I’ve always had a fear of being upside down.
Even as a kid, I never did cartwheels. I’m pretty sure I did headstands, but never was able to balance on my hands and didn’t feel comfortable being upside down in any way.
I used to look at people doing handstands, and thought to myself “I’d like to be able to do that”. How hard could it be?
Well, it turns out that doing a handstand WAS pretty hard — at least for me. You see, by the time I wanted to learn I was already over 55.
Are there some things you can only master if you learn them as a child?
My first “handstands” were done by messily kicking up to a wall, often in a panicked state, and usually I wasn’t successful in even getting up there let alone staying up there. I was terrified.
Even though I knew I was strong, I had no idea whether or not my shoulders and arms could support my bodyweight. And with that uncertainly, I held myself back.
The worst part, was that I had convinced myself that I wasn’t “built for handstands”. Somebody said to me, “Greg, why are you driving yourself crazy doing something that you’re not suited for?” And that comment stuck.
I simply stopped trying.
A year or so later, I met someone who convinced me to start working on them again, only with a proper training template that was designed for me – an older adult with limited shoulder and thoracic mobility. Setting aside my fears, I decided to give the inversions another try.
Rather than “kicking up”, I faced away from the wall, got my hands to the floor and “walked up”, with my belly facing the wall. That simple change took the fear away, as I was able to gradually get more of my bodyweight over my hands (rather than having it placed there all of a sudden), and only went as far as I could. In the beginning, I was on the wall at a bit of an angle, but over time I was able to get upright. Eventually I started working on straightening out my line.
My next step was to find a coach to work with. I was nervous about that as well, because frankly I was embarrassed to show how bad I was to begin with, and scared that I wouldn’t be able to improve even with help. But common sense prevailed, and I found someone who inspired me.
I hired Steve Atlas to work with online (he’s based out of Spokane, Washington) and he was instrumental in getting me to stick with the training and in giving me feedback on my movement. Steve is one of the few who truly understands what it’s like to learn new skills as an adult, and he’s an excellent movement and hand balancing coach.
As to progress, it’s been two years and I still haven’t mastered them. I’m certainly not where I want to be.
But I’m 58, not 28 — and I’m a hell of a lot better than I was!
I can kick-up properly now (most times without touching the wall), find and hold balance. I look less like a banana, and my line is improving even with my mobility limitations. I can feel it. And this year I’m determined to ditch the wall completely.
But here’s the thing. I don’t even worry about the end goal anymore.
I just enjoy the practice doing handstands. And as long as I consistently work on them, I’ll keep getting better.
Who cares about how long it takes, or if I never get a perfect looking line? I’m enjoying exploring what I CAN do.
Here are my key take-aways from this handstand adventure:
- Don’t shy away from movements or skills because you think they are impossible as an adult.
- Understand that it is possible to learn. It will just take time, perhaps a lot more time that you thought. But who cares? You’ll still see improvements eventually, even if the end-goal may take years to master.
- Start small! Think of scaled exercises you can actually do that will help you progress. In the case of learning how to handstand as an adult, you might even want to start with walking on all fours — just to learn what it’s like to put some weight onto your hands, while also building wrist flexibility and strength. Don’t neglect the basics.
- Once you find that your scaled exercises get easy, identify the next progression that is more difficult, but still doable. For example after mastering walking on all fours, you might want to try a “stiff-leg bear walk”, where you are still on your hands and feet, but your legs and arms are straight and your hips are piked up towards the ceiling as if you are walking in a down-dog.
- Keep your training time short at first, and work on consistency. If the work you have to do is not too daunting, you’ll be more apt to complete it.
- Be patient. Don’t get frustrated or angry when you don’t see progress (read the second bullet point again.)
- Learn to love the practice. Many people think you need tons of motivation and willpower to stick with something, but those resources are finite; i.e. they can run out. And if you have to “will” or motivate yourself to train every time, you won’t stick with your program. Train because you want to, and because you’ve built the habit.
- Get a coach who understands your challenges. They can provide accountability and feedback. I’ve not only worked with Steve Atlas, I’ve worked with GMB coach Kirsty Grosart and Deflying Fitness coach Andralyn Zayn. All have helped inspire me to keep going, and I’m deeply indebted.
In short, for many of us it’s not too late to learn something new — whether it be an exercise like a pull-up, a game like tennis or golf, or a more complex physical skill like a handstand.
I’m curious — is there a movement or skill that you’ve wanted to do, but feel like you’re too old to try?
Tell me what you’d like to learn!