Anyone who has been around me long enough in the gym has undoubtedly witnessed the awesome force of one of my CrossFit gymnastics nerd rants. These rants generally involve my frustration with the widespread disregard for the basics before learning more advanced skills. To make my point, my favorite analogy usually goes something like this:
Imagine a scenario of someone who is fit but has never lifted weights and walks into a CrossFit gym. This person says, “I would like to do a squat snatch please.”
“Can you demonstrate a proper overhead squat or even a proper air squat?” is the concerned and conscientious reply.
“Nonsense,” the new athlete says, “now hand me that barbell and stand aside… I have some work to do.” Said person would be promptly tarred, feathered and run out of the gym in a whirlwind of righteous exercise geek fury.
Now imagine a scenario of someone who is fit but has never done gymnastics. This person walks into a CrossFit gym and says “I would like to try some handstand push-ups please.”
“Sure, the wall is right this way,” is the reply. Then said grown person proceeds to aggressively slam his or her feet against the wall and start pushing out reps of an exercise that involves letting the entire body mass fall 12 inches onto the head and cervical spine. Rather than being reprimanded for not following the proper progression of skill development, this person is high fived for ‘PRing.’
I am in no way trying to compare the handstand push-up (HSPU) to the full snatch, which in my opinion is one of the most difficult moves in all of sports to execute properly. But if you’ve spent enough time around CrossFit, you can definitely recognize the above scenarios and see the disparity in the way we approach gymnastics versus Olympic weightlifting.
All young gymnasts learn how to do a HEADstand before learning a HANDstand in the same way we all learn to crawl before we learn to walk, and we all learn to air squat before we learn to squat snatch. In gymnastics, a HSPU is not a skill but rather a strength training exercise. If you are not at the level to do a proper headstand, then you are not at the level to require this strength training exercise.
Every time I go to a different gym and help out with gymnastics skill development I’m met by a myriad of people who proudly proclaim, “I can do 15 kipping handstand push ups… high five right?” But then when I ask them to demonstrate a free headstand they look at me like I asked them to discuss the theory of relativity and proceed to try and balance and fall for 10 minutes like Bambi on ice. Be better than that. Be smarter than that. Decide to pursue excellence by deciding that the patience of virtue and goal setting is better than the elation of the moment. And for the sake of all that is holy, work your headstands!
A properly executed headstand involves placing your hands in front of your head so that the position of your hands and head make a tripod or three-legged stool configuration. This is the only way to balance properly. You should be able to start from your feet and slowly transfer your center-of-mass over your head and hands with such control that you can stop and hold at any point along the way. If you can balance properly in a headstand, keep your elbows/shoulders internally rotated; then pressing out into a free HSPU is just a matter of working on your pushing strength. Repeating HSPU is a just a matter of working on your free handstand balance. Bottom line: you have to work the basics.