Handstand practice is an epic workout for every part of your body. It is one of the best ways to build upper body strength while simultaneously working on your abs and back. But handstands are not a typical workout. They also train you in essential skills that carry into other workouts and your life.
Handstands teach you that everything in your body is connected. No matter what stage of handstand practice you are in, you begin to learn how something as simple as pointing your toes, impacts how your whole body moves.
Handstands are more than a cool trick: they make you better at almost everything else you do. If you want to learn how to focus, balance, and improve your ability to breathe in all kinds of positions in addition to getting a killer workout, this comprehensive handstand guide is where you need to start.
How to Warm Up
The fastest way to never get a handstand is chronic injury. Before you start, warmup the areas of your body that will take the brunt of the work. Look after your wrists and shoulders.
Warming these areas is key, even if you are used to performing pressing movements. The kind of sustained pressure that you put on your wrists and shoulders during a handstand is different from a press up because the full weight of your body is pressing down into the floor, and there’s nothing to mediate the pressure, like having your feet on the floor.
Wrist Warm Up
Use this video for a wrist warm up. These exercises are similar to the wrist warm up that any gymnast uses.
Go through the exercises in the video including:
- Wrist Roll
- Wrist Wave
- Prayer Stretch
- Finger Locked Lateral Wrist Stretch
- Shaka Stretch
Shoulder Warm Up
Use the following video to warmup your shoulders and improve your mobility.
The Perfect Handstand Technique and Body Position
The position of your body in your handstand means everything. Some exercises are easy to muddle through with bad form. The handstand is not one of them, and it will let you know that as soon as you try.
The only perfect handstand is one that results in your body forming a straight vertical line.
The straight position is predominantly based on your core strength.
The hollow body hold is the best preparation for handstands. Lie with your back on the ground, arms above your head, legs straight, and feet off the ground. Keep your abs and butt tight. Head off the ground.
Note: The hollow body position is fundamental to all gymnastic positions. It does not get easier.Be aware of your hollow body every time you practice this position to avoid bad habits.
The best hand position for this hold is shoulder width apart.
Moving your hands too close together makes it difficult to balance, and keeping them further than shoulder width apart prevents you from reaching the optimal position. Both positions create problems for your back and shoulders.
Keep an eye on your wrists. Wrist extension is important for handstands because the goal of the handstand is to push up and away from the ground to keep the pressure off your wrists and shoulders.
Keep your neck straight so the crown of your head is directly above the ground. This is the more effective way to train for the handstand than looking at the ground.
Avoid moving your head to look around or you will compromise your hollow body position. If you want to look around, do it with your eyes. Do not turn your neck or head.
Warm-up exercises are essential for shoulder mobility, which is key for the handstands.
Your shoulders need to be open to be able to achieve a straight line position. For most people, that openness comes with time and mobility exercises.
The goal is to be able to raise your arms directly over your head (to 180), and not be forced to stick your butt out to compensate for back support.
Open shoulders also help you achieve shoulder extension. Shoulder extension, like wrist extension, is important because it helps you push yourself away from the floor. This allows you to use the rest of your body to work for you and keep you upright rather than add pressure and send you toward the ground.
Have straight arms at all times. This reduces fatigue. Bend your arms if you can hold a handstand consistently for a few seconds and you want to start training the handstand push-up.
Correct elbow placement sees your elbow creases facing each other, which will help support you and keep your elbows straight.
Hips, Legs and Feet
Handstands are all about your hands and shoulders right? Wrong. A handstand requires using your whole body, and your whole body includes your posterior chain. Using it will keep you upright and relieve some of the pressure from your shoulders.
Squeeze your butt and your legs the whole way through. Not only will this help with the basic handstand, but it will also prepare for you for the Yuri style holds later. It is an essential habit to get into for taking your handstand to the next level.
Finally, send your intention straight through to your toes, and keep them pointed. It sounds small, yet makes a difference.
Keep the right position in mind by running through the following checklist whenever you kick up:
- Core – Hollow body position
- Hands – Shoulder width apart, wrists extended
- Head – Top of the head facing the ground
- Shoulders – Open shoulders with arms 180 degrees over the head, shoulders extended
- Arms – Straight arms with elbow creases facing each other
- Hips – Hips in a neutral position and glutes contracted
- Legs – Legs straight and engaged
- Feet – Toes pointed
To understand what this checklist looks like in practice, watch the first two minutes of this video:
Progressions and Program to Hold a Handstand
Most of us do not progress immediately into the free-standing handstand. We are told day in and day out what not to do, and being upside down is one of those things that feels strange. When you forget what it feels like to be upside down, the thought of trying to hold yourself there is scary.
Most people are afraid of falling. (Later you learn how to safely fall.) It is totally normal. That is why we have progressions, and that is why you should use them. This handstand progression plan is the quickest way to free handstands.
Stage 1: Wall Planking and Wall Walking
The first progression includes practicing good form while getting acquainted with an inverted position. Remember to check your hand, elbow, and shoulder positions throughout this progression.
Lay on your stomach with your feet close to the wall. Push up into a high plank. Once in the correct position, walk your hands backwards towards the wall while simultaneously putting your feet on the wall and walking them up the wall.
Walk as high as you can. Do 3-5 sets of however many seconds you can hold with good form. Move your hands closer to the wall if you can reach 20 seconds in a set. The stronger you get, the closer your hands can be to the wall.
You’re ready to progress further when you can walk your feet and hands to a position where your stomach is up against the wall.
Stage 2: Full Handstand with Wall Support
The second progression involves doing the same thing but facing the other way, i.e. with your back towards the wall.
The primary difference between stage 1 and stage 2 is that instead of walking your feet up the walk, you kick up to the inverted position.
Place your hands shoulder width apart and check your elbows. Press into the ground with your hands and extend your wrists and shoulders away from the ground. Kick one leg in an upward motion towards the wall. Let the second leg follow.
Try the kick up with both your right leg and your left leg. You will find that one leg feels more natural than the other.
Play around with the momentum required to get you up. Find the sweet spot between kicking hard enough to get up but not hitting the wall with a thud when you arrive. Practice finding the right momentum now because it will become a lot more important in the fourth stage.
Not sure what a kick-up looks like in practice? Check out this video demonstration on finding the right momentum and posture for a kick-up:
Once you have hit the vertical position against the wall, hone in on your hollow body position. Go through your checklist of body positions. Are your shoulders open? Is your torso in the hollow body position? Are you squeezing your butt and legs? Are your toes pointed?
Aim to complete 4 sets of handstands at 30 seconds and a single one-minute hold.
You are ready to move on when you have completed all five sets successfully in at least three different sessions with no falls or wall thuds getting up.
Stage 3: The Push Away
Once you have got the kick-up sorted and you are comfortable with your body position, you are ready to push away from the wall.
The key to this is to push up and away from the floor through your hands to promote overall stability.
When it is time, let both feet float away from the wall at the same time. Do this gently to stay in the correct body position.
Remember, you will return to the wall. Avoid gaining too much momentum when you push away from the wall.
Continue to build up the amount of time you can stay away from the wall. Avoid tapping one foot on the wall. The wall is still there. It hasn’t moved, and it will be there when you need it. Focus instead on maintaining your posture.
Once you can handle 5 sets of handstands with your feet off the wall and are able to hold each handstand for at least 30 seconds, it is time for stage 4: the freestanding handstand.
Stage 4: Freestanding Handstand
You started playing with your kick-up in stage two. Once you have reached this stage, you will begin to understand why finding the right momentum is so important.
Place your hands on the ground, and press away from the floor. Kick up gently. Do not aim to get all the way up with your first few attempts. As you become more comfortable, slowly begin to kick harder and harder. Kick hard enough to get your leading leg higher and higher.
Once your first leg is in the air, kick with enough momentum to allow your second leg to follow your first leg up.
When your second leg is next to your leading leg, you have reached a full freestanding handstand. Bring your feet together and keep your toes pointed to perfect the handstand.
It can psychologically help to have someone nearby to balance your hips. But if you need someone to balance, you have jumped through the progressions quicker than you should.
Focus on the checklist of your body positions to hold the handstand longer. Keep the correct position, even when the handstand begins to feel easier. Perfect form is critical for learning balance work and eventually conquering that one-armed handstand and other advanced positions.
Stage 5: Advanced Positions
You’re a straight-legged freestanding handstand master? Take it to the next level. Try these advanced holds.
1. Tuck Handstand
Start out with the tuck handstand. You get into the handstand position but your legs are bent as if you were sitting in an upside-down chair. This is the easiest position after the straight-legged handstand because your body remains above your hands, which helps you balance.
2. Straddle Handstand
Take it one step further and try the straddle handstand. Start this one from a straddle position, and then press up (not kick-up) from there.
Alternatively, kick up into a straight handstand and form a straddle position. Then, slowly lower yourself to the ground and touch your toes before you press up again. It is a good position to play around in for the advanced handstand press.
3. Handstand Push-ups
Handstand push-ups are another inverted trick. They’re a great next step because they do not challenge your balance in the same way as straddle handstands do. Instead, they challenge your shoulder. Lower your head down to the ground then press up. Handstand push-ups against a wall can provide a needed in-between step.
It is easy to get greedy by trying this movement without all the prior progressions. You don't want to rely on pointless kips that do nothing but strain unprepared joints. Use the proper gymnastic progressions listed above and you will get the handstand push-up using real strength development instead. Anything worth doing is usually not easy and anything easy to do is usually not worth it.
The best way to unlock a next level handstand is to practice every day. Add 10 minutes for handstand work onto the beginning or end of any workout, and you will start to see results.
As you progress with shoulder and wrist strength, add longer 30 minute workouts dedicated solely to handstand practice. You will not be in an inverted position for 30 minutes. Rather, use the time to practice whatever phase you are in. Rest between reps and check in with your body to see what areas need more help.
Maybe your shoulders are not yet open or you have not yet reached a hollow body position. Try to correct it with the next rep. Add in exercises to your other workouts to support your handstand practice.
It is impossible to put a timeline on your program. Some people will reach the right position in a few months. For others, it will take a few years. This is the quickest handstand training program so trust the process. Be patient with your capabilities, and practice as long as it takes whether you are in the early stages or working on advanced handstand positions.
How to Fall Correctly From the Handstand
Learning how to bail gives you a safe way out when the handstand doesn’t feel right. The key to falling is control. Yes, even falling out of a handstand requires control. Most people refer to a controlled fall as a bail, and it prevents all kinds of injuries to yourself as well as anyone or anything around you.
The easiest bail to learn is the pirouette bail or cartwheel bail. Just like the handstand, it is a skill. Learn it at the progression stage one when you practice chest-to-wall handstands. A more advanced bail is the tumble where you lower your head to the ground then somersault out.
Here is Yuri Marmerstein demonstrating a controlled bail:
The handstand humbles every athlete. But continue practicing, even when it feels difficult or mundane. The moment where everything in your body aligns and you reach the perfect position is worth waiting for and working towards.
You can buy equipment to help your handstand, and other bodyweight, training from our gymnastics store.