Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Handstand

The handstand - a fundamental skill if you are interested in bodyweight exercises. Working it will build strength and help develop total body coordination.

I'll be throwing a lot of information at you in this post. Before you dive into this tutorial, I need to explain something. I'll be describing the handstand piece by piece, so that you can better understand the form and technique. But when you train the skill, I want you to put those pieces together in your head. As I said, it's an exercise in total body coordination. Do not get so focused on one part that you confuse yourself and neglect another part. Everything must work together. So read through everything first and try to get an overall sense of the skill.

Oh... and make sure to practice A LOT.

We'll start with the "modern" handstand as a base to jump off. This is a straight handstand that is the standard in gymnastics these days. With your body in a straight line, this is also considered the "cleanest" looking handstand. I'll describe variations as I get to them.

Let's start from the top . . .

The feet

When you first start training, try to keep your toes pointed. Yes, this is mainly for aesthetics. You could still perform a handstand with hook feet, but I feel that when I straighten my toes it helps to line everything up. The feet point upwards; the body flows in that straight, upwards direction.

The legs

When you first begin, you will also find it easier to try and keep your legs straight and together. Keeping them straight will prevent them from flopping around like limp noodles, making things harder to control. Keeping them together will prevent them from flailing about as two different entities. You've got enough on your mind trying to coordinate the rest of your body. So help simplify things and keep those legs together for now!

The torso

The torso is one of the major components that will determine the look of your handstand. As far as your torso is concerned, a straighter handstand is achieved by slightly tensing the abs to keep your body in line. You will get handstands like this:

If you were to relax your abs a bit, let your torso and legs fall towards your backside, and bring out your head (discussed below) then you'd wind up with handstands like this:

Gymnasts back in the day held handstands with this significant curve in their backs. For this reason, I'll call this the "old" style handstand.

As gymnastics changed, the handstand was straightened out for both aesthetic and technical reasons. The modern form allows harder, more complicated gymnastic skills to be performed.

The shoulders

You'll want to really extend and engage the shoulders. This tension will give you greater control. Think of shrugging your shoulders upwards or trying to push into the floor. The difference looks like this:



The head and arms

You'll find your head position will be the single greatest factor affecting your back/handstand shape. Why is this? Because the spine follows the head. If you really pull your head out (to look at the ground for instance), then your spine will follow suit and bend. This will give you that banana shape. Try and keep your head between your arms as much as you can. Instead of pulling your head out all the way out to stare at the ground, try to look upwards a bit with just your eyes. This will help to keep your head in and your back straight.

To those familiar with the Brazilian martial art known as Capoeira, the head is brought between the arms even more, so that a Capoeirista can watch his opponent, instead of the ground.

Two capoeiristas square off

a neutral head position allows one to see their opponent.

So you've seen three styles of handstands - modern, old, and capoeira. You may be asking yourself "which is the best?" In the end, none are. They are simply different variations for different situations. Unless you're in a Capoeira roda, or in front of Olympic judges, perform whichever one you want. I use each for different purposes myself.

That being said, I would still recommend that you learn all three. Each variation you try will help you better understand and control the different components of your handstand.

And as for the arms - straight and shoulder width apart for now. Not much else to say about them.

The hands and fingers

I place my hands on the ground like this.

Keep your fingers spread out slightly and facing forwards. This is to allow for the greatest amount of control and stability in the handstand. The fingers are a huge part of controlling the handstand; something I'll explain below.


To start training for the handstand, get yourself a wall. You'll be kicking up against the wall to get use to the position. So put your hands down about a foot away from the wall and kick one leg up. Bring the other leg up to follow, so now you're in a handstand against the wall:

And try to do this so that your feet come to REST on the wall, not slam into it. This kicking will start to teach you the right amount of force you need to kick up into a free standing handstand.

Now that you're in position, try to lightly kick away from the wall into a free handstand. Like so:

toes on the wall

toes off the wall, holding a handstand

If you fall back down to your feet, simply kick back up and try again. If you fall towards your back, the wall will catch you. It's your training wheels. Your back might be a bit arched at the moment, but this is something that can be adjusted later. For the now, you're trying to bring your feet away from the wall and balance the position. This leads us into the essential way to keep balance - the fingers.

Like I mentioned before, your fingers are spread out to give you the most control. Here is where that control comes into play. With the handstand, you are most unstable in one plane - front to back. When you start to feel like you are leaning towards your back, you should press your fingers into the ground and bring yourself back upright.

Now your fingers don't have to do all the work. Remember how I discussed keeping your toes straight, your legs together, and your abs tensed? Well, all this comes together now as you try to balance yourself. If you keep your body under a bit of tension, then your fingers can move this single unit back into a balanced position. If you let everything relax, then it's like trying to stand cooked spaghetti on its end.

Continue tapping away from the wall in this manner until you've got a sense of how to correctly balance yourself. As I said, fingers play a huge role in balancing, but don't forget your legs and midsection to help as well.

Away from the wall

Feeling good so far? Well then get the heck away from the wall! The sooner you drop the "training wheels" the sooner you can develop a solid handstand.

For your first couple (read:hundred) handstands, you'll want to find a relatively open area where you can land safely without kicking something.

Ready? Do you remember how hard you need to kick? Well then, give it a go and get yourself inverted. If you haven't fallen over yet then try to keep yourself upside-down for as long as you can. Feel free to walk around a bit if you need to get your balance.

If you're walking around, your legs may split a bit, your back will probably be arching, and the whole thing in general will look ugly, but you're in a handstand, and that's what matters. Fighting to stay up as long as possible will help build up the strength and balance that you need.

If something goes wrong

I covered this in the handstand press tutorial, but it's critical to describe here. Other than "falling into a heap", there are two ways you'll be getting out of a handstand when you start to fall towards your backside - the roll and the pirouette.

The roll is simply a matter of tucking your chin to your chest, bending your arms slowly, coming down on your UPPER BACK and rolling forward. Please don't piledrive your head into the ground. It's just a simple forward roll out of danger.

When you start off, you'll probably only want to do this where the ground is soft (a lawn) and where you have a bit of space (a lawn).

The second technique is the one I prefer - the pirouette. Here, you'll keep your arms straight throughout and turn your body 90 degrees out of danger. In this picture, I was in a handstand, and began to fall to my backside (the right of the photo).

Now imagine your hands are trying to turn a steering wheel 90 degrees, and turn your body off to the side. And just like you see in the picture, you'll land on your feet, facing your hands. Is this move really that difficult? I don't believe so. I hope I'm not confusing anyone or glossy over the topic. I think it'll make sense to you when you start training.

Both these techniques are greatly preferred over slamming into the ground with a flat back, or trying to put your feet down and landing into a bridge. Trust me.

Saving the handstand

Now if controlling a handstand was like driving a car, the finger pressing and ab tensing, etc, would be the normal turns and microadjustments we make during a ride. The techniques below would be analogous to violently jerking the wheel from side to side.

I'd try not to even read this section until you're handstand is starting to shape up into something you can work with. This is nothing you're going to use regularly as your handstand gets solid, but I figure it's useful to know when you are fighting to stay up.

First is a technique to save a handstand that's falling to your feet. It's a quick bend of the arms that will dip your shoulders and bodyweight forwards a bit, in hopes of saving things.

Please, oh please do not plow your face into the ground. If you don't feel like your arms and shoulders can handle the load, then don't do this. Just fall back to your feet and be no worse the wear.

This next technique is for when you begin to fall towards your backside. By quickly flexing and bending at the waist, you can hopefully shift your bodyweight back over your hands and save yourself.

Both techniques, as you can see, involve a rapid shift in bodyweight. You'll want to develop a good handstand where you won't need to do any of this violent wobbling around. But it's always good to keep in the back of your mind, should the need arise.

So there you are folks, the handstand...

Let me know if something is unclear. For such a fundamental technique, I want everyone to understand and learn the skill. Best of luck with your training.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog is my secret weapon. Keep at it!

1:50 PM  
Anonymous LeeLou said...

I can kick up and hold a handstand while barely touching a wall for 90 seconds or so - any advice on how to "walk" away or learn to balance without the wall would be super!

10:20 PM  
Blogger Paul Corfield said...

Can't wait. Been practicing all week in the garden and my best is about 5 seconds which I'm pleased with but only done one with perfectly straight legs. Getting better at the handstand push ups too.

3:19 AM  
Anonymous Petr Ruzicka said...

Well, I could barely do 5 sec without wall, I just could not keep my balance on my hands

11:50 AM  
Blogger Drewfit said...

fantastic tips: ive put a link from my poor quality blog to this one: not going to write any more: Im off to do my handstands

1:56 PM  
Blogger Rajiv Menon said...

Thanks so much for this post on handstands... I am still struggling to kick up my legs and get into the position, partly a mental block partly not being able to find the right area..I will post my updates (hopefully they will come soon) Rgds,

9:45 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I can get into a handstand and walk around, but I have a hard time standing still, keeping my legs together & toes pointed.

I'll try doing them on my push-ups handles when I can stay still better.

How long should I be able to stay still and hold a handstand?

How often should I work it???

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Matt K said...

Excellent advice!!

I have nothing but praise for this article as well as the others. I've read various other sites and thread where folks try to share their advice on learning handstands but this article stands head and shoulders over everything else I've read. You know, it's one thing to be an accomplished athlete/gymnast that can perform various feats but it's all together a greater find when someone can actually break it down in simple easy-to-follow instructions with pictures, for free! Thanks Jim - I, for one, greatly appreciate your site.

12:42 AM  
Anonymous Dan McKee said...

Brilliant site.
Its certainly helping with my handstands.
I'm a jiu-jitsu/judo player with a firm belief in mastering gymnastic control of my body and the handstand is currently my holy grail.
I can get up for a bout 6 secs then it all goes Pete Tong

6:19 AM  
Anonymous Fran├žois said...

It is such a complete description, once again! You indeed have a great concentration while doing those skills, to describe so well the key points. The only advice I got before was to have my legs and toes really straight!

Now I don't think this handstand is gonna resist me for too long! I'll focus on my fingers (with the L-sit progression, this is the second time I'm struggeling with them), and that would be ok!


12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is helpful! I'll work at it. I want to be able to do one by by senior year in high school. :D

1:15 AM  
Blogger Blog World said...

A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist.
Stewart Alsop- Posters.

3:19 AM  
Anonymous Bruce said...

Excellent instruction. Any special for training minors age of 8 and 11? They are eager and hard trainers in living room and in gym when they have a chance.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Naomi said...

How do you hold a hand stand? =p

6:16 PM  
Blogger power athlete said...

Amazing Blog, with some amazing information!!

Thanks very much, I will be a regular from now on.
Have been doing the wall stuff for a while. It's time to move away.


12:15 AM  

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