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Tom Merrick & UlrikOnHands’ Hand Balancing & Bodyweight Skills Workshop – REVIEW!

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Come summer this year it had been over 2 years since I attended my last workshop/seminar (excluding my own ones in Norwich). That’s an incredibly long time to go without education. Of course as a coach you’re always learning empirically and through the medium of books, videos and the wealth of info on the internet BUT it’s never quite the same as in person, hands on, with a specific and specialist syllabus.

When I saw Tom Merrick aka ‘The Bodyweight Warrior‘ & Ulrik Fossum aka ‘Ulrik On Hands‘ were running a London leg of their 2019 workshop series, I figured it would be criminal to miss it. I’d seen tidbits and extracts of their early 2019 US tour and it looked like a great ‘curriculum’: Handstands, bodyweight strength, ring work, mobility, programming and much more!

They did the same last year but I wasn’t able to make it for numerous reasons excuses – too busy, didn’t have the money, maybe it was beyond me as my handstand was weak and my mobility was incredibly average.

Needless to say I regretted it for the entire 12 months and as my circumstances changed; stable income, no distractions, a much better handstand and overall stronger calisthenics game, along with better mobility, I figured it was time!

Hand Balancing & Bodyweight Skills 

  • Where? Local Motion Studios (Wandsworth, London)
  • When? July 13th & 14th 2019
  • Course length: 2 x 6.5 hour days including with an hour’s lunch break each day
  • Workshop focus: Fundamentals of hand balance, including mobility for advanced handstand work (press to handstand, overhead mobility etc), bent arm calisthenics strength & ring work.
  • My reason for attending: To advance my handstand practice. I have a consistent 30 secs+ free standing handstand (both on floor & parallettes) and want to take my practice to the next level. PLUS, there’s always magic in another pair of eyes assessing your personal technique/form.

The workshop spanned two days but you could either do day one or day two, or both. Day one was advertised as mostly hand balancing & mobility for advanced handstand work, and day two was advertised as bent arm calisthenics strength and ring work. On the face of it, day one appealed more to me than day two as ring work and bent arm strength calisthenics stuff is the norm for me – both from my own practices and from a coaching standpoint.

Whereas handstands are a much more recent and novel endeavour! Only a year or so ago holding a free standing handstand successfully was like spinning a roulette wheel.

That said, only a fool thinks they can’t learn anything regardless of their experience, so day two was as compulsory as day one in my eyes.

Day one – handstand fundamentals, mobility, bent arm strength & partner stretching!

Finding the place was a doddle and I ended up arriving super early. Turns out Local Motion Studios sits above one of the biggest organic health stores I’ve ever seen! It has a cafe and just about every vegan friendly ‘healthy’ eating option you can think of.

Image result for planet organic wandsworth

I made my way upstairs to find Ulrik training before the workshop. I figured I’d make a brief introduction before letting him get back to his one arm handstand work on blocks. As we all know, nobody likes that guy who lingers and doesn’t get the hint!

An hour and a half later it was showtime! The workshop got underway and there was a relatively even split of guys and girls – and around 12 or so of us in total. The warm up followed and then a detailed look at the handstand from ground zero.

We went over wrist drills, joint rotations and a general warm up with a focus on loosening up the lower body too. It was highlighted how important lower body mobility is for future success with high level moves such as handstand presses. And Ulrik stressed further the benefit of working on that now so that when your handstand game is good enough, you won’t have to play catch up and grind through a ton of long, drawn out months working on mobility.

There was some nice shoulder mobility drills (a notorious weak point for me, despite plenty of work on this this year!) with a mixture of active and passive stuff. Similar to Emmet Louis’ Modern Methods Of Mobility Seminar in 2017, the emphasis is on involving the central-nervous-system for long term flexibility gains. While I’d seen and used the drills before, the finer points were worth their weight in gold, as the little details often make the difference between a journey riddled with plateaus and one far more efficient.

Humble pie

As we worked through the drills and made our way to working away from the wall and free balancing, Ulrik’s beady eye gave my technique the once over and it turns out while my balance is ‘decent’, I had a whole host of bad habits……….

  • Too strong a kick upon entry.
  • Slight bending of the arms and thus not using the traps enough to ‘semi-push’ my way up.
  • Not pushing tall enough but then Ulrik did say even when you push as tall as you can through the shoulders, you can always push taller still.
  • Inconsistent pointing of the toes – “Point the toes or I’ll chop them off” was Ulrik’s stern order.

So it was operation rebuild/rethink. As humbling as this was, looking back it’s been amazing for me as coming in to the workshop I was blighted by terrible wrist issues on my right wrist, which I now know was from faulty practice and entry. I can say with joy the wrist has been almost brand new ever since!

That alone was worth every penny I spent, honestly. To practice injury and pain free is always taken for granted.

Bent arm strength

Handstand push ups were the cornerstone of bent arm strength for the first day with a look at the mechanics of the move and then a run through all relevant progressions. Again, while I’m plenty familiar with handstand push up work, the magic was in the subtle cues. As any good coach/trainer will tell you: the simpler the cue, the better and some cues work better for some than others.

There was a look at bent arm horizontal pushing strength – basic push ups, psuedo planche push ups and tucked planche push ups. There were a few proud moments for me here. One was being able to consistently balance in a bent arm planche at the bottom of each psuedo planche push up rep (the secret to doing this is being able to handle a big amount of forward lean).

Bent Arm Planche - Snowdon (April 2019)
The ‘Bent Arm Planche’

And the second was completing Tom’s challenge of doing 1 push up, followed by one overhead press with your arms and then going up a rep each time…… 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on until 10. I managed to do the challenge unbroken which is 55 reps of each with precious little rest in between! Those over developed pecs didn’t let me down.

Stretching & Wrapping up

We cooled things down with some nice partner drills for all areas of the body – piriformis, hip flexors, pecs, lats and more. What was nice about these drills was not only how effective they’ve since been with my personal training clients but also how well I responded to them personally. I found I needed very little persuasion from my partner to go markedly further than I would passively/unassisted.

This would be highlighted even further on day two……..

Day 2 – handstand shapes, press to handstand, pancake mobility & ring work!

Day two saw an altered group as some of the guys from day one weren’t with us and some new faces joined us for day two. Those of us on our second day were far wearier than we were yesterday. The ache had set in and the CNS was down regulated. Nevertheless, passion and the specialty of the occasion kept us hungry for more.

This was the bit I’d been waiting for. Taking the handstand past a ‘basic’ handstand in the form of ‘shapes’. Simply put, changing the leg positions to change the load at the shoulder in conjunction. We were exposed to the straddle, diamond and tuck leg positions. The common denominator with these is the rotation of the pelvis; the posterior tilt forces the shoulders to work harder to stay ‘open’.

There was a neat drill Ulrik offered me in the form of flowing through all 3 positions in a sequence, so, 3 seconds in each (straight-straddle-diamond-tuck-diamond-straddle-straight) and this can be repeated or the holds in each position can be increased. Again, humbled was the word as this was a real challenge – especially after the wear and tear of day one. But, watch this space as this sequence is a current work in progress (insta vid will drop when it’s presentable enough!)

Handstand presses

I’ve written about this move before but this section of the workshop confirmed my theories with this move: those that execute it with the most grace are the most mobile.

The strength element comes from the upward push through the shoulders and compression of the hips – both of which are made easier with flexibility. In order to prime this we went through a nice drill (again aimed at manipulating the nervous system) for pancake mobility which was BRUTAL on the hip flexors. A little excerpt of this can be seen in Tom’s video with Daniel Vadnal (FitnessFAQs) below…….

It was here we saw, again, how well I seem to respond to partner assistance as Ulrik gave me a little push from 45 degrees of fold, to face flat to the floor!

Ring work!

This was the breakdown of front & back lever work, the ring muscle up and some other cool variations. This was also the part of the workshop where I felt most at home, finding full back and front levers at the first time of asking. The ring muscle up section was fun too as Ulrik gave me more advanced challenges in the form of wide ring muscle ups done explosively and slowly (as seen on my Instagram below)….

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WIDE & SLOW……….. Nice little challenge from @ulrikonhands in the ring section of this weekends workshop. Awesome event and so many knowledge bombs dropped. The handstand work was very humbling as I thought I had a 'decent' handstand; but it turns out I've got loads of bad habits 🙈 This is what happens when you start out with very little knowledge and self teach, you don't always learn the best techniques, or most efficient techniques. It's why coaching and hands on events are so valuable, for the little tidbits and insights. Some great drills to work on going forward. The full rings wide, L sit muscle up (with no leg drop in the transition) is close and the tuck handstand will be my target 👊 As always, mobility will be an ever going process but it's one I sadistically enjoy so that's half the battle 😅 front splits and full pancake are very close so I will push on 💪 Thanks to @thebodyweightwarrior @ardourofficial @ulrikonhands @jg_calisthenics and everyone else I met across the weekend 🙏 look forward to catching up with you guys again soon! #handstands #handbalance #wandsworth #localmotionstudios #calisthenics #muscleup #ringmuscleup #slowmuscleup #widemuscleup #workshop #mobility #movement #bodyweightstrength #embracethesuck #movementculture #toepoint #handstandshapes #presshandstand #tucksoyoudontsuck

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The tougher part of delivering a workshop or group event is being able to tailor sections to any level and the guys did that very well, I must say!

More partner stretches, Q&As & the wrap up!

We rounded out with some nice 3 person stretches for different areas, including hamstrings, pancake and hips/piriformis. The hamstring drill seemed to click for me as I went from a passive, unassisted 90 degrees or slightly more, angle to foot above my head after a few rounds of PNF.

I’ve since used this very drill to get my best ever front split to date, around an inch from being completely flat from the floor with relatively squared hips too!

Best front split to date (July 2019)

I asked many questions pertaining to handstands and programming, as well as ideal frequency/how to best structure handstand work and general calisthenics work, which Ulrik duly answered.

I’d like to say a big thanks to Tom and Ulrik for being great hosts; creating a workshop that flowed so well whilst covering all details and technicalities but in a fun and light hearted manner. And a special thanks to Jake of JG Calisthenics for his awesome company on day one – it was great networking with you! (Check out his awesome YouTube channel too!) And another thanks to Megan for her company on day two, the fatigue was real but we ploughed through!

In summary, if you’re looking to learn more about using your bodyweight and getting stronger/developing an array of skills, I’d definitely recommend Ulrik & Tom’s workshop! Even if you’re at a higher level they’ve got you covered; there were people with comfortable middle splits and good press to handstands, while I have 10 strict bar/ring muscle ups, full front/back lever and a human flag yet still came away with a TON of knowledge.

Quick fire takeaways from the workshop…….

  • No matter your level, you can benefit from regressing the handstand slightly and perfecting the subtleties.
  • Even when you’re pushing as tall as you physically can in a handstand, you STILL need to push taller.
  • Handstand shapes (diamond, tuck, straddle etc) are a great stepping stone from standard handstands to press handstands.
  • The ideal ratio of active/passive flexibility should be around 80%. If your active mobility isn’t 80% of your passive range there’s a strength deficit.
  • In the planche most people protract the scapula AND flex the thoracic spine. Few people DEPRESS the scapula without spinal flexion. The latter is most optimal.
  • There’s some carryover between planche work and press to handstand work.
  • Press to handstands are best trained from BOTH the top down AND the bottom up.
  • You need at least 3-5 wall facing handstand push ups to be able to do a freestanding handstand push up. This is because whenever balance/coordination is involved, you cannot access your full strength potential.
  • Rows/retracted pull/chin ups have best carryover to front lever strength development.
  • No matter how much overhead mobility work I do, I’ll always need to work on it. #LifeSentence
  • If handstand shapes are ‘heavy’ for you, it’s a dead giveaway your overhead mobility isn’t ideal.
  • 10 -20 sets constitutes a nice overall volume for a handstand session.
  • Strength work in the am followed by handstand/mobility work in the pm works very well
  • I’m a Chris Hemsworth look alike apparently as Tom & Jake liked to point out all weekend (HAHA)

What do you reckon?

Chris Hemsworth Screenshot (Tom Merrick's stories) LOL




JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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