This article is somewhat bittersweet for me because I’m not sure when I’ll be allowed to do handstands again; it could be in a couple weeks (unlikely), or a couple months (more likely). Originally, it was going to be a video—and it still will be eventually—but I realized that I don’t have enough footage to put it all together, and so it will begin its life like this: a pictorial guide with (semi-) accompanying audio.
The astute among you might point out that handstands are not related to nutrition. I can’t deny that. Little training guides (and videos) on bodyweight exercises are something I’ve wanted to put out there for awhile as a sort of corollary to the nutrition advice offered here, and while they are not specifically on topic, I hope you enjoy them and get some use out of them. Worry not, nutrition fans—they won’t take over the site.
As soon as I get the footage necessary to complete the video, I’ll update this article to include the video instead of just audio. In the meantime, please listen and follow along with the pictures.
#1: Practice on a Hard Surface
Practicing handstands on a soft floor is a classic beginner trap. It gives the illusion of safety, but ultimately makes learning to balance upside down extremely hard and stalls progress.
First, when you’re on a soft surface, the butt of your palm (the “heel”) sinks into the floor, decreasing your wrist angle, increasing strain, and unbalancing you backwards.
Second, if you manage to get off the heel, your fingers will sink into the floor before they can pressure you back, unbalancing you forwards.
Compare that to a hard surface, where the heel doesn’t sink and any pressure applied through the fingers is instantly felt.
Of course, you need to know how to pirouette out of a handstand before you can safely practice on a hard floor—but exiting a handstand is really a different skill entirely! Practice pirouette exits on a soft floor, then practice your handstands on a hard one.
#2: Focus on the Chain From the Bottom Up
When I taught skiing, we instructors would analogize the body to an upside-down chain: when you shake the top (bottom), the rest of the links follow suit one after another. In skiing, the idea was that you focus on your ankles first because they’ll lead the way to better knees, hips, core, and shoulders. With handstands, they principle is similar if reversed: hands, shoulders, core, legs.
Hands are the most important part of your handstand—you can’t do one without them! Focus first on what your hands are doing. What is their width? How are they angled? How much pressure do you place through the fingers?
Once your hands become second nature, think about your shoulders. Are they as open as you’d like them? Are you pushing through them or letting them sag? You may need to take footage of yourself to answer these questions.
After the shoulders, what is your core doing? Is it tight? Is your spine straight?
Finally, what are your legs doing? Are they arching over or splayed?
You can also think about your feet (are they pointed?) and elbows (are they straight? Is the pit facing forward?), but they are more detail work that can come later.
#3: Work Your Tuck-Ups (and -Downs)
When you can’t even hold a handstand for longer than a few seconds, it seems silly to practice harder ways to enter a handstand. Nonetheless, there’s a good reason to practice tucking up and back down from handstands: they build the muscles that help you hold them better!
You’ll need to practice against a wall at first. Start from a frog squat, kick with both legs…
and try to bring your butt to the wall.
Then reverse it and do it again. Try to get 8-10 reps of these tuck-ups and -downs.
When you get comfortable doing it against a wall and you can hold a normal handstand consistently for at least five seconds, then start to practice off the wall as well.
You will probably want to continue practicing against the wall as well, at least as a warm-up—doing these fast certainly gets the blood flowing through the shoulders!
#4: Strengthen Your Shoulders With Handstand Shrugs
I see a lot of people try to increase their handstand shoulder strength through static wall handstand holds. There is some utility to these, but just like any other exercise, you can almost always improve your endurance better through dynamic motions than static holds—especially when you’re aiming for 30-60 seconds!
Handstand shrugs work the exact muscles you’re attempting to strengthen. When your shoulders fatigue during a handstand, they naturally “shrug” down, away from your ears. When your shoulders are strong, they shrug up to by your ears, like earmuffs. Training with shrugs helps them resist fatigue by becoming stronger in general, rather than just better at enduring.
Start against a wall with as perfect of form as you can manage, then push up through your shoulders…
…hold for 2-3 seconds, then relax the shoulders while keeping your elbows straight…
…and repeat for 8-15 reps and 3 sets.
When you are able to hold handstands away from the wall (with decently open shoulders) consistently, you can start to practice them away from the wall as well. In this scenario, it’s less about strength and more about recognizing when your form slips and recovering it.
If you still want to practice static holds, do so after you train shrugs; you’ll gain more after than before.
#5: Prioritize Perfecting Balance Before Form
Form is important; the better your form, the easier it is to maintain balance. Form can’t develop until you can balance upside down for at least a bit, though. Even then, form is not the primary thing keeping you up—your own proprioception is. This takes time to develop, which means hanging out in a lot of less-than-perfect handstands.
In other words, if you can hold a handstand that looks like this for 15 seconds:
…but focusing on form takes you down to only a few seconds…
…then you’re better off with the longer-held, uglier handstand—at least until you improve to the point where balancing upside is second nature enough to correct form!
There’s a ton of great advice on improving handstands out there. These are a few tips that I’ve found helpful that I haven’t seen around, at least not as frequently. I hope they help you improve your handstands!
Once again, they’re:
- Practice on a hard surface.
- Focus on the chain from the bottom up.
- Work your tuck-ups and tuck-downs.
- Strengthen your shoulders with handstand shrugs (instead of static holds).
- Prioritize perfecting balance before perfecting form.
Until next time.