The glamorous images splattered across social media of beautiful, long haired women, easily balanced on her hands with a look of serenity on her face, can make handstands look like a simple exercise. But the truth is quite the contrary. The battle is uphill, grueling, and often slow going. That is not to discourage anyone from starting hand balancing, but to prepare you mentally so that you can better enjoy the process, rather than just seek the end result.
Here are some tips for those of you ready to start the journey to living life upside down.
Channel your inner child
Wait…what? Didn’t I just say you would be engaging in a battle? Absolutely! And if you have ever watched a baby learn to stand you have seen all the characteristics the ultimate warrior needs.
When a baby is learning to stand, they are developing so many pathways at once it is amazing it only takes them 6-12 months!
Muscular development: The muscles need to be strong enough to stabilize the entire body over the relatively small surface area of the foot (or hand). Muscles also need the strength to catch all the falls, wobbles, and bumps that come with learning. Ever seen the baby bounce? Basically 6,000 squats a day. Talk about hitting leg day hard.
Appropriate tendon strength and stiffness: If we actively used our muscles to balance all of the time while standing it would be a much harder experience. What we do is we minimally flex a muscle into a static hold, then rely on the stiffness in our tendons to stabilize the joint. That’s (one of the reasons) why a baby is so wobbly in the beginning, as they are only using the muscle to balance. People in the handstand world refer to the lack of wobbles or adjustments as being “quiet”.
Balance feedback loop: With out knowing it, there is a whole loop in your nervous system that does nothing but balance your body over your feet. It receives information when weight rocks ever so slightly, then sends out information to make micro adjustments in weight distribution. Right now your loop looks like a brand new cutting edge freeway on/off ramp in rural Oklahoma. What a baby’s loop looks like is 5:30PM on the 405 in Downtown LA. Shit’s cray. Cars are coming in and out from everywhere, there are horns, there is yelling, cross lane weaving is happening, all while no one is actually going anywhere. The brain has not figured out what information is useful and what is not, or how to effectively integrate input to output. This is a learned skill by the brain that takes time to refine.
Bone growth: When you load a bone with weight that it is unprepared to manage, micro injury will occur. This tells the bone that it needs to replace the damaged bone with more, stronger bone. Eventually the bone grows in diameter and density to accommodate for the weight that it is being asked to hold. The growth will top out when it can accommodate exactly the weight put on it. This can be seen in x-rays of tennis players arms (shown below), where the dominant arm bone is much thicker and denser than the non-dominate arm. The same would hold true for people who only one arm on their dominant arm (though I’m not sure that study has ever been done). If someone weighs 150lbs, their leg bones are made to hold that weight. If all of a sudden that person started wearing a 100lb weigh vest, their bones would be stimulated to grow. But in the process, if the change in weight is too dramatic, quite a lot of damage can be done. Think about this with your hands. They normally hold….umm no weight (how much does my phone weight??). Now you are asking them to hold your whole body weight? They will adapt. But unless the training is gradual, serious injury can occur. The other side of the coin holds true as well. If I weighted 200lbs, then went on a diet and lost 50lbs, my bones no longer need to be as strong so my body will break down the unused bone. It’s a pretty quick turn over as well, is if you are not training consistently, be aware that you are more open to injury.
Mental fortitude: There is nothing like watching your adorable baby crawl over to the table, pull themselves up (max squat), balance holding the table for a bit, then slowly let go…only to fall .003 seconds later. They land on their bum, giggle a bit, then proceed to do that 1000 more times….for SIX. STRAIGHT. MONTHS. I just want you to imagine doing that as an adult. On the first day, 8 tries later and we’d be like “screw this. I’m buying a wheel chair and training my dog to push me around”. The mental strength it takes to do a max effort exercise 100 times a day for six months, and fail at it every single time, and still never give up is what separates normal humans from the Navy Seals.
Do not underestimate how many times your will try really hard, and still fail. Do not underestimate how much your body is learning every time you fall. Do not measure your progress by how many times you fall, measure it by how many times you get back up. You are (becoming) strong.
Step by step beginners guide:
Now that you know how to manage your expectations and respect how much your body will be learning, let’s dive right in!
*This list is chronological and you should master the mid level examples before adding the beginner level drills from the next section.
Weight Rocking Exercises
Details: This is any exercise where your weight is supported by at least one other point of support while practicing holding most of the weight over the hands. Easier drills will have most of the weight in the feet with mid level drills evenly distributing the weight through out the body, and the hardest step where the majority of the weight is in the hands with the point of support being used only for stability.
Why it’s important: This is akin to a baby changing from crawling on their knees to a more of a “bear crawl”. It will start the muscle, tendon, and bone development and start initiating the balance feedback loop all while keeping you very safe. This is an extremely low risk exercise for both acute and chronic injury.
Easy: start sitting in a crouched position with hands flat on the floor and just rock weight from your feet onto the hands
Mid: A push-up position hold
Hard: Push-up position with feet lifted up. Progress to walking your hands back towards the feet so more weight is rocked over the hands. (I suggest having one foot on or right above the ground for this to protect the head if the arms give out)
Details: This is any exercise that develops the muscles that hold the body in the correct shape. This idea behind shaping is to package movement patterns into one stored “file” to be applied in any circumstance. This allows you to learn the technique of a skill before learning the most challenging part of that skill. The hardest part of a handstand is balancing. If I ask you to balance all of your weight then keep your shoulders open, pull your ribs under, flatten your back, compress the core, squeeze your bum, straighten your legs, and point your toes…your body would sort all of that information from critical to unimportant and only focus on completing the critical task. In this case, preventing the face from hitting the ground by balancing. Likely, the shape of the handstand would suffer greatly. This is unfortunate because balancing is much easier when in the correct shape. By teaching the shape before asking to do it upside down, you are tricking the brain into doing something new by packaging it with an already well established skill.
Why it’s important: This is simply a safer and more effective way of learning complex skills. You are laying the groundwork for success and faster progress.
Easy: Hollow body holds. The focus of these should be to press the lower back into the ground, not lift the heels off the ground
Mid: Rib lift ups. Laying on the stomach, press hands, under arms, and hips hard into the ground while lifting the ribs up off the ground
Hard: Free Plank holds. Laying on two chairs (or two points of support) put one point under the elbows and the other under the thighs. Hold the correct shape (listed above) both on the stomach and back.
Details: This is any exercise where you are forced to let the hands balance your body rather than the feet.
Why it’s important: This is good to start learning before just jumping all your weight over your hands. It will prevent a lot of dangerous falls.
Easy: In a push up position, lift one hand off the ground and reach the free arm toward the ceiling
Mid: Place your feet up on a shoulder height surface (like a chair) and practice walking your hands from left to right and back and forth
Hard: In a crouch position, rock the weight onto the hands until you have 100% of the weight on your hands. Use your knees to brace against your elbows and slowly lift the feet a few inches off the ground
Handstand Developing Exercises
Details: These are exercises that work very similar muscles to handstands without actually being in a handstand.
Why it’s important: These drills give you the strength building of being in a handstand for a long period of time, even if you can’t hold a free handstand.
Easy: Straddle hold on the ground. This is an awesome core strengthening drill that allows you to spend a lot of time on hands gaining strength and balance without having to be able to hold a handstand for a long period of time
Mid: Headstand. This will help develop the correct body position and the strength to hold that position in a slightly easier shape
Hard: Handstand against the wall. I recommend learning a handstand by doing handstands against the wall facing the wall (belly button toward the wall). This is to prevent the dreaded banana handstand. Cartwheel up or walk your toes up the wall and get your hands no more than 6 inches from the wall. Drop your head into neutral squeeze underarms and hips toward the wall, pull ribs and stomachs away from the wall.
Moving toward a free standing handstand
Details: This piece is more an adventure. By this point you should have amazing strength and balance built up. Moving away from support should feel very natural. Take baby steps and master those steps before moving forward.
Easy: Levers. In a lunge with arms above the head, imagine that your body is a solid line from your fingers running down your arms into your head through your body and down your back leg. Use your front leg as the pivot point and rock forward onto your hands. This should naturally pull the front foot off the ground only by a few inches. Return back up the same way you came.
Mid: From a wall handstand, lift one foot off the wall and straight up. Bring the other foot off the wall to meet the free foot, touching it only for a second then returning it to the wall.
Hard: Open legs slightly wider than shoulder width. Place hands on the ground and jump the legs around through a straddle position into the handstand.
A good flexibility regiment should be done through out this process to ensure a beautiful line and good technique. Check out my flexibility series!