Handstands and handbalancing require a vast repertoire of handstand exercises and drills to progress and become proficient. When I think of exercise prescription and exercise programming for the handstand, there are three significant tenants I think through.
First, what is the array of exercises and drills do I need? Second, what order should I present those exercises? Third, what volume and rep scheme is appropriate as the trainee progresses?
A library of exercises is analogous to a chef and cooking. A chefs array of food and spice choices is comparable to what available drills there are for a hand balancer. The order and quantity in which a meal is cooked are similar to an exercise progression that is used to work up to something – like a handstand.
Handstand exercises will fall into a few different categories:
- Handstand specific warm-up exercises
- Handstand accessory strengthening & conditioning exercises
- Handstand stretching
- Handstand alignment & balance exercises
- Handstand entries
- Handstand shapes
Let’s explore each of these categories
Handstand specific warm-up exercises
First, we have handstand specific warm-ups. The reason we have these is that balancing on your hands isn’t something we do much as humans. It’s not like walking on our feet, where we can get out of bed and do it without getting hurt or feeling precarious.
Since we don’t spend much time in the tenuous position of balancing on our hands, the structures require priming. Priming can be broken down into two categories.
First, think of your ligaments and muscles, which are your more mechanical structures. These need to be stretched and have more blood running into those areas. This is what you would think of as a traditional warm-up. Similar to how a soccer player will go for a run before practice. It is just a general way to warm up the body.
Second, think of your nervous system, which is the signaling mechanisms of your body. The nervous system tells these mechanical structures what to do, how much to do, and when to do it. Handbalancing, as suggested by its namesake, requires balance. Balancing on your hands requires innumerable adjustments from your nervous system to stay afloat.
One of the intended purposes of the warm-up is to get your nervous system firing so to increase the efficiency and efficacy of the handstand exercises.
Handstand accessory strengthening & conditioning exercises
The second category of handstand exercises focuses on specific strength and conditioning for handstands. You may have glazed over it, but notice the operative word of ‘specific’ in the previous sentence.
Strength and conditioning are often synonymous with big barbells and sprinting. The reason this correlation may hold true in your mind is that S&C training is associated with football, rugby, and other power-dominated field sports.
In reality, S&C can be applied to any physical endeavor or sport. Various modalities of physical culture require different physical abilities. Each of these physical abilities is targeted at performing better and safer for that chosen discipline.
For handstands and hand balancing, we will often have exercises and drills that help you perform better at this discipline.
For example, the strength of our bones, muscles, and ligaments in our hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders are often a limiting factor for many beginners. This limitation gives us two options. First, we could wait for those physical structures of your body to develop only through handstands. Second, we could use accessory strength and conditioning to help aid in our performance.
I have one last word on S&C for handstands. Its called handbalancing, not handstrength. Strength is undoubtedly a crucial, vital, and necessary physical attribute of hand balancing. It becomes even more relevant for more advanced moves like the one arm handstand and free handstand push-ups. However, balance is still front and center as the most important physical attribute to this art.
For handbalancing it is beneficial, and in many instances necessary, to have a certain level of range of motion (ROM) in different movement patterns. Also, the ROM needs to be active and without assistance.
For example, let’s say we determine that you need to do the middle splits. One of the ways to training the middle splits is to be in a standing position and walk your legs out each side so that they are in a V shape. Eventually, you’ll get to a place where you can’t go any farther, and you’ll be stretching at the end range of your middle split. In the case, the ground is assisting you by keeping your legs spread.
In most (if not all) cases assisted stretching will allow you to go farther in ROM. Assisted stretching is fantastic and is the primary strategy for increasing ROM.
While in a handstand though, we can only utilize active ROM – which, again, will always be less than assisted ROM. Active ROM will be the ROM you can attain without assistance. For example, let’s say you are standing on your hands and spread your leg into a middle split. There is nothing other than your own body and gravity to assist you with that middle split. This example would be considered active ROM.
Now that we have a sharper distinction between active and un-assisted ROM, let’s explore the specific ROM needed that will help with your handstands.
- Middle Split
- Front Split
For handbalancing, those are the principal stretches needed to progress beyond just a simple handstand. If you intend to be able to pop up to a handstand, you won’t need to be very advanced at any of the stretches above of shapes.
However, if you’d like to progress beyond a basic handstand freehold then becoming more proficient at those stretches will help tremendously down the line. For instance, if you’d like to perform a strict staddle press, having a good pancake will help you with that. Or, if you’d like to do a more advanced one arm handstand, a middle split be tremendously beneficial.
Handstand alignment & balance exercises
You may have heard me say it before. Its called handbalancing. Not handstrength.
Handbalancing demands you develop many physical attributes as you progress through the stages. You need to have strength and stamina mostly in your hands, arms, and shoulders but also throughout the rest of your body. You need dexterity in your hands for micro-adjustments to control your body while it’s inverted. You need flexibility in the right areas to get into more advanced shapes and handstand entrances. But, most importantly, you need to develop your inverted balance and coordination.
Handstand alignment drills are used to reinforce various handstand positions. For beginners aspiring to learn to do a handstand or who are progressing towards a handstand have many exercises available to them to reinforce proper positioning. An example of one of these drills is the hollow rock.
With the hollow rock, you would lay on the ground with our hands over your head straight, and your toes pointed. Your entire body is stretched like a plank of wood. Then you pull in your stomach and push your belly button down through the floor so that your full lower back is flush with the ground so that there is no space and your arch is gone. This position helps reinforce an active core and straight back needed to hold a handstand.
Well, this is what we are here for, right? The actual business of doing handstands, not the extraneous drudgery and toil needed simply to get you into a handstand.
Here’s the thing.
The reason why you so many people flail on their hands in ill-conceived handstand attempts is due to a lack of building blocks. Most of your handstand training, especially in the beginning, is actually not spent in a handstand. There is a mountain invisible and tedious prep work needed to get into a good handstand shape.
You need to earn getting into those handstand shapes! Holding a beautiful handstand shape, in my opinion, is one of the more enjoyable aspecs of training. Its as if all the prep work has coalesced and in that focused meditative moment, everything melts away, and the only thing that matter is being present.
I know, I know. You’re here for handstand information, not mindfulness or meditation. Your experience may be different, but I do think there are moments in focused physical training that due to the level of concentration needed it can illicit a flow and meditative state – which I find to be profoundly joyful.
Handstand shapes come in innumerable forms. They can are performed on two hands or one hand. They can be done on the floor, handstand canes, bars, and almost any surface or apparatus you can think of. The variation and nuance are boundless, and you can spend a lifetime exploring new and novel inverted forms to put your body into.
Handstand Entires Drills
A handstand entry is simply the method in which you enter into a handstand.
When I first started learning to do handstands, I made the mistake of ignoring entries, and it delayed how quickly I was progressing with handbalancing. Dedicating plenty of time to handstand entries early on in your training will pay dividends later on. It will reduce the number of failed attempts to get into a handstand which will allow you to become more efficient with your training and save you countless blips of frustration from ill-gotten missed attempts.
As a word of advice, when you are first starting popping up to a handstand will be very hit or miss. Maybe one in 10 or more you’ll successfully get into a solid handstand with control. This is commonly in the phase of your training when you’re coming off the wall and starting to enter into free handstands.
During this phase of training, I generally have a big focus on repetitions of handstand entrances. Drilling entrances over and over again going into a handstand. The aim is to get you to the point where pretty much on command at and point you could get up to handstand in the middle of the room without high confidence you’re going to nail it.
This level of efficiency to getting into a handstand pays enormous dividends later on when you want to spend most of your training time inverted — not falling over trying to get inverted.