Photo: Gmark Art
I want to discuss in detail the biomechanics and technique of the bottom hand in what the pole community calls "handspring" and the rest of the world calls, "human flag". This is supplementary to the pole mechanics video on handspring found in this course HERE.
The wrist and elbow will be discussed in detail, but not the shoulder because that just gets excessive.
Let’s start with the elbow as it’s fairly straight forward. The normal range of motion for the elbow is (arguably) 0-5 degrees into extension, and 140ish degrees into flexion. It’s a simple hinge joint with the ability to pronate and supinate about 75 degrees and 85 degrees, respectively. The normal cubital valgus deviation is 5-10 for men, and 10-15 for women.
What does all that mean?
1. If your elbow extends past 0 degrees, you are putting a force into the elbow joint that may wear it down over time. In addition, it means that your ligaments will be stretched further and your elbow join will be destabilized if you continue to put pressure on it (your full body weight) in your full extension. And, muscles are weaker when they are in a fully stretched position. Don’t be afraid of going into full extension in normal day-to-day activities, if that’s your range of motion, but in handspring? Just be aware.
2. Since women typically have a larger valgus deviation than men, they are also more susceptible to elbow strain especially on the inside (medial side) of the elbow where the wrist flexors insert as the forces are more pronounced across the elbow joint.
3. Most people in our modern age type on their computers or use their phones, a lot--me included. We pronate more than we supinate. This means that even though the normal range of motion is greater in supination than pronation, people tend to be tighter in supination than pronation. The bottom hand in handspring is supination. This means that you may have excessively tight muscles taking on extra strain.
What are the solutions?
1. Always handspring with a very slightly bent elbow. Not only will your muscles have greater engagement and capacity for strength, but you’ll also reduce the amount of wear and tear on the joints, the valgus stress, the ligaments that protect the elbow, and the demand on your muscles. And, should anything go wrong, at least your elbow will more naturally bend into flexion rather than extension.
This has been known in the martial arts world for…ever. Striking with a completely straightened and extended elbow could lead to your elbow dislocating because angles and forces aren’t always predictable. Make this assumption in your technique: things could always go oddly and your body should be aligned in a way that gives it more chance to prevent injury. And yes, it’s harder. It’s harder cause your muscles are working rather than relying on your ligaments which cannot heal or adapt very quickly.
2. "Release" your first finger in handspring. I don’t know why it’s become a debatable point in the pole industry, but if they say always a completely closed hand, they are wrong, unless they are dealing with a very specific type of handspring.
3. Lengthen your elbow pronators, and strengthen your supinators. Consult your trainer, instructor, or doctor on how best to do this.
4. Train both sides and with with decreased loads. Yup, the irony is that if you do handspring only on one side, possibly too much, the above recommendation becomes less important. Doing handspring well and with good variety will strengthen the supinators and pronators, both, and balance the muscles usually affected by our computer and phone lifestyles. But, if you go for variety, you should be performing at lower loads. There are many ways to do this but this is basically what I’m saying: just because you can do x thing at your best, it doesn’t mean you always need to do the hardest version of the technique.
Remember, the top hand tends to not be balanced as well (most grips strengthen the pronators and wrist flexors), so the opposite side must be trained for this reason (as well as the many other reasons).
5. If you feel pain and strain, often the solution is light stretching, gentle movement, and TIME before returning to activity. If you’re new to handspring, consider that your body needs to strengthen a number of tissues in order to keep up. Be patient. If it’s an injury with tearing and sharp pain, rather than a dull aching, consult a healthcare provider.
Note: I am NOT a proponent of ice and continued training. That will likely make it worse, especially if the technique is wrong or there is underlying injury.
6. The symptom in the elbow is USUALLY not the cause. Almost every time, the place where you feel that soreness is not actually the reason you’re suffering or the true injury. Most often, it’s the part of your body working the hardest to keep you healthy and so it’s screaming because it’s working overtime. Change your technique and balance the muscles.
The wrist is, I often say in the clinic, "a bunch of floating bones connected by ligaments and fascia". There’s very little direct muscle connecting into the 8 floating bones; only the flexor carpi ulnaris has connection into those tiny bones (Golden nugget if you’re in body care, btw. You and your patients can thank me later).
Most of the attachments of the muscles that move the wrist are technically in the hand, originating from the forearm. If you don’t understand the significance of this, let me explain:
1. Your wrist bones find alignment primarily by their boney shape and the forces applied to it. If the forces applied to it are chronically stressful and not in line with how the bones are shaped, then those wrist bones will actually shift into malposition or begin changing anatomical shape in time. This is the sensation of your wrist being "stuck" or blocked in certain movements, and just working out or stretching will not necessarily re-align these bones. Essentially, if your wrist is getting stiffer and stiffer, you’re hurting yourself.
2. The wrist has a huge variety of fine movements. That’s why it has 8 freaking bones in between the biggest moving parts. This means that you can do a lot to it, but you can also compensate for long periods of time without realizing that you’re essentially dealing with injuries and compensations to those injuries.
3. Muscle balance is crucial. If your muscles are not balanced, then your wrist will not be in alignment.
4. It’s quite possible that the hand matters more than the wrist in terms of technique and also, therapy (again, to all you body workers. You’re welcome.)
Now, what about good alignment in handspring?
As you can see in the image, it’s technically impossible to have a perfectly neutral wrist in most handsprings.
This depends on your body angle and how you’re using handspring as described in the pole mechanics video, but for most people, unless you can hold the pole between your index finger and third finger, your wrist is out of neutral alignment. You’re likely in a little supination and ulnar deviation while doing your handspring. Your hand is also probably closed, which means the bones of your hand are also being asked to turn and twist apart from your forearm.
Remember that I said in this IGTV Video that most anything is acceptable for the body with proper training and technique? Well, here as well. It's not the doing that's the problem, it's the balance of what you are doing. However, you need to know the long term repercussions and how to prevent them. Thankfully, in most all these positions, the hand and wrist were "designed" for these type of stresses. It’s the "too much" with muscles out of balance that’s the concern.
So, what are the long-term adaptations to the wrist and hand with frequent handspring?
1. Wrist extension tends to increase, and thus, the wrist flexors get weaker due to being asked to contract in an extended position.
2. You are supinating more than pronating in the wrist. This usually isn’t a huge problem as we tend to pronate more than supinate in day-to-day life, but guess what, there’s the pronator teres and the pronator quadratus. One pronates the elbow, and the other at the wrist. Also, our handspring pressure is taking the 8 bones of the wrist and jamming them into the space between the radius and ulna…and the pronator quadratus also is tasked with holding the distal unla and radius together! Again, wellness practitioners, golden nugget.
3. Your hand begins to rotate separate from your wrist. It’s a weird thing, pole, taking load on a cylindrical surface—but that’s exactly what happens. Your hand begins to articulate into supination while your forearm goes into pronation. Oops!
4.The ligaments of the radial deviators tend to get stretched, and the triangular fibrocartilage of the ulna tends to take on more pressure, rotation, and eventually, tearing.
OMG I’m going to die! What do I do?
1. Don’t panic. As I said, the wrist and hand is exceptionally dextrous and adaptable. It’s meant to take on a lot of repetitive and challenging forces. Variety is key, however. If you do a lot of one thing, do a lot of the opposite thing. It’s really that simple.
2. Speak with your health care provider if you are suffering from a "bone on bone" sensation, any type of nerve pain that radiates, burns, tingles, or numbs the hand and wrist, or if you’re feeling a tearing sensation and/or chronic pain. As you can see, the wrist can get quite complicated and…guess what, that’s why there are people who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and studied their assess off for years. Respect your professional’s time and life sacrifices for their education. This also means that no, I can’t simply fix you or diagnose your problem. Unless you are an existing patient, I can’t legally give you individual advice. (This is my disclaimer "naturally" imbedded in the post).
3. Do all the wrist things. There are a huge number of exercises, stretches, therapies available for free online all over the internet. I would start with people who are climbers and hand balancers. The strain they put on their wrists and hands exceeds those of most other activities, and they’ve really got much of it figured out.
4. A LONG time ago I made a video series with a part one and two on proper split grip technique for handspring. You can register for the free youtube videos on this website HERE.
Here are a few general tips:
A. The bottom hand handspring needs to be strengthened into wrist flexion, typically. However, wrist extension shouldn’t be neglected either as it has a lot to do with the alignment of the 8 floating bones. That’s why I said, "do everything". Both flexion and extension training is critical.
B. Strengthen the wrist extensor with ulnar deviation while in pronation (gold nugget).
C. I told you that most the muscles attach to the hand, and not the wrist. Stop messing with your wrist! It probably won’t help unless it’s done by a professional.
D. Motion is king. Both in non-weight bearing and weight bearing. If you have floating bones that align themselves based on their anatomical shape…um…? Move your wrist! Move it every which way (this is different from stretching). The bones can figure themselves out.
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Do not take anything in this blog as individual advice for you or your condition. There are no claims or promises in this blog post that should alter your training and care without direct consultation with your healthcare provide.