The Handstand

Immediately recognizable, the handstand is the point of entry for gymnastics.

Perfect handstand

Start in a half lunge position with your dominant foot forward, front leg bent. Your locked out arms should be extended over your head. In a continuous motion, lower your hands to the ground shoulder-width apart, slightly forward of your front foot; as soon as your hands are on the ground, kick the back foot up and overhead with enough force to carry your body to its inverted, stacked position over your locked out arms and hands. Here’s a video demonstration.

Thoughts on inversions

  • The handstand is the necessary precursor to more advanced moves like the handstand push-up and planche negative (slowly lowering from handstand to planche).
  • Notice how little effort it takes to stand. Your body is “stacked” over your points of contact on the floor: your knees immediately over your feet and ankles, your hips over your knees, and your trunk over hips, etc. Your toes, feet, and ankles make micro-adjustments to keep your balance. Your core is slightly engaged as the body forms a line perpendicular to the floor. This standing is largely effortless. Similarly, holding the handstand in the properly stacked position—shoulders over your hands, trunk over your shoulders, hips and legs over trunk—should require little effort.
  • Handstand training consists of developing the backwards-kick-overhead entry, arriving at the stacked, inverted alignment of the body, and the conditioning, particularly the strength in the arms and the mobility of the shoulders and wrists, to maintain balance.
  • The entry into the handstand—the transition from standing -> to bending lunge -> placing hands on the ground and kicking your body overhead—is a part of the handstand skill. Arriving at the stacked position requires a precise kick the result of muscle memory, itself the result of practice. Don’t let training the entry be an afterthought.

There are three very common stumbling blocks: fear of inversion, shoulder immobility which precludes a proper stacked body, and strength and conditioning deficits in the arms and upper body.

Fear

“When a gymnast is stuck, it’s one of three things: she needs to be smarter, needs to be stronger, or needs to be braver.” - Coach Larry

Inverting is scary. Without proper precaution, you risk head and neck injury. Keep your arms and elbows locked and extended. Practice falling. A safe training environment can mollify the fear, permitting the athlete to practice the skill with proper commitment. A safe environment could include a mat, the area immediately adjacent to your bed (where a fall would mean landing on your mattress), or outside on some grass. Practice exposure therapy: forward rolls simulate the feeling of being upside down. And, of course, the wall: with your back to it, place your hands on the ground and slowly walk your feet up.

Shoulder Mobility

I find shoulder mobility is a significant constraint to a balanced handstand, especially for adults with chronically inflexible joints, shoulder and otherwise, from a lifetime of relative neglect. That means in the inversion, instead of the 180° angle, the athlete has a partially closed shoulder position. This throws what would normally be a simply balanced shape out of alignment. Imagine if instead of standing upright, you closed your hips and threw your butt back. This would require a compensating force to maintain balance, so your chest must come forward. Similarly, a handstand with a closed shoulder necessitates a compensating force: an arched back.

Imperfect handstand

In a handstand with closed shoulders, the body is not stacked in an efficient way. The untrained athlete must compensate, often making large, sudden movements in a search for balance. Without a wall, the athlete will fall. Consider the effortlessness of standing. Besides a slightly engaged core, the only work being done is in the points of contact with the floor—your feet, ankles—making slight adjustments to keep you in balance. The hips are open, the body is stacked in alignment. This principle applies to the inversion. My preferred shoulder mobility exercises include these weighted “shoulder openers” , the back bridge, andthe cat stretch.

Arm, hand, and wrist conditioning

Your feet have undergone a lifetime of keeping you upright. Similarly, your hands, wrists, arms, and core need training to provide you a handstand.

  • Warm up your wrists before each session.
  • Practice holding the handstand against a wall. Set a baseline by going as long as you can, your one-rep maximum. Every other day, to strengthen your shoulders and arms, attempt a handful of sets at 80% of this duration. Measure your baseline regularly—every week or so—and adjust your working set’s duration.
  • The handstand is both a skill as well as a feat of strength. Periodically—I set a 30-minute timer during my workday —kick up to your handstand for just a few seconds. Grease the groove of your mind-body connection. Increase the total time you spend inverted to acquaint and embody yourself in your handstand.

And post your progress. Nothing like social support for encouragement, not to mention the elated feeling when you discover how much you’ve improved (video from the first week of my handstand push-up; six weeks prior to this video I could barely hold a handstand).

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