Five Reasons Why You Can't Balance in Your Handstand: Plus My Favourite Cues To Help You

Jul 29, 2017

Balance is the asshole that often refuses to show up for your handstand party. Occasionally they'll swing by, say hello, eat all the guacamole and then leave without even saying goodbye. Or maybe they never even bother to show their face at all. We have all been there: frustrated. impatient, upset, googling for handstand support groups... But it doesn't have to be that way. In this article I will help you figure out why you are unable to balance upside down, and show you what you can do to overcome this. Before you know it, you'll be getting kicked out of museums and shopping malls which apparently have strict rules about your orientation (physical).

Here are my top 5 reasons why you can't balance in your handstand. If more than one of these reasons applies to you start at 1 and work your way from there. The order is important.

1. You are lacking wrist flexibility and/or strength

If your wrist is not physically capable of going into sufficient extension, i.e. the angle between your hand and forearm is greater than 90 degrees, then I'm sorry but you should not be doing freestanding handstands yet. Your wrists are unable to get into the required position for a handstand. There are a couple of potential consequences of this. The first is that you simply may not get into a fully stacked position with your elbows, shoulders, etc. above your hands. The second, and more worrying issue, is that you will compensate with your elbows and/or shoulders to get into a balanced but not stacked position. To avoid the potential injury caused by loading your joints in these weird positions, you will need to improve your wrist range of motion before you get upside down.

If your wrist flexibility is fine then you passed the first hurdle. But if you do not have enough wrist strength and control in that extended position, there is no way for you to prevent yourself from falling out of it.

Working on wrist prep drills, such as the ones shown here, that build both flexibility and strength are a vital step to getting past this obstacle. Once you have spent some time on your wrists in a quadruped position, you need to start testing it under load. I have my students work on maintaining wrist extension while progressively loading the wrist in order to build the strength and control that they need in a handstand.

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2. You are scared of falling (and you might not even know it)

There is the obvious, shaking at the thought of handstands, paralysing fear that many experience when first getting upside down. Start slow. Build strength, control and confidence with variations that you are comfortable with before venturing away from the wall. Bear walks, foot supported pike holds and chest to wall handstands are a great way to get started. Check out these drills here.

Rushing to a freestanding handstand is often counter productive. You will be so preoccupied with falling that there is no way you will be able to focus on your technique. Figure out exactly what it is that you are afraid of, the more detailed the better. Then think of what little steps you can take to overcome that. If you don't know how you will bail, then work on bailing strategies first.

A less obvious situation is if you feel confident but you are guarding yourself from reaching a point where you will fall. In doing so you are preventing yourself from ever finding balance. Do you always fall straight back down instead of going over? Your balance point is that point of equilibrium between stepping back down and falling right over.

Maybe you can kick up without fear but are your shoulders set over your balance point? No? Shift them. Now how do you feel? A little uncomfortable or nervous? This is where you need to be if you want to find your balance.

Maybe your shoulders are in the perfect position, you feel confident and you can kick up but every time you end up bailing. One thing I see frequently is students trying to turn and bail before they even get vertical. I understand that you feel as if you are going right over but wait until gravity tells you it is time to turn. Don't preemptively start the bail or you will never get to a full balanced handstand. If you are not 100% certain that when you go over you can cartwheel out then spend you time practising the cartwheel bail. Stop trying to balance until you have this down.

3. You are a wibbly, wobbly tower of jello

Imagine trying to balance a tower of jello on your hand. It will start to move, you will try to make an adjustment, it will go in seemingly random directions and finally fall to the floor. Now imagine that you are trying to balance a solid steel tower or stick on your hand. When it moves you can make small adjustments and the entire tower will adjust in a way that you can predict. Balancing the tower will be infinitely easier.

If you are lacking body tension, balancing yourself upside down will be like trying to balance a tower of jello and will likely result in a giant mess on the floor.

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Push the floor down as hard as you can, trying to move the earth away from you. This push will create stability and strength in your shoulders.

Moving onto your torso. I have a tip for all the married people out there. Never tell your wife that she is loose in the mid-section. Ever. Despite the fact that you were trying to improve her handstand you will be reminded of it for a very long time. The key for hand balancing is core control. Pull your ribs in and down and pull your hips towards your ribs (using your lower abs) to get into a posterior pelvic tilt. Here are some drills to help you feel this connection.

From your loose mid-section, we move to your butt. When you are first learning handstands squeeze it as hard as you can. Butt pokes, along with wrist exercises, hollow body holds and endurance training are staples in my handstand class. So do me a favour and squeeze your butt.

My final request is that you point your fucking toes (thank you Agatsu for this coaching cue). It is more than just looking pretty. Extension through your toes encourages you to create tension through the rest of the body. It is really hard to point your toes but be loose everywhere else. It also encourages you to push hard, reaching the toes up as high as you can.

4. You are not really using your hands (even if you think you are)

If you have ever worked with a handstand coach you have probably been told to use your hands to balance. To grip the floor when you are upside down. And maybe you think you are, but if you are doing all the things that I have mentioned above and still not able to control your handstand you are probably not using your fingers enough.

While standing up tall, try and lean slightly forward without falling on your face. Notice how the balls of your feet and your toes push into the floor to keep you upright. You need to feel the same in your handstand. You need to feel the weight of your body in the top part of your hands (just below your knuckles), which is where your balance point' is. If you feel the weight in the heel of your hands shift it forward and feel the difference. This requires a lot of forearm strength that you will need to build. When I do endurance holds it is my forearms that are feeling the burn when I come down.

5. You are too focused on getting a long hold that you forget to enjoy and appreciate the process

It seems unfair but the more rushed you are towards achieving a handstand, the longer it will take you to get it. Approach your handstand training with curious interest and enjoy the process. Balance is not achieved by pushing harder it's about feeling what is happening with your body and gaining the awareness to make adjustments. Getting the goal or hitting a PR is always a moment of elation followed by asking yourself now what?. If you don't enjoy the journey then you are missing out. The best part of learning handstands is figuring out all the little details and losing yourself in the focus of mindful practice.

So next time you practice, forget the goal, forget that arbitrary number of seconds that you think you need to get, just enjoy the fact that you are a grown adult and you are spending your time trying to balance upside down.

Cues For Handstands

There are so many details that go into a handstand. Your hand position, gripping the floor, pushing and elevating your shoulders, your head position, pulling your ribs in and down, straightening out your lower back, tucking your butt, squeezing your butt and pointing your toes. Now go and do all these things at once!

It's a bit overwhelming to think about and almost impossible to put into practice. I like to use external cues and visualisation to distil the 100+ things to one thing at a time. My coaching often begins with the word Imagine. Imagine that you have balloons tied to your feet, imagine that you are made of solid steel, imagine that you are pulling your tail between your legs (first imagine that you have a tail). These cues work wonders for my students. Here are some of my favourite cues to help with balance, try them one at a time and see if any click with you:

Cue #1

When you set up for your handstand, imagine that you are about to run a 100m sprint. Now I could point out all the differences between a handstand set up and a sprint set up but what I want you to take away is the intention. A runner sets up with the intention of springing off the blocks at full speed. Their arms are straight, their front leg is bent close to their hands but most importantly their weight is forward over their hands. They are not sitting back on their legs idly waiting for the gun to go off. They are perched forward ready to go. Doing this will stack your shoulders over your hands getting you halfway to a handstand. Next time that you practice your handstand, try and visualise this. See if it helps.

Cue #2

Warning this is not a PG cue. My wife (the one with the loose mid-section) used to have a hard time understanding how much I wanted her to squeeze her butt. Until I told her not to let the gerbil in. Imagine there is a rabid gerbil loose in your training space looking for a nice warm place to hide. Don't let it be your butt. My wife has never had a problem since.

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Cue #3

I could tell you over and over again to keep your ribs in or down. I could shout it louder, hoping that it was the volume of my voice that was the problem. In my experience the ribs in cue rarely works. Instead what you'll hear me say is as you kick up to handstand imagine that I am kicking you in the chest. Even thinking about this when standing up makes me pull my ribs in.

Cue #4

One drill that I love is to kick up to the wall and then float your feet off to balance in your handstand. When doing this, imagine that someone has tied a helium balloon to your feet and it is pulling you straight up. Not away from the wall but straight up! Just make sure that there is not too much helium in the balloon.

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Some of these cues may not immediately change your handstand. But they may help you recognize that your form was not ideal. I didn't get my chest in, BUT I felt that my ribs were out. Change rarely happens immediately, it requires slowly bringing awareness to what your body is doing (upside down) and then slowly learning to make adjustments. Start to enjoy and appreciate the magic that is happening in these micro steps. This is the handstand journey and what will get you to your handstand goal.