Note: This guest post is written by Chris Salvato from Eat Move Improve.
“I’ve wanted [the handstand] for a long time, but have never been sure how to fit it into my training with my other goals.” – Matthew H., Handstand Trainee
I hear this sort of thing a lot.
Chances are, if you are working on improving your life and your fitness, you will face the problem of being overwhelmed by goals and information repeatedly. Even if you are only working towards a single goal, there is just so much noise out there.
For example, there are literally thousands of resources available to learn the handstand: books, online tutorials, YouTube videos, etc.
The same goes for just about anything – the muscle up, the elbow lever, back flips, you name it…
Surely, more information is better than less, right? If you read as much as possible about your goals, this will only help you to progress, right?
Actually, an overabundance of information can and will work against you.
Paralyzed by analysis!
A handstand trainee of mine, Jim, recently told me that before working with me he had been working on handstands for six months.
During that time, he had tried several different methods of getting the handstand but none of them seemed to work… he hadn’t seen progress in nearly five months!
When I asked him to describe the past six months of his training this is what he said:
“I read a few tutorials and it seemed like I should start by getting a solid hold against the wall. I did that within the first month. Once I could do that, I read some more tips about kicking up and worked on those against the wall, but I didn’t know how many attempts I should make. I asked on reddit and forums, and people told me I needed a better hollow body, so I ditched the kick-up work until until I figured out what that meant. I still couldn’t do anything away from the wall and figured I shouldn’t even start working on freestanding holds until everything else was perfect.”
Jim is suffering from a common problem called paralysis by analysis.
This guy is so eager to make progress that he is looking everywhere for answers and is over thinking every part of his training. The result is that he is overwhelmed and completely unsure of his next steps. Even worse, when he decides on a course of action to take, he sticks to it for only a short time until he finds something else that sounds better.
I have seen this happen hundreds of times with nearly every skill or goal out there.
Let’s use the muscle-up as another example:
- When you are starting, of course you have no idea what to do first so you start by doing pull-ups and dips with no idea if it is moving you in the right direction.
- So then you start to read blog posts and change your routine so now you are working on muscle up negatives.
- You stick with this for a week or two, ask more questions and decide to change again…now your routine includes weighted pull-ups and weighted dips.
- Then another buddy at the gym tells you to do jumping muscle-ups, so you switch to that.
What people like Jim don’t realize is that consistency to any routine is much more effective than hopping around and trying to find the perfect routine.
In fact, the perfect routine is the one that you can easily stick to that is generating even the smallest of results. After all, a thousand baby steps in the right direction is infinitely better than running in circles.
Being Overwhelmed is Confusing!
OK, so now you are convinced that routine hopping is bad. But, is it ok to keep reading information about your goals, just so you are better informed? After all, you can continue to learn as much as possible for when you are ready to tackle the next step, right?
Tread carefully here, because its not so cut and dry.
In fact, in my handstand book, The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide, I make it a point to let my readers know that reading all of the information in the book at once will actually work against them. But how can that be?
It all has to do with how your brain processes new information and learns new skills.
To simplify things, we can consider the brain to be separated into two parts – the primitive brain and the advanced brain.
These parts of the brain work together to learn new skills.
The advanced brain processes the information that you read in books, blog posts and tutorials. Your primitive brain learns how to apply these principles through practice and repetition. Your primitive brain is a passive beast, learning as your body goes through the motions. Once the primitive brain learns how to do something, it becomes automatic….unless the advanced brain decides it wants to interfere…
But how can your advanced brain interfere with your primitive brain??
Think about your breath for a second.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Now, for the next few minutes, you will need to think about each breath, because your advanced brain has consciously considered breathing, and your primitive brain is yielding. This yielding is so automatic, you may not even notice it is happening, until you realize you have been holding your breath!
This same thing happens for any skill, whether it be playing the piano, bowling, handstands or muscle ups.
Once you start thinking more about the skill, your advanced brain takes over and your primitive brain – the part of your brain that has evolved over millennia to quickly learn new skills – takes a back seat.
That’s definitely not ideal!
It’s also the reason most good music teachers avoid teaching all scales and music theory up front, and rather practice instrument fingerings and repetition.
In other words, once you start reading a ton of information, and start subscribing to the noise, your advanced brain is in overdrive. It’s thinking about the move constantly as you are trying to perform it, and your primitive brain is permanently in the back seat.
In other words, too much information makes you think too damn much!
Simplify to Learn and Progress
So is information just evil and to be avoided at all costs? Hardly!
Instead, you want to create a system that you can apply to each of your goals, then be very selective on the training advice that you take.
Identify and Refine Your Goal
First, you need to identify your goal and refine that goal down to it’s most specific form.
For example, instead of “I want to be stronger,” your goal should start as “I want to perform a muscle up.” Then, refine that down even further: “I want to perform one deadhang muscle up on rings.”
You want to be ultra specific, and incredibly focused.
Create Painstakingly Small Steps
Now that you know the end result that you want, identify the steps that you need to take to go from where you are to that end goal.
Each step should be a painstakingly small step in the right direction. You may even complete several of these steps in the same day, but finding small micro-goals will help keep you motivated, and also helps you make continual progress toward your goal.
This is a strategy that I learned from my days as a Computer Scientist, because programmers will often break down their code into incredibly small problems that need to be solved, rather than trying to tackle the entire problem at once.
It’s incredibly effective.
Be warned! When breaking down your goal into small steps, you may need to do some research… which may lead to and overwhelming amount of that noise we were talking about.
The easiest way to avoid this problem this is to find a step-by-step resource that lays out step-by-step progressions for you. These progressions are usually written by professions who have seen their programs generate results, and should help you to avoid the overwhelming amount of noise out there.
In my book, for example, I break down the handstand into 6 Key Challenges:
- 60-Second Wall Plank
- 60-Second Wall Handstand
- Pirouette Bail
- 90-Second Wall Handstand
- Forward/Backward Control
For each of these milestones, there is a clear, directed set of workouts/steps that you need to take every day to hit the goal of a 15-second handstand. Any good resource that produces results will make the next steps clear.
If you found an article, book or progression that doesn’t make the next steps clear, then ditch it.
If there is no resource like this available, then seek out someone who has taught this skill before and ask them for the first steps and how to reach them. If all else fails, ask someone who can perform the skill (though their advice tends to not be as reliable).
Get To Work!
Once you have your next steps outlined, you stop reading and get to work on hitting that next milestone and only that next milestone.
Give the routine time (at least 4 weeks) and then measure your progress.
- If you made progress, continue on with that progression.
- If you didn’t make progress, then you seek out an alternative and try again.
Luckily, most people don’t need to seek out alternatives until they are at a relatively advanced level of training (unless, of course, you are taking bad advice).
This is the system that has worked for me personally, as well as nearly every one of the people I have advised in the past decade.
Get to it!
Practical Examples: Theory and step-by-step systems are nice and all, but has this ever worked before? Of course it has!
My Squat Story
When I was first getting into lifting I would go into the gym and load up the squat rack with what seemed to be a reasonable amount of weight.
I would get under the bar, back away from the rack and perform the ugliest squats known to man. After that, I spoke to some people, watched some videos and kept trying for a few months without much guidance.
I wasn’t able to get past about 180 lbs. and boy were they painful.
When I applied this system, I realized my goal was to do a 300 lbs. back squat, then read the best book that I could find on the subject (Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe). In that book, Rippetoe makes the biggest form flaws very clear and explains how to overcome these problems.
He also explains how to progress from 95 lbs to 125 lbs and so on.
Once I got started, I stopped reading about the squat unless something felt wrong, and then would only go back to Starting Strength so that I got all my information from one place. Over the course of 6 months, I went from 95 lbs. to 305 lbs.
Dan R.’s Handstand Story
Dan R. was one of the first people to use my method for achieving the handstand. Here is an email that I received from him before he got started:
“Right now I cannot do a freestanding handstand. I work on handstands about 5 days a week. I kick up to the wall, facing out and hold, taking one foot off the wall at a time. Then, I practice L-stand, to build strength. I can only hold for about ten seconds max, shooting for a minute. From video I take, I can see that my hollow body position when inverted has problems. I tend to arch my back, so I don’t stack right. I’m starting to have my kids spot me when I’m facing away from the wall so I can get rid of the arch.
BTW, I’m 58, and I never learned to do a handstand as a kid.”
Dan sounds a lot like Jim from earlier in this article, doesn’t he?
It turns out Dan had purchased several books and watched several videos for various bodyweight skills and was trying to apply all of that information at once. He took my advice and started cutting out the extraneous information. He focused on just taking another small step that had already been effective for dozens of other people.
And what was the result?
“I think I’ve made more progress in the last week than I made in the last year.”
Within days, Dan achieved his first 60-second wall handstand and made huge progress on his first pirouette bail.
Is that because I put together the PERFECT handstand course?
There are a million and one ways for people to hit their goals, and I love that. But, there is something to be said for staying on course, and ignoring things that may derail you.
Embrace Progress, Ignore Noise
I think its important to have convictions in this world.
Once you identify a good program and stick with it you actually find that most of the noise melts away. You feel laser focused when you can tick your goals off your list and start progressing. Once the progress wanes, though, reevaluate your goals.
Ignore the noise and focus on the best materials that will get you where you want to be.
It’s amazing that ignoring so much can produce dramatic results.
About Chris Salvato
Chris first learned handstands, backflips and dozens of other impressive gymnastic feats as an adult, and has since helped thousands of other adults make progress on impressive skills that they never thought possible.
image credit: Scientific American