I still sometimes wonder how it's possible to do a handstand in another persons hands. In acrobatics it's really just the beginning of everything. A magical basic.
For many the idea is totally foreign and crazy. Before my own journey with this skill started, I didn't believe, that stuff like that was possible for anyone but circus people and professional acrobats. But today thousands of amateurs learn hand to hand (H2H) safely in all the acrobatic communities in the world. I'm one of them.
In this post, I want to share the most important elements of standing H2H that I've learned on my acrobatic journey so far. It's not a full-blown tutorial (yet), but more of an overview over the principles, techniques and feelings I imagine a beginner would benefit most from reading about on their journey.
Let's begin with the name: It's called Standing Hand to Hand because the base i standing and because the flyers and bases hands are the only contact points. Many positions are named after which body parts are connected between base and flyer. The flyers body part is always named first. (Try to imagine these: Foot to Foot. Foot to Hand. Hand to Foot. Shin to Foot. Foot to Shin.)
To get an overview over the movement, lets break it down into three parts: The entry, the position, and the exit.
The entry normally happens from two man high, which means the flyer is standing on the bases shoulders. To get into the handstand, the base makes a tempo, that gives the flyer a push upwards. It's important that the flyer knows the bases tempo, so the jump can be timed accordingly. More on the tempo later on.
The position is a handstand in the bases hands. The most common is a straight or a straddle position for the flyer (legs together or appart), but there are many variations!
The exit is the critical phase because this is where accidents can happen, especially if the exit doesn't happen on purpose. The best scenario is when both base and flyer agree on when to exit, but the exit can be unwanted or surprising for one of or both partners. The most normal exit happens by landing feet first straight down on the ground next to the base, preferably AFTER the base has lowered the flyer considerably with the legs. One of the most common injuries for flyers are ankle problems from hard landings on uneven surfaces. The easiest way to reduce the risk is by training on an even floor and practicing controlled exits.
The most dangerous exit is head first. (That's why you always train with one or more spotters, until the risk is neglible!) This can happen if the flyers shoulders move too far forward relative to the wrists (the flyer "planches").
Therefore, it's important as a flyer to practice (and master) an entry to handstand on the floor that resembles the situation in the air: that the hands are placed right in front of the feet and that the jump happens with both legs simultaneously (fx tuck-up or straddle-up). If you don't feel comfortable with this, I would advise you not to try standing H2H yet!
Here you can see all the phases of a standing H2H. With this overview, lets dive into some of the most important details like the tempo and the qualities of each role.
The tempo is the first and most important ingredient in a good H2H. The tempo comes from the base, and consists only of bending and straightening the legs. Keep the arms still.
A good tempo is really half the work, because once your are in a weightbearing position, it's hard to correct your form. Bad tempos can be categorized into those that shoot the flyer too far and too short. If the flyer goes too far over, the base will have to walk or the spotter must catch. If the flyer isn't lifted up enough, the landing will happen either back to the bases shoulders or to the floor. The perfect tempo delivers the flyer into an alligned position without effort at all. You know the tempo is good when it feels extremely easy.
The key is to develop a common rhythm. Typically, a little calibration is needed before the partners are synchronized. In unsynchronized tempos, either the flyer will jump before the bases tempo is completed, or the base will give the tempo before the flyer is ready to react. It's easy to feel when it happens, because it feels all wrong.
PRO-TIP #1: Practice the tempo on the ground! Take a H2H-grip (see the pictures) with the flyer standing behind the base on the ground. The base does the tempo predictably and repeatedly as the flyer practices bending and straightening the legs synchronized with the base. The benefit of practicing tempos on the ground is that the base isn't tired out. Unless the base is really strong, practicing tempos with the flyer on top will take away strength for the H2H.
Predictability is an important quality in both the tempo and the rest of the movement. Trust builds on predictability. That's why it's important that everyone (bases, flyers, spotters) tries to be predictable for each other. The bigger the risk, the more important this becomes. Let's take a closer look at the individual roles. The following theory comes straight from years of training.
The bases prime quality is stability. The standing basing position requires good all-round strength and integrity, where the weight is carried in front of the chest (the front squat position, for those who lift). To have a sustainable basing career, remember to be mindful of your posture! (avoid excessive arching in the spine).
To support the flyer in the best way possible, the palms should have an angle between flat (parallel to the floor) and 45 degrees and the fingertips of the base should point straight back or in towards the head. (If the fingers point out to the sides, the flyers handstand will be inwardly rotated in the shoulders accordingly. Not nice.)
To achieve this, it can be smart to think about pressing the elbows forward and a bit out to the sides. Generally, it's important not to drop the elbows behind the line of the wrists, because this will invite the flyer to fall backwards.
Last, but not least, the base should try to stand still. Don't walk with you flyer if you can help it! It looks messy and uncontrolled, and guess what? It also IS messy and uncontrolled (unless it's on purpose...). Instead of walking, the base must learn to balance the flyer with the shoulders by moving the elbows forwards and back.
If the flyer is about to fall forwards (lands behind the base) the base should lift the hands higher and backwards under the flyers falling direction. The opposite rule applies toe the flyer falling backwards - but without dropping the elbows too far.
The flyer needs courage and surrender. You need to let go of the control you have in the handstand on the floor, and this can be hard for many. Paradoxically, it can be harder the better the handstand is.
Almost all the normal allignment-cues from handstands on floor still count in the air. The important exception is that the flyer shouldn't balance to much (with movements in shoulders and wrists, typically). The reason is, that the base will have to compensate for these corrections under the flyer. Another difference that often comes up is that the flyers allignment should allow the base to see the flyers feet. This makes it much easier to base. In practice, this is achieved by the base asking the flyer to pike just a little bit more (bending of the hips).
If the flyer is "like a stick", the base can continuously move the base of support under the flyers centre of gravity with less effort. The clearer the feeling of the flyers line is to the base, the easier it will be to regulate the balance with SMALL movements (in the shoulders), instead of big ones (walking, etc.)
Fight to always be ON TOP of the bases hands! The more comitted you are as a flyer, the safer it is to train! The danger is biggest if you hesitate don't commit.
The spotter is a third person, who makes the practice safe making small adjustments or by catching the flyer in case of a fall. You can be to spotters, but here I will adress solo-spotting. Say no to spotting if you don't feel able to create safety for everyone, including yourself! Here are the four most important situations I often encounter as a spotter:
The starting position is right in front of the base with the arms up, ready to move.
1. The flyer falls backwards with the shoulders. Stand firm and put the hands on both the flyers shoulders. Support the flyer to bring the shoulders back over the hands. Optimally, the shoulders are supported most in the beginning when the flyer is most “planched”. As the flyer comes back to alignment, the support is eased off.
(It can be a good idea to touch the flyer shoulders already in the tempo, if the flyer is insecure. If the flyer isn’t ready for a tempo entry, it’s possible to enter standing H2H by leaning into a shoulderstand on the spotter and be gently supported into position.)
2. The flyer falls backwards with the hips. Step a bit back and out to the side. Catch the flyer around the waist with both arms close to the body. It’s really important to catch the flyer heavily in this situation, as the flyer is very exposed in a fall straight over backwards.
3. The flyer falls and rotates to the side with legs first. Step out to the same side as the flyer is moving to. Put hands on the stomach, hips or thigh to ease the landing for the flyer. Never catch the lower legs of the flyer! The most important thing is that the flyer lands feet first.
4. The flyer doesn’t fall, but the base walks. Keep the same distance to the base all the time with quick footwork, and be ready for 1, 2 or 3.
I learned standing H2H in two phases: The first consisted in observing others practice it while having a handstand practice of my own and doing easier standing acrobatics. The next phase consisted of flying (thanks, Jeppe!) without spotters (not recommended) and finding good teachers.
Julie Hendel and I participated at the 2015 Partner-Acrobatics.org Teacher Training lasting one month, where we trained handstand two hours a day. Of course, we didn’t stand on our hands two hours in a row, but did a diverse regimen of preparatory, technical and strengthening exercises. The goal was to break the skill down into building blocks. Luckily, our wrists withstood the loads over that month.
PRO-TIP #2: Train your wrists! If you are an acrobat, want to do handstands or just have common sense, then train your wrists! (Hint: NOT by just standing on you hands).
During the TT we trained standing H2H both in the longe (ropes) and with spotters. In the end, we recorded our best attempt ever with Martin Kvist as spotter (see above).
I owe a big thanks to Martin Kvist, who really developed my partnership with Julie. In the beginning, it’s horrifying to jump into a handstand on top of another human. It can be terrifying to base too for the fear of dropping someone on the floor. Martin could create a calm and clear atmosphere around the process – also when the fear was deep and the stress-levels high. This leads me to
PRO-TIP #3: Find a good teacher! Someone who you trust. Let it be a teacher, who knows what they are talking about and who has tried themselves what lies front of you. There is no faster way to learn anything.
An important breakthrough was the point of feeling safe enough to practice without a spotter. It came gradually after being spotted a lot WITH touching and after that a lot WITHOUT touching. Once we had many safe tries and exits to the floor without touch from a spotter in our practice, it started seeming safe and sensible to train without a spotter.
These days, Julie and I’s rate of success is at least 2/3, with success defined as holding the balance in the position for more than 5 seconds. Once we reached this feeling of ease in getting the balance, other criteria for development and success have taken the stage. Here are examples of new things we celebrate, when they go well: How good was the tempo? How open were the shoulders? How long could we stay up? Did Julie feel safe enough to look up towards her feet?
Sometimes and for certain purposes, quantitative measures and success criteria can be interesting or even necessary. But most of the time they aren’t. The most important thing is to feel each other.
It’s a good idea to be conscious about your qualitative success criteria. What do you really want from the practice? What feels good, what doesn’t? Compared to the last tries? It’s important to give your partner this feedback, otherwise you can’t develop a deeper partnership. But remember to follow the golden rule of acrobatics: