Principles of a Handstand Practice

Jan 22, 2019

Handstands are one of those movements that kids do in the park. There's no structure, it's play. It's not about getting better at it but rather doing handstands because it's fun.

This is where adults get held back with their handstand progress. They play with it like kids do without a plan, often at the end of their serious workout BUT they expect to get better. They get frustrated when they don't improve.

Now I'm all about play and having fun with handstands. In my current training cycle, most of my handstand time is unstructured fun time. BUT when I want to get better I have a lot more structure and focus. It is hard, intense work and it isn't always fun in the traditional sense.

I could write out my training program and tell you exactly what movements to do but the best practice for you and your strengths will be your own unique practice. The frequency of training that works for me is not necessarily the frequency of training that works for you. So I am giving you principles to help you build your own handstand practice.

Prepare your wrists & shoulders

First rule of handstand club is to make sure that your joints are ready for handstand club.

Wrist mobility and strength

If you are new to handstands then get used to putting weight on your hands. Start by doing the wrist prep routine that I have posted below. Spend time practicing planks, push-ups, crawling and other drills where your weight is on your hands. Build it up slowly and develop strength and mobility in your wrists before trying to spend hours upside down.

Even though I have spent years doing handstands, I still work on my wrist prep as well as other specific wrist movements and exercises to ensure that my wrists stay happy.

Shoulder mobility & strength

It is also important to develop shoulder mobility and strength. Can you get your arms fully overhead, without lifting your ribs, without any pain or pinching? If not - it makes no sense to load this position until you have that ability. If you have pain, get assessed by a professional. If you are simply lacking range of motion then start by doing some targeted stretching. I have a free overhead mobility guide for handstands that will help.

One of my favourite movements to start building shoulder strength and to start getting comfortable with being upside down is a bear walk. In this video I am doing an advanced version that involves being attacked by wild animals.

Once you have built up some strength, start doing a few minutes of skill work before your workout. And if you are not sure where to start, I have an entire online program that will take you through all the steps. Check the details out here.

Practice frequently

When you look at all the top handbalancers in the world, they have all spent hundreds of hours practicing their handstands. Time spent practicing is crucial to getting better. But more important is the type of practice.

Improving your handstand requires that you develop better awareness and build a better mental image of what your body is doing. This type of practice is hard. Even the most elite athletes will tend to do multiple shorter sessions for skill improvement rather than one long extended workout.

Start with 5-10 minutes of focused skill work. Do this multiple times a week.

If you are mindlessly practicing for an hour, you are stressing your joints and tiring your body without getting better at the skill. You might be developing some strength and endurance BUT how good will your practice be the next day?

Multiple short sessions a week allow you to maintain the required focus during your practice without getting too sore to practice the next day.

Have a goal & a plan

If you want to improve then it's important to know what progress would look like for you. Do you want to improve your line? Do you want to find balance consistently? Do you want to balance a cat on your butt? The more specific you make your goal, the better you can target your practice to reach that goal.

For example, for a long time I was training one arm handstands with the goal of getting better at one arm handstands. That was it. And maybe I got a bit better, but not a lot and I didn't really have a measure of what better meant. When I made my goal more specific, "find balance for at least 5 seconds 90% of the time", my training became more focused around that goal and I hit the target fairly quickly.

If your goal is something vague try to make it more specific. Keep it to one thing and then make a plan that targets that specific thing.

Train endurance

In my online Master the Handstand coaching groups, when the chest to wall handstand work reaches 60 seconds, everyone starts to hate me a little bit. However, as their endurance improves, my student's skill practice also improves. They can practice longer. The skill work is less physically demanding and they are able to focus more on making improvements rather than how tired their arms are.

Some examples of endurance training:

  • 3-5 sets of 30 second chest to wall handstands
  • 3-5 minutes of non-stop kick-ups (as soon as you fall kick back up)
  • Walk around on your hands in a handstand obstacle course

As always, it is important to maintain an intention of perfect form. If you are unable to maintain this intention drop the intensity of the exercise to a point where you can continue to perform with quality.

Don't train with wrist, elbow or shoulder pain

Handstand work is hard on your wrists and shoulders and they will get tired. Sometimes they might even feel sore. Sometimes this is what needs to happen for you to get stronger. However, if you feel like you need to take pain killers in order to train then maybe you are better off not training that day.

I get elbow pain when my shoulders get lazy. They are not doing their share of the work and my elbows are left to do more than they want to do. If this is the case I will focus on using my shoulders more. I'll rest longer between sets. Often my elbow pain goes away. However, if you have persistent pain around your elbows when you are training handstands then my recommendation is to stop. Get it checked out by a professional.

Wrist pain and shoulder pain are also common in handstand training. Sometimes handstand practice won't make the pain worse. Maybe movement actually helps heal it faster. However, unless you know what is wrong and what is causing the pain you do not know that. My principle for handstand practice is that if my shoulders or wrists are painful then I do not train handstands. I'll back-off and I will seek help if required.

Practice mindfully but don't overthink things

Awareness is key in practicing a skill. Break the skill that you are working on into it's components and determine what is holding you back the most. I always suggest that my students choose one thing to focus on improving during their workout.

Start by observing what your body is doing and what you are feeling, focusing on your chosen component. Film yourself to see how closely these align: what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing. After each attempt, reflect on whether or not you achieved the goal. However, don't overthink it. I see many students practically writing a thesis over every single rep, analyzing the little details, creating interesting theories and then over complicating and overthinking the next attempt.

To avoid this overthinking I recommend the following. During your practice be mindful of each handstand and immediately afterwards give a quick/short analysis. For example, if the focus is on keeping your shoulders stacked and then kicking and feeling when/if your hips are stacked. After each attempt immediately ask yourself if you felt this stacked position.

If the answer is yes, then cool, just go into the next handstand with the same focus. No need to think any more.

If the answer is no then reset and go again. No need to analyse yet.

If you get 3 "nos" in a row be aware if anything else stood out. For example, I didn't feel that stacked position AND my neck felt really over extended. Or I was really nervous/tense.

Then think about how you can avoid that thing. If you felt your neck extended see if you can keep your head in for the next rep. Still focus on whether you feel the stacking but start with the head position.

If you felt nervous, take a step back and do a few handstands with your back facing the wall or in a setup that is more comfortable.

If you do multiple rounds of "nos" and it still isn't getting better then take a few videos for later analysis and move on.

Get a coach

If you want to get good at handstands then find a coach who knows the steps to get there. As a beginner you might be able to look at a circus performer and see what they are doing. You can write all those things down but you don't know what they are feeling or what the steps were to get there. When you are just starting out make sure you learn and understand these fundamental things.

Once you know the steps and the technique it is definitely possible to progress without a coach. But a good coach will help you progress faster by highlighting things that you didn't know were important, prioritizing what you should be focusing on and pushing you outside your comfort zone.

ALL of my programs include coaching because I understand how challenging it is to learn handstands and gymnastics movements on your own.

In my online Master the Handstand coaching group my students also benefit from the support and accountability of their peers. It is so much fun to see them form a community, help each other stay motivated and celebrate each other's successes.

If you want to read more about the benefits of having a coach, one of my students Kym, wrote this fantastic post about the 4 Keys to Being Coached.