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Handstand

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Becoming more ninja

Some of you may just assume that I practise a lot and that I’m already quite ninja. This is true, but only to a certain extent. I practise a lot less than I have done, even though more structure and more coherence have made me stronger today than I’ve ever been before. This is what I do now in terms of physical activity:

  • Gymnastics, twice a week, roughly three hours each time
  • Occasional workout in the gym, perhaps a few hours per month
  • Diving, three or four times a month, approximately two hours

If we sum this up, it becomes roughly 36 hours a month or 9 hours a week. I think I’ve practised more than twice that amount a couple of years ago, so this doesn’t really count as very much (although I realise that it’s above average, but as usual, I compare only with myself, not with others). Also, take into consideration that some of this time is horrendously inefficient. It’s not as if I spend the three hours practising gymnastics doing handstand push-ups, no, I’m more likely to discuss said push-ups with a friend or simply chat.

A solid foundation, but no ninja yet

This is a solid foundation, but I do think there are some things lacking. I could identify more than two things, although I will limit myself in this post. Since I intend to spend more time in these two areas, they have to be fairly restricted and adding other areas will have to wait. These are the first two steps on my ninja course:

  • Become more flexible
  • Get good at handstand

The first area is quite self-explanatory, even though some introduction might be necessary. To begin with, I’m already quite flexible when it comes to the movements important for diving (such as pike). I’m also okay in some other areas, but the problem is that I completely suck at everything which involved bending backwards. This includes hip flexors, shoulders and abs, which are all too tight and stiff. Changing this takes practise over time, and even though I have improved, I’m not satisfied. Therefore, I pledge to spend at least 15 minutes/day stretching, with one day off a week. Stretching can be of any kind and of any muscle.

The second area might seem more puzzling. I can quite easily stand absolutely still on my hands for a minute, go from handstand to elbow-lever, do handstand push-ups and so on. This misses the point, however. I could do all these things a year ago as well. Simply put, having reached this level, I won’t advance if I don’t pay particular attention to handstand. I really like this kind of practise, so there is no reason I shouldn’t. So, to improve my handstand, I pledge to spend at least 15 minutes a day on my hands, also with one day off each week. This time should be interpreted loosely, I don’t meant 15 minutes effective time on my hands (i.e., I will count rests between sets and so on).

Encouragement and reporting

I’d appreciate any help and any encouragement, but remember that I don’t really need it now, but in a week or so. How about asking me regularly how things are going? I will probably write something about this later, but in the meantime any help is appreciated!

 

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A couple of weeks ago I finished the second steady state cycle (read more here if you don’t know what a steady state cycle is) and thus the time has come both to evaluate the results from that cycle, as well as introduce the next cycle. First, let us have a look at the exercises from the second cycle, which can be found is this document.

Evaluation of the second cycle

I’ve made significant progress with these exercises, moving from an average performance of 1.5/5 (meaning that I could finish around half of the exercises properly) to 3.5/5 (between “barely made it” and “very good”). Some exercises have seen little progress, such as planche and l-sit (no change at all and one point respectively). The performance of other exercises has changed drastically, most notably front lever (from 1/5 to 5/5) and headstand leg raises (from 1/5 to 4/5).

I also took the opportunity to do some benchmarking. There are two problems with these figures, and it’s very likely that they should be somewhat higher than shown above. Firstly, I had been ill for about a week before these exercises were tested and I had not recovered one hundred percent. Second, the weather here in Taiwan is getting hotter all the time, thus making it more and more demanding to do physical workout. As for the planche standstill, this might be explained by the fact that the form is gradually improving, resulting in a more demanding exercise and thus shorter times. Here are the numbers for this cycle (and the two cycles prior to this, within brackets):

Chin-ups: 21 (24, 16)
HS push-ups (wall)l: 13 (11, 5)
Adv. tuck front lever: 58 (51, N/A)
Adv. tuck planche: 36 (36, 24)
Handstand: 186 (N/A, N/A)
L-sit: 36 (N/A, N/A)
One-arm hang (right): 27 (N/A, N/A)
One-arm hang (left): 15 (N/A, N/A)

Presentation of the third cycle

As before, a detailed version of the program can be found here, along with notes I make continuously noting my progress over the weeks.

The third cycle will be similar to the second in many regards, mostly because I have the same goals as before. Planche and front lever proceeds according to plan, albeit very slowly to avoid injury. Chin-ups and and handstand push-ups look very much the same as before, but with increased difficulty and increased repetitions respectively. There is a greater focus on handstands, since I have added ten minutes of free handstands per week (accumulated time, usually in sets of one minute or something similar).

Regarding the legs/core section, things will change a bit more, even though the pistol remains the same (but with increased repetitions) as does the standing ab wheel, which I haven’t fully mastered yet. The two new exercises are the middle split hold, a progression towards the manna (which feels about one lifetime away) and wall climbs. These are here because I wanted to increase back flexibility and because I was bored with l-sit. I’m not sure if I like any of these exercises yet, but I should know in a couple of weeks.

In addition to this, I have added dynamic stretching to the leg/core sessions. Nothing fancy, but I want to start developing flexibility again and I feel that the time is now. I will also do static or isometric stretching in connection to the same sessions. I have also increased the dynamic stretching in the warm-up, which should at least maintain current flexibility in the upper body.

As I publish this, I have finished the first two weeks of the program and I can tell you it’s a lot harder than I thought. I’m considering backing down on the chins and some of the other exercises, perhaps going from five sets to three. It takes me ages to finish a complete session, not because I’m lazy, but simply because I need the rest.

A problem with efficiency

Although I’m in general very satisfied with my training right now, there is a specific problem that have grown inexorably all the time, namely that of efficiency. If I do my workout at home, there is a tendency to increase resting times, especially as the exercises grow harder and harder. Having a computer nearby makes it easy to procrastinate, which sometimes means that a session may take as long as two hours. It’s not the case that I rest too much between sets, but rather that I take too long breaks between completely different exercises.

I see three ways to get around this problem:

  1. I can simply disconnect from the Internet while studying, since this will enable me to do more useful things when resting (such as revising Chinese characters, an excellent choice because it works just fine even with intervals of just a few minutes.
  2. I can try to contract the entire session, leading to a much more demanding workout, perhaps too demanding.
  3. I can try to practice more outdoors, which means that there are less distractions and it’s easier too focus, but which is impractical if it rains heavily or it’s too hot.

Of these three solutions, I think the first one has by far the most potential. I don’t mind spending a long time on my sessions, but I hate wasting an entire evening without getting anything else done. Making sure I do something useful would remove the frustration, although the problem with protracted sessions would still remain.

Conclusion

Things are moving in the right direction, but somewhat slowly. I feel that I should focus more on exercises I enjoy, such as handstands. The good thing with having a wide variety of exercises is that there is always some area that develops rapidly, even if others might slow down temporarily. I feel that planche and front lever are moving very slowly, but that might also be an advantage and a way to avoid injury.

I have said it before, but I want to reiterate that this form of training program suits me very well. I think this is the first time in my life I’ve been able to stick to a fairly regular schedule for more than six months. I feel that I can keep on going like this for a very long time, because the separation into cycles makes it easier to verify progress and break the monotony that otherwise might creep in after a couple of months. If you haven’t already tried it out, do so!

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It was a while ago now I started relying on what Coach Sommer calls a “Steady State Cycle”, which basically means that one designs a workout problem which is quite demanding and then sticks with exactly the same exercises, repetitions and sets even after they begin to feel too easy, giving the body enough time to build the necessary strength before moving on to more the next, more demanding cycle.. For some reason, this kind of planning seems to work exceptionally well for me and I’ve been able to stick with a reasonably strict schedule for almost four months, much longer than any previous attempt to gain control of individual strength training (I wrote more about this when I finished the first cycle in February). I have soon completed five weeks out of at least eight on the second cycle, so that is what this post will be about.

Before I talk about the second cycle itself, I’d like to share with you some benchmarking I did between cycle one and two (I spent one week trying out maximum reps/duration for the exercises to have something to compare with later). These figures are worthless on their own and the goal here is not to show what I can do, but rather to show the difference between now and one cycle ago, and perhaps more importantly, to function as a reference for future similar checks. The only truly remarkable result is for the chin-ups, where I managed to make a 50% increase from 16 to 24 in two months without ever doing a set with more than three repetitions!

Exercise: After first cycle (before first cycle)
Chin-up: 24 (16)
HSPU wall: 11 (5)
Adv. tuck planche: 36 (24)
Adv. tuck front lever: 51 (N/A)

Having dealt with the benchmarking, let’s take a look at cycle two. Since most information is stored publicly (click here to see the document), I won’t restate anything already there. As can be seen, the second cycle is very similar to the first. There are some differences, mostly for the core/leg exercises because I’ve finally found a routine which covers what I want to cover without requiring anything else than a chin-up bar and an ab wheel. There is also a heavier focus on handstand this time, partly because I like the exercise, but also because I really want to accomplish that one hundred metres of handwalking I set up a long time ago.

In short, this is by far the most successful way of designing a program I’ve ever encountered. My guess is that it’s because it’s divided into manageable sections (eight to ten weeks) that the mind can handle easily. Setting a goal to do a certain routine for roughly two months is not a superhuman task, but setting the goal to do the same exercises with gradually increasing difficulty indefinitely is a lot more daunting. Focusing really hard on few selected exercises and then evaluating the result, designing a new program and moving on is a lot more realistinc, if not physically, then at least psychologically. If you’re interested in any of this, you can glean some information from my previous posts about steaty state training (or click here for a list of posts related to exercise), but more importantly, you should consult the coach himself, either by reading his book Building the Gymnastic Body or by checking out the forum.

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