Training Handstands For Strength

by Grace Kavadlo on March 1, 2016

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Grace Kavadlo Handstands 1

When many people think of the handstand, they think of a bodyweight skill. In other words, if your goal isn’t to hold a freestanding handstand, somehow it’s not a worthwhile exercise. While learning to balance on your hands is certainly a noble pursuit, a lot can be gained from approaching the handstand from a pure strength training perspective by using a wall for support. In calisthenics, we encourage all types of isometric holds from elbow levers to L-sits. You can think of the wall handstand as just being the inverted variety.

Wall handstands take the balance element out of the exercise and are excellent for building overhead pressing strength. Practicing wall handstand holds is also a great way of building shoulder stability and increasing static strength. Handstands strengthen your triceps, delts, rhomboids, traps, and the extensor muscles of your forearms which can help build strong, healthy wrists. When you tense your entire body in a wall handstand, similar to how you would in a plank, you can also target your quads, glutes, and even your abs.

Below are 3 different wall handstand variations that you can try. Aim to hold each pose for as long as you can, ideally working up to one full minute. It’s not uncommon to feel dizzy or slightly disoriented after performing long holds, so ease in slowly and rest as needed between efforts.

Back-to-the-Wall Handstand
This is a great place to start if you are new to handstands. Begin by facing a wall with both hands on the ground, your front knee bent and the other leg extended behind you. Hop off your bent leg and reach your extended leg towards the wall. It may take a few hops before you finally hit the wall. Make sure your arms are straight with your elbows fully extended. A common mistake beginners tend to make is to bend their elbows as they kick up which makes them fall on their head and never want to attempt a handstand again. Remember “when the elbows bend, the power ends.”

Once you’re up, allow your head to relax between your shoulders as you actively press into the ground. It is normal to have a slight arch in your back when you are practicing this exercise, but aim to minimize this pressure on your low back by actively squeezing your glutes, engaging your abs and pushing your head and chest through your arms. When you’re ready to come down, release one leg at a time back to the ground, doing your best to land gently.

Grace Kavadlo Handstands

L-to-the-Wall Handstand
Begin in a push-up position with your heels touching the wall behind you. Slowly begin to crawl your feet up the wall as you fold at the waist, walking your hands in closer until your hips are aligned above your shoulders. Your body will wind up in an inverted capital letter L-shape. It may help to have a pair of eyes on you to let you know when you are in position, as it can be hard to tell at first.

In addition to upper body strength, there’s a lot of flexibility needed in your hamstrings to fully extend your legs. If you don’t have the mobility to achieve a full lockout, you can practice with a slight bend in your knees and/or allow your heels to come off the wall slightly. This is also a really intense exercise for your shoulders. It can help to alternate extending one leg upwards at a time in order to take some of the pressure off your shoulders if it starts to get too intense.

Grace Kavadlo Handstands

Face-the-Wall Handstand
Similar to the L-to-the-wall, begin in a push-up position with your heels against the wall, then start crawling your feet up and walking your hands in. This time, the idea is to get the entire front of your body pressed flat against the wall. When you reach the wall, tuck your chin to your chest, tense your glutes, squeeze your quads, point your toes and engage your abs. Think about lengthening your body as much as possible by actively shrugging your shoulders, pressing into the ground and reaching your legs upward.

You can ease into this variation by walking in as close to the wall as you feel comfortable and then walking back out. Gradually you will build the strength and confidence to bring your hands all the way the wall.

Grace Kavadlo Handstands

Upside Down and Inside Out
From an overall health perspective, inversions have a lot more to offer than strength or skill alone. Due to the effect gravity has on the body, practicing inversion holds can be beneficial for the circulatory, lymphatic, and nervous systems. Your body has many valves and veins all transporting lymph fluid, nutrients, and blood constantly. By inverting yourself, you are in essence helping these natural processes by encouraging venous return from the lower extremities back to your heart, brain, lungs, and lymph nodes. As such, there are many folks in the yoga community who consider handstands to be the fountain of youth, so don’t neglect them!

See you on the flip-side, ninjas!

Grace Kavadlo Handstands

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Grace Kavadlo is a PCC Team Leader, personal trainer and group exercise instructor located in New York City. She is a columnist for Bodybuilding.com and can be seen in several Dragon Door books, including Coach Wade’s Explosive Calisthenics. For more information about Grace, check out her website, www.DieselGrace.com

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  • martymonster

    Hi Grace,
    Looking great!
    Handstands are by far my weakest area in the CC Big Six. This isn’t surprising to me given the injury I’ve had in my shoulders. So I can heartily endorse your Face the Wall handstand. I’ve picked these up recently and they are not only challenging and great fun, they are also greatly helping my shoulders.

    • Greetings Marty,
      Glad to hear you’ve had a positive experience rehabbing your shoulder using the face-the-wall handstand! I’m a big fan of practicing all these wall assisted variations when I’m not working on the balancing aspect of the handstand.
      Thanks for reading! Cheers!

  • Chris Odle

    Love this Grace!
    Thanks for keeping us on our toes,
    Or is it hands!!

    • Right on @chris_odle:disqus!! I appreciate you checking it out! My hope with all this handstand practice is to solely be walking around on my hands one day. LOL! 😉

      • just imagined special hand-shoes and clothes with upside down pockets… DO IT!!!!

        • BWAHAHAH @giryagirl:disqus I sense a new athletic apparel company brewing on the horizon! 😉

          • @gracekavadlo:disqus @giryagirl:disqus The best idea I’ve heard all day. Seriously. 🙂

        • Mohammed

          That’s a hilarious mental image!

  • Paramesvara Dasa

    Another great article, Grace. Thanks for taking the time to put this out there.

    • Thank you for checking it out @paulthemusician:disqus! Wall handstands rule!! 😀

  • Grace, interesting to know handstands strengthen the wrist extensors in addition to all the other benefits. Plus, that last pic just made me fall ‘head over heels’ for you! Sorry Al, she’s HOT (as you know, lucky guy!) hahaha

    • Hey @disqus_MyfG6YT2Ij:disqus YESSS, all these years of practicing hand-balancing has not only made my forearms look DEEE-ZUL but seriously strengthened my wrists. They used to be so ‘dainty’ and delicate and easily injured, but now they are super strong thanks to calisthenics! HAHA, THANKS for reading and I appreciate the compliment! Al is lucky & so am I! <3 Take care! =)

  • Edward Graham

    Im finding that safely going from vertical, inverted or otherwise, is fundamental. Might be good to practice rolls and such for the first few attempts.

  • Matt Schifferle

    I’ve always struggled with inversion and this makes the hand stand so much more accessible to someone like me. Thank you so much for the help Grace, it’s very much appreciated. Balance= strength!

    • Greetings Matt, I am stoked to hear this post encourages you to keep on pursuing your handstand practice! Finding the balance in this move can be frustrating, but thankfully there are alternative ways to train it and reap the benefits of this awesome inversion! Thanks for reading, ninja!

  • Portagee Slim

    I, too, struggle with wall handstands. I actually have to brace my shoulders against the wall when doing face out. And I AM able to do a minute plus in crow pose, usually multiple times. So, just keep at it until I no longer have to brace myself? Or work with the L to the wall, and face in handstands? Shoulder and rib injuries suck…

    • Greetings @portageeslim:disqus that’s awesome that you can hold crow pose for a minute! When you say brace your shoulders against the wall, does that mean you’re completely flat on the wall? Ideally, it should only be your heels or maybe your butt touching the wall in the “Face Away from the Wall” handstand. Perhaps place your hands a few inches away from the wall to give yourself more space to arch your back in the pose so it’s less strenuous on your shoulders. And if you’re coming back from an injury, don’t go for too long of a hold, just ease into it! Hope this helps!

      • Portagee Slim

        Injury was long ago and far away.

        To answer your question, I place the backs my shoulder blades against the door. My hands are 4-6″ away from the wall. So, I am actually leaning INTO the wall. Otherwise, I never make it inverted, and wind up collapsing down the wall like a house of cards. Just going to keep working on it, though. Want a freestanding handstand by my birthday in July. IF I can do it safely….If not, it will be there, when I am ready.

        It sux coming into this past 40, and it is great, too. I can see many years of work to “master” all of CC1. Perhaps a lifetime!

  • Thomas Fuchs

    Thank you Grace! From your post I learned to lock my elbows ’til I’m stable. Did it today 1st time, on big trees … great feeling of strength & freedom & inner peace 😉 !!

    • Big THANKS to you @disqus_V1WuKh9Jq6:disqus for reading my post! I love hearing when ninjas read my cues and are able to nail a move after! THAT’S SUPER AWESOME!!! Congratulations! I <3 training outdoors!!! Must have been a pretty epic scene! Cheers!

  • Mohammed

    Thanks for writing this; it’s really useful!

    Aside from being able to hold a crow stand/pose for a minute, what are the minimum shoulder-strength pre-requisites to begin practising handstands? For example, should one be able to do a particular difficulty of pushups (say, diamond/close pushups) before attempting handstands?

    • Greetings @Mohammed, thank you so much for reading! I’m glad you dug the post! This is a great question you brought up! An important prerequisite before attempting a handstand is to not have any current shoulder injuries and to have the ability/range of motion to raise your arms completely overhead. Having a solid foundation in the basics like push-ups will definitely help you hold your weight overhead as well. =) Hope this helps!

      • Mohammed

        Great, thanks!

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