In my post Upside down breathing - why you are gasping like a fish out of water, I covered the mechanics of breathing and why being in an inverted position makes something we do every day all day, without even thinking about it, suddenly quite laborious. Now I am going to add another difficulty into the mix.
When you are doing a handstand your arms are pushing your body up off the floor and doing so requires strong muscles and a properly aligned body. This alignment, combined with the muscular force necessary to maintain this alignment, makes it very difficult to expand the chest outwards and impossible to expand the chest upwards since we are already fully extended with our shoulders up near the ears. Good alignment requires keeping the rib cage closed and I’ll talk more about this in my post The path to the perfect handstand alignment (or as close as you’re going to get) which is coming soon. Sign up for my newsletter so you will never miss a post or the opportunity to join me for a challenge!
In my post, Why handstands are so HARD and what you can do about it,I mentioned breath control being a critical factor if you want to hold a handstand for more than three seconds. This is where we figure out what that means for our handstand practice routine.
How to practice breathing in a handstand?
Get into a handstand with the wall for support. I suggest practicing with your stomach facing the wall because it helps to reinforce proper positioning and alignment. See my post on Proper handstand alignment coming soon to make sure you are on the right track. Did I mention that you can sign up for my newsletter?
Now begin to count your breaths in your head. Try to breath slowly and with minimal body movement. When I examine videos of my torso in a handstand I see my abdomen expanding but I do not see any chest expansion.
How many breaths you start with depends on many factors, so you will need to just for your personal fitness level and handstand level. A complete beginner will probably start with three breaths. After these breaths, come down from your handstand and KEEP BREATHING SLOWLY! The same rules apply as for exercise 2, which I describe in my post Two game changing breathing exercises and which I highly recommend practicing if you are serious about improving your handstand endurance. If you need to gulp for air then you stayed up there too long for the purposes of this exercise. Scale back, give yourself a break and remember, little steps get you there too and you might be able to enjoy the sunshine along the way.
Work up slowly to more and more breaths. You will also be contending with increased muscle fatigue as you learn to hold the position longer and build endurance in the shoulders. You will even probably start shaking at some point. If it is your last attempt for the day, then by all means stay a little longer through the shaking if you can maintain calm breathing. Come down before your arms give out and you end up in a pile on the floor with a sore head. Yes, this has happened to me and I was forced to admit that determination and positive mindset are not always going to be enough. Some things just take time.
I will say that in my career I have performed several partner acrobatic acts where I held handstands while balanced in someone else’s hands. I tended to hold my breath as I got into the handstand position and then forget to start breathing. Eventually I would be able to shift my focus from maintaining my position and remember to breathe. This would probably start with a loud exhale releasing the pressure of my held breath and wanting to quickly reduce the CO2 and get as much oxygen in my lungs as quickly as possible. When I look back on this now I see that I was just asking to get tired more quickly and less efficient for the next trick that was coming up. I knew how to control my breath during the dance and movement that was in between the tricks but not at all while upside down. I would definitely put an emphasis on breath training if I were to start doing this kind of act again. Read Two game changing breathing exercises next to find out how you can get better at breathing in a handstand without doing a handstand!
As more people discover the joys and benefits of being upside down whether while developing a yoga practice or through an aerial silks, trapeze or even pole dancing class, they are eventually confronted with the following question, “how on earth do I breath while holding this completely unnatural position?”
If you haven’t spent much time upside down then the answer might seem quite simple, “the same way you do right side up!”. Of course, you’d be completely wrong and one handstand against a wall for 30 seconds will leave you panting with the rest of us.
We breathe, while right side up, using our diaphragm to pull air into our lungs. Our bellies gently expand as the diaphragm tightens and drops to create space for the air, followed by an expanding of the chest to allow even more air into the lungs if necessary. This creates a vacuum which draws the air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes and rises, the air is pushed out of the lungs and the cycle is ready to begin again. Interfere with that expanding action and you will discover very quickly that you are no longer able to get enough oxygen and must work ever harder to keep up with your need for oxygen.
Have someone sit on your chest for a while and you will tire surprisingly quickly as you fight to pull air into your lungs. Now have them sit on your abdomen - carefully of course. Also don’t choose someone that weighs twice what you do, be reasonable. There is a distinct difference to how you breathe in these two situations which can help you understand the nuances between chest breathing and abdominal breathing.
Through meditation we learn to breathe from the abdomen using the diaphragm as opposed to mostly filling our upper chests with air, often raising our shoulders up towards the ears which leads to short shallow breathing. Deep low abdomen breathing signals the parasympathetic nervous system to relax. Short shallow breathing creates a feeling of tension and even fear which can lead to hyperventilation, but we’ll get to that later.
Stand in front of a mirror with one or two hands on your belly and breathe in. You want to feel your hands being pushed out almost as if a balloon is being blown up, then possibly see your chest expand outwards, but you do not want to see your shoulder rising at all, creeping towards your ears. The only time we want our shoulders up by our ears is in a handstand, the rest of the time we want out shoulders down, with the shoulder blades pulled down and together, expanding the chest.
But lets get back to upside down breathing. When you are in an upside down position you no longer have gravity helping you to drop your diaphragm to make some space for air. On top of that, gravity is actually making it harder to move your diaphragm towards the ceiling (don’t forget we are upside down) and you have to move it farther since just by being upside-down it is being pulled towards your head leaving you with a smaller space for you lungs to begin with. You also have internal organs pressing down now further reducing space and forcing you to push them out of the way when you fill up your lungs. If you have ever been pregnant, you know only too well what I am talking about.
Would you be surprised to learn that humans can’t survive for very long in an inverted position?
To learn more about breathing in a handstand, read Mastering breathing in a handstand, my next post. If you would like to skip right to the breathing exercises then click on Two game changing breathing exercises to head right over there now.
Lets face it, for most normal humans, holding a handstand is incredibly difficult. Understanding what exactly makes handstands so difficult can help us figure out how to properly prepare our bodies for the challenge and finally experience some consistent success.
Not to state the obvious, but when you are in a handstand, your contact with the floor is made through your hands. Aside from the fact that our wrists are nowhere near as strong as our ankles, or are our index fingers as strong as our big toes. Our hands and wrists are also far less accustomed to holding all that weight and making the necessary continuous small adjustments to maintain balance. But the factor that may the least obvious is the fact that our hands are not as long as our feet. This means that even if we were to build up strength in our wrists and hands, they would still be at a mechanical disadvantage compared to our feet; our fingers simply have less leverage than our toes.
To make this concept easier to grasp, imagine your body exactly as it is except for your feet, which have suddenly shrunk to tiny baby sized feet. Can you see how difficult it would suddenly be to stand still without moving your feet around to maintain balance? Now imagine you had gigantic feet, say Chewbacca minus all the hair. Or maybe not, who knows…In any case, maintaining balance would suddenly become extremely easy. Running would suddenly become difficult as you had to lift your legs way higher to clear your monstrous feet and not trip onto your face, something you may actually have experienced trying to run away from a fast approaching crashing wave while wearing diving fins on vacation near a dreamy snorkeling spot.
You can try this out for yourself simply by standing on your toes, which effectively shortens your feet and drastically reduces your foot’s leverage. Not so easy to maintain balance, and that is even though we are using our strong, experienced ankles, feet and toes. Of course, you also raise your center of balance by going onto toe point which changes the game as well, but let us not complicate things unnecessarily.
Now let’s talks about our shoulders. When in a handstand, our shoulder replace our hips. One quick look in the mirror comparing the muscles available to your shoulders compared to the ones belonging to your hip joint and not much more need be said. Our shoulders are also not generally used for long periods of time extended over head, even less so holding weight.
Hold a heavy book in each hand overhead and press the book as high towards the ceiling as you can. Imagine trying to get your shoulders high enough to touch your ears. Now hold this position for 30 seconds. It will become difficult not to let the shoulders sink back down towards the floor. You could probably hold the position for far longer with your shoulders down, the joint itself holding the weight and not the muscles, but this is NOT how to hold a successful handstand. You will need to be pushing those shoulders up towards your ears for the entire time you are upside down. This gets very tiring, very quickly, once you are resisting your entire body weight. Your muscles will eventually get so tired they would really like to let you crash down onto your face. If you are not careful, they will.
The other issue often holding people back from finally holding a handstand is shoulder flexibility. If your shoulders are too tight to be able to align your torso directly over your hands with your shoulders fully open you will be required to have far more shoulder strength. Stand sideways in front of your mirror and raise your hands overhead. Push your hands up to the ceiling and try to touch those ears. Do your arms extend up directly overhead or do they stick out in front of you slightly? A whole lot? If this is you, then the whole time you are upside down you are fighting to keep from folding at the shoulder. To maintain balance you will also have to place your shoulders farther forward over your hands than someone who can maintain extended shoulder alignment. All this is tiring. Even more than it already is!
I would say that these are the most critical factors the render handstands difficult. However there are two more factors that I will mention because they can also make or break your handstand success.
Core strength. Yes, in almost any activity core strength seems to rear its ugly head and contribute to holding efficient positions and protecting our backs from injury. In handstands, the core has to be able to hold the legs, which make up a significant portion of the body’s weight, in a proper aligned position. When the body starts to fall out of balance, the core has to be able to maintain that alignment while the wrists and shoulders struggle to bring everything back over the hands. If the core gives up while the shoulders are trying to do their job and the body position changes, then far larger movements are going to be required to save the handstand which, in turn, require far more strength and open the door even wider for the trick to fail all together. Think Weeble Wobbles without the advantage of a weight near the bottom to prevent it from ever falling over. And yeah, you just figured out what generation I’m from.
So what is that final key factor to your handstand success? Breath control. This aspect is so important that I have dedicated an entire post on breathing and how it is actually and often overlooked reason for handstand failure and quite honestly why doing handstands can feel like climbing Mount Everest. Read Upside down breathing - why you are gasping like a fish out of water and sign up for my newsletter so you won’t miss any upcoming posts. Not many people are talking about this skill, but I believe it can improve your likelihood of holding a handstand for more than 3 seconds. Because honestly, if you just want a 3 second hold, who needs to breathe at all?
However if you are hoping to do longer yoga style handstand holds or are hoop obsessed and dying to add a foot hooping handstand to your repertoire, you are going to want to be able to hold that position for at least 20 seconds, if not more!
I will mention here that I will also be posting about how to get into a hooping handstand for those of us who are not contortionists. Don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter to make sure you do not miss this essential post for us less bendy folk.
Now that we have figured out the aspects that need to be focused on to finally nail that handstand, how do we improve our training to see fast results? I am going too be totally honest here and say, don’t expect fast results. Handstands require commitment and regular practice. It isn’t very exciting and to tell you the truth, I could have been a lot better acrobat if I had had the discipline to practice this skill regularly. I was always drawn over to the trampoline or up into the air to be tossed around and experience that adrenalin rush that acrobats generally crave.
To build up the necessary strength, muscle memory and precision takes a lot of practice. Most professional handstand artists I know practice meticulously for several hours every single day. It is rare for them to ever take even a week off. A week can throw off your precision. If you have ever spent a week in bed, when you do get up to rejoin the world, your first few steps were probably tentative.
Handstands are all about correctly aligning the body and then maintaining that alignment and constantly making very small and immediate corrections to keep the body from straying too far from center. When you are out of practice you do not have the same reflexes to immediately feel the falling out of balance and as a result, you have a lot more work ahead of you to bring everything back into alignment. Lack of practice also means you will probably not properly gauge how much force you need to put into your save. You will most likely try just a little too much and end up falling over the other way. Then you need to immediately stop the fall again and a few more of these wobbly saves will leave you exhausted, your feet on the floor, hopefully not your face. Practice really does make perfect when it comes to handstands.
So how can you develop this skill?
My other posts will delve into these handstand fundamentals and give you the tools to develop a pragmatic handstand practice. Join me in building up to that one minute handstand hold! I hope you’ll send me photos of your progress, and I’ll be sharing my quest for a solid foot hooping handstand with you. Achievement is fueled by dedication and encouragement, so don’t forget to be your own personal cheerleader.
In my career as a professional acrobat I practiced handstands and became pretty good at certain positions. I remember a time when holding a simple handstand was so easy, I just popped up into one wherever I could. Travel photos often included some version of a handstand just to mark my passing. As time passed, I ended up flying through the air and being caught by my hands an awful lot and my shoulder adapted. They became stronger and less flexible. I also sustained some injuries and was definitely guilty of overwork. I ended up with a very permanent case of raging tendonitis in my left shoulder. Yes, that is the medical term. I am obviously to blame for the loss of flexibility as it is possible to gain strength and maintain flexibility and I suppose proper physical therapy would have helped me recover from my injuries more completely.
In any case, proper alignment has become more challenging for me over the years and I eventually stopped practicing handstands all together. I think I went a year without doing one. I couldn’t even entertain the idea. Until I saw a hooper in a handstand with a hoop expertly spinning around her foot. That spark was all it took to get my motivation back, and I am now rebuilding strength and flexibility as I convince my tendonitis to tone it down a notch. Or hopefully two.
But I didn’t wait for all that to happen before I just jumped in a gave it a try. I figured 20 years of experience should hold me in good stead. Needless to say it was a complete failure. I wasn’t surprised that the hoop flew off my foot and across the room narrowly missing the orchid I kept on the kitchen counter. I was shocked at how bad my handstand was. Catastrophic. Aside from the intense pain due to the tendonitis, my lack of flexibility made it much harder than I remembered to maintain alignment, well honestly even get into proper alignment in the first place and I no longer had those well honed balancing skills. I corrected far too late and far too little, or far too much. I was bright red and huffing and puffing after a few attempts. To be brutally honest, I sat down and cried. My daughter ran over thinking I had hurt myself and I had to check myself because I almost I blurted out, “No honey, I just realized I am old!”
Once I managed to put aside my disappointment that I am, in fact, not superhuman along with my guilt about having been lazy coupled with my fear that it was too late and that I would never get it back, I started training. These negative feelings are not gone, but I have managed to put them in perspective and whenever I start to feel too discouraged I throw on some music and dance. Just for me. Read my post, Do you dare move without your hoop? to learn more about letting your body free to tell you its story.
My motto for handstands is, “little steps and lots of fun”, because otherwise it is just not going to happen. This is where the hoop comes in. Trying to keep that plastic circle spinning around my foot while also trying to maintain balance and alignment is far more fun! Of course, I do need to practice handstands without the hoop, and I do so as a warm up, looking forward to the hoop craziness that is soon to follow. I also put away all my potted plants and breakables now!
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my journey with you along with my secrets to solid handstands. Luckily I have a deep understanding of this trick and many years of experience to fall back on, and so I know where to start.
Sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss future posts that are in the works, such as:
Handstand warms ups
How to hold a solid handstand
6 essential foot hooping warmups
Essential foot hooping stretches
Secrets to building handstand core strength
Hooping in a headstand
Proper handstand alignement
My name is Laura Smith and I am a professional acrobat.