Choosing progressions doesnt show weakness: It shows intelligence

Handstand push-ups are on the agenda today: 5 sets of 5 reps as challenging as possible.

Some athletes kip, others do strict deficit sets, but the great majority choose a progression to get through their setsbe it pike push-ups, push-ups or DB shoulder press.

Youre trying to decide what progression you should use. You know you cant yet do a handstand push-uplet alone a deficit onebut youre able to do a couple reps with 3 ab mats underneath your head.

“Damnit, youre an athlete”, you think, and scaling the movement is for the weak, right?

With this thought in the back of your head, you grab your three ab mats and stack them on top of each other and proceed. The first time you kick to handstand, you manage to get three reps with a huge arch in your back before falling off the wall as youre trying to press out your fourth. By the third set, your head and neck start to hurt from the impact, and youre barely able to crank out a rep, and during your last set attempt your arms give out as you crash into the wall during your kick up to handstand.

Sigh…as coaches, we have all seen stubborn athletes like the above: Athletes with an ego, who would rather do unsafe, ugly reps of a seemingly sexier-looking movement than select a more appropriate movement that will better help them move forward with their strength and fitness.

Why? Because theres a misconception among many that the best course of action is to choose a progression that closely resembles whatever movement they see as the “harder” movement they ultimately want to achieve.

They see handstand push-ups with incredibly-reduced range of motion as somehow more valuable than working on their pushing strength via push-ups. They see doing pull-ups with four bands as somehow cooler than strict, challenging ring rows, and the thought of doing single-leg Bulgarian Split Squats instead of pistols doesnt seem useful to them.

These are misconceptions, and although choosing a progression that most closely resembles the more challenging movement has its time and place, this option is often not the best one, especially when foundational strength and stability are lacking.

There is no better prerequisite for a handstand push-up than strengthening the core and the “press” movement pattern. If you can press your bodyweight, or even 75 percent of your body weight, you can most likely do a strict handstand push-up.

I can hear the objections already:

Bodyweight press! Are you kidding me?!

I never said letting go of your beloved bands and ab-mats would be easy, but hear me out: “Simpler” progressions are only going to help you get what you ultimately want more effectively. For example, building strength through five sets of five perfectly strict push-ups or pike push ups will help you eventually acquire the strength to do easy, safe handstand push-ups. Youll probably get there faster than if you spend months doing lousy, ugly, reduced-range-of-motion handstand push-ups that never seem to get any easier.

Its a two-step process:

  1. Lose your ego: Ask your coach what progression is best for you given the lesson plan of the day. What will help you get what you ultimately want faster?
  2. Learn to be patient: This might mean snatching with an empty bar for an entire year. It might mean doing ring rows for six months before you hop back on the pull-up bar. Fast-forward two to three years, and youll find yourself injury-free, strong, and able to complete challenging movements that you might have thought were impossible!

So, the next time youre tempted by sexy movementsin that moment when you think to yourself, I’m 30 years old. I want a pull-up. I dont have time to be patient,’—try saying this to yourself: I want to be 60 and still at the gym injury-free and strong. I cant afford NOT to be patient.

One final thought…if you want to improve something…and I mean REALLY improve it…it’s going to take some extra work. As balanced as our programming may be, in the end, there are still hundreds of movements out there that we need to be exposed to periodically for the purpose of being balanced athletes, and only about 40 minutes per day (if we consider the time it takes for warm-ups and cool-downs) in a class where we are able to do them.

To go from wanting to having, you will need to take the initiative to come in a little early, do a “cash-out” at the end of a WOD, or schedule a private training session with your coach to get better at it. Just like anything in life, there is no magic pill, no secret sauce, and no shortcut that we can implement to replace good ol’ fashion hard work.  But with commitment and consistency, any movement can eventually be achieved.