In German we have the idiom "doing handstands". It describes an unacceptably high amount of effort: The circumstances require it, but they themselves are considered unacceptable. Two examples:

  1. Nowadays, pupils have such a short attention span that teachers need to do handstands to keep them engaged. - Pupils should not have such a short attention span; the fact that they have means something went wrong (e.g. in their upbringing).

  2. Your API is so full of bugs that I had to do handstands to solve problem X (because I had to find workarounds for the bugs, but for the workarounds I had to use other API calls which were also buggy, so they required even more workarounds). - The API should not have that many bugs; the fact that it has means something went wrong (e.g. ever-changing unqualified programmers write it).

Some hints regarding the connotation of "doing handstands" in German as far as I know:

  • You never do them out of free will. You do them out of necessity if you want to achieve something that requires them, but there is always a negative feeling about this, even if just subtly.

  • They can be strenuous but they don't need to be. So doing handstands does not necessarily mean to work yourself to the point of exhaustion.

I am looking for an English equivalent.

  • It makes me think to the 12 labours of Hercules. But, only a (demi)god accepted this herculean effort.
    – Graffito
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 7:57
  • ‘unacceptable amount’ as in ‘too low’, ‘too high’, or ‘adequate, but should not have been necessary’? Commented May 6, 2023 at 14:33
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    I could have sworn that doing handstands was an English idiom, but I can't find any real evidence. It’s interesting, though, that handstands, bending over backwards, and jumping through hoops are all “circus acts.” Commented May 6, 2023 at 15:44
  • @user3840170 I added some more explanation, hope it is clearer now.
    – Kjara
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 18:02
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    Even though it's not an English idiom, I think using it directly like in your examples would be understood and might seem more novel and vivid. A fair number of expressions have made it from German to English that way! Commented May 8, 2023 at 4:06

8 Answers 8


Bend over backwards is another possibility, implying making strenuous efforts to achieve the desired result.

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    Worth noting that one should not have to bend over backwards under favorable circumstances, but this happens when things get out of hand, also answering the unfortunate circumstances component of the question.
    – livresque
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 11:08
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    One federal judge known for his verbosity even translated this into Latin, mocking a brief for its “recurvescent reasoning,” that is, for bending over backwards to justify its conclusion.
    – Davislor
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 21:45
  • I think "bending over backwards" is more about trying to accommodate a difficult request, not so much the difficulty of fulfilling it.
    – shmosel
    Commented May 8, 2023 at 17:29
  • The example in the link ("We are bending over backwards to ensure that the safeguards are kept in place.") could not be said with the German handstands. The handstands always imply that the circumstances which require the effort are not the way they should be. You would never do these handstands out of free will. The link's explanation ("to try very hard to do something and to help or please someone, even if it causes you trouble") suggests that you can bend over backwards out of free will. So this is incompatible.
    – Kjara
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 13:17

English also has an idiom for this that reminds one of acrobatics performed in a place like a circus: "to jump through hoops". From M-W:

to do a complicated or annoying series of things in order to get or achieve something

Here is a recent example:

In order for companies to gain a blue checkmark on their outgoing emails, they need to jump through a few hoops. First they need to setup BIMI for their account, then adopt Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC), and finally they need to gain a Verified Mark Certificate (VMC) issued by a Certification Authority. (Matthew Humphries, "Google Adds Blue Checkmark Verification to Gmail," PC Magazine, 4 May 2023)

This idiom doesn't necessary imply "unacceptability", but you could always modify it by saying "too many hoops", etc.

  • 15
    To me, jumping through hoops is about meeting bureaucratic requirements rather than problem-solving.
    – Peter
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 5:11
  • 1
    @Peter I agree that it's not an exact match for OP's meaning, but the idea is similar. Commented May 6, 2023 at 5:44
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    I accepted this one because many of the Merriam-Webster examples could be said with the German handstands without change of meaning, and they mostly contain undesirable circumstances. Also I personally feel that bureaucratic requirements often fall into the category of unnecessarily-complicated/undesirable/something-went-wrong.
    – Kjara
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 18:23
  • I've always seen "jumping through hoops" as related to a lion or tiger jumping through hoops on request of a trainer, and applied to situations not where we're doing something unacceptably difficult because of a wrong situation, but something unacceptably ridiculous that only a very submissive person would accept.
    – Stef
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 19:34
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    To follow up on Stef's comment, hoops is plural -- like in that example with BIMI and DMARC and... . JtH implies a multi-step process which has been unfairly or stupidly imposed. In OP's 1st example, JtH is wrong (it sounds as if the school is forcing extra paperwork) and in the 2nd it may give the wrong meaning (it sounds as if the bad API is requiring many extra steps, not that it's difficult to use). Commented May 6, 2023 at 20:38

"Going to extreme lengths", Merriam-Webster seems to carry the meaning you want. "Going to great lengths" is also possible.

Your original "I had to do handstands" is also perfectly understandable in the examples you provided.

  • This has the same issue as the bending over backwards - you can do it out of free will, to achieve something, no negative feelings included. The handstands are only done reluctantly/unwillingly.
    – Kjara
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 13:20

Move Mountains

The Collins Dictionary defines this as

to do something that seems impossible, particularly when love or a particular belief makes you feel determined to succeed

You’ll most commonly hear this in a sentence like “Love can move mountains.” (Michael Seifert reminds me of the very similar saying, “move Heaven and Earth.”)

In this context, you’d probably want to use it in a negative or sarcastic sense: “I shouldn’t have to move mountains just to get something installed.”

  • 4
    A variant of this is "move heaven and earth". Commented May 7, 2023 at 20:55

One way of expressing this is to use work oneself into the ground.

run[/work] oneself into the ground

[phrase of ground]

exhaust oneself; wear oneself out.

[Oxford Languages; courtesy of Google]

work (oneself) into the ground

To work oneself to the point of illness or exhaustion.

If you keep working 80-hour weeks, you'll work yourself into the ground sooner than later.

[Farlex Dictionary of Idioms]

Nowadays, pupils have such a short attention span that teachers are working themselves into the ground [trying] to keep them engaged.

Another, more informal (Christine Ammer, in The Dictionary of Clichés, labels this an 'inelegant locution': in an inappropriate register for your first example, at least) way of putting this is to use work one's tail/butt off.

work one's tail/butt off

To work excessively or to the point of exhaustion

To work (oneself) overly hard


  • you'll work yourself into the ground sooner than later is a "mash-up" of two different usages. The "standard" one being sooner or later, which has been conflated with the syntactically valid but far less common sooner rather than later. Commented May 6, 2023 at 11:16

Working one's arse off.

  1. Nowadays, pupils have such a short attention span that teachers are working their arses off to keep them engaged.

  2. Your API is so full of bugs that I had to work my arse off solving the problem.

  • 4
    But this one, being rather coarse, is only suitable in a very informal register. Commented May 6, 2023 at 14:53
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    Australia and NZ being formally informal 👍 Commented May 6, 2023 at 22:57
  • 2
    A more North American version is “busting your ass”, also suitable only for informal use. Commented May 7, 2023 at 2:12
  • That's not quite the idiom the OP is looking for. You can work your arse off and not go through hoops (doing repetitive, uninventive work), and vice versa. Commented May 7, 2023 at 20:42

I might consider this phrase, esp. in the case of the first example by the OP:

Make a song and dance

(To make) an unnecessary fuss; also, a misleading story or statement, nonsense. In the first sense this term dates from mid-nineteenth-century England, where it is usually put as nothing to make a song (and dance) about, meaning this is an unimportant matter. The second sense originated in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. Brander Matthews used it in A Confident Tomorrow (1900): “It ain’t a song and dance I’m giving you either.” The same old song and dance, on the other hand, refers to an overfamiliar, hackneyed routine, whether or not that happens to be an old familiar lie or excuse. See also same old rigmarole.

a song and dance. (n.d.) The Dictionary of Clichés. (2013). Retrieved May 7 2023 from https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/a+song+and+dance

  • A song and dance is unnecessary, but not necessarily lots of work. A salesman may give you a whole song and dance about why his product is the best, implying his spiel is trumped up fluff, but not that it's lots of effort on his part. I don't think this says much about the level of effort beyond the fact that it's unnecessary in the first place. Commented May 8, 2023 at 16:08

Too Hard Basket

In Australia and New Zealand, there exists a metaphorical basket that tasks with insufficient payback for the effort expended get put into.

"He's put it in the too hard basket", or "I'm putting it in the too hard basket" is said day in, day out among engineering and trades staff.

Things in the too hard basket may get dealt with one day, but it is very rare to hear any reference to tasks being taken out of the basket; they just finally get done, or dealt with, confronted, etc.

  • 2
    Although it doesn't seem to me to have quite the usage the OP was asking about, I'm so delighted to learn this expression!
    – Vectornaut
    Commented May 8, 2023 at 2:39

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