The handstand is one of the flashier bodyweight movements out there. It’s something that many of us may have fearlessly played with as kids, but as adults it’s a different story. It’s weird for our bodies to be upside down, right?
It might seem nuts to imagine yourself doing a handstand, but in truth it’s achievable for most of us. We just have to follow the right path, using different progressions and stepping-stone exercises to get us there.
There are three elements to train for in pursuit of the handstand as a skill;
- Body Position
We have to train our strength, so that we are physically capable of holding our weight in our hands. The handstand requires significant shoulder, back and core strength.
We have to train our mobility, so that our body is able to safely move into the handstand position. We need strong yet flexible wrists, and most of us require better shoulder flexibility in the overhead position. We also need enough hamstring range of motion to get into position.
We have to train the body position, so that we intuitively find an efficient shape that allows us to balance in the handstand with minimal effort. The position is known as ‘hollow body’ — hands overhead, with a slight curve in the front of the body. Think of the gentle upwards curve of a dinner plate.
The progressions and exercises below improve our abilities in each of these fundamentals, and lead us towards the full handstand, step by step. You don’t necessarily need to try each of these straight away — recognise where you’re at on your handstand journey and respect your body’s need for gradual progression. You can always check back here when you’re ready to move on. There will be movements that are a little scary to try for the first time, but always be sensible. Once we start to go upside down, you could even have somebody at hand to guide you to the floor gently when it doesn’t go to plan. If that’s not an option, then take careful note of the sideways exit mentioned in the chest-to-wall section.
Before any bout of handstand training, make sure to warm up your wrists rigorously. The entirety of our bodyweight going through the hands can be tough on the wrists, so give them some love both before and after training. Here’s a great warmup;
Get into a tabletop position on the floor, on your hands and knees with a flat back, knees directly under hips and wrists directly under shoulders. Start with your fingers pointing forwards and, one at a time, lift your hands and rotate them 45–90 degrees before putting them down again. Keep moving the hands around in circles, and back again, while putting some of your weight through them. This is warming up our wrists at a variety of different angles. Continue doing this for around 90 seconds. Finally, finish with your fingers pointing back towards your knees, and gently shift your weight backwards, so you get a really good wrist stretch.
The pike pushup is a great strength-building movement that specifically targets muscles we’ll use in the full handstand. It also starts to ease us into partial-upside-down-ness, but with our feet on the floor so we’re still in control.
Imagine a pushup position, but we’ve walked our feet much closer to our hands while keeping our legs and arms straight. So the bum is in the air and our body is an upside-down V-shape. Yogi’s will know this as downward dog, though we want our feet to be closer to our hands than a traditional downward dog. There should be around 50% of your weight in your hands. From here, we’re going to come onto tip toes and allow the arms to bend at the elbow, slowly lowering our head towards the floor, before pushing back up to straight-arms.
Try to do 10 of these in a row, 3–4 times per training session. Once you can do that comfortably, try elevating your feet on something higher than your hands. This will shift more weight into your hands and increase the difficulty.
We’re going to borrow another yoga movement and use it as our first foray into putting all of our weight into our hands. In a crow, both our hands are on the floor, about shoulder width apart, with a bend at the elbow. We’re leant forwards over the hands and our knees are pushed into the back of our upper arms, with feet pointing behind us. This stacks all of our weight over the hands.
The crow is really an exercise in balance. The key is to finding the perfect amount of forward lean — that sweet spot where our feet are off the floor but our face isn’t mashed into the ground in front of us.
To practice it, I’d recommend putting a cushion or pillow on the ground in front of you, just in case you do rock too far forwards. You’ll begin in a low squat and put your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor with fingers spread nice and wide. Think about ‘gripping’ the floor with your fingers. Now walk your feet forwards, allowing the hips to raise into the air and your knees to come to the back of your arms, above the elbow. Start to lean your weight forwards so that your weight is pressing through the knees into the upper arm. It’s helpful to look at a spot on the floor about 3 inches ahead of your hands (stare down that cushion). The more you lean forward, the less weight you’ll feel in your feet on the ground. As you gently ease yourself forwards, eventually the feet will peel away from the floor behind you, but don’t worry if this doesn’t happen first time. You’ll be actively engaging your fingers to stop yourself from falling forwards. Make sure to push your shoulders forwards and down, away from your ears to create a strong connection to the ground.
Aim to get to a place where you can hold the crow position for 20 seconds. This will put you in really good stead when it comes to the handstand, as you’ll have strengthened your upper body enough to take your weight, and you’ve had a taste of using the fingers to micro-correct your balance.
Hollow Body Position
We’re almost ready to start getting properly upside down and into something that looks vaguely handstand-like. This is the perfect time to touch back on the body position we want to be in while we’re in a handstand. You can practice this position lying on your back to get a feel for it.
Start lying on your back. We’re going to forget about our arms for a moment and just focus on what the torso is doing. Engage your core just enough to lift both your feet and your shoulders 2–3 inches off the floor. Think about sucking your belly button in towards your spine, squeezing your bum a little, and flattening your lower back against the floor. You should find yourself in that shallow ‘dinner plate’ shape — this is the hollow body position. We want our torso to remain tight and locked into this shape once we’re in our handstand.
To complete the shape, try holding a hollow body and raising your arms straight above your head, as far as your shoulder mobility will allow without breaking the hollow body position.
The good news is this: a hollow body position is actually much harder to hold on the floor than in a handstand. While lying down gravity is working directly against you, but in the actual handstand it’s almost absent. Superhuman core strength not required.
Our first steps into actually handstanding will make heavy use of a wall to assist us. We can begin to get familiar with it using the wall plank.
We’re going to begin standing a couple of feet from the wall, with your back to it like it’s just insulted your baking. Place your hands on the floor in front of you and reach a foot back to step on the wall (like you might do if it’s insulted your mother). Now take some weight in your hands and some weight in your wall-foot, and step that second foot onto the wall. From here, begin to move your feet up the wall while you walk your hands in closer to it. You’re looking to bring your body into a more-or-less straight line, or the hollow body position we’ve practiced. You can keep walking yourself in to the wall, bringing your chest towards it, as far as you’re comfortable. Please — don’t go too far unless you’re comfortable with the sideways exit mentioned in the chest-to-wall section.
This movement is great because we’re loading our weight into our hands in a position that is beginning to mimic an actual handstand. We’re also getting used to using the wall as support, and being properly upside down, which can take some adjusting to. Aim for 30+ seconds of being comfortable in position, close to the wall.
Finally, we’re going to do an actual handstand! Well, maybe. This is, indeed, our first attempt to actually handstand, but it’s only going to happen if we get the kick right. In a back-to-wall handstand, you guessed it, our back is facing the wall. Ideally, the back won’t actually be touching the wall, only the feet will. The goal here is to take 98% of our weight in our hands, using the wall only to balance.
To start we’re going to be kicking up into position. Facing the wall, bend down and place your hands 8–10 inches away from it, about shoulder width apart. You’re now going to lean forwards so that around 50% of your weight is support by your hands. For the actual kick, our legs are going to go up separately. Your grounded leg is going to remain a little bent, while your kicking leg is going to straighten and swing up and directly over your shoulders. As the kicking leg passes the middle of it’s arc, your grounded leg is going to push away from the floor with a hop to follow the kicking leg.
It can be a conceptually challenging thing to kick yourself into an upside down position. One thing that helps is to think about bringing your hips over your shoulders and your shoulders over your hands. The feet are simply pulling those hips up. It’s totally okay to end up with your bum leaning against the wall before you straighten your legs out above you — in fact, aiming for this is probably the easiest way to get upside down initially.
If you’re anything like me, finally getting the kick up will get you upside down, but it’ll be messy. As we become comfortable getting into a back-to-wall handstand, we can start to improve what happens once we’re up there. Once we’re up, lets do a little check of body position, starting with the head. It can be tempting to crane your neck as far forward as possible, but this can really throw off our alignment. Focus your gaze on a spot about 2 or 3 inches ahead of your hands and don’t move the head further upwards than necessary. Make sure your shoulders are pushing towards the floor and your ears, and away from your hips and the ceiling. Keep your core tight and try to minimise any bend in your back. Finally, engage your leg muscles and stretch the feet towards the ceiling. This can really help to keep your body connected as one integrated object.
Congrats, you’re doing a handstand! Regardless of how clean it is (or is not), the back to wall handstand is a real achievement. We can spend a lot of time using this movement to progress and improve our kicking up, and our strength in position.
While the back-to-wall handstand is a formidable step and excellent training tool, there are some functions that the chest-to-wall is better suited for. Thinking back to our hollow body position, the back-to-wall handstand has a tendency to encourage the opposite curve — banana back. We do not want banana back. It’s okay while we build our strength up, but eventually we do need to progress onto a proper hollow body position. This is where the chest-to-wall handstand comes in.
This movement is, as it sounds, a handstand with our chest facing the wall. We’re going to use the same method as the wall plank to get into position — walk the feet up the wall as we walk our hands closer in to it.
Now, this is where the all important sideways exit comes in. Because we’re facing the wall, a fall directly away from the wall is something we want to avoid. The simple to solution to this is to learn to fall sideways, alongside the wall. To make this happen we will move a hand to turn a backwards fall/exit into a sideways one. The hand on the side of your body that is going down will move forward and rotate towards the centre of your body. So if I feel myself falling over my back, and want to exit to my left hand side, I will move my left hand away from the wall and rotate it so that the fingers are pointing to my right. The end result is that we come down onto our feet, rather than flopping over the back and landing on our bum. It’s worth purposely practicing this exit, so that you can be confident in your ability to safely fall — it will be invaluable when you eventually move away from walls altogether.
Now that we know we’re safe with our chest-to-wall, lets capitalise on it to start perfecting our body position. Once you’ve walked your hands to about 6 inches away from the wall (to the heel of the hand), focus on finding the hollow body position we’ve practised before — the shallow curve down the front of the body. This involves a tightening of your core, sucking your belly into your spine, pushing your shoulders towards your ears and actively engaging your legs to pull your feet towards the ceiling. The beauty of the chest-to-wall handstand is that, with our feet on the wall, we are kind of automatically encouraged to be in the hollow position. We just have to engage the body to make it an active position.
From here, we can start to turn this into a free-standing handstand. Very gradually, lift one foot away from the wall, just an inch or two (while holding the hollow body position). Allow this to bring your centre of gravity a little further over the hands, and make sure to use those fingers to ground you. Think of them as the roots to your tree. As you move that foot further from the wall and your weight shifts ever so slightly over your hands, your second foot will eventually peel away from the wall too. You can keep the toes of one foot lightly tapping the wall to help balance. This is the real value of the chest-to-wall handstand — we’re now getting that juicy balance practice in taking our first steps towards a freestanding handstand
These progressions and exercises are the first steps on your handstand journey, and will lead you to getting a real handstand. There’s a number of exercises and drills that can supplement this work, which we’ll cover in another post. The great thing about the handstand as a skill is that it will never be perfect — there will always be improvements to be made, progressions to pursue and exploration within the position. Allow yourself to feel safe and comfortable practising and, above all, have fun!