What is a Handstand
The handstand is a calisthenics static hold where you will be balancing on your hands whilst being upside down. Your body is held straight with both arms and legs fully extended. This awesome skill will not only make you look cool and feel cool but, will also develop strong upper body strength, body control, and balance. It will also unlock more imposing exercises and advanced skills such as the handstand push up, 90-degree handstand push up, and, one arm handstand.
This skill requires three components:
Upperbody Strength – To be able to hold your entire body weight and stabilize yourself whilst being upside down on your arms. You will need strong shoulders strength!
Flexibility – Mobilized wrists will create a pain-free handstand on the wrist joints, and mobilized shoulders will create a sufficient range of motion to achieve a good straight alignment.
Balance – To have body awareness (tension and range of motion), proprioception, and engagement (ability to control different aspects of the body and body parts).
What Muscles do Handstands Work
Balancing upside down forces you to stabilize your muscles, you will continually engage your core, along with other key muscle groups in your body, to coordinate as a single unit. The primary muscles worked are the abdominals, anterior deltoids, posterior deltoids, and trapezius. The secondary muscles worked are the wrist extensors, forearms, triceps, quadriceps, and glutes.
What Level is the Handstand
The handstand is an intermediate-level skill because you will need sufficient upper body strength to support your weight and hold the position while being on your hands. Your legs need to be pretty solid to kick your body weight up into the handstand position. The flexibility in your wrists and shoulders must be mobile to create a good alignment and a pain-free handstand.
But don’t worry! Handstands are very fun the practice and it becomes addictive once you get the hang of it. This article will cover the best exercises and progressions so you can have a joyous hand-balancing journey.
The requirements for a handstand are:
- 10 pike push-ups
- 10 push-ups
- 60 seconds plank
Before you begin your handstand training, you must ensure that you are fully warmed up especially on your wrists and the upperbody. This will improve mobility in your wrists whilst reducing pain around your wrist joints, and lower the risk of injury. It is highly recommended that you practice the following wrist warm-ups:
- Wrist rotations – claps your hands together at the center of your chest. Roll your wrists forward for 20 reps, followed by rolling your wrists towards your chest for 20 reps.
- Wrist extension stretch – begin on all fours with your palms flat on the ground facing forward. Gently rock forward 10 times, followed by holding the forward-leaning position for 20 seconds.
- Wrist circles – hold the all-fours position where your shoulders are stacked on top of your wrists. Make a circular motion by rolling clockwise for 10 reps, followed by rotating anticlockwise for 10 reps.
- Side-to-sides – place your palms on the floor with fingers facing opposite each other, you will rock side to side 10 times
- Finger presses – place your palms on the floor with fingers facing forward. Press your fingers into the ground to lift the palms of your hands. Do this for 10 reps
- Backward leans – place your palms onto the floor with fingers facing towards your knees. Gently rock back and forth 10 times, followed by holding at the backward-leaning position for 20 seconds
- Wrist flexion stretch – place the back of your hands on the ground with fingers facing towards your knees. Gently rock back and forth 10 times, followed by holding at the backward lean position for 20 seconds
Once you have completed the wrists warm-up, you should move on to mobilizing your shoulders to create openness as this will improve your body alignment for when you are upside down. Do the following:
- Elevated platform stretch – place your hands on an elevated platform such as a plyometric box or a chair. Keep your arms straight whilst your knees are on the ground. Push your chest downward and hold this for 20 seconds.
- Shoulder pole stretch – stand tall whilst holding a broomstick or resistance bands wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your core tight and arm straight as you lift the stick above your head in an arc motion. Slowly move the stick behind you and down as far as you can. Return to the starting position and repeat for 8 reps.
Handstand Strength Development
The initial step to mastering the handstand is the building of your upperbody strength to meet the requirements for the handstand. You will need to develop your shoulders and core strength as well as endurance. The exercises that you should practice are:
This exercise is great for targeting your front and rear deltoids as your body will be in a pike position. This puts more load on your shoulders along with recruiting your core muscles, therefore, developing strength for the handstand hold. Your aim is to be able to do 10 pike push-ups, and you can learn more about the pike push by reading our pike push-ups guide. To perform this you will:
- Begin in a push-up position, with your hands shoulder-width apart and shoulders stacked on top of your wrists.
- Walk your feet towards your hands to form an inverted V-shape with your torso and legs. Your head is in between your arms. Keep your arms and legs straight. This is your starting position.
- Inhale as you gradually lower down by bending the elbows, keeping them tucked in towards your torso. Touch your forehead gently to the ground in between your hands. Keep your core tight.
- Exhale as you push overhead and return to the starting position. Push through your shoulders to fully elevate the shoulders.
- Repeat this movement between 2-10 reps for 4 sets.
The push-up will develop your upper body strength especially your straight arm strength. Moreover, it will condition your muscles such as the anterior deltoids, triceps, and core, which is essential for supporting your body weight whilst being on your hands. Your aim is to be able to do 10 push-ups with good form comfortably. To learn more about improving your pushing strength, read our guide to push-ups. To perform this, you will:
- Begin in a push-up position where your arms are shoulder-width apart, and your shoulders are stacked directly on top of your wrists. Engage your glutes and core to ensure your body is in a straight line. This is your starting position.
- Inhale as you lower your body down by bending the elbows. Keep lowering until your triceps are parallel to the ground. Keep your core tight.
- Exhale as you push back up and return to the starting position. Keep in mind to lock your arms out at the top push-up position to increase the range of motion and time under tension on your muscles.
- Repeat this movement between 5-20 reps for 4 sets.
The plank is a good indicator of your core stability. A strong core is vital for hand balancing as it provides firmness along with organizing your trunk position. It will help to control the tilt of your pelvis, rib cage, along with your torso and limbs. Your goal is to be able to do a 60 seconds plank. You can learn more about developing your core strength by reading our guide to planks. To perform this, you will:
- Begin on in a low plank position where your forearms are on the ground, with your shoulders being stacked directly on top of your elbows. Your hands are in line with your elbows, and your legs are together.
- Engage your glutes and core to ensure that your body is rigid and in a straight line.
- Hold this position between 10-60 seconds for 4 sets.
Drills for Handstands
To achieve any skills in calisthenics, you must go through its progressions to condition your body, develop your muscles and get them used to the movement paths that are required in that particular skill. These progressions will enable you to track your progress of where you are currently at and what will be the next progression – it is always good to know what the next steps are, and this article will cover it!
You should practice handstands for a minimum of 20 minutes per session, between 4-6 sessions per week. Moreover, do this at the beginning of every session rather than at the end to avoid fatigue. The more you practice, the better because of trial and error. With enough failure, you will eventually be able to find the balance point and hold the handstand!
This is the very first exercise that you must master as it puts emphasis on the anterior deltoids, and you will get a feel of what partially loading your body weight onto your shoulders feels like. Your aim is to be able to hold this position for 15 seconds for 3 sets before moving on to the next progression. To perform this you will:
- Get into a push-up position where your arms are shoulders width apart and your shoulders are stacked on top of your wrists.
- Walk your wrists forward towards your hands whilst keeping your arms straight. Your torso and legs should form an inverted V-shape. Keep your core tight and push through your shoulders.
- Hold this position between 10-20 seconds for 5 sets.
Feet Elevated Pike Hold
This is a progression from the pike hold as you will place your feet on an elevated surface. This will put more load on your shoulders and core. Your aim is to be able to hold this position for 20 seconds for 3 sets before moving on to the next progression. To perform this, you will:
- Get into a decline push-up position by placing your feet on an elevated and your hands on the floor shoulder-width apart. Engage your glutes and core.
- Gradually walk your hands back towards your feet whilst keeping your legs straight. Walk back until your hips are directly on top of your shoulders. Keep your core tight, and push through your shoulders. Focus your eyes on one spot in between your palms.
- Hold this position between 10-20 seconds for 5 sets
Once you arrive at this stage, this is where the real fun begins as you will be fully upside down with the majority of your body weight being placed upon your shoulders. This will further develop the strength and endurance in your upper body muscle and is a phase where you will begin to learn the art of hand balancing.
There are two variations within the wall handstand: the chest-to-wall (C2W) and the back-to-wall handstand (B2W). You should practice these two variations together to fast-track your progress towards your goal. You will initially work on the C2W handstand first, before attempting the B2W to build solid straight arm strength and endurance in your shoulders. Once you can do the C2W hold for 10 seconds for 3 sets, you can then attempt B2W handstands.
It is highly recommended that you practice both the C2W and the B2W hold together in a single session for at least 20 minutes at the start of your sessions. You can put more emphasis on one variation and alternate. For example, you could do 15 minutes of a C2W handstand drill, followed by 5 minutes of the B2W handstand drill. Moreover, you should practice the 3 handstand strength development exercises to condition your muscles.
Hand placement is a vital key to balancing yourself whilst being upside down. Note that if you are new to handstand, you may encounter wrist pain, which is normally caused by a lack of wrist mobility. This is normal and with consistent practice and wrist mobility work, the pain will gradually fade. However, if the pain is unbearable, you can try using the parallettes and alleviate the pain in your wrists.
You can purchase a set of parallettes directly from Amazon, along with other highly recommended pieces of calisthenics equipment by clicking on this link. You should do the following to your hands:
- Hands approximately at shoulder-width apar
- Fingers speeded out as far as possible to increase grip surface area
- Pull back through the pads of your fingertips, so that your middle knuckle on index and middle fingers begin to lift. Press the fingertips into the ground
- Push the palms into the ground (imagine you are squeezing a ball)
Chest-To-Wall Hold (C2W)
The chest-to-wall handstand will put more load on your shoulders as you will be upside down on your hands. This will promote shoulders strength and correct body alignment. There are 4 progressions from the chest-to-wall handstand variation alone, and your goal is to be able to hold 15 seconds C2W hold for 4 sets before moving onto the next progression. To perform this you will:
- Get into a push-up position with your feet against the wall. Your hands are shoulder-width apart, with your shoulders stacked on top of your wrists. Engage your core.
- Step one foot onto the wall, followed by the other, and gradually walk your hands and feet back towards the wall, whilst maintaining a straight line with your body. Walk your feet back on the wall as high as you can. Initially, you may not be able to walk as far back, but over time you will be able to as your upper body strength would have developed.
- Hold this position between 5-20 seconds for 8 sets.
Chest-To-Wall One Leg Hold
Once you can achieve the C2W target hold, you can move on to this progression. To do this, you will simply get into a C2W handstand position, followed by bringing one leg away from the wall until it is in line with your torso, whilst keeping the other leg on the wall for support. Hold this position between 10-20 seconds per leg for 10 sets. Practice on one leg in a single set. Your aim is to be able to hold 20 seconds on each leg for 4 sets.
Chest-To-Wall Alternating Legs
This progression will have you alternate bringing one leg away from the wall whilst keeping the other on the wall, and switch between each leg to create a switching leg tempo. Push through with your shoulders, engage your glutes and core to ensure your body is in a straight line. Perform this between 8-20 switches per set for 8 sets. Your aim is to be able to do 18 switches for 4 sets before moving on to the next progression.
Chest-To-Wall Leg Pull
The C2W leg pull will require you to keep your feet and legs together and gently pull your feet away from the wall until your feet are in line with your torso. You will do this by gently pressing into your palms and lightly push your feet away from the wall, counterbalance by pressing with your fingers to shift your feet back to the wall. Perform this between 10-20 pulses for 8 sets. Your aim is to be able to do 18 pulses for 4 sets before moving on to the next progression.
Chest-To-Wall Leg Pull Hold
In this progression, you will get into a C2W position and perform a leg pull where you bring your feet away from the wall, and you will try to hold a freestanding handstand. Keep your glutes, core engaged to ensure good alignment, and press into your fingers or pressing with the palms to find balance. Aim to hold between 2-15 seconds for 8 sets. Once you can hold 5 seconds consistently, you can then move on to the freestanding handstand attempts.
Back-To-Wall Handstand (B2W)
Handstand Kick Ups
You move on to this progression once you can do C2W hold for 10 seconds for 3 sets. This is progression is where a lot of people struggle with and it mainly comes down to two factors: fear factor and/or lack of strength in shoulders and legs. To overcome this fear, all you have to know is that the wall is there to catch you, not to hurt you! If you are at this phase, you will have enough upperbody strength to support your body weight, therefore, have a little faith in yourself! To do this you will:
- Begin in a push-up position with your hands about 5 inches away from the wall. Your shoulders are stacked directly on top of your wrists (very important!). Bring your non-dominant leg towards your chest to create a runner position. This is the leg that will kick your body off the ground. Your dominant leg will remain straight. Concentrate your sight on a single spot in between your hands.
- Keeping your arms locked out and shoulders stacked on top of your wrists, you will bend the non-dominant leg and explosively kick up to bring your hips upwards towards the wall. You will whip the dominant leg towards the wall as you kick to assist with bringing your hips up. Do not bend your arms.
- Tap your dominant leg onto the wall to get used to the movement and gain confidence. Repeat this for 2-5 reps for 5 sets. Remember that the wall is there to catch you, not hurt you!
Once you are comfortable with the handstand kick-ups, you can hold the B2W handstand hold between 10-20 seconds for 8 sets. Your back may arch because your feet are on the wall, try to straighten your body alignment by engaging your core and squeezing your glutes to push your hips forward. Your aim is to be able to hold 15 seconds B2W hold for 4 sets before moving on to the next progression.
Back-To-Wall One Leg Hold
This progression is the same as C2W one leg hold but this time you will get into an assisted handstand with your back facing against the wall. You will get into the B2W hold position, followed by bringing one leg away from the wall, whilst keeping the other leg on the wall for support. Hold this position between 10-20 seconds per leg for 10 sets. Practice on one leg in a single set. Your aim is to be able to hold 20 seconds on each leg for 4 sets.
Back-To-Wall Alternating Legs
The B2W alternating legs will have you switch between bringing one leg away from the wall whilst keeping the other on the wall, and alternate this movement between both legs to create an alternating tempo. Focus on body alignment by pushing through the shoulders and keeping your core and glutes engaged. Perform this between 8-20 switches per set for 8 sets. Your aim is to be able to do 18 switches for 4 sets before moving on to the next progression.
Back-To-Wall Leg Pull
The progression will require you to get into the B2W position, keep your legs and feet together, and gently pull your feet away from the wall until your feet are in line with your torso. You will press into your fingers and lightly push your heels away from the wall, and counterbalance by pressing the palms of your hands to shift your feet back to the wall. Perform this between 10-20 pulses for 8 sets. Your aim is to be able to do 18 pulses for 4 sets before moving on to the next progression.
Back-To-Wall Leg Pull Hold
Finally, you are at a phase where you can try to balance on your hands with limited involvement of the wall. You will get into a B2W position and perform a leg pull where you bring your feet away from the wall, and you will try to hold a freestanding handstand. Aim to hold between 2-15 seconds for 8 sets. Once you can hold 5 seconds consistently, you can then move on to freestanding handstand attempts.
How To Handstand
Once you are comfortable with both the last progression of the C2W and B2W handstand, you can progress on to doing a freestanding handstand. At this stage, you should be able to consistently do 5-10 seconds of the C2W and B2W leg pull hold. Now it’s time to test the waters and do it without the wall, and it will be just a matter of trial and error until you find the equilibrium of your balance point.
First, you will need to know how to dismount from the freestanding handstand. A dismount is important as it will ensure that you are able to exit safely from a handstand. Once you can do this, then you are able to do a handstand virtually anywhere! To do a dismount, you will:
- Jump into a freestanding handstand, keeping your legs together
- Dismount by twisting your torso forward 180 degrees to the side of your dominant leg. And bend the legs to cushion the fall
At this point, you will practice freestanding handstand using the dismount to safely exit the handstand. Now, it is a matter of trial and error and finding your equilibrium for the balance point. Remember to press your fingertips down and pull the hips back towards the ground if you are falling forward, and press into the palms of your feet, and pull the hips forward if you are falling backward.
Improve Upperbody Strength
To be able to hold your body in an upside-down position for a period of time will put a lot of pressure on your shoulders, arms, upper back, and core. You will have to condition your muscles through a variety of exercises and hand balancing drills in order to develop endurance and strength in the working muscles.
The handstand will increase your proprioception (the perception or awareness of the body’s movement in space). This will take your body awareness to a whole new level! Your proprioceptors will be able to react to more sudden changes in your body position, therefore, improving your body’s ability to naturally balance and your spatial awareness.
Look Cool and Fun to Practice
Handstand is an impressive skill and being able to hold it will display significant upper body strength and body control. This will most likely look aesthetically pleasing to the eyes of yourself and to others that would be witnessing this awesome skill – It is not every day that you see someone holding a handstand! Moreover, the journey to unlocking the handstand will be fun and a rewarding experience.
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I’m Pat Chadwick, a qualified Level 2 and Level 3 calisthenics coach and athlete from London, England, with six years of experience. I’ve competed in various UK competitions, including the Kalos Stenos Championships, where I achieved third place in the lightweight category. My passion is highlighting the beauty of calisthenics as an authentic and pure form of body expression. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a champion of their body and mind, and that calisthenics opens the door to personal empowerment.