A Guide to Training Variance for the Elusive HSPU
In the sport of CrossFit™ and the movement/fitness world, handstand push-ups (hspu) have become a sought after training adaptation. I’m assuming this is due to the fact that it looks good on Instagram, and CrossFit™ HQ very commonly tests it during games season which has been adopted by local competition organizers. I have found that people are seeking the wrong experts for developing this, and therefore stagnate in their ability to increase their capacity in the movement. For that reason, I felt I would develop an article that provides some ideas to coaches and athletes to upgrade their methods to develop a higher degree of output. With The CrossFit Games™ Open coming up, I felt now would be a good time to talk about a movement that could potentially wreak havoc on the psyches and happiness of the poor souls who still struggle with this as a weakness.
First things first, attain a high quality HSPU
This is where I feel gymnastics coaches and movement experts can be vital to the process. Most people, higher level athletes included, do not strive for a high enough level of virtuosity with regards to the basics of handstands (and hspu), and eventually hit roadblocks in their developmental process because they don’t readdress their positions over time. If you are striving for an optimal hspu and the limiting of injuries, neck tweaks, wrist strains, etc, then you must first develop a degree of joint mobility that allows this movement to be ‘safe(r).’ This should include spinal, scapula, gleno-humeral, wrist, and hip segmental movement and control. After developing these basic movement pre-requisites, learning the skill of a handstand from a gymnast becomes much easier, and more about practice coaching cues to establish better technical positions. To me, this is actually the easy part of the movement, and is not this article’s focus.
Sometimes it is important to kill your egos and constantly be obsessive about details. Here is my warning. I know this could be considered blasphemy, but be careful asking gymnasts or gymnastics coaches for guidance. I say this because while many ‘experts’ can give you excellent advice on the positions required for the movement, they may not have ANY methods that may improve the ranges of the joints necessary for the movement. This is largely due to (many of them) starting gymnastics at a young age when they already had the ranges, therefore most of their athlete experience was about maintaining ranges. Furthermore, most of their coaching experience doesn’t include improving the ranges to the required degree for safe execution of the movement at adult bodyweights in adult tissues. This leads them to overprescribe long duration static stretches and long duration isometric holds. These prescriptions can include way too much progressive volume on a person’s structure not capable of taking that amount of work. I’ve seen this lead to tendonitis or stagnation, or even increases in tightness. This doesn’t mean that all gymnastics coaches cannot coach non-gymnast adults to the movement, just that you should pick your expert wisely because their experience and expertise may not be applicable to YOUR training needs.
As a basic framework, without going into detail on each step, you should first develop movement quality, then isometric strength in the ranges of motion that you have safely created (static hs holds to condition the joints and tissues), then eccentric strength (negatives), then concentric strength in the movement. This can start with scaled versions of the movements (like pike hspu on a box) if the movement quality is high enough then slowly progress to a full inversion. This process should be created specific to each athlete’s needs to ensure limited risk for injury, and optimal speed of progression to safely challenge the adaptation capacity.
Ok, so now that we’ve gotten our hspu and it is of good movement quality, what next?
This is where I think most fitness athletes create short term (~2 years) adaptations, but then struggle to make longer term progress. They can do a couple decent reps, but eventually get bottlenecked, stagnated, and don’t know how to progress. So, because they lack a framework for prescription, they inevitably add more met-cons with hspu in them, they do them every day, or they hire a gymnastics coach. There is a problem with each of these strategies in our sport, but that can be a discussion for another time. In this article, I want to give you some ideas and strategies to help provide variance to your training structure. So, what can you do to improve your capacity once your quality of motion is good?
This method is very common for development and most people are aware of this. You can structure these in different ways to provide a specific adaptation, such as:
Single movement EMOM
Example: 10 min – 5 strict hspu
The major benefit of this structure is that it is simple and very easy to create different progressions over time and keep the contraction load measured with tight precision.
Example: 20 min EMOM
Odd minute: 5 hspu
Even minute: 10 CTB pull ups
The major benefit of this structure is that you can make the adaptation more specific to the athlete’s needs. If, for example, the athlete struggles to do hspu’s under high levels of respiratory fatigue, you can pair the movement with running or something cyclical to drive up heart rate and breathing. If the athlete struggles to perform them when there is a lot of local blood in the tissues of the arms, you can pair the EMOM with CTB pull-ups or muscle ups to overload the contraction volume into the regional tissue required for hspu. More specific and aggressive ways to target these adaptations will be discussed below, but EMOMs are better for keeping intensity a bit lower and therefore accumulating more volume.
This is another commonly used method for elite athletes and provides some specific benefits.
Example: 100 strict hspu for time
The major benefit of these tests is that they give you feedback as to an athlete’s progress in a specific movement. They can also be used to create EMOM progressions and tests. If, for example, an athlete does this in 10 minutes you know that in a ten minute EMOM, their approximate capacity is 10 reps per minute. If that is the case, you can create an EMOM with 11 in the first 4 minutes and then decrease to 10 for the remaining 6 minutes. Those 4 additional reps in a ten-minute time frame is a pretty substantial progression for an athlete, and if done slowly and progressively over a long period of time can dramatically increase long term output. Additionally, if you want a high turnover met-con that isn’t bottlenecked by muscle failure in the movement, you know approximately how many strict you can put into the workout in a time frame. In the above example, you know in a 10 minute high turnover workout you likely don’t want to prescribe a number that is anywhere near their maximal output for that time frame (1 rep every 6 seconds of work time dedicated to the movement) or they will be slowed down by the failure of that specific movement.
Pre-fatigued Work of Local Tissues
Many athletes are good at hspu’s when the movement is done fresh and without any previous work on the shoulders/triceps/core/etc. But as things like push jerk, snatch, GHD sit up, burpees, etc get paired with the movement, it can break down dramatically. In order to train this more precisely than just pairing them in a met-con, it makes sense to give yourself pre-fatiguing work in your rate limiting tissue. So, if your triceps burn out and you cannot lockout the reps, you could do a set of tricep extensions near failure then move directly into the movement. Or, if your core gives out, you can do a 60-second isometric hollow body hold directly into your hspu capacity work.
A1. Push jerk; 15 unbroken @30% 1rm x5; rest 20 sec
A2. Strict hspu; 15 AFAP x5; rest 3 min
The benefit of a structure like this is you can isolate the specific adaptation for which you are looking. Many people know what their major limitation in the movement is, but continue just doing the movement. This never challenges their rate limiter, and therefore leaves them stagnated for long periods of time. By pre-fatiguing the rate limiter, and then forcing work your body is challenged to perform the work with this tissue in a fatigued state. That, if prescribed properly, should force the specific adaptation for which you are looking.
There are many ways to create variance in the training structure of a hspu, but one very effective and simple way is to alter the specific movement. A weighted vest can be a good way to overload the tissues as well as a deficit in the range of motion. Remember that the body adapts specifically to the adaptation you are asking of it. For a weighted variation you are likely to create more of a strength or strength endurance adaptation. These can be beneficial to increase the cycle rate of unloaded variations, but might not necessarily improve your ability to do high numbers of reps. Deficit versions can be good for overloading the deep aspect of the hspu for people whose sticking point is low in the hspu, and weighted versions can increase the strength of that movement pattern. Remember when selecting variations of this that you are sure exactly why you are prescribing them so that you create the response in training that you actually want.
Strict weighted vest hspu @40x2; 2-3x10; rest 2 min
Build to a 3rm max deficit strict hspu then decrease deficit 2” and perform 5 sets of 3 – rest as needed bw sets
These sessions can enforce high levels of control and therefore are great for progression. They are great for strength development, overloading specific types of contractions that the athlete struggles with (eccentric, concentric, isometric), and can be used in and of themselves prior to hspu in met-cons to pre-fatigue the tissue as discussed above.
Banded HSPU Variations
Banded hspu’s are a great tool for overloading the lockout portion of the hspu. Most athletes, as they get fatigued, struggle to lockout the last 2-3 inches of the movement. As the band stretches, it increases the tension of the movement and therefore overloads the force curve in the place that many people need it. These would be very difficult to put into a met-con because they require coordinating the band around the foot and being careful so it doesn’t snap on you, but can be put in density sets, EMOMs, or just strength endurance prescriptions.
15 sets of 3 unbroken banded hspu not for time
Pre-fatigue the Energy Systems
If you do heart rate observation with athletes in met-cons, you will likely find that they have a heart rate threshold that negatively impacts their ability to perform certain movements. Sometimes, athletes will struggle to do hspu’s when they exceed a certain heart rate even though they don’t feel like they are at failure with the movement. This could be due to the fact that their ‘central governor’ doesn’t want to be inverted at that heart rate, doesn’t want to create intra-abdominal pressure at that heart rate, or just has not been exposed to the movement at that heart rate. If you observe your athletes and notice that when they’re at high breathing rates they can’t work, this would be an effective training method. For example, when hspu are paired with box jumps, rowing, burpees, running, or something highly stressful to the cardio-respiratory system, they can’t work, you may decide to pre-stress the energy systems to give them a more controlled environment to attack their weakness.
Row 2k @20-40 seconds slower than 2k pr (based on athletes ES profile)
40 strict hspu for time
rest 5-10 min bw sets actively recovering
The benefit of a training session like this is that it mimics the training response of the actual sport, but it allows you to accumulate a lot more volume and therefore get more specific skill exposure to the movement in the desired physical state. It also doubles as a place where you can target multiple adaptations. In the above example, you are simultaneously performing aerobic threshold intervals and upper body muscle endurance intervals, which is good for a sport that requires maximal output in all systems.
Put Directly Into Met-Cons
The last way to create training variance is to put the movement directly into a for time/AMRAP workout structure. The varied met-con structure does provide an infinite number of ways to create training variance, however when I’ve evaluated athlete’s training designs they haven’t been doing it intelligently. I’ve realized that they have no idea how to progress them in a manner that allows them to improve their weakness if they want their hspu to increase. If you want the body to adapt and improve its capacity, then the structure of met-cons need to be such that either the output of hspu (i.e. number of hspu per minute in a workout) or the volume of hspu (i.e. number of hspu total in a workout) is increased over subsequent weeks/months/years. A movement like hspu is very hard to improve in a chaotic format, and is much better suited to be trained in more simplicity outside of a workout. If done properly in an off season, you can then put into met-cons closer to a competitive season when you need to get used to doing them in workouts. I will not list examples because this is a fairly easy thing to create and can be made up and paired with whatever movements and in whatever rep schemes you want to target.
So, now that you have a bunch of methods to employ, you should have a much more knowledgeable approach to the development of handstand pushups. If you take this approach to training in general, your likelihood of success will dramatically increase and your likelihood of keeping people safe, healthy, and progressing long term will surely rise. Coaches, unless they’re full of $h*t, cannot guarantee wins. The world is too chaotic and winning has so many inputs. The athlete’s genes, the athlete’s childhood background, whether or not the athlete got sick, the athlete’s mindset, the athlete’s training environment, the athletes emotional state, the athlete’s financial situation, etc all play a dramatic role in determining who stands on the podium at the end of the day. What we can do as coaches is provide maximal level of effort to attain sustainable and maximal progress. We do promise that as coaches at TTT. The reality is that some people will never get good at hspu’s because of their limb length, nervous systems, and endocrine systems, and some people will never win the games for similar reasons. But, even if that sounds depressing, it is not scary to face reality. Even if you can’t win something, the search for self-improvement is where you will truly find yourself. If you are going to take a journey in development, you might as well be using the best methods available to you, and constantly seeking what will make you get there more efficiently. I hoped to teach you some methods. Now it is up to you to learn how to apply them. Whether you learn that by coaching yourself, consulting with your coach, or hiring a new coach that knows how to do this, just ensure that you are getting better. It is not what we do that matters so much as how we do it, and in that statement the reality that all this information can go wasted on misapplication continues to plague my mind. But, it challenges me further to disseminate knowledge in a way that makes sense to a larger audience. So, good luck. Make your hspu’s not-suck anymore. It will be a great relief to my mind.