The Functional Benefits of Being Upside Down

Kicking up into a handstand shouldn’t just be a party trick. Learning to be upside down has some real athletic implications.

Being upside down is not a natural state for humans. However, handstands hold a special place in people’s minds. They are an acquired skill. Not everyone can do them, frankly, and not everyone who does them, does them well. They require strength and mobility. They are probably one of the more difficult bodyweight movements to master. So, if you are going to put in the effort to acquire handstand skills you probably need to ask yourself what are the functional benefits of being upside down.

Antonio Squillante – A Great Tool for Upper Body Strength

Relativity has brought us to consider movement under a less predictable perspective. What we consider “up and down” or “left and right” is only acceptable within an inertial system that sees us as roaming around on our feet.

If we decided to go upside down and walk on our hands, our points of reference would suddenly change creating a good amount of instability in both our neuromuscular system and our cognition. We would have to create balance by adjusting our alignment with gravity relying on our arms and process information from the environment surrounding us in a very unconventional way. Isn’t this the kind of feeling we have when we perform handstands?

Well, in a world that has raised bipedal animals to a higher standard, it appears worthless, or at very least, superfluous to dedicate attention to such an “unnecessary” exercise. Despite the evolutionary theories in support of this argument, I would like to look at handstands under a different point of view: if I am working with athletes – animals that have mastered the art of standing on two feet to the point of using their own body to perform unbelievable moves – what can I do to challenge them and make them better athletes?

Let’s leave behind for a second all these evolutionary theories: handstands represent a great tool to develop shoulder stability and overall upper body strength in with a way that can hardly be achieved with any other traditional overhead moment. By creating a new inertial system for an athlete to adapt to, handstands also support the development of the vestibular system and its ability to preserve static and dynamic balance. They also challenge the cognitive and decision-making processes upgrading what would otherwise be a pretty simple skill – pushing weights overhead – to a higher level of cuteness complexity forcing atheists to learn how to adapt. A pivotal point in acquiring and mastering a wide variety of open-skills common in sports.

Learning different, and more difficult skills improves the ability to learn. Learning unconditional skills strengthen the weakness that consolidates through years spent executing conventional skills. If A equals B and B equals C then handstands are a great way to develop more complete and well-rounded athletes.

Ted Sloan – Handstands Develop Core Strength and Control

Handstands are an amazingly fun exercise to experiment with; they can be a cool party trick and can be a fun way to get the shoulders, core, wrists, and scapulae ready for training. Stability and mobility in the shoulder complex are often a limitation in many athletes and must be taken care of in order to reduce the likelihood of injury, especially in overhead sports.

Although mobility should be trained prior to attempting a position such as a handstand, once optimal or near optimal positioning is achieved, this exercise can help to create strength and stability at the end range of motion that the handstand puts an athlete in. This stability can significantly help with the catch in the snatch and thus can enable the athlete to progress their training to use the king of all power exercises.

The generation of power is also often limited by core stability and control. All movement is stabilized by the core, but if unwanted movement occurs due to lack of strength and control, then it reduces the amount of force that can be transferred across the body and into the floor.

The handstand can help to develop core strength and control through the forced contraction of the abdominal musculature in order to maintain tucked ribs, can help to create better movement control and proprioception. The added ability to perform power movements such as the snatch, and better core control can help to develop a faster, higher jumping and stronger athlete on the field of play. Have fun with the instructional videos below and build your handstand up progressively and safely.

Giulio – Dynamic Stability is Essential to Handstands

The handstand can be a particularly challenging exercise to master. However, if you follow a proper progression, it can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Overhead shoulder strength, dynamic core stability, flexible wrists, and an awareness of your body in space are among the list of prerequisites to execute a handstand.

Developing active flexibility at the shoulder should be your first priority. We discussed overhead shoulder mechanics in detail in several previous posts for reference. The main idea is to be able to reach overhead without compensating by arching the back and flaring the ribs out. This is hugely important as you’ll want your joints to be as “stacked” as possible in an inverted pose to avoid any unnecessary strain or risk of injury.

Remember that what is most efficient in movement is usually synonymous with what is safe. Our physiology has evolved to effectively overcome external forces with efficient movement. Preparing your joints for the handstand is particularly important because gravity will apply all the force of your weight at once when you kick up.

Your wrists will need to be flexible and strong at the end range of extension in order to support your weight safely. If your wrists can comfortably support a set of push-ups, you’re probably ready to begin a handstand progression. The yoga move “crow pose” is a fairly safe regression because it allows you the luxury of shifting your weight gradually onto the hands and adjusting your weight distribution as needed to find a balance point that’s comfortable.

Dynamic stability in the core is really the key to holding the handstand after the kick up. There are more than a few ways to train core stability. I prefer crawl variations to teach contralateral coordination while dynamically maintaining core stiffness. Crawl variations will also challenge the shoulders to support your body weight against gravity. Outside of the prescribed handstand progressions, the Turkish getup is an excellent exercise to teach global tension and dynamic stabilization with overhead strength.

The handstand is the apex of functional movement

I’ve discussed the getup several times in previous posts but it shouldn’t go unmentioned here because it’s so relevant to preparing the body for inversion. In a brief discussion on functional exercise, we three, as coaches, agreed that the key to functional exercise is overcoming gravity while moving through space. By this definition, the handstand is arguably the apex of functional movement. It should go without saying that it’s not an exercise to be underestimated. It may take time to prepare the joints and become comfortable in an inversion. Take your time and enjoy the process.

You might also like the Get Ready for Handstands Series.

Theodore Sloan, Antonio Squillante, and Giulio Palau are three up and coming young coaches, part of a vanguard of new minds coming into the industry. They will approach a coaching tactic or strategy from a different perspective and share their insights here. If you have a training subject you would like to see addressed by these guys, send an email to [email protected] with #ThinkReps in the subject line.