One of the issues that I find the most frustrating when watching people coach in the sport is the lack of work done on the basics. I know that there are many reasons for this. Obviously, there are those coaches out there who are just lazy. Most of them wouldn’t be reading a blog about gymnastics anyway, so I am not talking to them right now. I think there is a very large group of coaches out there who really want to do the right thing when it comes to teaching basics, but just don’t have the practical experience with these basics to, in turn, trust the process enough to really spend the right amount of time on them. In other words, these coaches are semi-trapped in the world of “If my gymnast is going to compete a hyperthingamajiggy, then I need to have them doing more hyperthingamajiggys”. This is understandable, as that seems to be the common sense of it. I think there is a perception in all sports that, when pursuing greatness, the best plan would be to do the thing that you want to be great at 9 gazillion times. I would think that most of the people who will read this are aware that this is not the case, and that true success lies in the “breakdown” of these complicated skills and furthermore, the preparation along the way for these skills.
This idea is important all the way down to the simplest of actual skills. I would like to first discuss the handstand and then proceed to other skills in the coming weeks. I hope that this helps all of you. I know it is rather long, but I wanted to really get into detail with my progressions for this “most important of all skills”.
At first glance, a handstand seems to be a fairly simple skill. But, I would argue that, even the handstand is a complex skill in terms of all of the things that need to happen to create a perfect (or as perfect as the particular body will allow) handstand, and therefore, strong skills down the road that involve the handstand (and we all know there are tons of these). Some of the key points to a handstand:
- It needs to be as straight as possible
- The ears should be nearly or completely covered while still allowing the gymnast to see her hands, but not her fingertips
- The weight should be more on the fingertips than the heel of the hand (or at least feel that way)
- The shoulders should be extended (shrugged up)
- There should be muscle tension throughout the body, so that, if the coach tried to push a part of the body out of line, it would be difficult to do so
So, as you can see, there is a lot to accomplish in this “simple” skill. None of this even includes the lunge, or the lever into, or out of, the handstand. If we add those things, you would probably agree that it is not likely that a human being could concentrate on all of these things in one attempt at a handstand. Because of this, we need to breakdown this skill so that we can make it easier to accomplish one or two of these things at a time before moving on to other corrections in the handstand.
The way that I most always approach the handstand is by doing two to three different drills in conjunction with each other to achieve the best handstand possible.
The Lunge – – – We work on lots of lunges! In this position:
- The knee should be on top of the toes
- The feet should turn out just slightly
- The hips should be square by stressing to the gymnast that she squeezes the thigh (quadriceps) of her back leg toward the hamstring of her front leg
- The arms should be up and covering the ears (but, at first, I have them do the lunge with their hands on their hips to just focus on the legs)
- The head should be neutral
- The ribs should be in, so that the lower back is not arched
- The tummy should be tight
One of the things you can do with a lunge is to do one with the front toes against a wall and then push the knee to the wall, or do the same with a stack of pit blocks. Walking around and pushing down on the gymnasts arms or palms to see if their cores give in is a good idea, as well. Just don’t push too hard until you know they are engaging those muscles.
The Body Tension – – – One of the first and best ways of creating better body tension in the gymnast is to have them lay down on their backs and then the coach picks up their feet. As her feet are lifted she should learn to squeeze her bottom so that her body is straight as the coach holds her feet up at about 45 degrees. At first, we have to teach the athlete to squeeze in this position after we have lifted her feet. As we progress with this, she should learn to squeeze before we lift her, so that the body tension is there from the beginning. This is a great way to get them to understand how tight they need to be in a handstand. Another body tension drill is to have the gymnast lay across a gap of mats (two panel mats work fine), so that her shoulders are on one mat and her heels are on the other. She then squeezes her bottom and tightens her body so that she creates a straight line over that gap. We have to watch to make sure that she is not arching and pushing her hips up too high beyond the straight position. There are lots of ways to accomplish this body tension, so be creative!
The handstand against a wall – – – I start these by doing what are called “wall-walkers”, and then progressing from there. The “wall-walker” is done by having the gymnast place her back against a wall, and then bend over to place her hands on the floor. She then walks her feet up the wall to arrive in a handstand. At this point, she should walk her hands in a little closer to the wall to get as close to vertical as she can get without falling. The goal here is for her to hold this position herself, and then have the coach poke and pull on her to get her to use her body tension to hold the handstand. Ideally, only her toes and maybe her chin should touch the wall. At this point, I always stress to the gymnast to grow as tall as she can, or as a friend of mine says “Grow another inch”. There are lots of variations to this drill, including turning around and kicking up so that the back is against the wall, or doing a handstand under a bar so that the gymnast has to “grow” just to touch her toes against the front side of the bar to be able to balance herself there. Again, be creative.
Bridges, bridges, and other shoulder flexibility – – – Remember that an ideal handstand is perfectly straight. It is impossible to get a gymnast’s body into a straight line if she is not flexible in her shoulders. The work must be done to create this shoulder flexibility, so that she has the opportunity to get her body into a straight line. One easy way to do this is by having the gymnast do bridges and try to get her shoulders out past her hands. I almost always have the gymnast do these with her feet on something that is at least as tall as her shoulders when she is in a bridge. This takes the stress off of the lower back and puts it where it is supposed to be: the shoulders. We also place a mat or block or something out in front of the gymnast’s chest, so that she can push up against that to stretch the shoulders. As she becomes more accomplished at this, we move it a little further away.
Build strength in the right places – – – I am a big believer in the fact that a gymnast can build plenty of strength just by doing a handstand and repeating it. The potential problem with this, though, is that the gymnast can build strength in the wrong places if this handstand is repeated over and over in the wrong position. I am reminded of one of the favorite quotes of myself and several coaches I have great respect for, “Practice does not make perfect…Practice makes permanent.” If a gymnast repeats something over and over again, she will become incredible at WHATEVER she is practicing. If she is practicing a bad handstand, and does it a trillion times, she will be able to hold the nastiest handstand for longer than anyone else (and we have all had this gymnast). I am sure that you would agree that getting this gymnast to fix this problem after that much repetition is one of the most difficult things possible. It is because she has developed strength in the wrong places for a correct handstand. So, every time that a gymnast is doing a handstand, I am thinking to myself, “What strength is she creating right now? Should I slow her down and have her do the handstand with a spot or against a wall, etc. to make sure she is getting the proper strength work from that handstand?” This helps me to be more diligent about the correct strength training for the handstand.
The single leg handstand – – – This is my favorite drill for a handstand, because I think it is the most effective for getting the gymnast in the right position on her fingertips. I have the gymnasts, when doing handstands from a lunge, do these almost exclusively when they are not doing them with a spot. If a gymnast can “lever” up to a split (a small split) handstand, and hold that, then bringing the legs together and holding that is much easier. My goal with these is to have the gymnast get the back leg to go up to just a little bit past vertical, and then try to balance that. We work really hard at maintaining square hips all the way through the skill, by squeezing the same muscles as we did during the lunge. This drill is important also, in the fact that there are too many times that gymnasts try to put their feet together too soon, and therefore never achieve vertical. Doing the split handstand helps to guarantee that they will get the back leg through vertical first. I continue to do these all the way up through our system (as a warm-up), including with my level 9s and 10s. In my opinion, it makes no sense to proceed to handstands with feet together until they can master this, and hold it for 3-5 seconds nearly every time they attempt it. After they have this mastered, I will have them still hold the split handstand for 1-2 seconds before bringing the feet together in the handstand. I have used these progressions in the past for balance beam as well. I’m sure that we have all felt the misery of trying to get a gymnast to get all the way up to handstand on the beam. It is probably a little naive’ to think that they will do that if they haven’t even learned to get all the way to vertical with a split handstand first. We must remember, I think, that bringing the feet together is, in essence, the end of the progress toward vertical. Once they bring their feet together, they are not likely to go any higher toward complete vertical. At that point, it is what it is.
Later on…After working these drills for a while, when moving on to doing handstands with feet together, I have another technique I use to help them learn to get their weight on their fingertips. It involves having them get into a habit of making the handstand fall the opposite direction than the turn prior to it, if the handstand is not held for at least 5 seconds. In other words, if a gymnast kicks up and closes her feet together and then comes back down to a lunge before holding the handstand for 5 seconds, I make sure that she understands that the next one must go over to a roll or bridge, and vice-versa. If she continues to train with this mentality, she will eventually “find” her balance point, and have more success with holding this handstand.
This is a drill I have been doing with our level 5 gymnasts:
So, these are my ideas for training a handstand. Please let me know what you do to help your gymnasts with this skill, or ask any questions about anything that I have written. I promise you that all I am doing is relaying things that I have learned along the way from coaches that were kind enough to share their experience with me. I hope to pass on that tradition through this blog. Thank you for your time in reading this.