Handstands – Why Do Them?

By Dave Werner

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 feeling that I was missing a thing.

Asking the question this way is missing the point though. We don’t necessarily need to do handstands. We 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, we need to start with some shoulder anatomy. Structural integrity of the shoulder and arm depends on several complex relationships. The upper arm bone – humorous – 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 a page from the gymnastics training book 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 floor 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 occasionally, it 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 handstander 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;

  • Tight rigid hollow body posture. Think whole body squeeze! Learning to maintain the hollow posture in different positions
  • Scapula control and stability. Stable shoulder blades are not on most peoples radar and this is a mistake.
  • Body position. Now is the time to walk up a wall and develop the handstand position.
  • Strength and stamina. Developed by spending sufficient time in the proper positions.
  • Kicking up and stepping down. Control getting into and out of the handstand position.
  • Balance drills. Start now to wean yourself off the wall.
  • Free standing handstands, practice on both floor and parallel bars (or parallets).

Learn to Stay Tight!

The first priority in any handstand development effort must be body awareness and the ability to maintain body stiffness while in motion and upside down. “Hollow Body” is the phrase used to describe the appropriate posture for handstand work. The hollow body posture involves a strong contraction of quadriceps and abdominal muscles on the front of the body while simultaneously strongly contracting gluteus and latisimus on the back of the body. This co-contraction of opposing muscle groups makes the trunk very rigid and allows use of your hands and shoulders to generate the necessary position corrections needed to maintain a hand balance. This skill is closely related to the powerful trunk co-contraction needed for squats and deadlifts – but there are differences.

You will make much better progress if the first stage of your handstand training is dedicated to learning to maintain a hollow body under different circumstances.

  • Plank position with strong hollow body engagement and proper pelvic tilt
  • Weighted plank. Use a partner or chains to add load at the waist and maintain a tight hollow
  • Plank on unstable support such as rings to develop high levels of shoulder and trunk stability
  • Hollow body rocks. Pull abs so tight that a smooth rocking motion on your back is possible
  • One arm plank. Shift to strong support on one shoulder.  Legs, hips and trunk don’t move at all!
  • One arm ring plank to further develop shoulder strength and stability, and to correct bilateral strength imbalances
  • Moving plank. Partner supports ankles and lifts you to handstand, maintain hollow body!
  • One arm – one leg plank holds. Trunk perfectly stable while moving limbs
  • Plank walk. Feet on dolly, do not allow any twisting or wiggling in hips or trunk
  • Ab-wheel rollout. Arms straight
  • Plank to tuck. Feet on dolly, hollow trunk
  • Straight arm, straight leg shoulder pull. Feet on dolly, hollow body

The plank exercises teach us how to get the trunk stable and keep it stable while your body position changes. They can also be surprisingly challenging and are great for conditioning.

Stable Shoulders!

Trying to hand balance without a stable midline is just a waste of time. With that developed though; you are ready to take the next step. Your next priority is to develop a really stable set of shoulders.

The next essential element of handstand development is to make sure that your shoulders are stable. Stable shoulders mean not allowing the scapula to move around unless you want them to move. What in the world am I talking about? The truth is that we generally never think about what our shoulder blades are doing and most people can’t feel their shoulder blades moving around even if they try. Most strength coaches that I have met aren’t thinking about this either. Learn to military press or bench press more weight and your shoulders get strong – how hard is that to understand? This is a case however when the simple, old school approach can be improved upon. You will see better results in yourself and in any athletes you train if you take the time to develop straight arm shoulder strength.

Straight arm shoulder strength involves controlling your shoulder position while maintaining rigidly straight elbows and loading the shoulder in many different positions. There are many ways to accomplish this, but here is a short list of positions and movements which specifically help develop your handstand.

  • Plank shoulder shrug. Elbows remain straight, hollow body
  • Down dog shoulder shrug. Keep arms in line with trunk, slide shoulders toward hips then ears
  • Pike box handstand shoulder shrug. Maintain hollow body, keep shoulders open
  • Pike wall handstand shoulder shrug. Trunk is vertical, shrug is vertical
  • Dip support. On parallel bars then rings, keep shoulders active with no internal rotation

There are many other good shoulder stability developing exercises. What they have in common is that your arms are held straight. Eliminating elbow movement while aggressively pushing the arm straight allows movement to be isolated to the shoulder joint and movement of the scapula. Controlling the movement of your shoulder blade while simultaneously controlling your movement within the shoulder joint itself is already very difficult. If our goal is developing scapular stability, allowing elbow movement makes achieving the goal much less likely.

Learn the Position

Having developed a stiff hollow body position and strong stable shoulders, you are now ready to start working on the handstand position itself. The way to start is to hold positions with progressively elevated feet, arms straight, shoulders active and a very tight hollow body.

If you are not exhausted by a 30 second hold you are absolutely missing the point. Your body must be tight! Beginners start in a pike position with feet on the floor. This looks a lot like the yoga “downward facing dog”. The next position is a piked body with feet on a box.  Graduate to a piked position with feet on the wall, work your way up so that you are completely vertical, face against the wall. Work at each position until you are able to hold it without losing tension for 30 seconds or so.

Then, begin working on the next position in the progression until you are able to hold it for 30 seconds. When the fully vertical handstand position is attained for a very active 30 second interval, you will then start adding intervals. Rest, then repeat hold until you are able to stay in a very active position for 10 x 30 seconds. Total time in position is now at 5 minutes and the shoulders have greatly increased strength and stamina. Start compressing intervals together, 5 x 1 minute, 4 x 1:30, 3 x 2 minutes, or any other scheme you think up. These holds can be used as a station in a workout, or incorporated into a warm up. Warming up in a great locked out shoulder position is very useful when the workout will involve a shoulder strength component. You will by now have also developed a much better awareness of position and muscle tension in the inverted position. This is a big deal as most of us get quite disoriented when upside down. Our nervous system and sense of balance are just simply not used to the position. So – get used to it!

As a side benefit, you will at this point notice that your military press lock – out just got better, as did your jerk, thruster, overhead-squat and everything else requiring arms locked out overhead.

Kicking Up!

At some point in your development, before being able to hold a free hand balance, you will need to become comfortable with the process of getting into and out of that position. We deliberately delayed this step of kicking up but there is no avoiding it. If kicking up to the inverted hand-balance position is practiced before you can maintain your hollow body, your attempts at balancing are most likely doomed to failure. Using active muscular contraction to support shoulders, hips and spine is essential. Without this contraction, balancing your body will be as likely as balancing a stack of baseballs. Now you have developed a really nice hollow body position on your hands. It is time to move on!

Kicking up to a hand balance involves pushing strongly through the shoulders as your feet leave the ground. This is unnatural at first for most people. What I usually observe at this stage is that the athlete will unconsciously bend the elbows while kicking their feet. This elbow flexing requires much more upper body strength and often results in crashing to the ground. At this point in our progression however, you have already developed strength and confidence in the hand balance position and you will now be able to push confidently through arms and shoulders. A strong “push” as your feet leave the ground provides a foundation and allows you to push your spine, hips then legs and feet into alignment.

Drills for developing skill at kicking up should be conducted after the athlete can walk up to a good vertical handstand position on the wall, and can hold two or three 30 second intervals in that position. While you improve strength and stamina in the handstand you can also work on strength and confidence getting into and out of position.

Place both hands on the ground 12 − 18 inches away from a wall or other support (trees work well). Push strongly through your arms so that your elbows don’t bend at all and lean forward. Your goal at first is to press both hands strongly into the ground so that you can transfer more and more of your body weight onto the shoulders. Once you have firmly engaged your shoulders, push your feet off the ground. This feels like a small hop and at first you will probably not push off strongly enough to get your feet all the way over your head. Not to worry; confidence will quickly come. Push the feet up in larger and larger hops as you are able to keep your shoulders strongly engaged. Make sure that your hips come up before your knees, and your knees come up before your feet. Throwing your feet up first is very hard to control and generally leads to lack of control getting into position. Performing kick-up drills for repetitions is a good way to work this into either a warm up or a work out.

Here is an important warning about the kick-up process. If you are in a hurry to get up into a handstand position without first developing the ability to push through your shoulders, you will have a lot of frustration. You will rely too much on the momentum generated by throwing your feet up, this is very hard (nearly impossible) to control without using a wall or other solid support to crash against and absorb the excess momentum. Better that we learn to get into position without using too much momentum in the first place. This is achieved by developing the ability to support your weight with your shoulders.

Developing Balance

Finally we come to the step most folks start with. I will let the results speak for themselves. Many who start trying to develop a handstand stop, frustrated after some number of months of trying and conclude “I am just not good at handstands”. This is misguided. First it was necessary to build the basic strength and body awareness. Now it will be possible to learn to balance.

We will approach the problem by putting your body into a slightly out of balance position, then practice engaging the appropriate muscles to pull or push yourself into a balanced position. Hand balancing is performed by pressing through the hands and by pushing and pulling through shoulders and trunk. Squeezing your abdominal muscles tight to pull the front of the body shorter, or pulling through the spinal erectors and gluteus to pull the back of the body shorter. This would have been impossible to feel had you not first developed the ability to hold your trunk, hips and legs stable, to eliminate unconscious or uncontrolled movement.

Establishing a balanced position by pulling through the back can be drilled as follows. Climb to a near handstand position facing the wall. Tighten your whole body in a very stable hollow posture, with fully active shoulders. Your position should be a few degrees from vertical so that you are “straight” but leaning against the wall. The goal here is to be deliberately out of balance. You will now shift your shoulders out of the straight position and over your hands. This will pull your shoulders away from the wall. Next, shift your hips so they are over your shoulders, again pulling hips away from the wall. You will now have a piked position with your shoulders a little further from the wall than your hands and hips positioned as close to directly over your hands as possible. Your legs should also be straight with feet still touching the wall. If you have shifted your shoulders and hips into the proper position you will be able to lift your feet off the wall while keeping feet and knees together. This is very difficult to do at first. You will be tempted to push off the wall with your feet. Don’t do this! Being able to lift your feet gently using no push from the wall is the goal. You are learning to adjust the relative positions of your shoulders hips and legs to achieve a balanced state.

A spotter will be needed to prevent you from falling over or from stopping short of a balanced position out of fear of falling over. The most common problem in this drill is not moving the shoulders away from the wall enough. The second problem most commonly seen is bending your elbows. Don’t allow your elbows to bend or else all your progress will stop!

Free Standing Handstands

Now that you have built strong stabile shoulders, and a solid handstand position has been developed, it is time to take away the wall.  As you start to do handstands away from any support, use the strength in your shoulders to control your “kick up” by bringing your legs up slowly.  This way you will not throw your legs past your trunk with too much momentum to control and upset your balance.  A spotter can be useful at this stage by providing just enough help to avoid falling, giving you a chance to learn how to feel the corrections from your hands and shoulders.

Try these same free standing handstands on parallets.  The solid grip provided by parallets will give greater leverage for hand pressure.  Gripping the parallets tightly, perform small corrections with your wrists for balance.

Enjoy your strong, stable shoulders!