How learning to handstand made me stronger (even without getting sweaty)

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Think you need to be red and sweaty after exercise? So did fitness writer Chloe Gray, until she started learning how to handstand. 

Rarely do I find that doing or having more is actually better. Sure, having a huge circle of friends sounds lovely, but I know that keeping up with plans would drain me and my phone battery – I can barely keep up with replying to non-stop messages from the friends I already have. Having more time on my hands has always been a big dream, but lockdown proves that I’d only fill it with more work. So while more exercise is often touted as best, the reality is that training to exhaustion really does more harm than good.

And yet, we’re constantly sold the idea that we need to go hell for leather when we workout. The picture of someone post-workout is them lying on the floor, red, dripping in sweat. It’s never them looking happy, relaxed and accomplished, as exercise should make us feel. 

The fitness industry tends to frame intense workloads as the ‘standard’ from a training session. Fitness influencers share details of their four-hour-long workouts (yes, this really still happens and no, it’s not a good idea). The obsession with sweat, redness, even training to the point of nausea or having a ‘fitness hangover’ is worn as a badge of honour for some. 

Let me make it clear – I’ve never believed in extreme training. To many people, my workouts might be seen as a little pathetic, given that they don’t include an extreme cardio set to finish up on and I’m never left crawling for the door. Yet, I still have fallen victim to feeling like I need to experience a certain level of exertion for my workouts to ‘count’. 

Lockdown has changed that – but not in the way you might expect. My attitude hasn’t changed because I haven’t had access to the gyms, or because I’ve found out that walking is so good for me. It’s because I started handstanding

Let’s rewind. I was a gymnast growing up, but aside from the odd party trick, I hadn’t done any form of gymnastics for about 10 years. I didn’t exercise, really, for about four years after quitting the sport, and then I took up strength training. In lockdown 1 I decided to try my luck at handstands again (desperate for a hobby to fill the time and keep me feeling motivated) and I loved it. Some people painted for hours on end, others went head first into sourdough baking, and I tipped myself upside down. 

I fell back in love with handstands almost immediately. But, according to traditional fitness standards, it wasn’t really ‘training’. I didn’t get sweaty, my heart rate didn’t get that high, my fitness tracker - which can identify a workout based on your movements and automatically log it - didn’t even acknowledge it. 

Yet, practising handstands is always my toughest workout of the week. I spend 45 minutes moving from the floor to the wall, during all of which I’m bracing my core, pushing through my shoulders, squeezing my arms, tucking my pelvis, engaging my glutes. Everything, from my fingertips to my toes, is working (and the heavy DOMS I feel the next day prove just that).

They’re also one of the best workouts I do for my mental health – and I’m not just talking about post-workout endorphins. While weight lifting may take up the majority of my training sessions, these workouts are quite formulaic and, given that I can’t increase the weights I’m lifting at the moment, are mainly there to give me an element of routine and to keep my muscles active. Handstands are where I really feel a sense of achievement and progress, celebrating the ability to take my feet off the wall for milliseconds longer than last week, or progressing my hollow body holds from 20 to 30 to 40 seconds.  

“Learning to handstand is one of the most empowering forms of exercises I’ve ever done,” agrees my friend Claudia, who gave me the confidence to start handstand training. “The feeling of being able to control your body, even when your brain is underneath your feet, is priceless.”

I’m aware that handstands aren’t for everyone. Some people hate gymnastics training, others don’t have the physical ability to train in this way. The truth is, it’s nothing to do with handstands themselves. The point is that no one should avoid doing a certain type of training because it doesn’t make them knackered enough.

Perhaps the thought of yoga has always intrigued you, but the thought of spending a precious hour of your day lying on a mat feels like a waste of time. Maybe it’s dance, but you’ve always believed that a workout without weights is no workout at all. The aesthetics-obsessed fitness industry has led us to believe that there are some types of movement that are more valuable than others. This simply isn’t true.

I think about pre-lockdown me, who would look at people posting images of their handstands on social media and feel a twinge of jealousy. I’d wish I was able to re-learn to handstand, but I’d never swap a ‘proper’ session of heart-rate rising weights and HIIT just to do handstands because I felt it wouldn’t count if I wasn’t left feeling hot and breathless. How wrong I was. All sessions count, whether you walk away as pink as Instagram interiors or look exactly the same as when you started. You can gain so much from a session that, on the surface, looks as though it’s given you nothing.

Handstands have given me more than just a skill – they’ve given me something to be proud of in the world’s most testing time, a greater understanding of how to look after my mental and physical health, and a stronger core than I’ve gotten from doing sit-ups. That, to me, sounds like a great workout. 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).