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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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