Do you want to be good at handstand? Let me give you some basic advice, learning to handstand should not start with handstands! Far too often we see “newbies” trying to kick-up to handstand with little or no awareness of alignment or how to control a handstand. It’s often these people who also start to comment on how painful their wrists are when training handstands. Hopefully, this article will offer some useful advice on where to start your handstand training and how to prepare your wrists and shoulders for handstand training. This post will focus more on the control of handstand and building strength, endurance and mobility in the wrists and shoulders. Handstands also require an understanding of body alignment, but that for another post.
Handstands are a low impact sport, so the physical stress placed on the body should be minimal. However, most of us sit at a desk for 8+ hours a day, tapping away at a keyboard or using our mobile phones. Our wrists and fingers spend a lot of time in flexion, and very little time in extension. We are good at pushing with the fingers, but we don’t often grip object tightly, and the muscles of the hands are often weak. We then decide to start performing handstands, and we begin placing increased demands on the wrists and fingers. Far too often wrist and finger training is overlooked as it's not the sexy stuff we see on Instagram, and people fail to understand its true value until they appreciate the necessity for handstand, or they get an injury.
We often hear the terms “intensification” and “accumulation” used in the strength and conditioning world to describe the periodisation of programme design. Accumulation - "a mass or quantity of something that has gradually gathered or been acquired.” This is an important concept that is often misunderstood and not discussed
In training terms, exercise places a stress on the body, and our bodies need time to adapt and build resistance to the added stress. If we apply too much stress, the body will break, if we don’t apply enough stress the body will not adapt and grow stronger, this is the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). There is a fine line between pleasure and pain and the application of stress needs to be gradually managed over time to build strength.
The accumulation principles apply to beginners who are learning to handstand. A beginner would not get to the gym, put their body weight on the bar and start to perform huge volumes of back squats. A beginner should take time to prepare the ankles, knees, hips, and midline before even considering doing a back squat. Structural balance, mobility, alignment, strength and motor control needs to be established well before we even consider moving to the barbell and learning to back squat. The same concept applies for the handstand as the fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders need to be conditioned and prepared for the demands of supporting the entire body weight. Take your time to accumulate small volumes of stress on wrist extension and shoulders (overhead position) before starting to kick-up into a handstand.
Wrist to Shoulder Alignment
It's important to know that in a perfect handstand, the arms should be completely vertical to the floor, many people like to lean their shoulders forward of their hands (slight planche) as they find it easier to hold a handstand in this position. However, when the shoulders lean forward, this places added pressure on the wrists as they move deeper into extension. While this may seem trivial, it's an essential alignment point that needs to be fixed, as the additional stress placed on the wrists will soon lead to injury if not corrected. A limited amount of shoulder flexion can be the cause of forward shoulder, as many people struggle to reach 180* of shoulder flexions.
180* Shoulder flexion:
Questions: If you don’t have 180* of shoulder flexion, should you be doing a handstand, lifting weight overhead, or doing pull-ups? Think about it, if you are unable to lift the weight of your arms overhead without arching your lower back, do you think adding weight to this position is a good idea? Far too often the caveman approach to training, "I like to pick up heavy stuff, no matter how bad my form looks,” can lead to lower back pain. Be careful in the overhead position as a limited range of shoulder motion can cause serious lower back problems.
Take time to warm-up properly by performing wrist and shoulder mobility exercises. This will allow you to develop a higher level of strength and connection between the ground and your hands, which will result in better alignment and balance. A specific warm-up that is practised every day, especially before handstand training, can place the right amount of stress on the hands, elbows and shoulder to help improve the strength of the hands and the handstand line. Crawling, bear walks, monkey walks, lizard walks, and other locomotions are a great way to warm-up the body and apply hand-to-ground forces that can help prepare the body for handstands.
Mobility and strength should go hand-in-hand (no pun intended). Working on improving wrist and finger strength is critical to mastering the handstand and is often overlooked. As you can imagine balancing on your wrists is initially confusing. Handstand newbies will often use their shoulder and hips to change body shape to find balance in the handstand. This is a compensation for the lack of forearm strength required to control a handstand. We need to try and resist this temptation as it will instil bad habits that can be difficult to break. A proper handstand held for more than 60 seconds should leave the forearms exhausted, and the rest of the body is feeling fine, maybe a slight shoulder burning sensation.
Wrist mobility video 1:
Muscle endurance work is also a critical element to mastering any movement. Simply holding a front leaning rest (FLR) for sets of 60 seconds can help to build straight arm pressing strength (wrists, elbows, shoulders, body alignment). Wall facing handstands are also another great drill that can be used to build shoulder stamina and prepare for freestanding handstand. It’s best to start with small amount of time in these positions 20-30seconds and then slowly accumulate more time from week-to-week until you can hold five sets of 60 seconds with perfect form. Don’t forget to warm-up first.
It is best to be overly conservative with training efforts and not work to complete failure. Always try to leave a little bit in the tank so that you can come back stronger tomorrow. Sustainable training is not about smashing yourself into the ground and breaking your body. We are here to train, to learn, to move, to grow, and to feel better about ourselves.
If you know you are injured, continuing to train like you were before the injury is not very smart. Back off, take some time to focus on rehab and allow your body to heal before you go adding further stress. Yes, it sucks, but being smart about it will help you recover much faster and then start making progress again.
Handstand “GAINZ” are typically measured in years, not weeks or month. It's a journey that takes a lot of dedication and commitment to get right. Whenever you see someone performing a quality handstand, just stop and appreciate how long they have been practising to achieve this. We cannot stress how important it is to have a sustainable practice over the long term. Honestly, this is the number one thing you should be doing to take care of your body and to stay healthy and strong for as long as humanly possible.