Five Ways to Fast Track Your Freestanding Handstand

by Matt Beecroft on November 22, 2016

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Al Kavadlo handstand beach

As an adult you’ve decided to embark on an inversion and hand balancing journey. Seriously, are you crazy?

If you think about it, children with amazing mobility, breathing, reflexive stability and perfect natural movement still can take 18 months to learn how to stand on their feet. And you have decided that you want to balance on your hands!  Are you out of your mind?

Read ahead, because I am too.

At 40 something years of age, 6 foot 3 inches and 90 kilograms (hardly genetically blessed to do anything in the calisthenics or gymnastics arena), I decided to do the same thing. Yep, I looked at what someone else was doing, and said to myself, “that looks like fun, if they can do it, I can.” That was on my first Progressive Calisthenics Certification or PCC in the US back in 2013 with the infectious spirit and great vibes of Al and Danny Kavadlo. I was hooked.

But little did I know of the journey I had decided to undertake.

Unlike a lot of other adults who embark on achieving the freestanding handstand, I wasn’t exposed to gymnastics as a kid, nor did I have friends into gymnastics. I also wasn’t a kid that spent time cartwheeling with my mates in the park. So let’s just say inversions and hand balancing were completely foreign to me until I started playing around with my first crow pose at the PCC in 2013.

Zip, zero, nothing, nada.

What do I love about the handstand?  Everything gets better from learning how to handstand.

Whilst nailing your freestanding handstand may be the long term goal (and it’s so sweet when you finally get there!), the journey is where the real gold is. Improved strength and mobility in the hands, wrists, shoulders and thoracic spine, as well as improved proprioception are just some of the physical attributes developed.

The mental aspects however, were more surprising to me. Overcoming my fears of falling, being upside down or simply self-preservation were surprising, considering my background as an Expert Level 2 Krav Maga instructor and Muay Thai coach. I think I was more comfortable being punched in the head rather than landing on it. It also taught me how impatient I was, and a lot about perseverance and persistence. Some days you will feel great and find your balance without much trouble. Other days, it just won’t be there. The handstand can be an elusive beast.  The handstand was a reminder to me about attitude, and how just turning up and doing the work is where it’s at.

Though I could write further about my journey, what’s more important is that I have been successful in helping others, some in their forties as well, achieve their first handstands in a relatively short time. Repeatable, expedited results with others as a coach, is what I endeavor to achieve

So here are 5 tips that will help you fast track your way to your first freestanding handstand.

1. Volume: Do the work

It maybe not what you want to read, but you have to do the work. Regardless of the discipline – calisthenics, circus, yoga or gymnastics, the best hand balancers do it most days of the week. Hand balancing is a very specialized skill. Regardless of my time spent with the Kavadlos on my handstand journey or engrossing myself in material from other experts in the field, they all advocate the same thing: volume. Many serious advocates will say to practice 5 days a week, though I’ve found that following a structured program just 3 days per week for an hour had a few of my students hitting their freestanding handstands in just 6 months with no prior experience. Repetition is your teacher. Even if it’s just cranking out a crow pose on the office floor for a few minutes, or the kitchen bench a couple of times per day, you need to spend more time, you know, balancing on your hands if you want to get good at balancing on your hands.

Grace Kavadlo Handstand variant

2. The Wrists, Hands and Fingers

While it would seem really obvious as you are putting your entire body weight through, and making fine adjustments with your hands, wrists and fingers, I am still surprised at the number of people who don’t spend enough time looking after these areas. Adequate time must be spent mobilizing and strengthening these areas properly. The most common complaint when working any handbalancing is soreness of the wrists, and though it will certainly take time for your joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments to adjust to the load, you still need to spend time looking after those areas every session.

For me personally, the “first knuckle push-up” is one of the most important drills in my warm up.  Having the fingers spread, index fingers pointing straight ahead, shoulders above the wrists and in a kneeling or push-up position, raise the heel of the palm while keeping the knuckles and fingers on the ground, with a 4 second lowering eccentric on each rep for 3 sets of 10-20 reps. And if you have a problem getting good ROM because your knuckles are all banged up from hitting stuff, it can be assisted by using your other hand to anchor or press your fingers and knuckles down whilst you raise the heel of the palm off the floor.

handstandhandplacement3

3. Face the Wall

Facing the wall handstands are an absolute necessity if you want to achieve a great handstand. While facing away from the wall also has its advantages, facing the wall helps to achieve a straighter looking handstand and a nicer “line” or shape. About 50 years ago circus performers and strongmen performed mainly “banana back” or arched back handstands, but with the advent of modern gymnastics aesthetics, artistry and scoring criteria, it’s meant that the straight line handstand with the toes pointed is often the preferred method. Try working up to 5 sets of 45s-60s holds thinking about your “shape” or “line”. That usually means hands a few inches from the wall, shoulders open, the rib cage pulled down to a posteriorly rotated pelvis with the chest and hips against the wall.

Patrick Madigan handstand towards wall

4. Don’t Face the Wall

I am totally going to contradict myself both with this point and the next, but hear me out. One of the few drills that will really help you start to build the strength and motor control required in the hands is the heel pull. This is done facing away from the wall with your hands roughly a foot away. Gently kick up to rest against the wall, then using only your fingers, hands and forearms, pull your entire body off the wall, without using your feet at all. This is the most important point – do not use your feet to push off. Besides getting an amazing pump through the hands and forearms, it will also show you where you are leaking force through your body, and require you to tighten everything up into a straight line.

When done correctly, your entire body will float away from the wall as one unit, and pull you into your handstand. This is a crucial exercise as it teaches you that you cannot use your feet to push against anything when you kick up into a freestanding handstand. The only things that can balance and stabilize you are your fingers, wrists and forearms. It is also exciting as many will feel what it is like to achieve their first handstand and it is crucial for building confidence. Work up to 15-20 sets holding your handstand for as long as possible each time. Once you hit a few handstands like this, you should feel ready to do a freestanding one!

al kavadlo handstandwall5

5. Get Off the Wall

Yes, it’s another contradiction, but the wall and its security are also going to be your crux or vice if you don’t get away from it. Right from the beginning, you need to play around with just kicking up into a freestanding handstand. Children usually just play and catch on pretty quick. I know what you are going to say, you aren’t a spring chicken any more. I get it. There is the fear of falling on your head, which is why learning to cartwheel and bail out is really going to help here. The problem with the wall is that it’s there. When people practice against the wall, they usually kick up haphazardly and without any control. The issue with this is that it teaches you the complete opposite of what you need to do when finally kicking up into a freestanding one. When you kick up into a freestanding handstand, it needs to be done softly, gradually, and under control. The problem with a lot of the facing away from the wall handstand work is it teaches the total opposite of this. The wall also becomes a security blanket that people struggle to wean themselves away from. You need to get away from the wall if you ever want to hit your freestanding handstand.

Kirsty Grosart PCC handstand

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Matthew Beecroft is a PCC Team Leader, Senior RKC, and CK-FMS certified instructor. He is also a GFM and Animal Flow instructor and Expert Level 2 instructor with Krav Maga Global and a Muay Thai coach who has trained amateur and professional Muay Thai champions. He can be contacted through his website www.realitysdc.com.au or his Facebook page facebook.com/MeetLifeHeadOn

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  • martymonster

    Hi Mike,

    ‘the journey is where the real gold is’…Totally.
    I’ve got this on my list of things to achieve, but its proven an elusive goal. I’ve heard it said that unless you can do a good wall slide that handstands of any type will be a real problem. What are your thoughts?
    What are your thoughts on using a split hand setup to increase stability? ie one hand about 6inches to a foot in advance of the other.

    • Matt Beecroft

      Hey Mike, I’m not sure about what you mean about a “wall slide”. We usually start with a goal of 5 X 45-60s in crow pose variations to build the wrists then go to a combination of tripod or yoga headstand to familiarise people with being inverted, combined with wall walks facing the wall to build the shoulders and start to teach the line/shape.
      Then the material in the article. I have tried the staggered so I can’t comment too much, but I’d say tentatively to not too, as it’s not what you are after in regards to achieving your HS. I can’t imagine being too good for your shoulders either.
      Hope that helps!!

      • martymonster

        Hi Matt,
        A wall slide is a test often used in weightlifting to see if you can safely press overhead. The test is as follows:
        Stand with your shoulders and bum pressed into a wall, raise your arms directly overhead and press your elbows and the back of your wrists onto the wall. Now slide your arms down the wall into the classic ‘I surrender’ pose whilst keeping your elbows and wrists in contact with the wall at all times. If you can reach or pass the point where your upper arms are horizontal then your good. If not then your shoulders may be too tight to be safe for pressing.

        • Matt Beecroft

          Ok cool. Yes there are several variations of this. We use a similar version to check shoulders at the start of our classes. Other variations are used to improve scapula function and lengthen the lats. We have a seated variation in butterfly in the FMS as a shoulder mobility correction.

          This of course would help.

          Your shoulders will open over time as you work on mobility and stability exercises in your practice and hence the line of your HS will improve. You will see a lot of arched back banana handstands (which are totally ok) as a result of tight shoulders.

          I don’t think you have to have a perfect wall slide to start!

          Part of your HS practice is working the overhead flexibility as you go along……

          I have people who have a great OH unloaded ….but once they are in a HS they struggle, don’t forget its an active position that can be worked on via your face the wall work and other exercises to open the shoulders while inverted

  • What’s pop’n Matt?!? This is an AWESOME post with some great advice for improving your hand-balancing game! I especially enjoyed how you pointed out how you improve in so many other areas just from practicing handstands. I’ve never heard of the first knuckle push-ups but this might be my new favorite exercise!! Thanks, ninja!!!

    • Matt Beecroft

      Hey!! I’ve found the first knuckle push up and it’s variations of it to be awesome for hand and finger control which really helped me make those small adjustments …also because of my other training in Krav Maga and Muay Thai my hands lacked that mobility. I think if people have a martial arts background, lift a lot of weights or for example use a computer mouse all day, it could really help-mobility underpins stabllity/motor-control. I’ve found when my hands aren’t “awake” my balancing isn’t as good, so this is my go to. Thanks Grace!!! 🙏🤘

  • Matt Schifferle

    Thank you for writing this and sharing your experience Matt! I must admit I’ve been putting handstands off for a while as something I’ll get to one day. This was just the motivation I needed to finally “buck up” and get it done.

    Now it’s time to go practice. Rock on!

    • Matt Beecroft

      Thanks mate 🤘🤘🤘🤘🤘

  • Great stuff, Matt! I have a not-quite-love/hate relationship with handstands… and find that I do better if I’m actually fatigued… any theories? It’s weird!!! 🙂

    • Matthew

      I am the same Adrienne, I did my longest and best hand stand at PCC when I was fatigued. I am starting to practise them at the end of my workout. It reminds me when I play 8 Ball I play better when I have had a few drinks! Perhaps fatigued I stop thinking about it so much and just do it. Maybe a theory?

      • Matt Beecroft

        Haha, I totally play better pool after a few but there is a line that once you cross it goes downhill 🙂

        True. I think with all training we can either apply an:
        1. internal focus on the body, trying to get all the technique points and aspects correct and draw the focus inwards or
        2. Focus externally on just “doing the thing” and just sticking the handstand and responding to the environment and changes as they happen in the moment.

        Also check my response to Adrienne 🙂

    • Matt Beecroft

      Hey Adrienne,
      I am the same. Often I’m knackered and can have a great session!! I have a few theories: 1. I think I take a long time to warm up as in getting older lol
      2. I think you are often much more “activated” from a nervous system perspective
      3. Maybe because you are fatigued you only use the muscles you need to do the job and it’s a bit more “fine tuned” and focused.
      I also just think hand balancing can be random like that too and can depend on stress, diet, sleep and hydration etc.

      • Matthew

        Yeah spot on Matt, definately feel like the nervous system switch on training them after a workout, but it works the other way as well! I think I caught the same plane as you back to Adelaide after the PCC in Sydney, was visiting family there. I grew up around Klemzig living in Queensland now.

        • Matt Beecroft

          Yeah right, I remember now! Cool. Well when you are back in Radelaide again, drop in 🙂

          • Matthew

            For sure next I am down, I checked out your web site it looks pretty cool!

  • RedTed

    Awesome post and I share the same (must be common) challenges and fears – I have been discussing these very same points with some of my clients and so must share this post with them (BTW isn’t it great when some of your clients help YOU the coach out with skills – some yoga dudes are loving helping me on my hand balancing journey). Thanks Matthew : ) P.S. I think you’re in Adelaide (I’m just south of Melbourne), next time I’m down your neck of the woods, I’ll try and hook up some training with you.

    • Matt Beecroft

      Hey RedTed, thanks for the feedback, of course, drop in when you can!

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