Breaking Down the Headstand or Handstand Push Up, Part 1: The Handstand

Here are several progressions that will help you on your way to a strict headstand push up.

Many are curious as to where to start on handstand push up, which is more accurately called a headstand push up in gymnastics, by the way. I mean, you are pushing up in order to lift off your head, right? So, I’m going to share several progressions you can implement that will help you on your way to a strict headstand push up. Once you get around five strict headstand push ups, then you can consider implementing the kip.

This progression will be broken down into a two-part series that will first examine the handstand, and then in part two will break down how to build the strength required for a strict headstand push up.

Using the Barbell Strict Press to Build Strength

If you think about it, the barbell strict press is similar to the handstand, except you are not inverted and the bottom position of the headstand push up is slightly different. Muscle activation in the barbell strict press includes muscles of the rotator cuff, trapezius upper and lower, rhomboid major and minor, abdominals (to keep you from having the curvy back), gluteals (to keep the hips in neutral position), levator scapula, subscapularis, latissimus dorsi, teres major, serratus posterior inferior, and serrratus posterior superior.

When your arms are in full extension in the press, you are in the exact position of the top of a handstand. In either movement, it’s important your form stays consistent throughout, without curving the spine. Make sure you squeeze the abdominals to protect the spine and squeeze the glutes to keep the hips open. Doing strict presses can help build some of the baseline strength you need to hold your own body weight while inverted.

Building Abdominal Strength in the Hollow Position

The best abdominal exercise for preparation of the handstand is the hollow position. If you are holding the hollow with closed hips, meaning you are in a position where your arms and hips hinge in an L position (closing the hip angle), then start with the progressions as that feels comfortable. With your arms floating at your sides, try keeping one knee in and leaving one leg extended. Try switching legs and practice it both ways. While you’re doing this try to keep your scapulae lifted off the ground, keeping that hollow shape and sensation in your core.

As you build strength begin to extend both legs, keeping your hips open (not hinging at the waist or closing the hip angle). You probably won’t be able to hold this as long at first. As you build more strength, begin to extend the arms overhead so the biceps are slightly behind the ears. Keep the neck nice and neutral, which means you are looking towards the celling. The more you crank on your neck, looking down or too far up, you may find that you end up with some neck pain. You pull on the muscles when you leave the neck in an unnatural position.

Learning to Breathe Properly for Inversion

Breathing in the headstand or handstand is another matter. What has helped me stay in a handstand and keep a good hollow position is employing Pilates breathing (yes, CrossFitters you will do something that I gathered from a Pilates class). Having a curved spine, meaning your butt is sticking out, is not ideal when in a headstand or handstand, and yet this is the shape we can fall into if we belly breathe while inverted.

So when you breathe, inhale through your nose (similar to diaphragmatic breathing), but instead of sticking your belly out, inhale so your ribcage expands side-to-side and keep your belly tucked inward toward your spine. As you breathe out, you exhale out of your mouth. This is called lateral breathing in Pilates. This type of breathing takes some practice and may be uncomfortable at first, but when you start getting inverted, this type of breathing will keep your form together, as well as help you hold your handstand without the use of a wall.

Getting Comfortable Being Inverted

If you are first learning to invert, start small. The first inclination for many is to throw your body up without actually knowing what to do. But it’s best if we break it down in steps by using my favorite tool – the box. Here’s the progression I recommend:

  1. Plank position in the hollow
  2. Feet on top of a 6” box, beginning to pike (hinge at the waist) the lower body
  3. Feet on top of an 18” box, this is where you begin to really pike
  4. Feet on top of a 24” box, full pike position
  5. Feet on top of a 30” box, here you will begin to lift one leg at a time

Remember also these basics to the position:

  • Push the hands downward to lengthen the arms and almost feel a lengthening of the latissimus dorsi.
  • Keep the head in a neutral position (meaning don’t crank the neck looking forward). Fingertips are important to pay attention to while inverted, as that is how you keep your balance, similar to your toes and feet.
  • Remember your lateral breathing and keep your butt from creeping its way back. Squeeze the glutes and all the muscles you use in the strict press here.
  • Keep the hollow position in your core and you will begin to pike as the boxes get higher.
  • Try to build on each movement and hold for one minute for five to ten repetitions.

You are building strength in each position – in the shoulders, core, glutes, and inner thighs – to be able to hold your handstand. This box technique is to help you get comfortable in the inverted position.

Beyond the Box: The Actual Inversion

Now that you have some foundation on what muscles are working and how to build strength, these progressions will help you get used to being inverted – and help you figure out how to get inverted without any boxes. For many people who have never been inverted, getting upside down can be challenging and this section will show you how to get there.

1. Wall Walk

The wall walk will help you make sure your body is straight up and down without the curvy back. It may be a little freaky with your face up against the wall, but after the previous progression, your shoulders should be strong enough to hold the position and walk the arms forward and back. This YouTube video shows how gymnasts learn to wall walk, holding the handstand position for a few seconds before coming down.

2. The Kick Up

There are various ways to actually get into the handstand position depending on each person’s comfort level. The gymnast’s kick up is the easiest in that you create some distance between you and the wall (or to a freestanding position). What happens in the gymnast’s kick up is that the distance you create actually slows down the speed from where you start to where you handstand, which lessens the chance that you will cartwheel out, hit the wall, or back bend.

To do this, step into a lunge position with the leg you will kick off the ground with. After you are in the lunge position tilt forward to move your body into a “T” position, with one foot down and one in the air behind you. From there, bring your hands to the ground and kick up. You will automatically create some distance between you and the wall by kicking up this way.

Try these progressions and next week we will go over the progressions for the push up portion. Good luck and, as always, be careful.


1. Biel, Andrew, Trail Guide to The Body (Colorado: Books of Discover, 2005), 69-107.

2. Clippinger, Karen and Isacowitz, Rael. Pilates Anatomy (Illinois: Human Kinetics, 2011) Kindle Edition.

Photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.