Handstands Will Make You Better at Everything

by Mike Fitch on February 4, 2014

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Mike Fitch Handstand

Yeah, it’s a bold statement, but hear me out. The mechanics of successfully performing a handstand will amp up all of your other exercise endeavors, making you stronger, more stable, and better coordinated, while the discipline required to master the move will make you a better human being overall. It will force you to take a long, hard look at the time you are willing to invest in reaching a specific goal.  It will also allow you to win money in a bar bet, steal the spotlight at any wedding and of course get the girl (or guy). Results may vary on the last three.

For thousands of years, athleticism has been demonstrated through feats of bodyweight strength and skill, with fit individuals judged not just by their bodies’ tone, but by how skillfully they could use their bodies.  Even in the golden age of bodybuilding, Arnie and the boys were known to challenge each other post workout with hand balancing and bodyweight strength contests.  We then saw a lull in these activities, with the popularization of the fixed-axis weight-lifting machine and single-plane isolation “robot training,”  but luckily for you and me (and the human race), the idea of skills practice and self-mastery is making its way back into fitness.

My favorite field, progressive bodyweight training, includes a multitude of exercises that are always sure to elicit an envious “I’ve always wanted to do that!”  Pistol squats, muscle-ups, human flags, HAND BALANCING – these moves are sure to catch the eye of any fitness enthusiast.  And the great thing is that any of these feats are possible to learn with the proper progression training, time commitment, and, most importantly, consistency.

Just as it takes a baby about 12 months of daily conditioning and practice to eventually stand on their own, it can take an adult months or years of repeated practice to build the neural grooves associated with a perfect handstand.  Are you willing to invest that kind of time?  I can guarantee that it will be one of the most humbling and gratifying journeys that you’ll experience.

While performing a great handstand is certainly a worthy goal unto itself, you’ll find that the skills you build in the process will transfer over into your other training, making you a better athlete and enhancing your quest toward a better body. Here are some examples of the tremendous carry-over you’ll see:

The Kinetic Chain

Let’s start with a simplified definition of the very complex concept of the kinetic chain: everything in our body is connected to everything else.   A handstand is a prime example of the connectivity of the kinetic chain, with each position, alignment, and movement requiring constant communication and neuromuscular efficiency in order to maintain that perfect balance. If just one thing changes during our hand balance, such as flexing our toes instead of extending them, then our body must immediately adjust to this new shift. 

Hand balancing is, obviously, performed on your hands, so that’s a great place to start thinking about how everything is connected.  Your fingers are some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body, and have the best tactile feedback and positioning capability. Kicking up into your handstand initiates a sort of neuromuscular “super highway,” with all of those little finger receptors sending and receiving information throughout the body.  Your body’s communication must be perfectly orchestrated to keep you in balance, like a super effective emergency dispatcher taking calls, sending reinforcements, and keeping you safe (aka preventing you from crashing onto your head.)

The body has to adjust to the hand placement in relation to the shoulders; to the elbows being over the wrists but under the shoulders; and the hips, where are the hips in relation to the shoulders?; and it goes on.   So if we do this efficiently, and amp up our body’s abilities to communicate and make minute adjustments in a flash, you may already see how handstand training can benefit other athletic goals. But, I promised that handstands will make you better at everything, so let’s keep on going. 

Al Kavadlo Performs a Handstand

 Internal Tension

A tense body is a strong body.  Why is it so easy to balance a ruler or a bat vertically on your hand? Because the object is rigid, with no bends or “leaks.” Whether you are lifting your own body or grinding out a 1000 pound deadlift, the concept is the same – you need to create a rigid structure from which you can pull, push, lift or balance.  In Progressive Calisthenics, there is no room for any part of your body to lose connection or leak tension, and you learn very quickly about any leaks in your chain.  Mastering total body tension will not only accelerate your handstand training, but will be directly applicable to most of your other training as well.

 Grip Strength

In addition to “tense the whole body,” you’ll hear a lot of HB coaches tell you to “grip the ground.”   In our foot we have the luxury of a heel which plays a clever game of leverage to make walking and standing fairly easy tasks. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same advantage in our hands. So, the fingers must DIG into the ground, countering the body’s tendency to over balance (topple over), or let up to counter an underbalance.  It’s this constant battle between the finger extensors and flexors trading off between the rolls of agonist and antagonist that keeps us upright.   And along the way you’ll be conditioning for some brutal forearm strength.

Shoulder Stability

Few exercises can compare to a handstand for building shoulder stability. And let’s face it, nobody is going to be staring in amazement while you’re performing more band internal/external shoulder rotations.

 The shoulder – so incredible, so complex, and so commonly abused – can be an important source of power, but also a source of hidden weakness impacting your training in ways you don’t even realize.  Over repetition syndrome, poor form, and especially faulty postures can create imbalances that lead to injury or instability. But even if you don’t feel pain, if your body senses a weakness in the shoulder, it will automatically restrict the amount of power passing through that joint, and can actually dial down the surrounding muscle excitation.  I’m going to assume that everyone would rather be tapping into all of their strength for their efforts. As the saying goes, “you can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe.”

In Hand Balancing, the shoulder is the first line receiving all of that information from the sensors in the hands and forearm musculature, reacting to the head and hands below and the rest of the body above.  The muscles at the shoulder joint have to fire up like a synchronized light show to adjust to the constantly changing center of gravity over such a limited base of support, from the deeper muscles like Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularis (rotator cuff), to the bigger and more powerful Lats, Pecs, and Delts.  Even with the elbow completely locked, the heads of the Bicep and Triceps that cross the shoulder joint play a role in stabilizing the shoulder.  And that’s not even mentioning the other muscles that keep your Scapula strapped to your back.

 Simply put, handstands will make you stronger through increased activation and stabilization.

Free Standing Handstand

Spinal Stabilization

Handstands require not just spinal, or core, stabilization, but true multi-planar stabilization involving inversion of the body.

 Now, I realize there are many views on spinal stabilization and some debate over its efficacy and “functional” carryover to life or sport  (“You have to draw in to activate TVA!”  “No, bracing is the only way!”  “Let’s fight!”).  But we can probably all agree that the surrounding musculature of the spine (ie the core) needs to be able to properly stabilize to protect the spinal cord, and that the spine needs to be able to fight gravity’s constant pull, distributing the load while generating force and, more importantly, accepting external forces (whether that’s gravity, or a linebacker). It flexes, extends, rotates, laterally flexes and in the case of the handstand, stays perfectly still, and STABLE. 

When we are upright, we know that the core musculature should be firing to allow for gait pattern as in walking or running, or bending over to snatch up a kettlebell. But get inverted and everything changes.  The anchor or base is now the shoulder girdle, sitting on top of those mechanically disadvantaged hands. So now the spinal stabilizers have to figure out how to balance the pelvis over the shoulders, with the big legs riding on top.  This is true multi-planar stabilization! In a hand balance, all of the spine’s muscular units have to play their part to keep the spine in perfect alignment – i.e. spinal stabilization.

GETTING STARTED: TUTORIAL

I am constantly asked, “What’s the key to learning handstands?”  And there is a clear answer:  “To get good at handstands, you practice handstands.”   There is no other weighted exercise that will make you better at handstands – you just need to put in the time to practice the handstand-specific progressions and conditioning exercises. It IS skill specific training.

So here’s the part where you get to see what you’re made of.  Are you willing to put the time in to taking this challenge on? Are you ready to approach it with discipline, practicing often, even daily if necessary? You are no longer trying to merely increase your reps;  now you are working to improve yourself, master difficult skills, and achieve long-term goals.

I can tell you from my own experience that the handstand can be an allusive opponent.  I first learned an arch-back style handstand, which is common for most beginners, before I was challenged by a gymnast friend to learn the flat back style.  That process of re-educating took months! It was probably a year before I could easily switch between the two, along with other body positions, and stay up for multiple minutes. I learn more about Hand Balancing every single day and am humbled by it constantly.  I’m certainly a lot better now than I was a few years ago, and I definitely have more goals yet to reach.  It’s clear to me that it’s a life-long practice.  There’s no turning back now.

 Intro to Handstand Conditioning: The Wall-Assisted Handstand

Begin your handstand training with the simple Wall Assisted Handstand.  It may seem like the most basic conditioning exercise, but remember, a baby has to crawl before he could stand. The exercise itself is as simple as it sounds, but I have some tips to help make it wildly successful for you:

  1. First of all, you should have your front, not your back, facing the wall.  Otherwise you’re automatically training in an arch back handstand.  While the arch back is a legitimate handstand in itself, the mechanics are different and you may not get the same benefits I mentioned earlier.

  2. Follow these steps to get yourself safely into place:   Start by facing away from the wall. Bend forward and place your hands on the ground at roughly shoulder width.  Place your feet on the wall and walk them up until the body is elongated.  Walk your hands towards the wall until they are about 6 inches or so away from the wall (this may vary – just find a distance that feels comfortable psychologically).  The toes should be pointed with the top of the foot flat on the wall.

  3. Once in position, SET the body:  Grip the ground with your fingertips.  Lock the elbows completely, driving down into ground, creating as much space as possible between your toes and the ground.  When you successfully fire the traps, the space between your ears and shoulders will close.  Squeeze the glutes and quads, and draw in or brace the abdominal wall. Make sure not to hinge at the hips.

  4. Don’t forget to breathe!

  5. Time yourself to see how long you can hold this perfectly tensed handstand.  Your goal is to first work up to one minute, then two. Once you can hold for two minutes, begin bringing your hands closer and closer to the wall.

  6. And here’s an important Bonus Tip:   If you’re not used to twisting or summersaulting out of a handstand, be sure to leave enough strength to get back DOWN the wall!

Wall Walking Handstand

Expect to be humbled by this isometric conditioning.  But keep up with your handstand practice, and it will absolutely fast track your way to being better at EVERYTHING!

For more information on Hand Balancing, check out our new 5-part video series, Hand Balancing for the Bodyweight Athlete, available as downloads or on DVD.

Mike Fitch is the Founder/President of Global Bodyweight Training, a fitness company providing training, education, and promotion of bodyweight training disciplines, as well as creator of the popular Animal Flow program. Mike’s current interests lie in exploring how bodyweight training disciplines can be integrated with skills-based practices, and multi-planar, fluid movement. He’s been featured in Men’s Health, Shape, and Fitness Magazine, as well as on The Doctor’s, Good Morning America, and LIVE with Kelly and Michael.

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  • Dusty

    Great article Mike. I recently saw someone’s response to a Facebook post photo of someone doing a handstand with a comment along the lines of “Why are all these Crossfitter’s working on handstands, when in my life would I ever need to do a handstand?” Besides the obvious when in your life would the average person ever need to lift a heavy weight over your head, or jump on and off a plywood box other than in training, I knew but could not verbalize the other benefits of practicing handstands other than the challenge of learning to perform one. This article spells it out loud and clear. Thanks!

    • Matt Schifferle

      To such people I always remember something Lois Armstrong once said when someone asked him a similar question about Jazz. He simply said something to the effect that “If you have to ask you will never understand.”

    • Mike Fitch

      Awesome Dusty! Now you have a little ammunition the next time someone questions your HB practice…

  • Rich Shuey

    I am a an out of shape 49 year old with many old “war wounds” from my years beating myself up from bodybuilding, martial arts, fencing, gymnastics and other sports. I have injuries to my shoulders, wrists, neck and low back that make it very challenging to achieve my goal of getting below 200 lbs and regaining what I can of the strength, flexibility and balance that I can before my 50th birthday. I am getting there slowly but surely using a “get back to basics” approach. I’ve cut out all processed foods and have gone Paleo, and am using a combination of hiking and walking and calisthenics,(from Al’s wonderful calisthenic book.) Though I am still having to be very careful and work slowly through the progressions. About a year ago, I watched a 40-50 year old woman do a handstand against the wall and remembered my high school days of doing them in gymnastics and thought I would see if I could still do them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. In fact, it wasn’t easy at all! I had to flip up at least six or seven time to finally get up into position. I felt wobbly, due to poor core strength. My wrists and shoulders ached and I couldn’t really get my head in between my shoulders because of poor shoulder range of motion. This was quite the eye opener for me, since I was so good at them as a young man in gymnastics. Because of this, I started working on them and was at it for about two months and I had noticed that my wrists and shoulders hurt far less from doing them. I also was back to a nice rock solid stance in that two month period. I was just starting to think of handstands away from the wall when I injured a lumbar disc and had to stop. It has been a long slow recovery back from that injury and I don’t know If i am quite ready to get back to handstands quite yet, but this article makes me look forward to doing them again.
    I think the handstand is an excellent way to help rehab wrists, shoulders and bring balance and alignment to the entire body. Its well worth spending the time and imagine the progressions working into one arm handstands and developing your ability to twist out of them or to lowering yourself down and rolling out on your back and up to your feet, or lowering yourself forward and into a plange position!
    I would add that you can keep a high quality position with your back to the wall, and I felt that it was a safer position for me because I wasn’t worried about falling out the back side. All you have to do is make sure that you get your hands in close to the wall and then bend one knee so that your foot is flat on the wall, yet your knees are in alignment.

    • Mike Fitch

      Rich, I’m sure you’re aware of a concept in training/exercise known as specificity. As i’ve mentioned many times, “how do you get good at handstands? you do handstands” and of course the regressions that build up to handstands. The same holds true for any progressive bodyweight/calisthenics movement. Our bodies are such complex and incredible machines that they will adapt to almost any challenge that is presented with some sort of consistency. The fact that you were once able to perform handstands means that in your CNS there is a file that is stored away as Handstands. However the efficiency at which that file can be pulled up and applied is dependent upon many factors. That’s why it’s so important to continue to always practice skill based movements even when you think you’ve nailed it.
      So just the fact that you were experiencing an increased sense of comfort and stability on your journey back to handstands just shows how adaptable our bodies are. Just like riding a bike right?
      You’re right, the back to the wall assisted handstand is still a valuable progression and one that we cover in the “Hand Balancing for the Bodyweight Athlete” DVD.

  • Great post Mike! You do have a point that doing a handstand (or many other calisthenics moves) make scenes in public. I saw your animal flow promotion on LIVE with Kelly and Michael and I thought “Finally someone is starting to bridge the gap between Progressive calisthenics and the rest of the world.”. Good luck with your training.

    • Mike Fitch

      Thank you so much Carter. It’s actually a really exciting time in fitness (even main stream fitness) right now. There seems to be “space” and a certain acceptance of movement and BW programs that maybe wouldn’t have been so welcomed even five years ago.
      As far as the big public platforms go, It’s tough to wrap an entire philosophy and message into a 30 second sound bite, but that’s the name of the game! Thanks again

  • Matt Schifferle

    Thanks so much for the post Mike.
    Though I’ve been practicing calisthenics for a while I regret that I’ve only taken handstand work seriously for a few months. I really wish I had started much longer ago. Oh well, as the Chinese saying goes, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

    • I’m totally stealing that saying from ya, FR.

    • Mike Fitch

      Great quote Matt! I have to tell you that personally, one of the most exciting things about progressive bodyweight training is the journey. Just knowing that hopefully I will be better a week from now, a month, a year, a decade! I’ve only been bodyweight only for a little over three years. That’s where my journey begun, and luckily it will continue the rest of my life

  • I will tell you something, Mike–I’ve enjoyed reading some phenomenal articles on the PCC blog (and more coming up!) but I tell you man, it’s not often I read an article I really wish I had read. But this is that article.

    Great work, from a great athlete. PLEASE come back with more material for the PCC community!!

    • Mike Fitch

      I’ll gladly come back with more material! Thanks so much Paul, the positive feedback is MUCH appreciated.

      • Robert FancyGuy Witten

        I am going to learn to handstand walk!

    • Robert FancyGuy Witten

      PAUL WADE!!!

  • Darlene Ellenburg

    Was in a hot yoga class and someone asked the instructor why his abs looked so good. He said simply, “Handstands.” Til that moment i never associated the two. Like what you say about lifetime learning. I have been using the inversion table so my feet are assisted and I have a sense of safety as I stretch out my badly overused computer wrists and strengthen. It is working.

    • Mike Fitch

      You’re right Darlene, the importance of a properly functioning trunk is often overlooked in Hand Balance training (when in fact it’s a key component). From what I understand, you are using an inversion table in order to “de-load” the amount of your own bodyweight that you are placing on the wrists. That’s a great idea to help the connective tissue adapt. You can also use a similar concept by just placing the hands, knees and feet in contact with the ground, as if you are in a crawling baby position. This allows you to take only a small percentage of your own body weight as you distribute through 6 points of contact. As you gain endurance/stability/flexibility in your wrists, you can raise the knees off of the ground and increase the load progressively. The wrists will adapt if given the opportunity!

  • BodyweightReallyIsBetter

    I just started bodyweight training (at home) a few months ago. I find the results in both strength and visual to be superior to “gym weights” training. I have been attempting wall handstand push-ups as of a few weeks ago. The strength is not there yet, so I’m doing mini (and I mean mini lol) wall hand stand push-ups.
    Anyway, I haven’t even considered trying to learn to do a handstand…and can’t even say why. I suppose I just never gave it any thought since I’m apparently quite weak in the shoulder area.
    I want to thank you for this article. It just inspired me to incorporate them into my bodyweight training. I’m sure practicing them will also help me with my hand stand push ups as well, so all the better. Thanks again Mike!

  • BodyweightReallyIsBetter

    Mike, one question please. Blood is rushing to my head doing these handstands against the wall. I know it will subside with time as my body adapts to the position. In order for that to subside quicker and just get used to the position in general, would it hurt my muscular gains any if I did a handstand almost everyday just for 30 seconds (and up to 60 seconds as I improve)? While strength gains are a goal for me, so is muscular mass (which bodyweight training is doing for me more than weights ever did). Thanks in advance!

    • Hiya. Remember to breathe while you’re upside-down 🙂 Sounds silly, but it’s a really easy mistake to make, to hold your breath while you’re bracing. If you keep breathing, you’ll find the blood-to-your-head problem is a lot less dramatic.

  • George Lucia

    Hi Mike,

    I’m not confident with summersaulting yet. What is the beginner way to get out of the wall handstand? Do you walk your arms forward? And how do you progress to the twist of summersault?

    Thank you!

    • Phil

      Walking your hands out is fine if you don’t want to forward roll. You can also twist your hips and slide your legs down one side of the wall (like a cartwheel).

  • Jack

    Fantastic article! Quick question – whenever I tighten up my glutes, I loose my HS. Why is that? Thanks again!

  • That’s it, as soon as I wake in the mornings, i’m doing a hand stand 🙂

  • Taranimator

    This article is full of insight that I haven’t read elsewhere – and I’ve read a lot of articles about handstands! Thanks for the time-frame analogy to babies learning to walk! I’ve been at it about 4 months now, making good progress, but now I will humbly extend my target time a bit longer. 🙂

  • Brian Mills

    Hi Mike
    I discovered gymnastic rings when I was 64 which I regret I hadn’t tried years ago.
    I’m now 66 years old, and three weeks ago decided that my next goal would be hand stand push ups. I’ve now managed to get to 60 seconds handstand against the wall and also 15 second hand stand with one negative push up.
    Unbelievable satisfaction.

  • shashank kishore

    Very interesting article Mike! I have been practicing hand stands for about 6 months now. But i do the one with the back facing the wall. The maximum i can stretch now is about 150 secs. But i have yet not been able to do a hand stand without any support. What new should i try to be able to improve here. And I practice it daily, Is it OK to do so?

  • Caz

    But what about the supraspinatus tendon, you know, where it is between the acromion process of the scapula and the head of the humerus with the shoulder extended like that when one is on the hands with the feet in the air. How do I protect my suprasinatus tendon from impingement over time?

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