The Case for Curved Handstands

by Logan Christopher on December 3, 2013

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sig-klein-handstandAsk any gymnast or circus performer about doing handstands and they’re likely to tell you that a straight handstand is the only way to do it. It’s the perfect form, and anything else is wrong.

I disagree! Let me tell you why.

Recently on this site was an article all about the straight handstand and the benefits of doing them in that manner. I don’t disagree with those points, but wanted to give a different opinion on why the curved handstand is a viable option as well.

Are Curved Handstands Dangerous?

First off, let’s talk about the claim that doing a curved handstand is going to hurt your back. Just like anything else, it can happen, but if you’re smart about it, they’re completely safe.

I think this myth is simply a result of people doing straight handstands for other reasons, and then not knowing why that is the case.  To think that bending your spine is going to hurt you is ridiculous.

Push too far with bridging exercises and you can tweak your back, but doing them right you’ll develop more flexibility and strength.

When doing a handstand if you let gravity just pull your legs over without maintaining any core tightness, it can take you into a position that you’re not ready for. Doing too much of can certainly cause you to strain your back.

Instead maintain tightness, and build up what you do over time. Just like any other exercise.

Art2 - OHBalAre Straight Handstands Necessary for Higher Level Skills?

The straight handstand can help you do harder skills but it is not necessary.

I have heard people say that you need perfectly straight alignment to hold a one arm handstand. Tell that to Professor Paulinetti, the man who basically invented the one arm handstand.

You see, old school hand balancers, did all their handstands with curves in their backs. All of them! And they pulled of amazing skills.

They treated the straight handstand as an advanced variation of the handstand. This harder skill was something to practice later on after you could stand on your hands.

Over time, hand balancers transitioned away from the curve to the straight position you see commonly today. Part of this was for aesthetic reasons. It’s more pleasing to the eye, and for things like gymnastic competitions, you’re judged on this.

Another part is that a straight handstand does help you to achieve more difficult skills. By beginning with it you can build those habits from the beginning. This is a smart thing to do if you plan on taking your hand balancing skills far.

To prove this point, in the future, I’d like to build up to the one hand handstand in a curved position like the old timers did.

What About The Beginner or Recreational Athlete?

Don’t plan to be paid to do hand balancing professionally? Not a gymnast? Would you just like to be able to hold a freestanding handstand? If that’s the case I don’t think going for the straight handstand is necessarily for you.

If you ask anyone to hold a handstand that has never done it before, what will you see? When they kick up, before they fall down almost instantly, they’ll be in a curved position.

The curved handstand is a more natural position. It takes a lot of effort to get a perfect line in your handstand because it is unnatural. To tighten the muscles as needed to form a straight line is significantly more difficult, and not to mention, it takes additional shoulder flexibility, that many people don’t have.

If you choose, you can practice the curved handstand. You’re likely to gain the skill faster than someone going after a straight handstand. You’ll be freestanding in a shorter amount of time, which is of course dependent on how much you practice. Then from there you can practice other hand balancing skills and work on straightening out later if you choose.

Or you can practice a straight handstand from the beginning. It will take longer with more practice time. But once you have it you’ll be good to go onto other more advanced skills.

It is a choice you can make.

Sure, a straight handstand is better, in that it is more advanced. Just like a 315 lb. snatch is better than a 225 lb. one. But that doesn’t make the curved handstand wrong.

Reverse Handstand SideHow to Learn the  Straight or Curved Handstand

If you’re going to do handstands the starting place is against the wall. But depending on which of these two you want to go for you’re going to do them differently.

If you choose to go with the curved handstand then when doing wall handstands your back can face the wall. Kick-up into position then hold for time.

If you choose to go with a straight handstand you’ll want to face the other way. The reason for this is that this orientation forces you into a straighter position, especially as you inch your hands closer and closer to the wall.

In either style you build endurance by holding for time and maintaining your position. Then when it comes to freestanding handstands this skill set should be built in as you learn to balance out in the open.

So let’s take a poll. Do you do curved or straight handstands? Even if its just against the wall, what are you going for? Answer in the comments below.

***

About Logan Christopher: Logan Christopher has been called a physical culture renaissance man as he is accomplished in a wide range of strength skills from kettlebell juggling, performing strongman stunts, and bodyweight exercises. He is the author of numerous books including Secrets of the Handstand and The Master Keys to Strength & Fitness. In addition, he’s spent the last several years going deep into mental training to find out what it takes to really excel and tactics that can help people instantly improve their exercises. You can find out more about all this at http://www.legendarystrength.com/.

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  • Retinator

    I think it’s time that I start curving my handstands more! Thanks for that insight. I’ve been trying to learn to balance the straight handstand exclusively- but after over a year of consistent practice I still can’t hold for more than 5 seconds or so because it’s so hard to balance.

    • Logan Christopher

      I’ve seen people build up to 10-30 seconds usually within a couple months with the right amount of practice on the right things.

      • Chris

        Question for Logan: Have been working HeSPU back to the wall for some time now and I am looking to progress to freestanding pushups. Do you think that back to the wall and curved posture is efficient to freestanding HeSPU. After so much time spent inverted away from the wall, would hate to change now.

        P.S mate, I’ve lost track of the
        number of PR’s I’ve hit after listening to ‘Volition !’

        • Logan Christopher

          Glad to hear of your progress. Yes handstand pushups can be done freestanding in a curved manner. That’s how I do them.

  • Matt Schifferle

    Its always nice to get a nonbiased opinion on a particular move or technique. It makes it so much easier to learn knowing the author isnt trying to pusj an agenda or dogma. The world could use more writers lime you Chris!

    • Logan Christopher

      Thanks Matt. We all have our own biases but I just had to share my view point.

  • Gil Flores

    I noted from many old time pictures that the greats did them with very nice curve. I had questions and they have finally been answered. So curved it is! 🙂

  • Brendan McCormack

    Well written Logan! As Matt said, speaking to both sides of a topic allows for the free flow of information which can only be positive. Glad to hear your take as I began hand balancing in gymnastics but had difficulty with the straight position due to my unusually long limbs. Keep up the good work sir!

  • Aleks Salkin

    It’s about damned time someone shows the curved handstand some love! Definitely underrated, and I can’t figure out why. Maybe it doesn’t look as pretty? Less advanced or not, they’re just fun to hold and they look badass, too. Great article, Christopher.

    • Logan Christopher

      Thanks Aleks!

    • Leann

      If you look at my profile picture you will see a semi curved handstand. I say semi curved because generally i could place my butt onto my head in full curvature. This particular photo was taken on a brick retaining wall above a waterfall . Each click round with the photographer required about 5 minutes of held balance. I was 13 years old at the time.

  • Clark Connery

    The curved handstand allowed me to train handstands while my scapular protraction was awful. Back when I first started training, forcing myself in a straight line caused massive anterior shoulder impingement. I had winging scapula, so my serratus anterior needed work. Working curved handstands have tremendously improved my scapular protraction, and thus over time have allowed me to get a straighter handstand. I can now hold a minute long handstand with no impingement pain, and my scapulae don’t wing. My handstand is still not perfectly straight, but I’m closer to straightening now more than I ever have before, and I have enjoyed a multitude of strength gains specifically from this training.

    • Logan Christopher

      Awesome story Clark. That’s another great point. Many people can’t even get into a straight handstand in the beginning and thus must curve.

  • Another wonderful article chock full of old school wisdom from one of the great bodyweight strength writers of this generation.

    A wonderful bundle of extra information to add to the excellent article on the straight handstand by the Basic Training Academy. Awesome.

    • Leo

      Dear Paul Wade,

  • Leo

    Hey Coach,
    my wrist are very weak, they can’t even handle kneeling push ups.
    My pushing muscles are strong, I could do straddle one arm push ups a while back and almost one arm elbow levers, but both with wrist pain.
    I think the execution of these moves are actually the reason for the pain.
    So I started slow, dropped these exercises and started with wall push ups, progressing to inclines without wrist pain. I had no pain until I met the beginner standard of knee push ups. My wrists couldn’t handle it flat on the floor but suprisingly on a low step.
    Just holding the position flat on the floor is painful, even though I spread the weight through the entire hand.
    Pushing off my knuckles works well, but I think they wont stenghten the extensors of the forearm, needed for one arm push ups, bridges and handstands (i don’t think one can perform them off their knuckles). I also warm up my wrists with circles and stuff, so that’s not the problem. I really wanna learn pushing moves, but my wrists are the very weak link, that won’t allow me to do so.
    Do you have any ideas on how to strenghten the wrists properly or something else on how to eliminate or lessen the problem?
    That would be very important to me, thanks
    Leo

  • MrBoudahas

    Yo coach,i have a question about squats , recently i start to train at home because of the cold weather and i noticed that squatting without shoes was more difficult than with my shoes.
    What is best for strength ? i reached the full squats and i keep making progress with that exercice.

    Thank you very much.

  • Jonathan F.V.

    I practice straight handstands, as I’m aiming towards high level handbalancing. But I’m open to both types, although I prefer my students to work with their form as straight as possible. But if a student can’t use the straight form, it’s not a reason not to practice! They just use the best form they can at the moment, and supplement their handstand practice with shoulder flexibility and mobility exercises. I have two students I can use as two different examples. One has very good shoulder flexibility, and also very good strength. I made her work a lot on getting a very sturdy handstand, and it’s still a work in progress. We also slowly started practising weight transfers to one arm handstands, but that’s going to take a while before it gets good, cause she needs to learn better control with her hand. My other student has less than perfect shoulder flexibility, so she cannot do a straight handstand, although we do work on improving her shoulder flexibility (and it has paid off, but there still is a lot of work to do). But she is naturally very strong (I would say, exceptionally strong), so learning to control her balance comes pretty easily for her. She started practising handstands 2-3 times a week in September, and in November, she had a PR where she could hold her handstand for 35 seconds. Her kick up is still inconsistent, but practice makes perfect, and it won’t be long before she can hold her handstand for a minute. With her, I’m not going to take the direction of one arm handstands right away, instead I’ll make her walk on her hands a lot, climb onto things, and I’ll try to orientate her training towards “old school strength feats”.

    Different goals and training paths suit different people. I think that anybody who does a lot of handstands should aim to be able to do straight handstands, but of course, arched handstands can be used if no better position can be achieved. It also depends on what move you are doing. If I climb a flight of stairs, I don’t care if my body is straight or curved. I just want to climb the damn flight of stairs all the way up. If I practice my one arm press to handstand, well, I have to start straight or else it’s not gonna work for me!

    • Jonathan F.V.

      Oh, and should add, it is indeed possible to learn the one arm handstand without having your shoulders and back straight, but you’ll need to make sure that your regular handstands are rock solid first! Like, you should be able to go into a handstand anytime, anywhere, anyhow, without having the slightest struggle to keep your balance. It makes little sense to practice one arm handstands if you still fall doing two arm handstands.

  • Alex Korbeck

    Straight handstands all the way. You train every one of your muscles to achieve a straight handstand. Achieving a handstand is a journey. Remember it’s the hunt not the kill. So enjoy the ride and enjoy the steps it takes to do a straight handstand. If you learn to do a banana you will have to relearn what it takes to achieve a straight handstand. What a waste of time. A banana handstand is a cheat handstand since you’re not engaging all your muscles. Too much compensation going on because other muscles are weak. If you don’t have open shoulders, you compensate with an arch. Learn to stack your body so you don’t have to conpensate for weak undeveloped muscles. Anything worth doing is worth doing RIGHT!

    • Leann

      As a Gymnast and an acrobat/ contortionist I can assure you, that a banana back ,as you call it, handstand takes as much skill and greater core strength ,as you are maintaining balance with an off centered , center of gravity . To maintain your balance while your arms and half your torso are vertically inclined while your lower torso and legs are horizontally inclined takes enormous core strength, and strength in all muscles from arms, shoulders and back and stability in those muscles.

      • alex korbeck

        I’m not sure an extreme amount of core strength is needed for the banana handstand but why need extra core strength when you can train the straight handstand and use a lot more finesse balance rather than brute strength to be in a handstand?

  • Leann

    Straight handstands came about as an evolution in women’s artistic gymnastics in the late 70’s . The women were starting to incorporate elements in their uneven bar routines taken from the men’s high bar. To achieve giant circles and horizontal twists they needed a straight posture and this began in floor work with handstands. This posture presentation was also vital for pre flight and post flight skills in vaulting. Until this time, handstands and backflips in woman’s gymnastics were performed with an extremely bent back. Refer to Olga Korbut ‘s back flip and hand balances on the beam.
    A straight handstand and a lay out backflip are both gymnastics techniques , as compared to an Acrobatic handstand where the aim should be for as much bend as possible , ie . Bottom touching the head. An Acrobatic backflip the aim should be for the feet to land back on the same spot the hands left from.
    It is extremely frustrating when the technique in Acrobatic skills are being taught incorrectly and for the wrong reasons.

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