There is something that has become a popular addition to many peoples’ training programmes. It seems that lots of fitness enthusiasts want to learn to handstand, and we believe it’s a really smart decision.
Working in elite sport as strength and conditioning coaches we have explored and tried many ways to train the shoulder effectively. What we’ve learnt is that this fairly complex joint needs some special attention if it is to be robust and able to produce high levels of force and power. Whilst dumbbell or barbell pressing variations have a role to play, in our experience one movement that may be unparalleled in terms of the kick back you get on overall benefit is learning to handstand.
As an ex-rugby player with 2 shoulder reconstructive surgeries on my medical history I’d tried everything in the book to try to get it stable enough to prevent another dislocation. I decided to learn to handstand because in my mind, it’d be a good sign that my shoulders were finally stable. 3 years down the line, no dislocations and I’m doing things I never thought I’d be able to, like a human flag which would have previously been a recipe for disaster.
A well controlled handstand is the product of both stability and strength working simultaneously together. Having this important partnership is what will help you smash through plateaus in your training. Often people have adequate levels of one or the other, but few have both. Partly because having both requires more exercises and when space on the training programme is at a premium, and you’re not injured, resistance band rotator cuff exercises might be the first ones you decide to cull.
Enter the handstand. A movement whose progressions force you to develop both. It’s almost impossible to perform a well controlled and perfectly aligned handstand if you don’t have these two motor abilities. But the benefits reach much further…
If you’re into Olympic Lifting look at the catch position in the snatch; stability and strength through an ability to control shoulder joint position and alignment of the ribcage, spine and pelvis. These are all components of the handstand and offer you the added benefit of precision movement to make specific corrections. That could make a big difference to your snatch game.
How about wanting to increase the size of your shoulder musculature. The handstand can help by increasing the joint stability which increases joint integrity, therefore facilitating the development of more strength. You should be aware that your central nervous system will not allow a joint to produce more force than it can stabilise. So if you have hit a plateau on your shoulder strength development and just can’t move on to that next weight up, have a think about increasing your shoulder stability. Do that through learning to handstand and we’re pretty sure you’ll see some much better gainz down the road.
For anyone else who wants to learn something new or values a component of ‘play’ in their training and wants a new challenge to freshen up a stagnate programme. The handstand is for you.
So if you’re about to start your handstand journey, or you’re already on your way, here are 3 lessons that Jacko and I wish we’d known from the start. Trust me, take these on board and it will speed your progress no end.
Jacko and I have a story about this. I decided that I was going to learn to handstand properly and that a true handstand started from a crouch or tucked position with feet on the floor and as you press out with your shoulders the legs are extended above the head. Jacko took a different approach in an attempt to get to the end point quicker, he just tried kicking into it.
These two approaches give you two very different results. My handstand was built up stage by stage by creating one stable position before I was able to move to the next. First the frogstand. Then a rotation of the hips above the head. Followed by pushing the hands into the ground to straighten the elbows putting me into a mid-air squat with straight arms. After that it’s a simple (!?) job of extending the legs.
With the kick up you completely miss the opportunity to develop shoulder strength and stability in all those stages of movement. You’re also asking your central nervous system to try to filter and then co-ordinate a huge amount of information. Legs, hips, pelvis, spine, shoulders and hands, all at the same time. This is not an effective way to learn. You may however find you reach something close to your end goal sooner and have an ‘ok’ handstand. Perhaps you can hold it a short period of time but your alignment is pretty ropey.
The fact is in the second example that you will build a handstand on poor foundations and further hand balancing progressions will not come easy. When you decide you would like to learn to planche, handstand push up or tiger bend you will have to go back to stage one and build up the strength and controlled movement that you skipped. The only time we use a kick up is when we’re going up against a wall to train another component.
Yes this is a longer journey and yes it is ridden with failed attempts. But it is worth it, so avoid the potentially attractive easy route of the kicking up long enough for a photo and instead opt for the steeper climb. You won’t regret it from a personal satisfaction point of view or a from the physical strength and stability perspective either. Nor when you show your new skills to other people, it’s just straight up more impressive.
The banana back handstand is a common sight and to be honest I used to do one of the worst. It happens for the following reasons:
1. Banana backing means you don’t need to have as much shoulder flexion i.e. your arms aren’t fully overhead and instead hold an angle at about 30 – 40 degrees. Going fully overhead requires a range of movement many people don’t have.
2. In combination with point 1, people lack strength at end range when the arms are completely overhead. By dropping the hands slightly we avoid this weak spot and instead recruit a bit more chest strength (think about the difference between a shoulder press and an incline chest press).
3. The banana back helps to distribute more weight either side of the base of support and thus reducing the balance requirement. It’s the same reason people might find it easier to hold their hands out to the side when standing on one leg.
Learning to handstand with a banana back is probably an inevitable part of the process and it’s going to happen. No one does a perfect straight handstand first time but our advice is to be aware of it and include exercises in your programme to address it. Otherwise you’re going to start seeing pictures of you and your bent spine and realise you have to go back and re-learn a better position. This is a much harder thing to do than trying to get it right in the first place.
We launched our virtual classroom this month and we have a dedicated training space where we help people with their handstand training. They upload videos, we give them expert coaching feedback and suggest exercises to help their training. It’s shaping up to be an awesome community of people who are passionate about redefining their impossible and learning new calisthenics movements.
One of the consistent messages about the handstand is that you have to get strong. Handstand specific strong. This is relevant for both the guys and girls. It’s easy to get caught up in the balancing and Movement Patterning stages where you play around with the frog stand progressions. We get it, it’s addictive because progression can be really fast. However this comes with a false impression that it’s just going to click and all of a sudden you’ll nail your handstand. Sorry folks, it’s not going to go down like that.
Your progression must be supported by the development of strength as well as the skill aquisition. The progressions of pike push ups and wall handstand push ups should become a solid part of your weekly sessions. If they’re not you won’t be able to move to the next handstand progression because you may lack the strength to create the shape or body position that you need.
Put it into perspective. You’re trying to vertically push a significant percentage of your bodyweight. Imagine putting a similar load on a couple of dumbbells and doing it. I think we’d agree that anyone who could do that with good technique would be classed as having ‘strong shoulders’. In the handstand we’re doing the same thing, but this time it’s unstable and that ups the ante even more!
We genuinely believe in the long-term benefits of learning to handstand for so many reasons. Whilst shoulder strength and stability is an invaluable asset to whatever training you do, one of the most important benefits is that, whilst frustrating at times, it’s fun! So give it a try, commit to the process, set yourself a goal and if you need some more guidance check out the book we wrote about how to learn to handstand visit the Virtual Classroom for more tips!
Enjoy the journey