“You must do the thing you think you cannot do”
When is the last time you really challenged yourself to try something you previously believed to be impossible? While Eleanor probably didn’t have her goals set on a handstand, it’s safe to say this woman could have done anything she set her mind to. In honor of National Handstand Day on June 25th, lets talk about what you can do to prepare yourself for this challenge.
The road to a perfect handstand requires a tremendous amount of work, so the earlier you start the better. As a rock climbing coach I trained my athletes to perform handstands as a fun way to train the antagonist muscles they used to get up a wall. This helped prevent injuries and gave them another fun way to strengthen their shoulders and core. What I found is that those who have tried handstands in the past and failed didn’t go at it in the right way. There is an order of operations that you must take in order to achieve the end result. With my experience as a coach and collegiate diver, I created this guide to help you achieve this goal in the most progressive and safe way! Keep in mind that this is a general guide for those who have no previous or current orthopedic injuries. If you want to learn a handstand but are concerned about the possibility of injury, get a hold of a qualified trainer or physical therapist and get their input. With a little preparation, commitment, and elbow grease, almost anyone can perform this relatively simple feat!
The following guide is meant to save you a lot of heartache in the long run. Don’t be a hero by jumping right to the last step without mastering steps 1-5 first. Spend quality time and effort into progressing through each of the steps in the order they are presented. Master each of them before proceeding onto the next. Choose weights that challenge you to finish the full sets, and adjust them as you gain more strength. Finally, create a workout routine that implements the prerequisites as well as all the exercises for every step as you master them.
Handstands require so much more than just strong arms, so it is important to think about the entire body for proper and safe execution. It is critical to perfect these two body-weight exercises before attempting any handstands. Spending more time on these earlier stages will dramatically improve your final handstand!
Planks teach you to isometrically engage your entire core. A handstand is essentially a vertical plank, so master the plank first. Get to the point where you can hold a perfect plank (hands below shoulders, hips tucked forward, and the abs and glutes squeezed) for AT LEAST 2 minutes at a time. If you have a friend training with you, have him or her provide perturbations by pushing your hips with increasing pressure towards one side, then switching to the other. This forces you to completely engage every muscle throughout your core to avoid moving or falling over. From the standard plank position, you can add countless modifications such as side-steps, heel-raises, and reaches. All of these variations are a great way to build up your core stability and increase the safety and effectiveness of virtually all other body-weight and weight-bearing exercises.
The ability to hold your own body weight during a dynamic movement is the key here. Although a handstand requires you to have static overhead strength, getting into and out of one involves dynamic loading both in the horizontal and frontal plane. Simply put, master your own body weight! Perform push-ups in groups of 10-15. If you are unable to perform these on the ground without arching your back inwards or losing control of your elbows, start by doing them against a raised surface such as a wall, chair, or bench. Additionally, you can make your push-ups more handstand oriented by performing a pike push-up. While in a push-up position, walk your feet towards your hands, allowing your hips to raise into the air in an upside-down “V” position. From here, perform a push-up by bringing your forehead close to the ground without touching it.
1. Build the Foundation
Start your journey to a perfect handstand by building up the necessary muscles. Perform each of these exercises for 5 sets of 8-10 unless otherwise noted. Remember to focus on technique first before loading on heavy weights. The foundation your creating needs to be built from endurance first and strength second. Always try to mix the prerequisite workouts into your routine in order to retain a solid core.
- Dumbbell Push Press
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, lift them to shoulder height.
- Keep your palms facing each other and dumbbells above the shoulder, this is your starting position.
- Exhale as you push the dumbbells straight up above the shoulder.
- Keeping your elbows narrow, inhale as you return the dumbbells down to the starting position.
- Dumbbell Shoulder Shrug
- Holding a heavy dumbbell in both hands, slightly bend your knees and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back.
- Keeping your shoulder blades squeezed together and your hands at your side, make an “I don’t know” gesture by raising your shoulders up into the air.
- Return the shoulders back down to the starting position to finish the rep.
- Dumbbell Up and Out
- Take a dumbbell in each hand and hold them at your side.
- Squeezing your shoulder blades down and back, slightly bend your knees. This is your starting position.
- Exhale as you lift your arms straight out in front of you up to shoulder height, keeping your palms facing each other.
- Inhale as you slowly lower them back down to your sides.
- Exhale as you raise your arms straight out to the side until your hands are at shoulder level and palms are facing the floor.
- Inhale as you slowly lower your arms to the starting position to finish the rep.
- “Up, down, Out, down” equals one rep.
- Finger Flicks
- Make a semi-fist with both hands by curling your fingers and placing your thumb across all four of your other finger nails.
- As if trying to flick water off your fingers, press your thumb into the tops of your finger nails as you rapidly extend the four fingers.
- Finish the rep by returning to the curled position with the finger nails behind the thumb.
- Do 5 sets of 50 of these on each hand, make sure you flick hard!
- Kettlebell Waiter Walks
- Holding a kettlebell in one hand, raise it straight into the air so that the bulk of the kettlebell is resting on the back of the wrist and the arm is extended straight above the shoulder.
- Brace your core and keep your shoulders level.
- Walk for laps or time.
- 5 sets of 100ft. per hand.
2. Handstand Towel Pikes
These are the first real handstand-type workouts that you should try. The pike raises your hips above your hands to mimic the loads experienced during a handstand. Spend some time in the piked position with your hips up as high as you can before lowering to the straight-arm plank each time.
Perform 5 sets of 15. If they are easy, keep them in your workout and go to the next step!
- Get into a straight arm plank with your hands directly below your shoulders, body straight, and feet on a towel or other slippery surface.
- Squeeze your abs and raise your hips into the air while your slide your feet towards your hands.
- Keep your legs straight as your body creates an upside down “V” shape.
- Return to the straight arm plank position by sliding your feet back until your body is straight.
3. Handstand Wall Walk-up
Handstand wall walk-ups are the next step towards perfect handstands. While towel pikes mimic the load, wall walk-ups introduce the instability component that your body will experience in a handstand. Take these slow and steady at first, and I recommend having a pad below you in case you fall. At this point you need to start thinking about the right way to fall. ALWAYS protect your neck in the event of a fall. If you fall forward (towards your back), tuck your chin and roll, don’t fight it! If you fall backwards (towards your front), bend your knees and absorb the landing with your feet.
Perform 5 minutes of :20/:10. That means you go up and down for 20 seconds then rest for 10, then repeat for 5 minutes (10 times).
- Crouch onto your hands and feet with your back towards a wall.
- Place one foot at a time above hip level on the wall behind you.
- Slowly walk up the wall with your feet as you walk your hands towards the wall.
- Once you get into a straight handstand position close to the wall, begin walking your feet back down and your hands back out.
4. Wall Handstand Shoulder Touches
This will be the hardest handstand related training exercise thus far. It forces you to keep the shoulders and core engaged during uneven loading. Each shoulder will need to bear the full weight of your body for a short period of time. If these are too difficult right now, try only slightly lifting a hand off the ground rather than lifting all the way to the shoulder. Keep these in your training regimen even after you can hold a complete handstand.
Perform 5 sets of 6-10 on each hand. If this becomes easy, do them progressively slower.
- Get into a wall handstand with your stomach and hands close to the wall.
- Brace your entire core and lean onto your right hand as your left hand touches your right shoulder.
- Switch back and forth between hands trying not to let your core wobble too much.
5. Wall Handstand Split Holds
The final component to add to your training is balance. Balance is the last step because muscle is enhanced by balance; you need to have muscle endurance, strength, and stability before it can learn how to “auto-correct” itself effectively. Hopefully the only limiting factor at this point is your ability to balance, not your ability to hold your own body weight. If you cannot hold yourself up for more than 30 seconds, return to step 1 and spend more time progressing through the steps.
Perform 5 minutes of :20/:10. (handstand for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds)
Progress to sets of 5 minutes of :40/:20
- Place your hands on the ground about 2 feet away from a wall.
- Kick-up into a handstand with one leg bent at a 90 degree angle to catch the wall as you fall towards it.
- Slightly straighten the bent leg once it makes contact with the wall.
- Let the opposite leg act as a counterbalance by falling forward into a split stance
- Find your center of balance and try to use less and less of the wall for support.
6. True Handstands!
It’s finally time to back away from the wall and give these a go! Remember to stay completely tight and take them slowly. Focus on your breathing and stay positive. Handstands take time and effort. You’ve made it through all the necessary steps, now it is time to apply them.
- Place your hands on the ground just outside of shoulder width.
- Brace your core as you lean over your hands and kick one leg into the air, leading into a split-stance handstand.
- Slowly bring your legs together as you find your center of balance.
- Keep weight on your finger tips and shrug your shoulders (push through the ground).
- Once your feet are together, point your toes and brace every muscle in your body (including legs) for the perfect handstand technique!
Even if you can only hold a true handstand for a few seconds, great job! These are ridiculously challenging at first, but the learning curve is in your favor. Once you get to the point where you can properly hold a true handstand for more than 3 seconds the hard part is over. 3 seconds will quickly turn into 10, then 15, then 30, and so on. Don’t give up at this stage! Continue your training program and your handstands will only improve faster and faster.
Congratulations! You now have everything you need in order to hold a perfect handstand. Eleanor Roosevelt would be so proud. Commitment and self-control breed results, and if you made it through step 6 successfully it’s because you took the time to do it right. Now go out into the world with your feet held high knowing that you can do what many before have tried and failed at. Finally, bring on National Handstand Day!