How to do Handstands, Jenny Farber

Are you able to hold yourself up in a perfect handstand position? Why should gymnasts be the only ones to master this fabulous total-body strength movement? I believe that the only way to maximize your endurance, coordination, balance, agility, and power is by mastering movements with your own bodyweight, and the handstand is an excellent start to that mastery.

I am a big believer that an athlete can build plenty of strength simply by doing handstands repeatedly. The potential problem is that you can end up building strength in the wrong places if the handstand itself is performed incorrectly. Have you ever heard of the saying: “Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent”? If you repeat something over and over again, you will become incredible at WHATEVER you are practicing. If you are practicing handstands with consistently bad form, you will eventually be able to hold the ugliest handstand for longer than anyone else! Fixing this problem is extremely difficult, so it’s best to learn correctly in the first place.

Handstands require strength and endurance throughout your entire body. While the muscles of your upper body (including the deltoids, pectoralis major, and triceps) are extremely active during a handstand, the muscles of your core and lower body also need strength and endurance to keep your posture correct and to eventually progress to increasingly difficult variations, such as handstand push ups. To increase the endurance of your upper body, lower body, and core muscle groups, strength training with high repetitions is necessary (exercises such as Supermans, Core Leg Extensions, and Push Ups are good for accomplishing this). Static exercises, such as the Wall Squat, are also good for increasing muscular endurance.

While standard bodyweight exercises and weight training with tools that target multiple large muscle groups at the same time (like kettlebells) can help build strength and endurance for handstands, there are several exercises that can also enhance your balance at the same time.

Bridging Hip Isolation (1 & 2 Leg)

Bridging Hip Isolation by Jenny FarberIdeally, a Handstand is perfectly straight from head to toe. This perfectly straight position requires a lot of shoulder flexibility, and Bridging is an excellent exercise for building just that. If the standard Bridge position is too difficult, try to do them with your feet on something that is at least as tall as your shoulders when you’re in the Bridge position. This takes the stress off of the lower back and puts it where it’s supposed to be, the shoulders. You can also get a great stretch by performing a Bridge with a foam roller behind your neck.

The next step is the 2-Leg Bridging Hip Isolation exercise. With your arms lying by your sides, raise your hips and torso (not shoulders) off the ground as high as you can without unnecessary lower back tension. Hold the Bridge position for one to two seconds before lowering your hips slowly back towards the ground (if possible, don’t touch your hips to the ground at the bottom of each rep). Once you feel comfortable with that version of the exercise, move onto the 1-Leg Bridging Hip Isolation exercise. With this version, simply straighten one of your legs to a 45 degree angle. Make sure that the extended leg does not come higher than your bent knee and that your hips stay parallel to the ceiling. Again, contract your glutes throughout the movement and hold at the top for 1-2 seconds. Breathing correctly can improve the effectiveness of this exercise; breathe out as your hips rise and breathe in as they lower towards the ground.


Pyramid to Headstand

Pyramid to Headstand by Jenny FarberThe Pyramid Position and Headstand exercises are excellent for “feeling” proper body position for a handstand while also enhancing your ability to balance your legs and core. The Pyramid Position is a great stepping-stone to a standard Headstand. For this exercise, place your hands shoulder width apart and slightly in front of your head. Place your head on the ground and slowly walk your feet towards it. Bring your knees towards your chest while balancing on your head and then place your shins on your elbows. Before progressing, make sure you feel comfortable holding this position for at least 30-45 seconds.

The next progression from the Pyramid Position is the Headstand. Headstands are great for shoulder stabilization, balance, and weight distribution. After stabilizing the Pyramid Position for at least 5 seconds, slowly extend your legs and point your toes towards the ceiling. Try to keep your body as straight as possible throughout the duration. Using a wall for both the Pyramid Position and the Headstand is a great way to start with learning both exercises.


Wall Handstands

Wall Handstands by Jenny FarberIn order to do a Wall Handstand, you will need to be in a position against the wall with your legs and feet leaning slightly against it. This is a difficult position to get into, and it is best to use a gradual progression in an effort to reach this position for any length of time. Start by simply putting your feet up on a step-box or bench and hold a Push Up Position. Once you feel comfortable in this position for a sustained period (at least 30-60 seconds), try walking your feet up a wall to about 45 degrees. Again, when you are able to hold this position for a period of time, continue walking your feet up the wall, gradually moving your body to a nearly straight up and down position. Once you’re capable of holding a straight up and down position facing the wall, it’s time to turn around. Placing your hands a few inches from the wall, kick up and gently touch your feet to the wall (maintain as straight as possible, just as you did when you were facing the wall). If you have trouble with the kick up, don’t worry, the Handstand Kick Up exercise will help you improve.

It is also important to find a hand position where you feel the strongest and most comfortable. Small changes in hand position quickly change the muscles being used. When you move your hands in closer together, you begin to engage your triceps more, and your deltoids are not able to assist as much. Having your hands too far apart does not allow your triceps to assist as much. Turning your palms so that your fingers are pointing out to the sides will allow you to use more of your chest muscles, which are stronger than the other muscle groups involved. Try moving your hands around in these directions until you find a position that seems to give you the most stability for the handstand position.


Handstand Kick Up

Handstand Kick Up by Jenny FarberThe Handstand Kick Up exercise is an excellent way to practice Handstands while building balance, coordination, and full-body strength. When done repeatedly, this exercise is also a great lower-body burner. Starting in a lunge position, place your hands directly in front of your leading foot, shoulder-width apart. With your back leg, kick up into a full Handstand or slightly less than vertical. Be sure to avoid kicking up too far when you first try; it’s very easy to go past vertical and fall on your back. Unless you are comfortable with Front Rolls, it’s a good idea to kick up into a wall (just make sure you don’t mind feet marks) when you first get started. Try to stabilize at the top of each rep for a few seconds before dropping back to the ground and into the starting lunge position.

Make sure you switch the leading foot every so often. After you feel comfortable with the kick up motion, start to think about your leg position at the top of each rep. Ideally, your legs will be together and your toes will be pointing towards the ceiling. Again, try to keep a straight line from head to toe.


Split Handstand

Split Handstand by Jenny FarberThe Split Handstand is the last stepping stone to a perfectly straight Handstand. If you can “lever” up to a Split Handstand, and hold this position, then bringing your legs together into a vertical Handstand will be that much easier. For this exercise, simply perform a Handstand Kick Up into a nearly vertical position. Instead of trying to put your legs together, keep one slightly in front of you and the other slightly past vertical. This “split” position should make it easier to balance, allowing you to practice the Handstand.

Again, don’t be afraid to start trying this exercise using a wall to help you balance. However, be aware that unlike a Wall Handstand, you need to place your hands further from the wall and try to simply touch the wall with your back foot. As you feel more and more comfortable with the Split Handstand, bring your legs closer and closer together until you finally achieve a perfectly straight Handstand!


Daily Handstand Practice Routine:

Practice makes perfect! There’s only one way that you could hope to achieve a perfect Handstand (and everything beyond), practice and more practice. This simple, daily workout routine will help you build strength, endurance, and balance. Try it out for a couple weeks and you’ll be amazed with the results!

A1: Bridging Hip Isolation (1-Leg) – 2 x 15 each side
A2: Supermans – 2 x 15
B: Wall Handstand – 2 x 30-60 sec
C: Handstand Kick Ups – 2 x 10 each side
D1: Pyramid Position – 2 x 30-60 sec
D2: Headstand – 2 x 30-60 sec
E: Split Handstand – 2 x 30-60 sec 

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