Do you need to do a handstand tomorrow? For the great majority of people the answer is no. Heck No! I could go through the rest of my life without performing a single handstand without realizing that I was missing a thing.
Asking the question this way is missing the point though. While we don’t necessarily need to do handstands, we do need shoulders that are capable of doing handstands. Working your way through a smart progression toward a goal of holding a free standing handstand will reward you with strong stable shoulders. Shoulders prepared in this way will be better at everything else you ask them to do.
To understand why this is so, it is helpful to consider some basic shoulder anatomy. Structural integrity of the shoulder and arm depends on several complex relationships. The upper arm bone – humerus – articulates through a large range of motion in the shoulder socket. The shoulder socket itself, being part of the shoulder blade – scapula – does not have a fixed position but moves around as the scapula moves. Our scapula is not solidly fixed to the skeleton. It is free to move as the upper back moves. The upper back – our thoracic spine – bends and flexes quite a bit as we bend and flex our bodies. All of these relationships are dynamic and are constantly adjusting as we use our bodies to move and work. Bending down to reach our skis, lifting luggage into an overhead compartment, pulling a rope, throwing, pulling, pushing, climbing — all of these movements require that we direct force through the shoulder. Directing these forces efficiently through stable shoulders is the goal.
How can we build stable shoulders? Strengthening shoulders brings to mind a number of standard exercises; push-ups, pull-ups, dips, military and bench press and many other variations of pushing and pulling. In fact, striving for balance between pushing and pulling work is the expected standard of excellence in shoulder training. Rack your brains for a moment and ask yourself who has the strongest shoulders you have ever seen? If you didn’t answer gymnasts go rack your brain some more. Now look at the moves which gymnasts practice and perform and something odd jumps out. They are not pushing or pulling all that much, at least not the way we normally think of pushing and pulling, with our arms flexing and extending at the elbow. Gymnasts do a lot of moving that involves keeping their arms STRAIGHT! Gymnasts have the ability to direct huge amounts of force through their shoulders without flexing or extending their elbows at all.
An article of faith among gymnastics coaches is that the aspiring athlete must develop competence in the handstand before any other skill acquisition is possible. We have taken our direction from gymnastics training methods, and developed a progression for teaching handstand skills to adults of all ability levels. It is not a given that all adults will be able to progress all the way through the following progression. Indeed, years of work are necessary to acquire all the skills laid out below. How far you take this journey is entirely up to you, your unique combination of skill, talent, interest and hard work. Any progress down this path however, will benefit your shoulders.
This progression will start with an athlete who has no ability to perform hand stands and progress through free standing handstands.
The Value of Handstands
The ability to hold a free standing handstand without excessive swaying or movement is crucial to your development as an athlete. Any progress you make toward this skill will provide great benefit in many other athletic pursuits. Excellent shoulder stability developed through hand-stand work will carry over to improved ability at military press, pull-ups, overhead squatting, olympic weightlifting, rock climbing, rowing, throwing and many other activities.
The best approach is to understand the elements of a properly executed handstand. To develop those elements thoroughly and in the proper sequence, each new increment of progress builds on the previous until success at the handstand is inevitable.
A Traditional Approach
The most commonly used approach to developing handstands is for the athlete to kick up with his back against the wall or other stationary support. If, as is often the case, the athlete has trouble kicking up, an assist is provided by supporting the athletes legs or feet, lifting legs over shoulders until the upside down position is achieved. The process is repeated over and over with the expectation that eventually even the most uncomfortable and nervous person will just get used to being upside down on his/her hands. Generally speaking, as soon as the athlete is able to kick up to an inverted position, attempts will be made to pull feet away from the support so as to learn balance. In most cases however, the athlete is not nearly ready to balance at this point. Any further progress is hit or miss.
This method is not completely worthless and it occasionally even works, but this approach can be very frustrating for those who don’t pick up the skill quickly. The “kick-up” method can also be very frightening for those who have weak shoulders or who just don’t feel how to keep their shoulders engaged. I have witnessed far too many occasions of a novice hand stander crashing his/her head and shoulders into the ground and concluding that the pain and embarrassment is simply not worth the trouble and that the handstand is a skill they will never develop.
The fault here lies not with the athlete, but rather with the method of teaching the skill. You will have a difficult time developing good body awareness, positioning and stability if kicking up is your primary handstand training method. There is a better way.
A Better Approach
Our method will consist of developing, in this order:
1) Tight rigid hollow body posture. Think whole body squeeze! Learning to maintain the hollow posture in different positions
2) Scapula control and stability. Stable shoulder blades are not on most people’s radar and this is a mistake.
3) Body position. Now is the time to walk up a wall and develop the handstand position.
4) Strength and stamina. Developed by spending sufficient time in the proper positions.
5) Kicking up and stepping down. Control getting into and out of the handstand position.
6) Balance drills. Start now to wean yourself off the wall.
7) Free standing handstands, practice on both floor and parallel bars (or paralletes).
8) Developing more strength and beginning to shift weight from side to side, gradually learning to walk while holding a stable handstand.
Each of these skills will be explored in detail in the next 6 articles of the Handstand Series. Please dive in and have fun developing a skill which few people have but everyone can benefit from.