One of the complements I often receive is “Your handstand line is amazing!” To which I reply, “Thank you! I have a few good coaches and one great acro partner to thank for stretching me until I cried every day for many years”!
This is one method to get a great line, but certainly not the only way.
The next few posts will give some (tear free) tips for developing the flexibility and the surrounding musculature each each area of the body to support a beautiful handstand. First I would encourage you to check out my post on a few interesting facts about flexibility.
Let’s start with a fan favorite: shoulders.
Here’s a short video that includes a demonstration of some of the exercises I go through below:
Weighted Shoulder Openers
Method: Using an appropriate sized weight, lay on your back on a flat raised surface (I use my bed). Position yourself so that your whole body is on the surface with only your neck hanging off. The tops of your shoulders should align with the edge of the bed. Roll hips forward and tighten the core, pressing the ribs down. Think hollow body hold. Let your neck stay in neutral looking up at the ceiling. Maintaining this position, grab the weight and hold it above your head with straight arms, allowing gravity to pull the shoulders open.
Strength 1: In this position, do 20 rib tuck crunches. This is where you allow your ribs to lift up and open, then tighten them back down, pulling them into your spine and hip bones. Remember to keep the arms locked out and the shoulders completely loose. Try doing some both with the elbows rotated in and out. It should almost feel as thought there is a rope through your underarms pulling you up a few inches toward the sky.
Strength 2: In the same position, keeping the core locked down and the neck in neutral, pulse the hands towards the floor and press the underarms up toward the ceiling.
Reasoning: The most important point is keep the ribs pushed down throughout this exercise. Many people use upper back flexibility to compensate for lack of shoulder flexibility. By locking the ribs down, the flexibility is targeted to the shoulders and the correct core position is strengthened. The second exercise strengthens to muscles to actively open the shoulders, rather than allowing passive flexibility to keep the correct position. Many flexible people lack the proper musculature to stop a movement and can result in loose handstand positions or injury.
Method: Find a surface that is roughly shoulder height, or slightly above. The bed generally works great for this one too. Face it on your hands and knees. Place you hands on the surface, backing your knees up until there is a 90º in both hips and knees. Tuck hips under and keep the spine and head in neutral. Press shoulders toward the ground.
Strength 1: Focusing on keeping the same amount of stretch in the shoulders, allow the core to relax into an arched position, then tighten it back up into a rounded position.
Strength 2: Back in the neutral position with hips tucked under, pulse arms upwards. It is an easy mistake to let the mid back do the work. Focus on keeping everything immobile except for the shoulder joint.
Reasoning: This stretch can really open up the joint by activating the muscles on the posterior side of the shoulder. If this stretch is not enough on its own, grab a friend and have them gently press right on the shoulder blades as you flex your abdominals.
Underarm Press Downs
Method: Lay flat down on your stomach with your arms straight above your head and as close to your ears as you can get them. Either place a weight over your shoulder blades, or have a friend gently press your underarms into the floor.
Strength 1: Keep your hips and hands on the ground. Lift your ribs off the ground while pushing your underarms into the ground.
Strength 2: Roll over. Keep your entire back on the ground (like a hollow body) and lift your heels off the ground while trying to keep shoulders and hands on the ground.
Reasoning: These exercises are great for developing active flexibility in the shoulder. Shoulder inflexibility and core weakness go hand in hand. You’ll notice most of these exercises also address core strengthening.
Shoulder Opening Hip Raises
Method: Grab a pillow, block, or rolled up yoga mat. Lay on your back, placing the object right under the upper back/shoulders. Place your hands under something heavy. I generally use the couch but a weight or a friend’s feet could also come in handy.
Strength 1: In this position, lift the legs off the ground so they are pointing at the ceiling. Raise the hips of the ground just slightly, maybe 1/2 an inch or so.
Strength 2: In the same starting position, bend legs and raise the knees toward the abdomen. Lower the knees to each side of the body by rotating the torso.
Reasoning: Activation of the core will pull the shoulders closed. By forcing the shoulders into an open position but placing something under them and not allowing the hands to raise, the strengthening of the core will stretch the shoulders.
Shoulder Opener Partner Stretch
Method: Lay on your stomach with arms above the head, elbows straight, and arms pressed against the ears. Your partner will lift your arms under your elbows about 6-12 inches off the ground. As your arms are lifted, allow your neck to relax and sink toward the ground. Have them wrap one of their arms under your elbows, freeing the other hand to apply gentle pressure on each vertebra from the upper back through to the neck.
Strength: Keeping the head relaxed toward the ground, have your partner slowly release your weight while you use your muscle to hold the lifted position. You must allow the head to drop or it will strengthen the upper back and close the shoulders.
Reasoning: Having open shoulders is not just flexibility within the joint. It is a combination of upper back mobility, shoulder strength, core strength, strong rotator cuff muscles, good stabilization of the serratus anterior, lat strength, and mobility within the joint. This drill focuses on upper back mobility and developing strength in the rotator cuff muscles when they are at an undesirable angle.
Try to always pair a stretch with a strengthening exercise. This will help increase flexibility faster, develop muscle activation with the joint is maximally flexed or extended, and strengthen the surrounding muscles around a joint. This will lead to beautiful lines that are strong and supported for less injury and more progress!