Develop Your Handstand: The Importance of Progression

Chris Lofland

Coach

Gymnastics

The handstand covers a lot of aspects of athleticism: strength, mobility, balance, stability, spatial awareness, flexibility, and more. Being able to successfully do a handstand transfers over to other skills (press handstands, planche, handstand walking, pirouettes). It also is a neat trick lots of people would love to have in their inventory. But, more importantly, being able to do a handstand is just a lot of fun to play around with.

 

The process of getting a handstand is a rough and long road, and dedication is key. Those that want instant gratification at the cost of never truly mastering a skill or trait need read no further. Those that understand the importance of small details, long-term dedication, commitment, and striving for high-quality movement, however, are the individuals who can achieve a handstand by recognizing that it must be worked for. When I see a “good” handstand, I know that a person has spent hours, days, years committing time to honing in this skill. It is respectable, impressive, and transfers over to learning new skills inside and outside of fitness. So, what does it take to achieve one?

 

 

The Role of Your Wrists and Shoulders

In the handstand, your wrists are going to support your body, so you must dedicate time to mobilize and strengthen them. This will not only prevent injury but will also allow you to perform the skill for any length of time. Check out my article on wrist strength and mobility for exercises and stretches to keep your wrist health in check.

 

Your shoulders must have a sufficient range of motion and strength to achieve the proper lines for a handstand. For the flexibility/mobility aspect, I would suggest developing the bridge. The bridge, when done correctly, will start to open up your shoulders and thoracic spine to allow you to place your arms overhead while simultaneously stacking your body with straight arms. Many times, low back arching in a handstand is due to poor shoulder flexibility.

 

 

A good starting point for shoulder strength would be scapular push ups, for beginners, and handstand shrugs, for intermediate athletes.

 

For scapular push ups:

 

  • Start in a plank position with straight arms and hips tucked under (posterior pelvic tilt). 
  • Let your chest drop while squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Pull your chest in and pushing your shoulder blades apart.

 

For handstand shrugs:

 

  • Walk your feet up the wall so that your chest is facing the wall.
  • From this position, let your shoulders sink into your body creating more space between your shoulders and head.
  • Push through your hands and driving your shoulders away from your body, closing the space between your shoulders and ears.

 

 

The Role of Your Core

Your core must be rock solid in a handstand. Think of it as trying to balance a straight, firm dowel on your hand or balancing a pool noodle on your hand. You will have a much easier time finding balance with the rigid object. The same goes for your handstand. The hollow body position is what we are working to achieve in the handstand.

 

I suggest developing your straight body hollow position holds on the floor so that you can easily hold a hollow body position for one minute. When performing the hollow position, be sure that your low back stays flat and your hips stay tucked (posterior pelvic tilt). You can find hollow body strength progressions here.

 

 

The Keys to Proper Positioning

Handstand balance means maintaining your center of gravity directly above and in line with the base formed by your hands. This takes a lot of time and practice to develop. I suggest starting out low to the ground to develop this understanding.

 

Frog stands are a great starting point. It not only develops a lot of strength but your center of gravity is lower to the ground making balance much easier.

 

  • Starting in a gymnastics squat (squat all the way down so that your hamstrings sit on your calves with your weight in the balls of your feet and your heels are off of the ground), place your hands on the floor in front of you and your knees up against your triceps (just above the elbows).
  • From this position, start to bend your arms letting your shoulders move forward until your weight (center of gravity) shifts over your hands enough so that your feet begin to leave the ground. You will now be in a bent-arm tucked handstand position.
  • Practice holding this until you can easily perform a 30 to 60 second hold.

 

Hand Position: Your hands should be about shoulder width apart and your fingers splayed. You want to create as much surface area as possible with your hands. So, open up those fingers!

 

Head Position: Your head position should be as neutral as possible while still looking towards the floor. This can be challenging for many to figure out. A common cue I use is to have the athlete look towards their thumbs with their eyes. This will bring the athletes focus towards the floor without a large effect on their body lines. Head position is the last thing I correct when teaching a handstand to a beginner. When they become more comfortable being upside down, making small adjustments becomes easier.

 

No matter your approach to working on handstand balance, keep these things in mind:

 

  • Proper strength and mobility prep are necessary for mastery. Don’t take the fast track to a mediocre outcome.
  • Skill work takes repetition. By this, I don’t mean you have to do 100 reps or 2 hours of training in a session. This means the more often you train it, the faster you will get better at the skill. It is also preferred to do 10 minutes of skill training every day rather than 2 hours of skill training 1-2 days a week.
  • The slowest and least consistent approach to a handstand (or any skill) is to just start throwing it. Understand the layers upon layers of work that the experts use to get to where they are, and take the same approach. Their mastery is based on time, repetition, and persistence with proper progressions and technique. If you take the same approach, you will have similar results.

 

To check out my step-by-step progressions to achieve a proper handstand click here for my Handstand Strength workout plan.

 

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