of whether something in handbalancing is appropriate for someone to work at their current ability level is another, loosely related, discussion, that is influenced by one's background, coaching philosophy, etc., and that will not be covered here.
Define your focus areas
The main body of a training session is centered around the focus areas that someone is working on. For most individuals at the beginner and intermediate levels, I have a rough outline of skill category progressions that I use, but I also deviate sometimes if someone has sufficient fundamentals and an interest in a slightly different direction from my norm. In general though, the direction that someone heads in with handbalancing and long-term goals can be inspired by many things. It could be something that has been seen in person or on social media; it could be what the vast majority of the handstand community considers to be an end point of a skill; it could be something that's inspired by another discipline or activity that could be applied to handbalancing; it could be to focus on the cognitive and mental aspects of handbalancing; it could simply be a fun and explorative direction in which you want to go.
If left up to the handbalancer themselves, defining where to place one's focus can be challenging, regardless of their ability level. Sometimes people are hesitant to make a decision that this is what they are going to focus on, and perhaps there is a potential fear of failure or not achieving what they set out to. Perhaps they want to achieve many things, and all at the same time. Perhaps they don't even know what an appropriate direction is for them given their current level.
I do have one general recommendation for selecting focus areas though: choose two per session. (And, ideally stick to about three total at any point in time.)
In general, if your training sessions include training many (e.g., six) focus areas, your efforts are likely spread too thin, and you are probably not spending enough quality time working at the edge of your ability level. This severely limits your potential progress. A focus area could involve a number of different drills or progressions that are in line with a focus area, and I would encourage that as each drill likely targets a specific part of the skill or movement at large.
Selecting specific focus areas is not necessarily something you have to stick with for six months. Perhaps it's a few weeks, as your body is likely in a different spot, especially if you are doing appropriate drills and exercises for where you are at. Perhaps you have reached a point where you are satisfied with what you have achieved. At this point, a different focus area may be appropriate.
Structure of focus area training
In a similar vein to the idea that you are not at your best from the first handstand you perform in a training session, you are also not at your best with respect to any particular focus area when you begin training that focus area. In other words, you also need some form of focus area-specific warmup. The content and duration of this will obviously depend on your level and the level of the skills you are working relative to your general or base handstand level, but there are often entry-level drills that you could use as a focus-area specific warmup prior to getting to the more challenging drills.
A good example of this is one arm handstand work. When someone is just beginning to get a few seconds of (unassisted) controlled balance, this is likely not consistently possible on their first few attempts. Rather than jumping straight to attempting unassisted balance holds and working at their maximum working ability, it would serve them much better to do a slower and more patient progression, perhaps performing longer assisted holds (e.g., a few assisting fingers from the non-support hand). This not only gives their body and hand additional time to warmup and calibrate to the increased difficulty, but it also adds time and practice to a lower level and fundamental progression towards the one arm handstand. Perhaps 10 minutes after doing these progressive holds could one be in a more ideal place to begin working unassisted balance holds.
Following a focus area-specific warmup, that’s when you get to training at your maximum ability level. While ideally you are completely focused on your training for your entire session, this is where it’s critical that you shut everything else out in the world. Stay in this bubble for the entirety of training this focus area; attempt, analyze (not too much), contemplate, breathe, feel, don’t get emotional. This period may consist of a number of sets of a handful of drills, all with a slightly different intention, yet all of which let you flirt with the edge of your ability level. Learning how to train in this bubble with all of your focus takes time and is something that grows with the rest of your abilities.
The structure of the training block for each specific focus areas therefore includes: 1) the focus area-specific warm up, and 2) a series of exercises and drills that are pushing your mind and body in the direction of this specific focus area. This goes for each focus area, and you may therefore have to follow some focus area-specific warm up for the second focus area if this area is not quite inline with your first focus area.
It may be common to put the focus area that requires the greatest effort or focus (primary focus area) right after your warmup, and this is useful, but don’t always do this. Instead, occasionally (strategically) place the secondary focus area first when you’re fresh (following your warmup of course). In doing so, your body will likely respond differently and you may have a breakthrough simply because your body is not fatigued from previously training your primary interest.
There are always skills or movements or concepts that can be improved or refined, or that are simply good to review and revisit. This is loosely what I consider maintenance work, and when extended duration sets are used, it can somewhat turn into endurance work that you have to grind through while still paying attention to technique. The types and level of things that are included in this type of work are things that are a bit below your maximum working ability level and things that are rather solid. The focus here would be to concentrate on finer points and technique, to make things more fluent and mindless, to build up endurance, to play with awareness, to refine aesthetics, etc. There are many options for directing the focus of maintenance/refinement training.
The placement of maintenance work can take different forms, and I'll discuss one option. My preferred approach would be to include some maintenance work into your handstand-specific warmup, and some following the focus areas. If you accept the notion that your body and mind takes up to 20 minutes to actually get into a good place to work at your best, some of this time could very well be used for maintenance work of various skills and elements. If these skills and elements are rather easy and ingrained in your body, this should serve as a good warmup to prepare you for your focus areas, however they could still present a challenge as your body is not in your best state. Additionally, doing some maintenance work following your focus areas should challenge you to some degree, as you are now in a fatigued state, and perhaps you must work a little harder in things that are generally easy for you when you are fresh.
Similar to the progression of the handstand-specific warmup, your maintenance training will also progress in time, and it will not be necessary to review every single exercise, drill, and concept that you have ever encountered. You will soon realize what is important to keep, and what can go, perhaps because works something much below your current level. How do you realized this on your own? Test what happens when you leave out a drill for a week. Once you attempt it again, is it horrible or does it take one or two attempts to get back up to speed. The things that degrade fast should stay in your practice whereas the things that are quick to pick up again can be use sporadically.
If you are simply training handbalancing without accessory strength training of some sort, you are limiting where you can go with handbalancing. In my opinion, all handstand sessions should include some form of strength training, which can take different forms. This type of work is placed at the end of training sessions so as to not adversely affect the quality of work devoted to your focus areas. That is, unless some form of strength work is actually a focus area of your handbalance training.
In terms of what types of strength work to include, I would start with some form of handbalance-related strength. Examples of this include (as well as variations and progressions leading up to these): handstand pushups, press handstand work, L- and straddle L-hold, planches, pushup, etc. Certainly you don't have to run through all of these every session, but starting with a couple of these and slowly incorporating additional strength movements or skills is a good approach. In time, you'll be able to string some of these together to get a more complete strength session. Additionally, training these in different manners, including isometrics, sets for reps, fatigue set, drop sets, etc., makes for many possibilities to not get bored of the same things.
While I don't really prescribe play as a separate training block within a session, it is critical to incorporate into your training in some manner, every day. Some people will save this for the end, or perhaps the just prior to the strength work that will burn them out. As for myself, I don’t really attempt to put it in any one place, but I think I incorporate it into almost everything I do in training to some degree…
To me, the notion of play is about being curious and exploring different directions of working with your body or playing with your awareness. It's about exploring areas that you have not experience before. It's about throwing challenges at your body that target the fundamental aspects of handbalancing (stability, control, balance, attention, awareness, sensation, etc) and wondering how you will respond. It's about being creative and knowing that there is significant freedom beyond the rigid drills you've been told to do. This approach facilitates learning through experience and inquisition, rather than simply learning by accepting knowledge from others. Learning through play is of course a learned ability, and one that improves in time…you may have to 'practice playing' to some degree in the beginning.
Based on this definition, I really don't see a hard delineation between work and play, as these directions are present in nearly every single attempt when I train. This includes the new things I’m attempting as well as the things I've done 10,000 times before. There is always something new to do, or a way to go further, in mind or body, that can keep things interesting.
I tried to make the sections above as coherent as possible, even though I know there are many, many related thoughts and questions for each concept. I will attempt to address some additional points to make my thoughts more comprehensive.
When to move on
I don't really prescribe specific numbers of sets and reps, but I may give rough ranges for repetitions or time under tension or holds for working sets just so an individual has some reference for an acceptable working range at their level (or where they’re going). Rather, I would recommend to stop working something when technique and position starts to break down and when control becomes a massive struggle or is not present at all. At this level of fatigue, there are two directions to go in with your training. One is to move onto another drill/skill/direction/focus in handbalancing that doesn't require the same use or intensity of your body as what was required by what you were just training. Another direction is to stay in the general category of the skill being trained, but move to an easier version of it. For example, a handstand with the legs together has a higher center of mass compared to a handstand with the legs in a straddled position. Consequently, controlling position and controlling balance in the straddled position is relatively easier. If you were previously working long holds in a handstand with your legs together and if your forearms/hands/fingers are becoming quite fatigued, moving to holds in a straddled handstand is a useful alternative to continue training. Similarly for one arm handstands, if you are quite fatigued in a full OAHS, dropping down to a straddled OAHS may allow you to still get in some quality holds where you're working at your maximal ability (because you are in a fatigued state). When these easier positions begin to degrade in the same fashion as in the previous harder skills, that's when to move on to another drill or focus area.
An important thing to think about when designing training is to to consider what else is going on in one's life. As an example, if someone's physical training includes rather heavy lifting (e.g., deadlifts, squats, etc), this must be planned for and considered when coming up with a plan for training handstands as well. Doing deadlifts or squats prior to training handstands on the same day (or even training handstands on the following day) will have a significant and negative impact on one's ability to control their body while in a handstand.
Furthermore, it is important not just to think about other physical pursuits, but also the responsibilities and the life in general that one has, as this should guide your expectations for training and progress. Someone who is single and who works remotely and on their own time may have much greater flexibility in when and how much they train, compared to someone with a 9-5 job and with three kids. These situations will also have very different stressors, which also impact training and progress. When setting goals and focus areas that are realistic and attainable, it is critical to not only think about the physical potential of the individual, but also the other factors of one's life that will directly or indirectly impact the time and quality of their training.
If an individual's handstand practice is limited by something that is not really related to handstands, focusing solely on handstands will likely not help them overcome this deficiency. Rather, specific and dedicated time must be set aside for deficiency-specific work. If the deficiency is flexibility related, this could be done during the general warmup or post-handstand training, or even perhaps in between handstand attempts. If the deficiency is strength related (either handstand-specific or not), this could be included in a focus area or in the strength training part of a session. The point is that some handstand training time may need to be sacrificed so that deficiencies can be overcome, to allow for further progress in handbalancing.
My intention was to attempt to convey my general thought process when thinking about an appropriate training plan for someone. Is this approach perfect for everyone? No. I emphasize that this is general and that I would always have specific details and information and tweaks that are relevant and important for any single individual I am working with. However, if you understand the process and rationale, and you pair that with conscious and critical analysis of how you and your body feel respond, I believe that's a powerful thing where the individual can begin to take control of their own training.