In December 2013 I was in Hermanus, a small town about 2 hours drive east from Cape Town. It’s a place we visit a lot because my wife’s parents have a house there. The deck is 10m away from waves crashing onto the rocks and beyond that it’s blue, wild ocean all the way to the horizon.
In previous years Karen and I had gone to the gym in town to train but this year I had absolutely no motivation to be indoors in a hot gym grinding through a programme of strength work and plyometrics. Understand that this was unusual. On holiday I don’t stop training so the standard modus operandi would have been to crack on. But something inside of me just couldn’t get even the slightest bit interested in the gym. Instead for some reason the handstand was calling me and it was full of promise, intrigue and whispering, ‘you might actually be ok at this kind of training’.
Anyone who has met me or seen the photo of me stood next to James Haskell will know I’m not a big guy. The day I properly started weight training I clocked a meager 68 kilos. A year or so later after a lot of bro splits I was 72kg. I’ve never been that strong when it comes to barbell work but pound for pound I did ok. So when the idea of switching my training to focus on calisthenics came to mind it made sense.
‘Stop fighting against your genetics, accept the way you were made and make it a strength’. So the endless cycle of switching between hypertrophy, strength and power training with no defined goal was ejected and in it’s place stood a desire to master my own bodyweight.
Aside from an appetite to do something that was more challenging and that allowed me to train outside next to the sea I had some kryptonite I needed to deal with. I first disclocated my left shoulder in 2001 playing rugby at university. More dislocations followed, as did my first reconstructive surgery. Then later, more dislocations still and a second surgery.
During that time I had spent a lot of time doing exercises prescribed by a number of physiotherapists. None of them had successfully rehabilitated me to do what I wanted to, which was play rugby and lift weights. Dispondant and with the sense of freedom and peace that you only get stood by the ocean I thought, ‘if I can handstand, that would mean my shoulders were stable’. In hindsight it doesn’t sound that sensible but what were the alternatives? Keep doing what I had done up until that point and expect a different result or just accept it and live with it. Neither of those were appealing. So with no previous gymnastics experience or any methodolgy other than my experience as a profressional strength and conditioning coach, I began.
Since then things have changed a lot. Here are 3 things I have learnt.
I can’t put this down entirely to handstands as it would be unfair not to give some of the credit to the hanging work I have done as part of my calisthenics training. However, I am certain that learning to balance my bodyweight on my hands and developing the fine motor control to do it has been instrumental in putting a stop to the shoulder issues I was having.
I need to add a caveat here. If you have got a history of shoulder issues and injury please seek some advice from a medical professional before you start handstand training rather than taking my idle ramblings on a blog as being the best course of action for you. We’re all different, my shoulders responded well but there is no guarentee that yours will so please get checked out first.
So many people get in touch and tell us that they are struggling with their handstand training. Yep. That’s the game, especially if you are learning later in life and have no point of reference established from being a junior gymnast. Take heart and know that you are not alone. I had to fight to do my first controlled handstand. So many failed reps, so many frustrating sessions. But eventually I got it, and what did I learn? Consistency and persistance are non-negotiables when it comes to redefining your impossible.
You have to push through the plateaus. The handstand got a hold of me and once I’d started there was no chance I was giving up until I could do it. That would have represented failure to me. It wasn’t about the shoulder instability anymore, after the first few weeks I knew my shoulders could hack it and the robustness I have now just came as a result of investing in a form of training that I love. I wanted to do it because it was hard and for a long time it was beating me. Overcoming that represented something valuable. Not giving up, not being defeated and achieving something that felt impossible.
Learing to handstand could be life changing because it teaches you that you can do more than you think. Just as long as you are consistent and persevere, even when it feels like too big a mountain to climb.
Something that stressed me out at the time was what would happen to my physique if I went all in on calisthenics? Would I lose all my hard earned bench press gains? Well my desire to be in the gym was so low that even my male dysmorphia issues couldn’t motivate me and I decided that I would give myself 3 months. All in on bodyweight training for 12 weeks and if I hated it, or lost a load of muscle mass I was confident I knew enough about training to get it back. Now, approaching 5 years later since that day when I put my hands on the floor with only the soundtrack of the Atlantic ocean for company I still haven’t done an upper body ‘weights’ based session.
I wouldn’t say I’m 100% happy with my physique but that is nothing to do with calisthenics, it’s a mental health issue. I still fight the niggling voice of bigorexia but instead of letting it run riot, today I have something that is of more value to me; redefining my impossible, over and over again. Now my identity is grounded in what my body can do, not what it looks like.
So can a handstand change someones life or is that a bit far fetched? Well it changed mine, and only in positive ways.