Scott H Young

My Elusive Quest to Complete a Handstand Pushup


Photo by Rick McCharles

I’m taking a break from my normal rants on mastery, adventure and the pursuit of the ideal life to talk about a side-pursuit of mine for the last few years: bodyweight fitness.

What is Bodyweight Fitness?

If you’ve ever done a push-up or chin up you’ve already experienced a bodyweight exercise. Unlike strength training with weights, bodyweight exercises do exactly that–they use your body’s weight to create resistance and build strength.

I’ve had normal strength training exercises as part of my workout routine for awhile now. But while strength training tends to focus on increasing the weight used, bodyweight exercises tend to increase in difficulty by changing the form of the exercise.

So, as an example, a typical strength training exercise is the benchpress. The major way to increase challenge on this is to just add more weight. Such as, going from 100 lbs to 200 lbs.

With bodyweight exercises, since weights are rarely involved, this option isn’t usually available. As a result, the form of the exercise is modified to make it more difficult to perform. Such as going from pushups to clap pushups to one-arm pushups to one-arm clapping pushups.

Why Go With Bodyweight Training?

Because it’s fun. Honestly, that’s the major reason I’ve started integrating it into my workout routine. It offers an interesting challenge, particularly when my strength levels have reached a plateau after years of exercise.

Some side benefits I’ve noticed from the practice is an increase in functional strength. That is, I find the benefits of bodyweight exercise translate more easily outside of the gym. Functional strength itself is a popular fitness movement, with the main goal being optimizing strength for practical activities.

Another side effect has been improved flexibility and core strength. These are two areas I would often neglect when lifting weights which are important for overall fitness.

I believe bodyweight exercises also help avoid the “gym physique” problem from excessive training on a few major muscles.

Although physical appearance isn’t my main reason for exercising, I like to joke that I spend time in the gym to look like I spent time playing sports. I think bodyweight fitness, employing more minor muscles in a variety of exercises, makes that easier.

Beast Skills – Or Cool Tricks to Impress Your Friends

A friend sent me a link to this website, which has a great summary of bodyweight fitness in general and gives detailed tutorials to perform some impressive physical feats.

Part of the reason I’ve enjoyed bodyweight fitness is that it is very satisfying to complete a particular exercise for the first time. Although reaching weight goals (bench pressing 200 lbs, deadlifting 300lbs, etc.) are satisfying, they are difficult to sustain and are approached by degrees.

Bodyweight skills, in contrast, often come all at once, after perfecting easier skills, and tend to stay with you after they are first achieved. I’ve reached my maximum benchpress of 175lbs several times, only to fall back after a training setback. However, after finally achieving a one-arm pushup once, I’m now able to do it easily and consistently.

What I’m Training, And Why I Don’t Care How Fast I Reach It

As with the title of this post, my main skill I’ve been working on is a handstand pushup. I can get over 5 in a row, provided I’m supported by a wall. The real difficulty with this skill hasn’t been the pushup part, but the handstand part, and I’ve had to do a lot of work on my balance and wrist strength.

Some of the skills I’ve completed in the past are wide leg one-arm pushups, elbow lever, L-seats, pistol squat and jumping one-leg squats. A few I’ve been training but haven’t reached are:

  • One arm chin ups
  • Freestyle handstand pushups (no wall)
  • Narrow leg one-arm pushups

However all of these goals are just for fun. I’ve learned that having too many goals, too many commitments and priorities is just as bad (or even worse) as not having any. Putting pressure on myself to reach these targets wouldn’t only distract from my more important goals, but it might even take out some of the fun I have in pursuing them.

Mastery as a Side Dish

I’ve spent a lot of time writing in the last few weeks about mastery. Mastery of valuable skills is not only a key ingredient to a successful professional life, but also to a successful personal one. Being good at things matters.

Putting pressure on yourself in one or two areas of mastery also makes sense. Goals allow us to focus and work harder. Maybe more importantly, it allows us to work longer on a problem, not giving up when we stumble.

But just as the pursuit of skill is important as a main course, it can also be a side dish. You can work to become good at things without goal setting or added pressure. Striving without pressure may not yield the fastest improvements, but it can often be the most fun.


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11 Responses to “My Elusive Quest to Complete a Handstand Pushup”

  1. Travis says:

    “I’ve learned that having too many goals, too many commitments and priorities is just as bad (or even worse) as not having any.”
    Wise words. Setting too many goals can seriously detract from the potential for fun.

    Once you start goal-setting, it can be tempting to apply that mindset to every arena of life, including those that might be better served without them. Of course, there is also a big difference between saying, “I’m going to perform exercise X 10 times” and writing down said goal, putting a date on it, and then crying when it doesn’t happen.

    As for the push-up, you’ll get there. You might try incorporating some yoga headstands/handstands into your workout to build balance.

  2. Ben Weston says:

    I love this quest! As a circus acrobat, I agree in that you should narrow your focus. A lot of people will try to get 7 different bodyweight skills and end up getting no where. Focus on one and you’ll get it that much more quickly. How are you working on your balance and wrist strenght?

    One resource that has helped me a lot has been gymnasticsbodies.com and the accompanying youtube site.

    Good luck!
    Ben

  3. Congrats on how far you’ve gotten thus far; I think bodyweight training is something I’d like to try after my powerlifting competition.

    I completely agree with your thoughts on mastery as a side dish. We should always strive to improve; no matter whether we devote an hour a day or an hour a month to the activity. Trying, and the attitude of improvement is habitual. That’s different than boxing yourself into a goal for every activity.

  4. Scott Young says:

    Travis,

    I think intelligent goal-setting is a must, but I know myself, and I know that I tend to accomplish less when I am completely free of goals. Having some goals provide a structure and mental push forward. This is a long topic though, so I may work it into a blog article.

    -Scott

  5. Craig Thomas says:

    Nice aim. Personally, I’d be happy jogging a mile let alone a handstand push-up. :)

  6. SDK says:

    I’m looking to add more functional strength training to my workout routine. Any nice links of routines or exercises for a newbie to this?

  7. Adam Welch says:

    Scott. Stop using the wall. Just push off and try to stabilize it. I’m impressed that you can do 5 in the wall, but very unimpressed that you are still on the wall. That sounds like you want puffy shoulders more than you want stability in your life, I mean workout. :) Puffy vs. stability lol, an interesting notion.

  8. Scott Young says:

    Adam,

    Well, considering I come from a weight lifting, as opposed to a gymnastic background, the strength aspect was the area my body was most conditioned toward. I believe the first time I attempted the handstand pushup I got 3 in a row.

    I have been working on my handstand by using the wall as a backup and completing a handstand a few inches away from the wall. However, my successful balancing times is only around 15 seconds, and although I can sometimes get one handstand pushup in before falling into the wall or back down, usually I can’t.

    When it gets nicer outside and less soggy, I may start going to a field to practice where I won’t destroy my apartment trying to do handstands without the aid of a wall.

    -Scott

  9. Hi Scott,

    Nice work on the handstand push-ups so far! If you can have someone hold your legs, instead of just pushing off the wall, it may help make the transition easier. Kind of like teaching a kid to ride a bike. You hold on to make the bike more stable and remove the fear of falling aspect, and then gradually loosen and lighten your grasp until they are riding on their own!

    Good luck,

    Jon

  10. Johnny Mean says:

    Read up on Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline

    http://www.amazon.com/Naked-Warrior-Pavel-Tsatsouline/dp/0938045555

    He is a Master-of Sport. A rare title indeed from Russia.

    His methods work and are very effective.

    Your core strength and neuro-muscular activation and will be key for these tasks.

  11. VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVV says:

    master of sport title is not rare. everybody who won regionals gets the title.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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