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.
My name is Laura Smith and I am a professional acrobat.