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LIFE

Can you do a perfect handstand? Health editor gives herself 5 weeks to learn

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2015, 6:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2015, 6:26am

Want to gauge how strong your body really is? Put those chunky weights down and get inverted: do a handstand.

Pulling off this fundamental gymnastics position requires excellent strength and stability in your shoulders, core and gluteal muscles, and a sharp sense of body awareness and balance, says Pure Fitness gymnastic movement coach Amy Ridge.

Holding a gymnastics handstand, where the body is in a perfect straight line with no arch in the lower back, requires a conscious effort to tense the entire body.

"It's very important to engage all the muscles and make the body one unit," says Ridge, who has been involved in gymnastics for about two decades. Fail to do so and you'll flop.

Being able to do a handstand lays a solid foundation for other exercises and aids all-round athletic development.

A combination of finesse and strength, it also just looks darn cool. And that's why holding a perfect handstand has been on my bucket list - among other things like have a baby (check - 11 months ago), master French (long way to go) and open a bakery (still a dream).

So, taking advantage of the gymnastics area at Pure Fitness' newest outlet at California Tower in Lan Kwai Fong, I've embarked on a handstand challenge under the guidance of Ridge, who coached gymnastics in her native Britain for more than 10 years.

The goal: to hold a handstand for five seconds after five weeks of training. (Ridge can hold a handstand for one minute "on a good day".)

Handstand challenges, where participants learn to do the move according to a progressive protocol over a fixed period of time, are becoming popular in the fitness world.

"In the past year, handstand challenges seem to have dramatically increased," says Ridge.

A main reason for this, she says, is that body-weight and functional-style training - which include handstands - are among the hottest fitness trends currently. Another wildly popular regiment, the intense strength and conditioning programme known as CrossFit, has also led to more people practising handstands.

According to Eugene "Bo" Babenko, a doctor of physical therapy and a renowned CrossFit coach, "The fitter you are, the more you can control your body, and the more prepared you are for the unexpected." Few skills hone these qualities as well as a handstand, he says in an article on health website Greatist.com

"Handstands are more than just a showpiece. They're a fantastic strength skill that pays off in increased strength, balance, and mobility," says Al Kavadlo, an expert in body-weight strength training and calisthenics in New York.

Many of history's strongest and most sculpted bodies, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and the late Jack Lalanne, swore by the handstand as a key exercise for building their physiques. After my first training session with Ridge, I realised why.

Just learning and holding the correct body shape for the handstand - while standing or lying down - was enough to induce quivering and cramps in my muscles, raise my heart rate and cause me to break into a sweat.

In the perfect handstand position, the arms reach upwards with elbows locked, shoulders shrugged and deltoids touching the ears.

The pelvis is tilted forward by squeezing the glutes, tensing the thigh muscles and tucking the tail bone under - the butt shouldn't be sticking out. Working the lower abdominals, the belly button should be pulled in towards the spine.

This allows the spine, in particular the lower back, to be elongated and as straight as possible. If you're holding this position while lying down or against a wall, there should not be a gap between your back and the ground or wall.

Maintaining rock solid total body tension in this so-called "hollow body position" is essential to handstand success, and is also the foundation of other gymnastics moves.

But first, a warm-up. Ridge took me through some basic support drills that focused on stretching and strengthening the wrist and shoulders, and preparing the joints, muscles and ligaments to carry my body weight.

These drills consisted of holding the hollow body position while doing all sorts of plank variations: face-up, face-down, walking, extended, and so on.

We also did some stretches to increase range of motion in the shoulders. Tight shoulders and poor posture, common among desk-bound office workers, are no good for handstands.

After getting warm and loose, we moved onto a circuit of nine exercises that exploited the handstand position while standing up and lying down. Mastering these exercises is essential before you can hold a handstand.

Three exercises were standing variations of the handstand position. These were easy enough and Ridge said I held the positions well.

Three others involved the front support (or plank). These were more challenging but still achievable. I particularly enjoyed the long front support with feet on the wall, because it was halfway to a handstand.

A further two exercises involved the tuck position while balancing on the hands with some leg support: the tuck top planche on an elastic band and the tuck handstand on a block. These sent a rush of blood to the head and cramps through my arms and abs.

The one exercise done while lying down was called the dish - so called because that's the shape the body forms, with shoulders and legs off the ground.

Using the abdominal muscles, the back should be flat on the ground.

Of the entire circuit, the dish was my only nemesis.

Maintaining rock solid total body tension in this so-called “hollow body position” is essential to handstand success, and is also the foundation of other gymnastics moves

I just couldn't lift my legs without a hollow in my back. Usually, this indicates weak abs, but Ridge says that's probably not in my case since I can do the other exercises well. She suggested I have weak hip flexors and recommended some strengthening exercises.

The hip flexors are a group of muscles in the pelvic region that help drive the knees up. As a runner, working on my hip flexors will also improve my form and avoid a range of lower-leg running injuries.

In fact, handstand practice is a great complement to running training and other sporting endeavours, Ridge says, because it improves body awareness.

"Body awareness is a big part of doing a handstand. Being upside down is not natural - it takes time for the body to tune in," she says.

When you're more in-tune with your body, you're in better control of your body.

Ridge says my handstand goal is achievable, but I'll have to practise at least five times a week on my own. Thankfully, these weekly progress reports in the SCMP will keep me motivated.