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External Rotation in Handstands

No matter your background or the reason why handstands are part of your training routine if you spend time upside down the straddle handstand is one of the most important shapes you can have in your repertoire.

If you train handstands as a part of your calisthenics routine you will find use of the straddle position to shorten your lever and to make drills like the 90 degree push up or the planche more accessible when first learning them. If you come from a dance background you will love straddle handstands for their long lines and visually appealing effects. If you are here because you are dreaming of doing a one arm handstand then the straddle is perfect for you as the legs can turn into airplane wings and will help you balance.

As you can see the straddle handstand is without a doubt one of the most important shapes there is. Yet, unfortunately not all straddle handstands are the same. When first looking at them you might think there is not much to them but to simply open the legs as war as they go but the more you train and the further you dive into the handstand experience you will realize that not all straddles are the same.

The key to a great straddle handstand truly is external rotation and glute activation. This will turn you wonky piked straddle handstand into a beautiful, stable and well aligned master piece. No matter how naturally gifted you might be when it comes to turn outs without proper muscle activation you will never reach your fullest turn out potential.

You might be thinking now that you don’t have a middle split and why should you continue to read on anyways as this is clearly another article for the flexy people. Bare with me before exiting out the window: While it is true that external rotation to some extend relies and even depends on external rotation, specific strength and coordination is just as important. Whilst you might not get a perfectly straight line without above flexible legs your straddle handstand can still be stable as we are not looking for how much external rotation you bring to the table but more to how much of your available external rotation you are able to use.

Why do turn outs matter in Handstands

We talk about external rotation, we train it and we see everybody do it. The only question remaining is why is external rotation so important? There are 3 main reasons:

Weight distribution

A well aligned handstand is easy to hold and almost all handstand skills are easy to execute when done correctly. I remember when I was at circus school I was about 17 years old. Young, strong and full of ambition. At the time I was without a doubt one of the best hand balancers from my side of the planet. One day a Chinese Circus Coach, an absolute handstand legend came to the school. He watched me train and explained while what I do is nice apparently I use significantly too much strength. He was explaining me that skills like One Arm Presses to Handstands and even One Arm Planches should be very easy if done with proper form. I laughed at him…

Fast forward 15 years, my form is not as good as his and skills are still hard but I can now say for a fact that he was right. Handstands are easy if executed well.

The straddle handstand is a great example for this. With your legs together your hands, shoulders, hips and feet are well aligned. your body is in balance and pressure goes through a straight line into the floor. If you now open the legs into a straddle and just let them hang down you won’t end up in a beautiful middle split line. Instead you will end up piked in a pancake like position. Your legs will point out in 2 direction and the hips will hang out the other way to counterbalance. This means your back will arch and most likely your shoulders will even close a bit. You now have 25 angles and waves through your body. You are not aligned well anymore and your handstand becomes heavy and exhausting to hold.

From here externally rotate the legs and push them open with the glutes. Your feet will move toward the back and your hips can move back in. Your back can doesn’t have to arch anymore to make up for the extra weight on the other side and your entire body can straighten out.

Your handstand is now nicely aligned and becomes significantly easier and more efficient.

Stability

Picture your end range of motion like a wall. When you open your legs and hit your end range of motion you are basically hitting a wall. No matter how flexible you are you will eventually hit this wall. As long as your legs are actively pushing open and externally rotating you are pushing against this wall and your legs stay stable in your hips.

As soon as you allow your legs to relax and they close just a tiny bit they lose contact with this imaginary wall. This loss of contact creates space and room for movement. You can be sure that your legs will be all over this extra room for movement and they will start to shale and wobble. Your legs simply won’t be stable anymore.

Now while this might be a problem on 2 hands it is really on 1 hand where this becomes a big limiting point. If you transfer over to 1 hand and your legs are not actively pushing against their end range of motion they will close slightly. Often the inside leg will close more than the outside one in order to help with the weight transfer. Like this every single handstand will be different, you lose all points of reference and you long journey towards the one arm handstand will become even longer.

No matter how flexible you are you have to be pushing your legs against your end range of motion the entire time. Actively push them against this imaginary wall. Turn both legs and your hips into 1 solid structure and do not allow anything to move

Visual appearance

Anything visual is always up to personal preference but it is widely agreed on that straight lines are pretty. All sports look for these traditional values and pretty much anyone who is serious about training handstands, gymnastics, dance or calisthenics is looking for long and beautiful lines. External rotation will help with that. Find the muscles to turn your legs out and open them as far as possible using your glute muscles to work towards a straighter line. It will take time and results will vary depending on your level of flexibility but over time we can all make small improvements and I can promise that ou will be surprised how good these changes will look upside down.

How to externally rotate your legs in a handstand

Now that we discussed the why and we got motivated to make this positive yet hard change to our handstands the next question is obviously the how. What do I have to do to improve my leg lines. How can I open my legs into a wide middle split when balancing on my hands upside down and is external rotation actually right for me.

The first thing to understand is that external rotation is created in parts throughout the lower body.

The Hip create around 50 degrees
The Tibia an additional 40 degrees
and finally the toot around 15 degrees

The exact numbers of course vary between people and depend on muscle strength and to some extend bone structure.

Flexibility

The number 1 thing that pops to mind when thinking about turn outs is flexibility. If you can not open your legs in a straddle stretch they won’t open in a handstand either. Your active flexibility is never better than your passive one. Always keep that in mind. In your handstand you have to actively pull your legs open. In a middle split stretch your relax and passively push into a deeper stretch. if you are not happy with your middle split stretch you can not expect your handstand lines to be better.

Work on your middle split, hamstring and ankle flexibility to improve the external rotation in your middle split.

Specific Strength & Coordination

Next thing we need besides being flexible enough to open the legs is specific strength and coordination. We need to work on the lower back, hip, leg and foot muscles. Here is where active flexibility comes into play. Active flexibility refers to the strength of opening a joint using muscle strength against gravity. This is something that needs to be trained for specifically, will take quite some time to develop and will leave definitely leave you sore. You do not have to get your full splits or anything like that before working on your active flexibility but it is important to keep in mind that your passive flexibility will never be better than your active flexibility. This is simply impossible. Personally, I recommend including some, easy active flexibility drills already at the beginning of your journey as identifying and learning how to use those muscles can take quite some time and practice.

Genetics

Unfortunate but true to some extend external rotation and general middle split flexibility does come down to genetics. We always say hard work beat talent and I believe this to be true at any given example but genetics does still play a big role.

Don’t get me wrong though. I have seen people with the worst genetics achieve the most beautiful middle splits and there are a handful of professional, successful ballet dancers who do not have the best genetics.

Keep in mind that improvements are always possible. For some they might just come significantly faster than for other. Don’t have the genetics for this?! Fine! Work a bit harder and push through. Other things in the future will come easier for for you. I promise!

Do not use poor genetics as an excuse but as a reason to work smarter and harder. You can and will still get there!

How to train your turn out

Alright. We know why we need turn out in our straddle handstands and we understand what our body needs to develop in order to do proper straddle handstands. Now to the final question: How do we go about training for the turn outs in the straddle handstand?

What exactly you should train

Flexibility is the foundation of your turn out. You have to work on your hamstring and middle split flexibility. From my experience the most efficient way to increase your range of motion is by warming up very well until breaking a light sweat and then focusing on passive stretches with light discomfort. Try to stay in the stretches for at least 45sec per exercise and work on your flexibility 3-5 times per week.

Active Flexibility training should be done at least 2 times per week. Do these drills towards the end of your flexibility workout to gain strength in your end range of motion. Tis part of your training is quite hard and you have to be careful not to get injured. Make sure you are extra warm for any kind of active flexibility training and focus on form. Never sacrifice alignment and technique for movement amplitude. You will create unhealthy habits and you won’t built muscles in the area that you actually need.
Make sure to build your active flexibility routine slowly over time as these drills will leave you seriously sore.

Coordination is another essential to work on in order to improve your turn outs. You can start incorporating very slow and focused coordination drills no matter your current level of experience. These will help you not just to specifically improve your turn outs but will give you all over mind muscle connection and will help you get more flexible faster.
No matter how strong and flexible you are if you are lacking to adequate coordination to combine the 2 you will never be able to achieve your fullest turn out potential.

What not to do when working for your turn out

Do not train where it’s cold. Working as a performer I did countless shows in tents during the winter month because there is no better tradition than the European Christmas Circus. I can tell you for a fact that low temperatures are the enemy of all flexibility progress. Not only will you not advance but you will get injured. Find a warm place to train. If you can not find a warm place wear more cloth, train right in front of the header and strongly consider to simply substitute the workout with a different type of training.

Do not train through pain. The first couple push ups after chest day are always a bit rough but you warm up, push through it and the soreness slowly vanishes. With your hips this is often not the case. If you are sore from active flexibility training, and chances are high you will be, don’t try to work through the soreness with even more active training. If you are sore roll your muscles. If you are sore for more than 3 days consider seeing a physical therapist, significantly reduce your work load and work on rehab drills for your adducteurs and hamstrings.

Don’t look for a short cut. You have to walk before your run and before that you need to learnt to crawl. There is no way around it. There are no short cuts when it comes to active flexibility. You have to show up and put in the consistent work. Understand that when you take more time off than needed you are not stopping progressing, you are moving backwards. You have to stay consistent and you have to build your practice over time.

Do not train too often. Just like any kinds of physical activities flexibility Training can and will leave you sore. Your body needs time to recover. If you do not give your body adequate time to catch up after training you will not improve as quickly as you could and you will get injured. Make sure to get at least 1 day off per week form passive stretches and always keep 48h between your active flexibility sessions. When done correctly this training is hard and should leave you quite tired!

How to turn out if you are not flexible

Well. You can only externally rotate your legs as much as your flexibility allows it. So if you are working with limited mobility you will be working with limited turn outs. It is that simple.

Invest in flexibility training to increase your end range of motion. This might be a tedious and slow process but it will pay off in the long run. Trust me.

In the meantime for your handstands. As discussed above external rotation bring 2 main advantages.

1) Weight Distribution & alignment

If you open your legs into a straddle eventually they move out of line, you pike and your lower back arches. Depending on how flexible you are this piking & arching happens sooner or later. No matte how flexible you are though it is your responsibility to find this point of no return and stop right before it in order to stay in line when training straddle handstands. If you are not as flexible your legs won’t open as wide but you will still be able to stay in line.

2) Stability

The idea above was to externally rotate the legs as much as possible to lock them inside of your hips. Again, this is relativ. The one who externally rotates the most will not be the most stable but the one who uses most of their own external rotation capability will be the most stable. No matter how far your flexibility allows you to externally rotate your legs you can hit your end range of flexibility and actively push against it to stabilize your legs inside of your hips.

External rotation truly makes the straddle handstand. It will help you get aligned, stable and visually pleasing. The road to a good turn out is long and not always easy and direct. The sooner you start and the more consistent you stay the more successful you will be.

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