For many, being upside down is scary. It's the opposite of feeling safe and comfortable. The antithesis of how we want to end up in any given hour of the day. It can be an awkward feeling and, because the sensation is so foreign, one we only momentarily like to experience.
It's a roller coaster ride, not just in the physical sense but in emotional terms as well.
Unless you're a toddler in the hands of a playful parent, being upside down generally means something went wrong. In many cases being upended in an athletic event resulted from a trip and a fall or a flat out dangerous mistake.
Gymnasts use handstands regularly, but our general public obviously does not. There are a few other sports where being upside down is part of training or competition, but those are rare compared to most of the movement we see in sports worldwide, so therefore most people don't lock handstands into their exercise routines.
In the fitness pursuit, however, much can be gained from turning our rooted and natural bipedal movement on its head.
So keep your hands up and your eyes open because we're about to conquer this movement like the big drop of an old wooden roller coaster.
Why put your body in a handstand?
If we're looking to develop overall strength in a fitness program, then being in a handstand is a powerful position. If a full handstand is not possible, even with support of a coach or a wall, a scaled version will still provide payoffs. General shoulder health is a necessary prerequisite, but there are a series of muscles that benefit greatly and actually develop from being upside down while pressing and/or stabilizing against gravity.
Besides the deltoids of the shoulder socket, handstand work also provides stimuli to the triceps in the arms, the trapezius of the back and neck, and the midline stabilizing muscles we generally refer to as the core: rectus abdominis, back extensors, and the obliques, to name a few.
Another benefit is proprioception in the brain. This refers to the ability to sense body position, motion, and equilibrium. Handstands also develop the central nervous system (CNS) as it responds to being upside down. It's a kinesthetic awareness we can more simply call athleticism.
Why are handstands so hard?
Hand balancing presents one of the biggest challenges for me personally. Without a gymnastic background, and with height and long limbs, handstands are a self-proclaimed goat; my weakness. Many people are like myself: if something is difficult we tend to shy away from that movement.
In the front row of handstand culture is the sport of gymnastics, leading the ride now for centuries of human performance. Lifelong gymnasts literally have a leg up on any new competitors or adults learning the gymnast ropes as best as they can for a generalized physical preparedness program such as CrossFit. This isn't to say that any person off the street should give up or never pursue a handstand. Instead, it's a reminder that formative years matter for more than just music and language development-- we know that physical skills and related endeavors also harness themselves in the developing brain much easier than that of an adult.
Yoga enthusiasts know the pose as a downwards facing tree, which is essentially the same thing as a handstand. For the public and those just starting in yoga, this pose will require years of development just like a gymnast.
Whatever the case, a quality handstand is a feat lost on so many... myself included. The combination of strength and skill and mobility is a tummy turning corkscrew of a requirement. But this difficulty is part of the challenge; it's part of the fun.
Keep in mind that the human body has developed homeostasis on years of inner ear balance while walking upright. So if you struggle with handstands, don't beat yourself up; buckle up, seek knowledge, and find practice time to build from the ground up.
What are some tips for handstand success?
CrossFit.com added hand balancing to its regimen immediately upon onset with Coach Greg Glassman's background as a gymnast spearheading the inclusion. Read his full article here.
Other tips for success depend on one's handstand experience. Are you a complete newbie, or have you accomplished some skill development but are in need of additional resources?
Whether you’re looking to develop your skill and strength for handstand push-ups, free standing handstands, or simply unassisted wall climbs, let’s check out some movement ideas and quick guidelines on the fast track upside down.
Movements For Handstand Development
Hollow Rock Holds:
A great start for the absolute beginner, and also a staple for other gymnasty moves like pull-ups and toes to bar. This is a static global flexion that tightens from the legs through to the shoulders.
- Do keep the core tight, the lower back flat on the ground, the shoulders active by the ears, and the quads and glutes on and activated.
- Don’t think these are for wussies. Hollow Rock Holds can be brutal, even for the experienced.
Used correctly, this can foster some of the greatest strength development for those without much core strength, but it does include movement in the midline while a handstand requires tight muscle control.
- Do know when to scale. Knees can bend until a straight leg movement develops.
- Don’t forget your hollow position. This is meant to be a skill transfer; don’t lose sight of the correct positioning needed.
Piked Push-ups: Although these can be awkward and do require strength, balance, and bravery, some prefer this scaled version for the full Handstand Push-up against a wall.
- Don’t leave behind Hollow Rocks. Continue to fight for a straightened midline that will lead to a strong handstand.
These are rough. While utilized as another scaled option to the Handstand Push-up, this is also a great alternative to handstand walking in workouts. The hand over hand push into the wall recruits lots of CNS energy as well as shoulder socket muscles to make this move nearly as tough as a HSPU.
- Do be careful of foot height. If you're wary of being face first in the wall, stop the hands early and remember to always tuck your chin for a somersault if you start to tumble.
- Don’t lose body position. Wall Climbs can be frustrating in a workout and often people push their hips and chest at the wall, forcing an unnatural extension in both the shoulders and the lower back.
Static Handstand Holds:
In many ways, if you can kick up into a handstand against the wall, these are easier than a Wall Climb. Facing away from the wall requires strength and solid hollow positioning, but can also put a person into too much lower back extension. Keep the heels on the wall, not your butt.
- Do use a trustworthy coach to help you with your kick up. Use a static hold as a confidence booster.
- Don't use these to absolute failure since crumbling with bent elbows spells disaster.
In CrossFit, this becomes the Rx go-to for both workouts and local competitions. Strict HSPU demand strength, kipping HSPU require skill, both tend to fatigue fairly quickly as the rep count goes up. Either way, keep hand position similar to that in a Push Press or Push Jerk in the sense that we want a "V" shape with our head coming in front of the hand line. For safe and efficient movement in the HSPU, push the head through the imaginary window like finishing a barbell move.
- Do check resources and videos like the one below to see progressions for kipping. Notice the hand position as the head touches in a headstand. Kipping can occur facing the wall to develop confidence and posture.
- Don't neglect strict Handstand Push-ups. Also be careful of letting your entire bodyweight rest on the head while upside down, compromising neck/spinal safety.
Freestanding Handstands & Handstand Walks:
For the elite in the handstand spectrum, walks and freestanding handstands (as well as freestanding HPSU) are a great new standard to aim for.
Drills include, but are not limited to: shoulder taps, headstands to handstands, "holds & splits" from the wall, and "holds & splits" with a coach/partner.
- Do find time to practice so that quality hand, head, and shoulder position can allow balance to be achieved. Grip with the fingers. Stay hollow. Squeeze lower body tight as well. Work every day, if possible!
- Don't lose position. Work on global extension versus local extension. This means controlled arching is only necessary to move in the Handstand Walk. Otherwise, fight for a perfect handstand position during stationary work, as seen below.
So, as the ups and downs of examining handstands come to an end, I wish you luck and remind you to be resourceful-- find the pieces that cause you the most frustration and tunnel through them, full speed ahead. Scream-laugh your way through trips and turns and hopefully you'll find success at the end of the track.
Keep at it and enjoy the ride.
- Scott, 7.28.2015