Key points ahead:
- Handstands can make you better at everything.
- One of the keys to success with the handstand is warming up your wrists and shoulders.
- Body positioning and breathing are important, so I’ll tell you what to pay attention to specifically.
- There are 4 key progressions to getting a freestanding handstand.
- Finally, I’ll show you some advanced variations to show you where you can go once you’ve gotten a straight line handstand.
Handstands and other hand balancing exercises are impressive skills that demonstrate a high level of strength and control.
Are handstands necessarily better than any other skill out there? No, but there are certainly benefits you get from training them, that you might not be able to get from other skills.
There’s a lot to be said on handstands, and I won’t attempt to cover everything in this post, but I will cover a lot.
If you’ve always wanted to learn to do a handstand, or even if you’d just like to improve your current level of skill, this post will give you the tools you need to get going.
How Handstands Can Make You Better at Everything
The handstand is NOT some kind of miracle exercise that will transform you into Wonder Woman overnight, but when it comes to improving your overall strength, body control, and spatial awareness, it’s hard to beat handstand training.
There are many ways to do a handstand, and each one has its own benefits, but the variation we primarily teach is the straight line handstand. The reason for this is not that the straight line handstand is fundamentally better than any other kind, but that there is a broader carryover from it to other skills.
We’ll look at the mechanics of the straight line handstand in detail below, but the benefits of this variation are that it:
- Opens up the shoulders
- Encourages a stronger, tighter core
- Strengthens the legs and butt
- Protects the back
Think about if you had more flexible shoulders, a tighter core, stronger legs, butt, and back – Your performance in almost every other exercise would improve!
It’s Not Really About The Handstand
There are many amazing hand balancers out there. Some that we’ve met and corresponded with include Yuri Marmerstein, Yuval Ayalon, Miguel Sant’ana, and Roilan.
When someone is practicing at that level, everything about their handstand practice is about getting better at handstands.
But for most regular people, the benefits of practicing handstands and working on improving your handstand line and control, is not just for getting better at handstands. It’s for the transfer to other skills (and life!) as well.
And that’s really what we emphasize when we teach handstands at GMB.
It’s about getting better at controlling your body, so that you can do all the things you want to do – not just so you can do a better handstand for the sake of doing a better handstand.
Now, let’s take a look at how to train the handstand most effectively, so that you can work on improving everything you do.
Preparing Your Body for Handstand Practice
Before jumping right into a handstand – and if you haven’t practiced handstands before, I really don’t recommend doing that! – it’s important to get your body ready for the work ahead.
The two areas that will take the brunt of the force when you’re upside down are your wrists and your shoulders.
This is probably quite obvious, but it’s still important to note, because the type of force you’re going to be putting on your wrists and shoulders is very different from what your body is likely used to.
No matter what type of training you’ve been doing until now, there isn’t really an equivalent exercise that stacks your entire bodyweight directly on your shoulders and wrists. So you’ll have to make sure these joints are good and ready to handle handstand training.
Hand Balance Wrist Warm-up
The following routine is the warm-up I use every day before practicing handstands. I’ve been using this routine for years, and I think it’s a great way to make sure your wrists and hands are strong, flexible, and ready to handle the pressure of handstand work.
The exercises included in the video are as follows:
- Finger Pulses
- Palm Pulses
- Side-to-Side Palm Rotations
- Side-to Side Wrist Stretch
- Rear Facing Wrist Stretch (palms down and palms up)
- Rear Facing Elbow Rotations
Like I mention in the video, I recommend doing 10-30 repetitions of each exercise to warm up your wrists.
Shoulder Prep for Handstands
The shoulders are not under as much strain as the wrists in the handstand, but when we’re working on the straight handstand, it’s important to focus on opening up your shoulders and elevating them as much as possible.
In the following video, I’ll show you two exercises that will help you improve your shoulder strength and flexibility, to prepare them for handstands.
These two exercises are great for opening up the shoulders while making them stronger, but you’ll notice that I show both exercises facing away from the wall. If you do not yet have your wall kick-up (which I’ll cover below), the following video shows another great exercise that will help you with your scapular mobility.
Work at whatever level you are at, and don’t neglect your shoulder mobility before training handstands.
Body Position Awareness and Preparation
Body position is everything when it comes to the handstand. It can mean the difference between a beautiful line and toppling over.
If you understand where every part of your body should be in the handstand, it will be much easier to make sure your center of gravity is directly over your hands – which is the key to staying upright with less effort.
Of course, it takes time and patience to build that awareness, and the strength necessary to manipulate your body so that your center of gravity stays where you want it to be. But working on the following elements will improve that and, over time, it will become second nature.
The Hollow Body Position
The core of the straight line handstand is the hollow body. It’s important to practice this position on the floor, not only for core strengthening, but also to get a feel for the position you should be going for when you’re upside down. Spend a lot of time on this drill and you’ll get a lot of benefit.
In this video, I’ll show you several variations on the hollow body hold.
Be sure to practice at your level, and build up your strength over time.
The hands should be shoulder width apart, with the fingers splayed wide.
One of the biggest mistakes I see with my students is a tendency to keep the fingers fairly close together, which creates a narrower base and makes it much more difficult to balance.
We want to maximize the support we can get from our hands, making sure to press the palms firmly into the floor.
The elbows should screwed inward, so that the inside of your elbow (the “elbow pit”) is facing forward. It may be that you can’t do this right away or that you won’t be able to maintain it, but the most important thing is the intent and the action.
This helps you to keep your elbows as straight as possible – bent elbows mean more muscle work and earlier fatigue – and helps get the shoulders into the proper position as well.
The ideal position for the shoulders in the straight line handstand is for them to be fully elevated and hugging your ears.
To get a feel for this position, it can be helpful to stand on a strength band (or tubing) and push your hands overhead as much as possible, attempting to squeeze your shoulders to your head.
Once you start practicing handstands and paying attention to the little details, you’ll see how the elbow position is integral to getting the shoulders into the right position too. If you flare your elbows out, your shoulder blades will want to come together, when they should be lifted up towards your ears.
Handstand Head Position
Proper head position is an important part of getting your balance and improving your line.
When you’re first practicing handstands, you may not want to worry too much about the head position, as it’s more important to get comfortable with being upside down, but eventually you will want to play around with how your head position affects your handstand practice.
In this video I’ll show you the position I recommend.
As I demonstrate, a neutral head position is best for the straight line handstand.
Lower Body Position
The lower body is the most overlooked part of the handstand because, at first glance, it doesn’t seem like it’s really involved.
In reality, the lower body plays a big role in the handstand. After all, that’s most of what your hands and shoulders are supporting, so it better be in the right position!
Now, remembering the proper position for the lower body is easy. It’s just: SQUEEZE, SQUEEZE, SQUEEZE.
Your feet should be together and pointed, and your legs should be squeezed together as tightly as you can muster. Tighten your butt and reach your feet to the sky.
Squeeze like you’re getting paid, and you’ll get it.
How to Breathe in a Handstand
Breathing may not exactly be part of your body position in the handstand, but it is extremely important, and can certainly affect how you hold yourself.
The best way to breathe in a handstand is to do so naturally, but that’s not as easy as it sounds.
In this video, I’ll show you a trick you can use to make sure you’re breathing, and that you’re not going past your breaking point.
Now that you understand the proper body position for the handstand, and how to build your awareness, let’s get into the fun part – the progressions to work up to a freestanding handstand!
How to Work Up to a Freestanding Handstand – The 4 Fundamental Progressions
Every person is going to be different and, depending on your background, you may be spending more or less time on each progression before moving on. The important thing is to keep working on the level you are at until you feel very comfortable.
Handstand Progression #1 – Facing the Wall
- Place your hands on the ground so that you can get both feet up on the wall.
- Walk your hands in until they are just a couple inches away from the wall.
- Lock your knees out straight and flex your ankles to 90 degrees so that your toes or balls of your feet are touching the wall.
- Tuck your chin to look at the wall, and maintain the good hollow body position that you have been practicing.
- Once you’ve progressed to 8 sets of 30 second holds, use the same position, but now point your toes so that the top or your toes or instep is on the wall.
Handstand Progression #2 – Facing Away from the Wall
- Now that you are facing away from the wall, your hands will need to be a bit further out than before, so that your hips/butt won’t be against the wall.
- There are two ways to get up against the wall: Either kick one leg up and let your other leg float up to meet your kicking leg, until both feet are on the wall; or use the frogger jump described below.
- Maintain the same hollow body positioning as before, focusing on being as tight as possible throughout your body.
- Push your hands firmly into the ground, extend the shoulders, and make sure all the other body positioning cues are in place.
- Your goal here is 8 sets of 30 seconds for at least three sessions before progressing.
Handstand Progression #3 – The L-Stand
- The L-Stand is a great place to start getting away from the wall. The key point in the L-stand is keep your hips/butt over your shoulders and your shoulders over your hands, creating an “L” position.
- This position locks your upper body in the proper support for your lower body.
- Look straight back towards the wall as you kick one leg straight up in the air.
- Then lightly push off from the wall to get both legs up above you.
- This is a great movement to test your overall body strength in the handstand and will let you know how much more work you need to do!
Handstand Progression #4 – Freestanding Handstand
- When you’re ready to start practicing freestanding handstands, it is VERY important that you know how to bail out of a handstand, and that you have a spotter if possible.
- To bail out of the handstand when you feel like you’re going to fall, I recommend using the cartwheel, as I demonstrate in this video:
- To get into the freestanding handstand, you can use the standard kick-up (same as described above, but I really recommend having a spotter around to make sure you don’t fall over), or the frogger jump.
How Long and How Often to Practice
When it comes to handstand training, I don’t like to make specific sets/reps recommendations, since everyone will be starting from a different place, and face different challenges along the way.
The best rule of thumb for handstand practice is: the more often you can practice, the better. So even if that means just 10 minutes a day, that’s better than practicing less frequently.
If you can, I recommend setting a timer for 30 minutes, and practicing as much as you can with good form. That does not mean practicing for 30 minutes straight, but rather, doing a couple of attempts (or holds, depending on what level you’re at), then resting as needed before going back to it.
This approach will keep you relatively fresh throughout your session.
Advanced Handstand Training
If you’re new to handstand training, you should expect to spend a lot of time working on getting a straight handstand. For some people, that means 6 months, for some it means 2 years or more – whatever the case, don’t worry too much about this next section yet.
However, if you’ve been practicing handstands for a while and you have a solid, straight handstand, you may be interested in taking your practice further.
I can’t go into much detail with any of these variations within the context of a blog post (these are far too complex), but the following are some more advanced variations you may want to explore in the future.
The tuck handstand is a good next step once you’re fairly comfortable with regular handstand work. It can help with improving the line from your shoulders to your tailbone, and improve your stability as well.
To work on the tuck handstand, I recommend starting on the wall, facing out, so you can get comfortable with the position.
The challenge of the straddle handstand is more from how to get into the handstand than from the actual handstand variation. That transition of straddling the legs up into a handstand takes a good amount of control, and it will take time to build up to it.
The split handstand obviously requires a lot of flexibility in addition to the strength and control needed for a regular handstand.
I don’t recommend working on this variation unless you have built up the flexibility to do the front splits on the ground first. If that is a goal of yours, you can work on these hip flexibility and strengthening exercises to open up the hip joints for the splits.
This variation is basically the opposite of the straight line handstand, as it requires your back to be completely arched.
A word of caution: Do not attempt this handstand variation unless your spine is quite strong and flexible. Work on these exercises for spine health before working on the Mexican handstand.
One Arm Handstand
The one arm handstand is an advanced skill, which I only recommend beginning to train once you can hold a straight line handstand for about a minute.
It is definitely not necessary to work up to this level of skill, but depending on what your goals are, the ability to do a one arm handstand, or any of these other advanced variations, can certainly open up possibilities for you.
Getting the Most Out of Your Handstand Practice
As you can see, there’s a LOT to say about handstands. There are many things to pay attention to, and many steps to get from A to Z. But with the right progressions and a lot of patience, you’ll have great success.
But what does “handstand success” really mean?
Many people come up with various measures, like being able to hold a handstand for a minute, but really, those measures are arbitrary, and it depends on your goals.
Like I said, if your goal is to do a one arm handstand, sure, a 1-minute handstand will be helpful in achieving that goal.
But if your goal is just to get comfortable with a handstand so that you can transfer those skills to other things, then a 1-minute handstand is no better than a 10-second one.
Don’t chase arbitrary standards. Instead, aim for a sensation of control and a consistent ability to do a controlled minimum whenever you want.
Summary: Key Points for Successful Handstand Practice
- Always warm up your wrists and shoulders before practicing handstands.
- Pay attention to your body positioning and breathing.
- Start with the basics – Wall work may not be sexy, but it’s effective.
- When you’re ready for freestanding work, first practice bailing out.
- Take your time and don’t rush to meet arbitrary standards.