Saturday, 15 January 2011

Motivation: The Snowball

Motivation for a task is like a giant ball of snow. When at rest for too long it becomes very difficult to get it moving again. A lot of force is required to overcome its inertia. Once it begins rolling however, it is self perpetuating. It grows larger and larger as it picks up more size and speed and its power will charge you.

So why do we fail once we've decided to learn, do or quit something? Surely anything is possible with a giant snowballing dose of motivation? Let's look at some of the reasons why we lose motivation and at what I believe are the three most important rules in avoiding such loss.

The Keys of Motivation

1) Gradual progression
2) Perceived advancement
3) Camaraderie

The concept of progression is one of the cornerstones of strength training. It is also important that the impetus of our motivation is directed in a controlled and disciplined way or else it will burn out.

Often people apply motivation with the wrong mentality. A sudden burst of motivation, derived from the coming of a new year for example, is often consumed too quickly as the person leaps into a new training regime or discipline at full pace. We've all been guilty of it whether it's deciding that we're going to run ten miles a day, or never going to eat a particular food again. The snowball never has time to pick up enough speed to overcome the inevitable difficulties of such strict and draining regimes before they begin to take their toll.

There is no good that can come of two to three weeks of intensive training or abstinence ending in a return to the norm. The prior puts us at risk of injury, fatigue and inefficiency in other areas of our lives. The latter often leads to the all too common "reward binge".

Instead we should start slowly in our training to allow our bodies to adapt to what is often a completely new field. Gradually phasing a food out of dominence in our diet is far more likely to be successful than going cold turkey from the start. Starting a training program slowly gives our bodies time to adjust to the new training and reduces the likelihood of injury. Never approach a new task at a sprint. The more worthwhile tasks are sizeable enough that such a sprint will only induce an all to early "I quit". Instead the progressive method will allow you to adapt to new challenges as the difficulties are incrementally increased.

Which leads me onto Perceived Advancement. If there's one thing that's true about motivation, it's that it will run dry if we don't perceive ourselves to be advancing in some way. Whether it's drummed into us through our social conditioning or already present in our genetic makeup, we need to continue to recognise some form of progress in order to justify the difficulties.

But what if we no longer experience progression? What if we stagnate? The answer to this is simple; when a training programme is no longer resulting in progression, it needs to be altered. Try new methods to achieve your targets instead of sticking with methods that don't yield any results. A warning however.. Individual training sessions will often fluctuate. Sometimes you will perform worse on a given day than on an average session weeks before. This is natural. Detach your self worth and your feelings of progress and achievement from the outcomes of a particular session, even several sessions. There are many variables which influence the way our body functions at any given time and these are mostly beyond our control.

One of the best ways to bolster the feeling of advancement is to set short term goals. My opinions on the best techniques for setting goals can be found here but I will summarise my three key points below. Goals should be:

1) Easily measured
2) Focused on building weaknesses
3) Achievable in a short timescale

If you can't measure a goal then you will have a hard time accurately measuring improvement. Your weaknesses will usually be faster to improve than your strengths and will often open up new possibilities in improveing elsewhere. If a goal takes too long to achieve, it's easy to lose motivation before the target is reached. Break bigger goals down into smaller chunks that can be achieved in a shorter timescale. Following these steps, you should find yourself passing milestone after milestone, each one augmenting your motivation and pushing you onward to further growth.

Camaraderie is perhaps the easiest for most of us to relate to. We've all worked in a job we hated but found ourselves feeling positive about the day ahead due to good working relationships. Having others whose company we enjoy enduring the work with us makes it easier to bear. Training with a partner generates a mutually motivating relationship in which recipricol support and good natured competition will encourage a more powerful drive for all involved. As mentioned earlier, camaraderie is not limited to training alone but to all tasks in which a lack of motivation could cause one to lose sight of the reasons for starting.

Whether we respond to gentle encouragement or tough love; the competitive edge or the comrade in arms; two people engaged in pursueing the same task are often more successful than one.

So grab a friend, set some goals and start taking the little steps towards whatever it is that inspires you. Don't quit at the first hurdle or even at the twentieth. You knew there would be many and without them your goals would lack value. Take your time and celebrate the small achievements as much as the large. With a steady and progressive approach, anything can be achieved.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A Friendly Competition

I haven't posted for a while and am well overdue for a training status update. However, training hasn't been great since I moved to Queenstown, New Zealand and the party capital has taken it's toll on my disciplined training.

As a motivational kick, I have decided to learn a new skill now that the handstand  straddle press is basically there. The skill is The Breakdance Flare.

But in the absence of any training partners (everyone here is too drunk at 5am when I get off work and start training) my motivation for such a task could do with a boost. So I have issued a challenge to fellow handbalancer Tor-Martin from to see which of us can learn the flare first. Friendly competition is a fantastic drive for learning a new skill and I'm already looking forwards to my next session working it.

For the purpose of the competition, "Learning the Flare" will be defined as five complete rotations from the start position without touching the ground or retracting a leg.

Good luck Tor!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Training Status Update 5 - The Fruit Of Labour


The Handstand Push Up

It's now been ten weeks since I began training the handstand push up and progress is fairly steady. Each session lasts one hour so I allow plenty of rest (five to six minutes) between sets. I kick up into handstand where my spotter holds me in position and counts reps as I do the push ups. He checks for proper straight backed form and disregards bad reps.

I began just doing them on the floor so that the bottom of the rep is where my head touches the ground. In the last few weeks I've extended the range of motion (ROM) by raising my hands. On this basis, I measure increased ROM in the admittedly dubious unit of "Childrens Encyclopedia Britannica" whereby +2 corresponds to 2 books beneath my hands. This raising of the hands extends the range of motion by giving the head longer to travel before the ground stops it.

I now begin each session with a normal set on the ground and then proceed to do the following nine sets with increased ROM. When I am able to do ten repetitions with 2 books, I will add another 2 books and continue with the same pattern.

Thanks to this training I am now able to push up into handstand without a spot in a variety of different positions. I still can't do three consecutive reps though which is the criteria for ticking it off my list.

The Handstand Straddle Press

This one is pretty much in the bag, I will post a video shortly. I can usually do it when I'm fresh now but need to fine tune the techique.

The Iron Cross

Just practising regularly on the rings to condition the elbows. It's feeling more stable each session.This one is going to continue to take a while.  

Friday, 18 June 2010

Back-swing into Handstand

I've recently been playing around on the parallel bars on days where my elbows need a rest from the rings. I recently managed to achieve the back-swing into handstand in the gym. Yesterday, I found myself training a friend at the outdoor training area in Primrose Hill, London and thought I'd attempt it on the P-bars there.

I expected to be intimidated to go up into handstand without being completely surrounded by crash mats as I've become accustomed to... in fact it felt completely natural.

Sorry about the video quality, it was taken on a phone.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Handstand

I've been practicing the handstand solidly for a while now and am making slow but steady progress.

The basics of the position are relatively easy to learn but it feels like one of those things that take a lifetime to master.

I found one site particularly useful in building up the basic posture and body positioning. Jim Balhurst's Beast Skills is a site jam packed full of tutorial
s for a variety of bodyweight feats including the One armed pull up, the front lever, the human flag, the true one handed push up and of course the handstand. All tutorials have gradual progressions to build towards your goal and are illustrated with colour photographs.

While I've been learning, I've also tried my hand at teaching a few others how to handstand. It is through this and my own practice that I've put together some fundamental points in holding a handstand. Note: Many of these are already mentioned in the sites above but as they are extremely common mistakes I feel it's worth stressing the point.

Tips to an improved handstand

Use a shoulder Width hand placement: One of the things I've noticed is that people -especially men with built shoulders due to the reduced flexibility- seem to like to place their hands quite wide apart from each other. Before I started practicing them regularly, this is how I was doing it too.

The first time that I placed my hands at the relatively narrow shoulder width, I was shocked at how much easier holding the handstand felt. I believe the reason for this is that your centre of gravity follows a much straighter line with the hands tucked in by the ears. Widen your hand placement too far and you'll find holding the handstand significantly harder. The problem is that a wider grip feels more natural to most people. If your shoulder flexibility is limiting you, try Shoulder dislocates which will improve your ability to hold a handstand with a shoulder width hand placement.


2) Good posture is paramount: There's more value in a five second handstand with good posture than a ten second handstand maintained by walking on your hands, bending elbows and piking hips. Focus always on attaining balance, not greater time spent on your hands.

  • Open out your shoulders - Push the ground away from you and pull your shoulders right back behind your ears.
  • Keep your elbows locked straight - You can rescue a failing handstand by bending your elbows but this can easily become a bad habit and will only impede your progress.
  • The head must remain neutral - remain looking at hands rather than in front of you as this may cause your back to arch.
  • Keep your core and lower back tensed - Some conditioning for each may be required if you're constantly bending at this point which is common.
  • Tuck your hips - I never understood what people meant when they said this. The best way to explain it is to tense your glutes as tightly as possible. I also imagine that I'm pushing the sky away from me with my legs. This keeps your hips in line with your back.
  • Legs must stay together - Accomplished hand balancers can split their legs and maintain balance but as a beginner, it will only make it harder to hold.
  • Point your toes - I always forget this. I feel like it helps me maintain a straight body position when I do it though.
  • Walking is cheating - If you're trying to hold a static handstand but you're walking on your hands to balance, you're failing. I trained myself out of this one by handstanding on a low wall. On a wall, the last thing your mind will let you do is walk.   
WARNING: Make sure your pirouette from handstand is good and that you're confident doing it from an elevated platform before trying the wall handstand. For gods sake, don't try to forward roll out of a handstand on a wall... I'm told it hurts.

Time spent working on good posture is an investment and will yield far greater returns.

3) Practice on different surfaces: Until just recently, I had worked exclusively on hard floors like concrete, wood and even my tiled kitchen floor. It made me feel pretty good when people commented on how good my "head" must be to handstand on hard surfaces and so I continued doing so, blissfully ignorant of my developing over-specialisation.

However; every time I ended up hand balancing in a park on some grass, my handstands failed after a fraction of the time whilst those who feared concrete would outshine me. Each time I told myself that it was just a bad session and would subconsciously avoid uneven surfaces like grass as much as possible. I've finally started practicing on grass and hills etc. and have made enormous improvements. The only way to master the handstand is to develop proficiency in a variety of situations.

Hard surfaces help with posture and quickly teach you how to pirouette, uneven surfaces give you a greater versatility of balance and a better understanding of the handstand. You may also find that harder surfaces are more responsive to adjustments made through the fingers as they don't yield like softer surfaces do.

Practice everywhere!

4) Video yourself: Record yourself balancing as often as possible. Not only will you be able to monitor your progress, you'll be able to better analyse why your handstands are failing and how best to improve them. 

In fact; if you send me a link to a video of yourself in a handstand, I'd be happy to give you my opinion.

5) Feel it: No this one isn't a space filler. The most important method of improvement for me -greater even than a video- has been a gradual improvement in my physical understanding of what makes a handstand work. Knowing why your handstand failed by actually feeling it will help you better apply the correct technique in future. Try to literally feel each part of your body while you're inverted and build up a mental map of the relative positions of each component during your successful attempts. Spend some time focused on specific body areas and actions (like pointing the toes) and remember how it felt so that you can bring it all together later.

This takes time but will eventually teach you to rescue a failing handstand by altering your body position.

Finally, never let yourself believe that your handstand is perfect, there are always ways in which you can improve it. As soon as you let yourself believe that you have mastered something, you close yourself off to further learning.

On that note, if you can offer any recommendations on how I could improve my own handstand -see video- I would gladly hear them!

Friday, 28 May 2010

Training Status Update 4 - Five Weeks In

Just over a month ago, I set myself three goals in which I want to focus. Here is my progress thus far. In the diagram below, the numbers represent repetitions per set of HeSPU and reps in which my back arched were not added to the total. Volume is the reps per session:

Full Range Handstand Push Up (HSPU)

My goal here was to go back to basics and practice the Headstand Push Up (HePU) with very strict form until I was able to complete ten reps. From there my goal would be to increase the range of motion (by raising the hands progressively on books) until I'm able to perform the HSPU.

Note: A HeSPU is a push up from handstand with the hands on the ground while the HSPU is the same thing on parallets so that you can go much deeper. The latter is many times harder.
 I have only been doing one session a week and became injured between the 7th and 18th of May but the volume increase has been high. I aim to reach ten reps in a couple of sessions.

Handstand Straddle Press

I actually managed to do this a few times over the last month but still lack consistency. I've been working on the eccentric (negative) version in order to build up control and progress is almost as steady as the handstand push up.

Iron Cross

With the two week injury of my shoulder, (falling off the parallel bars while swinging back into handstand) I've made stagnant progress in the Iron Cross. I'm feeling more motivated than ever to achieve it though and have a few new techniques to try out so watch this space.


I'm learning the back handspring and managed to get it on the sprung floor with a spotter and on the soft mats without one. Tumbling's never been my strength but now I'm spending much more time doing gymnastics and feel it's time to remedy this.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Training Status Update 3 - Three Simple Goals

So, I've been back from Borneo for one month now and have made the single biggest change to my training in seven years... I've stopped climbing.

Simply put, I've had far too many active goals for too long. By "active" I mean goals which I am currently training for. As well as the goals on my list, many climbing oriented goals began finding their way into my program e.g 1-5-9 on the campus board. Combined with a busy competition season, my irregular gymnastics training was reduced to a weekly session for which I was already fatigued.

The problem with too many active goals is that your body soon suffers from overtraining. Sessions on fatigued muscles contribute nothing to your strength training goals and result in a lower training volume and lower training effect than training on fresh muscles.

To prevent stagnation, I decided to focus on just two items from my list and one item that I believe to be a necessary stepping stone to achieve the planche. They are:

1) The Iron Cross (back to training with a vengeance)

2) The Full range Handstand Push Up
3) The Handstand Straddle Lift

The Iron Cross, I've been working for a while and will continue to do so. I aim to reach my previously highest level within one more month. 

The full range handstand push up itself is not on the list but will translate to the easier free-standing variant nicely. Finally; the handstand straddle lift has been a side goal I've been working for a while without much progress. Incidentally, after a month of focused training, I achieved it yesterday. (Sloppily).

I will continue to improve upon it and will post a video in the next few weeks. I recently managed a one minute handstand too.