Towards the end of last summer I penned the post, ‘5 Ways To Pimp Up Your Handstand Practice‘. While that post serves a solid purpose for those who’ve got a reasonable handstand hold and would like to do more with it, I realise now how helpful it would be to provide a resource on what a hypothetical handstand journey could look like from beginner to advanced, with the various stages en route!
Just to preface this post, I’m not a professional handbalancer and am quite a way away from being considered super advanced. BUT I understand sensible progression and have mixed with lots of handstand enthusiasts, listened to various authorities on the subject – along with being very much on the journey myself. So see this post as a sharing of ideas and a chance to hopefully uncover some more direction for your own practice.
Step 1 – SOLID holds
A ‘solid hold’ is debated a fair bit but the simpler we can make it, the better. For me, a solid hold is a fairly straight line hold for around 30 secs. This shouldn’t be hard to get and you should be able to find it if you need to. We can accept some wavering in the line through the hold but the raw ability to balance and endure the muscular/structural demands must be there.
What will normally come along with this is an ever improving ‘hit rate’. Which means how many of your kick up/entries are successful at the first time of asking. The more consistent these get the better you will be overall. I’ve found the 2 go hand in hand.
How to get there?
These are the simple stages where regular play works so well. I’ve mentioned this many times but all I did to get a consistent 30 second handstand was a 10 minute daily practice in the early part of 2019. I’ll include links to relevant articles at the end of this post.
Step 2 – Exploring shapes & different entries
The beauty of the shapes is they all happen in an ‘under-balanced’ position. Meaning the weight is closer to the wrist than it is the fingertips. Another way of thinking about this is, having the weight/center of mass OUTSIDE the base of support. This increases the strength demands on the traps and upper back.
The other challenge beginner style shapes offer is the ability to move the legs independently of the arms. Opening the legs to straddle and then drawing the feet together to the diamond position and back round again, requires good stability in the shoulder girdle while inverted.
Different entries require different qualities too. The classic gymnastics tumble entry requires coordination, while the standard palms on floor kick up asks more strength in the shoulders and the tuck/straddle jump variations are almost like very low level press to handstand exposure.
Mixing up the entries not only looks cooler but is both fun and a great way to vary the practice and ensure you’re not a one trick pony.
Step 3 – Line refinement, strength based shapes & looking at the press to handstand
Even when you have a ‘straight handstand’ there’s always something you can do to boost the likes on Instagram when you post a handstand pic. Even in a movement based practice like hand-balancing the aesthetic obsessed world still grabs you.
Simple things like how much toe point you have, how open the shoulders are, how flat the lower back is, where you’re head is and even how much hyper-extension you have at the elbows makes a massive difference to how ‘pretty’ your handstand is.
Aesthetically speaking I think the ‘head through’ handstand is one of the nicest ways to make a basic straight handstand stand out even more. Compare the pics below…………
Not only is the balance harder and more impressive when you take the visual perception out the equation, but the muscular activation tends to improve too! The traps feel more switched on and the active shoulder flexion is worked far harder. Plus you just feel fucking bad ass when you lock it in like that and don’t move an inch!
Usually when you talk handstand shapes, the tuck handstand is featured alongside the straddle and the diamond but for me, I think the tuck is in its own club and can be seen as the bigger brother to the other two classic shapes.
The tuck demands more strength as this shape forces the center of mass further outside the base of support than the other shapes. And the more you pull the knees down, the higher the demand on the traps/active shoulder flexors! It’s one of those weird moves that can either be easy or impossible, depending on your overhead mobility.
Regardless, any coach will tell you a solid tuck is key step from the beginner stage to the intermediate stage. The movement teaches you the pelvis movement needed for the press variations while building strength in the ranges needed for the press. Basically, you won’t find anyone with a good press to handstand who can’t hold a decent tuck.
Step 4 – The press to handstand & its variants
This is many person’s ultimate goal. They not only want a handstand but they want to be able to put their hands flat on the floor, keep their legs straight and lift them to a nice handstand. It’s a staple of gymnastics and looks iconic.
This is a tricky one because even though it’s placed as the 4th logical step, it could be some people’s step 2!
Often thought of as a beasty strength move, this is another one like the tuck; very dependent on mobility. If someone has a great forward fold and pancake, along with open shoulders overhead/good thoracic extension, they’ll find the press handstand miles easier than Mr Tin Man with tight shoulders, no hamstring flexibility & legs that are harder to open than a nun’s.
I’ve seen this first hand. I used to go to a gymnastics center for their open gyms (no coaching, just facility use) with a girl who was a gymnast many moons ago. She was an amazing tumbler and crazy flexible and could pike press to handstand off the cuff! Her strength? She couldn’t even do A SINGLE DIP.
What was funnier is she couldn’t balance the handstand for shit either. She would glide up nicely and just topple over. And this is relevant because that’s why it’s key to actually establish a base of balance before pressing. Otherwise the press is useless and potentially dangerous – there are many crazy stories about people doing this, falling over and breaking stuff as well as hurting their necks and all sorts.
The straddle press is easier than the straight/pike press simply due to the weight of the legs being spread over a wider area. This ‘law’ is ever present in almost every bodyweight themed move.
Mobility can be the limiting factor or strength, or both or even balance. So you can see how multi-faceted this skill is.
It’s good to have a nice blend of mobility and strength in my opinion. That’s why it’s always good to work on lower body flexibility alongside your handstand practice. I even like to do this between sets of handstands; the two fit like a hand in a snug glove.
Tuck work, negatives, elevated presses and compression work are the recipe for press success. But remember, always work on the handstand itself alongside the press!
Step 5 – THE ONE ARM
The end boss! The creme de la creme. The final piece. The one arm handstand. A thing of beauty to anyone witnessing it, yet to a circus performer it’s bread and butter and this should humanize it somewhat and prove it’s not as mighty as it can be thought of.
(Below: The legendary Mikael Kristiansen shows a one arm handstand)
Many people have found the road to a one arm a real grind. It’s temperamental, highly technical and tends to have wild variance between sides.
One of the issues with this move is people try it before they’re conditioned for it. They’ve wrecked their wrists, worn their elbows down and set themselves way back in the process. There are some stories of people just grinding their way to this move by attempting it thousands of times and gradually learning the move by sheer failure and repetition.
But as we said earlier, this leads to a very limited skill set and your ability as a handbalancer will never be completely maximised.
A smarter approach would be to become rock solid on two arms (consistent 60 second holds) as well as having solid tuck holds for at least 30 seconds, the presses covered also and then, and ONLY THEN, can you start properly looking at the one arm handstand. It might sound conservative but it makes sense. You don’t pistol squat while sucking at double leg squats. You don’t do one arm chins before normal chins……..
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t do any weight shifting or flag work before ever touching the one arm, it’s more to stress the importance of paying your dues first. By the time you’ve got those prerequisites down you’ll be able to handle the intensity of the one arm work so much better. This sounds obvious but is easily lost in translation, it seems.
Is that it now?
No. That’s what’s even cooler……….even at the one arm stage there’s still more to work on and in many ways it’s your creativity that stops you here. There are so many advanced combinations and variations utilising the arm handstand!
Perhaps ‘You’ve got the one arm handstand, now what?’ could be a future article??
I’d love this post to serve as a trouble shooter for anyone stuck in their practice or even bored, so they can keep the bigger picture in mind and not end up identifying as someone who’s ‘just not made for handstands’. When all they needed was direction and some structure.
If you don’t follow this guide the sun will still come up tomorrow and you will still see progress with the handstand. In fact I’m sure there will be some advanced handbalancers who would disagree with some of this and that’s fine. I just wanted to share some ideas that could be helpful.
Thanks for reading a long & detailed article. Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Links to all other material on my website regarding the handstand are below……..
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