The Outlaw Connectivity Doctrine
The current gymnastics-related movements in Crossfit (handstand walk, handstand push-up, pull-ups, chest to bar, muscle ups, ring dips, toes to bar, legless rope climbs) appear in 65% of the Benchmark Girl Workouts (www.crossfit.com).
The days of muscle-ups into ring handstand pushups, handstand walking over obstacle courses, and free-standing Diane are not far away.
It’s time to step up your gymnastics game.
A. Why Handstands?
The point of learning calculus is to learn how to think; there are engineers out there who are legitimately concerned with advanced calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra, but the majority of us learn calculus to train our brains in the art of abstract thought. The point of learning a handstand is to learn how to manipulate your body. Serious gymnasts spend hours developing perfect handstand technique, partially because a vast majority of skills in gymnastics pass through a handstand shape, but most importantly because the art of fine-tuning your body to find the perfect handstand shape trains your brain in the art of body awareness. Mastering the perfect handstand will help improve your handstand walks, and maybe your handstand push-ups, but developing the process of complex skill acquisition and precise musculoskeletal control will improve every single movement your body makes.
Every skill or action that an athlete performs—whether it be a complex Olympic lift or a handstand, involves the activation of neural pathways. The study of neuroplasticity encompasses the changes in these neural pathways, which in the case of exercisers result as a change in behavior. Physical exercise has been shown to both facilitate neuroplasticity and, “enhance an individual’s capacity to respond to new demands with behavioral adaptations” (Hotting K, Roder B, 2013). Spending time practicing a perfect handstand will develop the same neural pathways that are essential in controlling your body through complex exercise movements. Mastering the art of feeling exact body positions, and being able to do it while upside down, will transfer to the ability to make quick corrections in form and technique elsewhere. There is a reason that amongst the top games athletes, especially on the women’s side, an overwhelming majority have some kind of gymnastics background.
The handstand is the movement of choice for developing motor neuron pathways applicable to exercise because it requires precise control over every body part. Holding a handstand requires activation of each of the major muscle groups as well as the sensorimotor control systems essential to maintaining balance. The cues given to athletes just learning handstands are complex and most likely conceptually brand new. Furthermore, having to think about multiple specific body cues, while attempting to balance upside down adds a new level of challenge and likely general discomfort. A broad comparison would be attempting to master linear algebra while standing on your head. The ability to process complex thought into bodily action while in an unnatural, and likely uncomfortable, state is a careful skill that takes time to develop and will carry over to each of your exercise endeavors.
The point of mastering a handstand is to develop motor-learning skills. The benefits to your exercise elements skill set are secondary.
B. The Perfect Handstand
The ability to hold a handstand requires equal parts flexibility and strength. The ability to achieve a completely open shoulder and hip angle are paramount to the success of any gymnastics related work in the sport of fitness. Muscular control, specifically throughout the shoulders and midline, are essential for maintaining the perfect position.
1. Arms should be shoulder width apart. There should be an exact straight line from the wrists to the shoulders, to the lower body. Ears should not be visible. This position allows the athlete to achieve full shoulder extension.
2. Throughout the duration of the handstand, the athlete should work to push the floor away as much as possible, essentially making the body as long as possible. Attempts to make the body long will naturally move the body into a straight line. There should be no space between the neck, ears, and arms.
3. The head should be held neutral, in a manner that from the side the head appears to be in line with the arms, and the chin is not buried in the chest. The athlete then uses their eyes to look at their fingertips.
4. There should be no shoulder angle, when viewed from the side there should be a straight line from the wrists, to the shoulders, to the hips, and finally to the ankles. Focus on the cue, “open shoulders.”
5. Ribs should be rounded inward and not visible from the side. The musculature of the thoracic and lumbar spine works to maintain a flat back with no visible arch.
6. Hips should be pressed flat so that no hip angle exists. The gluteal muscles should be contracted as much as possible to maintain a straight hip line.
7. Legs should be straight and pressed together with pointed ankles.
8. Fingers are rounded upward with fingertips pressing directly into the floor. Body weight remains over the palms of the hands and fingertips are used to aid in balance.
C. Why Precision is Necessary
“Physical skills will disintegrate under duress and fatigue—even in athletes with the mental and emotional attributes and stamina to be the best in critical competitions. In other words, athletes don’t rise to an occasion—they sink to the level of their training; so the training bar needs to be set high.” – Peter Twist
When I began teaching gymnastics type movements to people without gymnastics backgrounds, there was a sharp disconnect between teaching for perfection and teaching for “good enough” to complete a workout. Even the highest-level gymnasts turned exercisers at the Crossfit Games do not compete handstand walks with Olympic Gymnastics form and perfection. At face value there seemed to be no benefit to putting in the time and effort to master basic gymnastics work when even the top gymnasts in the game were performing at the “good enough” standard. What is not apparent to the casual observer however, is that these athletes with gymnastics backgrounds, particularly the women, who are performing with what looks like bad form, are actually hitting the most essential technique points.
Elisabeth Akinwale competed NCAA Division I gymnastics. She also went unbroken during the Cinco 1 event at the 2013 Crossfit Games to easily win the event. Her handstand walks during this workout are far from perfect; her legs are bent and apart, her hands are slightly wide, and her head is out too far. Despite these form breaks, the most essential elements of handstand technique are in place. Her shoulders are actively pushing away from the ground, there is no space between her neck, shoulders, and ears, and she is actively fighting any arch in her lumbar spine. Most importantly, all of these points require absolutely no thought process for her. She has spent so much time forming the neural pathways essential to the mastery of her gymnastics skills that being upside down is natural. She may as well be walking on her feet.
Approaching the mastery of gymnastics related movements with the goal of perfection is not just essential in the abstract sense of refining the motor-learning development process. Approaching gymnastics with the goal of perfection will make easy (physically and mentally) work of gymnastics related exercises when your body is already under stress and fatigue. If your technically perfect work disintegrates to a level of sub-perfection, you will still be performing well enough to complete the task assigned so long as you understand the absolute essential elements of the movement. If the bar has only been set to a less than perfect understanding of the movement, your ability to complete the task when your skills start to crumble under stress and fatigue will be compromised.
I practiced gymnastics for 21 years. The day that I met Rudy Nielsen, I walked in to his gym stringing together 2 muscle ups and making a mess out of a 115 pound snatch. One hour later I walked out stringing together 8 muscle ups and snatching 135 pounds. I’m not very strong (yet), but my brain is trained in the art of knowing exactly what my body is doing whenever it moves. I have spent endless hours training handstands, and as a direct result can make quick corrections on different types of body movements.
Get upside down. Put in the work. Make your brain coachable.