There is magic in learning tricks.

I could (and likely will as time goes on) write pages upon pages about the gains to be had from practicing the handstand. In terms of developing physical qualities, it’s awesome. Simply looking at the position our bodies maintain when we handstand it becomes somewhat obvious that balance, control, mobility, stability, and strength can all be improved by this move. From a more mental/emotional perspective, handstands have much to offer as well: vanquishing the fear of crashing, or nullifying the uncomfortable sensation of being upside-down can have tremendous impact on what we know ourselves to be capable of. As impressive as this list gets, I have a more hidden benefit in mind.

To find the secret benefit of handstand training, let’s focus not on what you get out of handstand training, but instead on how you get it…

On the surface, the handstand is a trick. There are many people out there who will disagree with me on that description, but I mean it in the most positive sense. A trick to me is simply a cool skill, and skills have depth. What makes a skill so “deep” is the incredible approach we shift to when trying to learn a new one—mastery.

Mastery is where the magic happens.

Trying to master a skill before us, such as the handstand, changes how we think about the movement or position. All of a sudden we are not thinking in terms of effort or work being put in to achieve those fantastic physical and mental benefits listed above. Instead, we get immersed in the process of making whatever part of the skill we are practicing better, and all those gains happen as a pleasant byproduct alongside the development of the skill. This concept was first introduced to me by Shawn Mozen, who used it to describe how we can look at performing movements with kettlebells as skills, and reap the rewards as we practice (not coincidentally, his company, Agatsu Inc. got its namesake from the Japanese word for mastery). The perspective of skill mastery can be applied to weightlifting, ground-based mobility flows, and beyond. Do you play a sport? The same effect is present when you get all the health benefits your sport has to offer without particularly aiming to, while you were really focused on the skills and the game. Focusing on mastery of the material at hand effectively brings out the play from within the work.

Progressions of prerequisites that move toward a skill often contain huge variety, and this idea of mastery can be applied every step of the way. All you have to do is take whatever piece you are working on (big or small) and focus on the process of improving its quality. For example, here’s a prerequisite I like to use as a progression towards the handstand—the Tall Bear Crawl.

  • Try to make a straight line from your wrists, shoulders, spine, and hips. Legs can be a bit bent.
  • Step with your opposite arm and leg to move in various directions.
  • Practice moving from only your shoulders and hips and remember to BREATHE while upside-down!

This skill (which was first taught to me in this context by the folks over at GMB) may look overly simple, and due to this inherent simplicity, it’s a joy to learn. However, you can put a good deal of work into mastering this pattern by making it look and feel good. As you smooth it out, guess what? You just acquired a bit more control, mobility, strength, and all that good stuff we mentioned earlier. Did you pay a lot of attention to all that happening? Maybe. But I’d wager you were too busy putting energy into making the pattern nice to notice those other benefits.

The magic in tricks—and thus, the secret benefit of handstands—is their ability to mask the enormous effort you put into them beneath your enjoyment of the process of mastering them. As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that this doesn’t make everything easy. Learning skills like the handstand comes with numerous challenges and frustrations. However, having the goal of skill mastery will compel you to strive forward.

Why not occasionally treat some of your other lifts as “tricks” that can be mastered? Give it a try and let me know how this approach works for you!

Tyler Sellars  BHK, CFES CPT