Breaking It Down -- Using Progressions to Achieve Your Movement Goals
I have been doing handstands for about as long as I have been a bodyworker -- over a decade! (Time flies, doesn't it?)
When I first began my handstand practice, I had very little core and upper body strength, had a difficult time mapping out where my body was in space while upside-down, and was fearful of falling over backwards while inverting. This often comes as a surprise to people who assume that I had a background in gymnastics or acrobatics before I got into circus arts, but...nope! I was a bumbling, fumbling adult learner.
I spent my first 2 years of handstand "training" repeatedly kicking up into inversions against a wall and holding myself up for as long as I could, then repeatedly kicking up into some semblance of a handstand in the middle of the floor and counting how many seconds I could stay upside-down before toppling over. While I did gain strength, balance, discipline, and courage by simply maintaining consistency in my efforts, I can't say I was working toward my goal of a solid, stable handstand very effectively. I was attempting to achieve a very challenging skill without breaking down my goal into appropriate and meaningful progressions to get there.
When I started investing in training with experienced coaches who were able to help me identify missing links in my strength, connectivity, and body awareness, my practice soared...and so did my motivation! My original goal of simply holding a solid 10-second handstand in the middle of the floor quickly evolved to performing much more advanced handstand shapes and transitions. With a few more years of training, I was able to integrate handbalancing and contortion into my repertoire as a circus performer. By breaking down these lofty goals into smaller steps, I was able to make consistent progress and maintain my motivation to keep working by achieving small successes throughout my movement journey.
So...what does breaking down movement goal into progressions look like? Let's use the handstand as an example.
Firstly, it is important to identify the individual elements that make up a complex movement. In the case of a straight, static handstand hold, here is a [non-exhaustive!] list of its components:
- Adequate tendon conditioning, muscular strength, and muscular endurance in the wrists, elbows, and shoulders to bear your full body weight - Advanced balance, vestibular, and proprioceptive training to maintain balance and body awareness in inversions
- Core strength and stability to maintain a straight and stable body position in handstand
- Shoulder mobility, strength, and stability in full overhead flexion
- Adequate hip mobility, strength, and stability for efficient handstand entrances and body positioning in handstand
- Breathing efficiently while maintaining core stability in handstand
...You get the idea. A stable handstand is an integrated amalgamation of its elements. If any of these elements are weak or inconsistent, the whole movement is effected.
Once you have broken down the movement into its components, it's time to start assessing what areas you need to really prioritize. While most adult beginning handbalancers will need to address all of the components I listed to some degree to achieve a handstand without injury, we all have our individual strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps you have already done a lot of core work from a prior background in weight lifting, but experience wrist pain when holding a handstand against the wall. That's an indication that you need to work on your wrists to tolerate weight bearing.
So, you've identified an area for improvement...now what? What is holding you back with weightbearing on your wrists? Is it a joint mobility issue? Tendon strengthening? Your weight distribution and balance technique?
This is why I highly recommend working with an experienced professional coach or trainer who has a sound understanding of progressive strength training, biomechanics, and the specific movement that you are working toward. While one can easily go down a YouTube rabbit hole looking for various drills and exercises to address that wrist pain, then try a whole bunch of different things while hoping something will work, you will save yourself a lot of time (and learn a lot in the process!) by getting assessed by a skilled movement professional. While kicking up against a wall for 2 years was, er, character-building, I honestly would have saved myself a lot of time and spared myself many injuries by working with a pro.
A qualified movement professional should not only be able to select appropriate drills and exercises to help you progress toward your goals, but also help you structure your training plan to increase or decrease load as needed, factor in rest and recovery, and work on different elements and muscle groups throughout the week to keep your program balanced and prevent overtraining.
In my next post, I will provide some tips on what to look for when seeking out a coach or trainer in the vast, unregulated Wild West that is the movement and fitness industry!
If you're interested in working through your movement plateaus in a relaxed, boutique learning environment, I do offer individualized movement education settings with my Thrive sessions. I love working in collaboration with my clients to solve their movement puzzles!