There is no perfect way to learn to handstand!
Now we’re all on the same page, let me explain why…
If you’re browsing for online ‘how to handstand’ resources, you’re going to find a multitude of potential teachers and coaches. It’s likely that most of them will use a combination of different exercises selected on the individuals’ philosophy about hand balancing and their own learning experience.
Calisthenics, yoga, CrossFit, gymnastics, acrobatics, and circus all have their own methods. Whilst there are common traits, the process behind each will be shaped by the context of when, and how, the handstand is performed.
But which is the right way?
The answer is all of them, and none of them. Because it depends on what you want. So whilst you’re thinking that over, let’s talk about the essentials, regardless of which route you choose.
When you find yourself in a training situation and there are lots of options and opinions the best course of action is to return to the first principles.
FIRST PRINCIPLES: The fundamental assumptions on which a particular theory or procedure is thought to be based
If you’re trying to learn how to handstand, there are a few key things that cannot be avoided. These are the first principles and they are applicable regardless of the process in which any teacher, from any background or discipline, must include.
I’ve spent the last decade working as a strength and conditioning coach in elite sport and I’ve often told athletes that range of movement is the cornerstone of success. If you lack the ability to move well the brain will find an alternative option known as the path of least resistance. Whilst it achieves a movement outcome, the result is often inefficient and rarely looks pretty.
In the handstand, there are two key mobility requirements.
Working from the ground up, the first is the wrist. You need to have sufficient range of movement in the wrist so you can stack your centre of mass over your base of support. Imagine trying to balance on your feet if your ankles are super tight and you can’t get your shin vertical, for sure the demands of simply standing upright would be far greater and in an attempt to make it less demanding your brain will counterbalance somewhere else further up the chain, i.e. in your hips and spine.
The same principle applies in a handstand and therefore you need to think about including wrist mobilisation techniques in your programme. Having adequate range of motion is important from a biomechanical perspective, but also injury prevention so don’t skip this.
The second area, and one that many people struggle with is overhead mobility, i.e. full range of movement in the shoulders. If you have tightness in your chest and shoulders you’ll find it hard to get into a good handstand shape. Just as with the wrist, your brain will try to find a way to help and in the majority of cases, this will involve arching the spine meaning you end up with the infamous ‘banana handstand’!
Learning how to handstand will require you to address any restrictions in range of motion if you are to achieve something that feels good and looks aesthetically pleasing. It’s also essential if you have desires of moving onto more advanced progressions. So in your search for a handstand programme, make sure it includes specific training to improve range of movement.
Learning how to handstand is about training yourself to move in a new way and this is can be optimised if you understand the process of skill acquisition. As a beginner, your brain-body interface doesn’t currently know how to balance your entire body on your hands. It hasn’t got the the neural wiring in place yet to fire the right muscles, at the right time, at the right intensity.
Learning how to handstand is like learning how to conduct an orchestra. Every component must be guided to play at the appropriate tempo, at the right volume and with just enough flair to do something special.
To do this, takes time and it’s a process that everyone has to go through.
The most effective way to teach yourself a complex skill is to utilise something known as ‘neural chunking’. It works by breaking the skill down into smaller components that you can practice and master before you join the different stages of the movement together.
If you ignore this and instead just try to repeatedly kick into a full handstand you’re destined for a very long journey as this approach is simply ineffective. Your brain has far too many variables to manage and you have far to few strategies to control the movement. Imagine a tsunami of neural information hitting your human movement system all at once and you have absolutely no idea how to control it.
Your handstand programme therefore should have clear components that are broken down, trained and then integrated to create the full movement.
There is no denying that learning how to handstand is a fine motor skill that requires you to develop precision, timing and co-ordination. But take heart, most of us have already done this once in our life when we learnt to walk. And even though we were completely unaware, your brain adopted a neural chunking approach from day one. Sit, crawl, assisted standing, sofa surfing and then your first step. No baby ever just decided whilst lying in its back one day that it would just get up and take its first steps. So whilst we might not like the toil involved in the process, it’s unreasonable to expect to learn how to handstand without first learning the skills and control you need in small bitesize chunks.
Throughout your handstand programme make sure that the skill acquisition process is structured and coherent. Your brain will thank for you for it and reward you with faster progress.
This is where the main camps split because how strong you need to be to do a handstand depends on what you want to do with it.
When we learnt to handstand, we always had one eye on freestanding handstand push ups, and for that you need to be strong! So we decided to build a lot of strength development into the process from day one. For others though, a kick up handstand is their ultimate goal and that doesn’t require you to be particularly strong. The emphasis is on the balance control strategies because you’re holding yourself on straight arms and so the joints provide much of the structural support required. Yes there is specific strength required to maintain stability and body alignment, but this is very different to an unsupported handstand push up.
Having said that, we believe that strength is an essential underpinning motor quality because it makes everything so much easier. If you build strength in your shoulders and triceps in vertical pushing patterns you’re going to make your handstand practice more efficient. You will be able to do more high quality repetitions during training, you will hold positions for longer, you will defend against injury and you will be able to focus more attention on the skill components rather than worrying that you’re not strong enough to hold the basic body position.
Our advice is to get strong and watch your handstand progress sky rocket regardless of what discipline, context or purpose you have for your hand balancing training.
Strength through range of movement and delivered with precision will never let you down, and over the course of your handstand journey it will open the doors to a world of handstand fun.
Well, it’s the first principles of how to handstand. The drills and exercises you use should show strong elements and focus in each of these sections. If one is missing, in our opinion, your training will not be optimised and your handstand will be less robust, adaptable and offer you less opportunity for future progression.
At the School of Calisthenics, we designed a unique framework that allows us to break down any bodyweight movement into its composite parts so that you can train it in a progressive and systematic way. We use the latest training science and years of experience training ourselves and hundreds of athletes to move in new ways.
We also think building strength in handstand positions is the most amount of fun you can have with your hands, so if that sounds like what you’re looking for then look no further! The School of Calisthenics is the place for you.
If you would like to find out more about our handstand training programmes please check out our online programmes as part of the Virtual Classroom! We look forward to welcoming you.