I have no memory of being unable to do a handstand. I perfected the skill as a child. In my 20s I spent years teaching handstands to competitive gymnasts. I had a successful strategy passed down to me from generations of cranky Russian coaches.
Three years ago I began teaching the craft to adults. My time-honoured approach failed. What has followed since is my lessons learned in teaching handstands to grown-ups.
- Adults are not human twigs like children and may need to haul large, lumpy regions overhead.
- Adults do not have the seemingly limitless flexibility of children.
- Adults are not fearless.
This caught me off guard when I taught my first adult student. Like many women in their 30s and 40s, she had poor upper body strength and shoulder flexibility. My suggestion to go upside down was met with suspicion and great reluctance. What she and I have both learned is that patience is critical for the adult handstand. There are a small handful of young, strong people that can nail a handstand in a few weeks. But for the vast majority of adults it is a months to years process.
And this is what I want to emphasize, adult handstands is a long journey. You must value and enjoy the gains received by working towards this amazing (and sometimes elusive) goal. The target may be years in the future. But gains in strength, mobility and spatial awareness will translate immediately to current activities.
Benefits of the Adult Handstand Process
The Early Days
Wrist strength and spatial awareness
There are two complaints that most students have when they begin their handstand journey. The first is sore wrists and the second is dizziness and disorientation from being upside down. The good news is that wrist pains can be avoided/alleviated with a good wrist prep. As the wrists get stronger this pain will disappear.
Many of my students comment that previous wrist pain has improved after my classes. Building strength and mobility in the wrists is important as we get older. Unfortunately this often neglected area is prone to fractures. So handstand practice is a fun way to bulletproof your wrists.
The dizziness that some people experience doing handstands also subsides with practice. Overcoming this feeling is so empowering. Moving your body with control, inverted or otherwise, lets you explore movements without fear.
First Few Months of Handstand Practice
Building strength & flexibility
During this time you will notice huge improvements in your strength and flexibility. These are my key observations:
Shoulder strength: When training handstands correctly it is not just a case of holding your own weight. For a strong, solid handstand you are actively pushing up (away from the ground). Building endurance in this position is critical for getting the perfect line for handstands. This will increase the stability of the shoulder joint and help prevent shoulder injuries.
Shoulder mobility: The perfect handstand line requires good overhead mobility. While maintaining a straight body line, we must be able to raise our arms above our head. Most of us spend a lot of time either sitting at a desk or driving our car. This leads to a rounding forward of our shoulders and poor thoracic flexibility. Over time this can lead to shoulder pain and potential shoulder injury.
For my students, improving their handstand is a huge motivation for working on their shoulder and thoracic mobility. The more you improve your flexibility, the better your handstand line becomes. And the more you time you spend in that new range of motion (i.e. in your handstand) the better you will maintain your flexibility gains. Win, win!
Core Strength: Imagine trying to balance a tower of jello. When many of my students begin working handstands this is what they are doing. They lack the level of body tension required to be able to balance. One movement makes everything travel in unpredictable directions. And they fall.
Now imagine trying to balance a solid tower. If we move the base we know exactly where the top will go. It is much easier to control.
Everyone thinks that they are tight in their handstand. But are you solid? Are your toes pointed? Is your butt squeezed as tight as it can? Is your lower back and your abs tight? I’m telling you now that you can probably squeeze harder.
At the end of any handstand session it is my core that feels it the most.
Longer Term Benefits
The long journey towards balance
Balance takes an undetermined amount of time. It is a personal journey for everyone. We all have different bodies, strengths, flexibility and spatial awareness. Different balance tips and cues can work for some but not others. It comes down to spending a lot of time upside down exploring your body to find that magic formula that clicks for you.
My students that enjoy practicing handstands seem to figure out the balance faster than those that are impatient. People ask, how long it will take to get a 10 second freestanding handstand? It truly depends on how you practice.
When I was a kid my coach would make me tell him what was right or wrong with the skill I just performed. What did I feel while doing the move? Sometimes he gave me additional feedback or told me I was wrong. But I was always trying to feel what worked and what didn’t. This is the most important aspect of the journey to a handstand. Building the awareness and learning how to control your own body. This will make you better at everything.