Handstands are a foundational movement. A successful handstand requires a combination of body awareness, stability and strength.
For many people, the most difficult part of a handstand is fear: kicking up short every time, not knowing how to fall out of a handstand, or just being resistant to a new and uncomfortable movement. But the ability to align the body in one of its sturdiest positions can serve an athlete well in pretty much every other aspect of CrossFit. So the handstand is an important movement that should be mastered.
As a former gymnast and diver, I have solid experience in the upside-down world. So today, I’ll offer my top five tips for handstand success.
1. Squeeze your ass and tummy.
This is so underestimated. The biggest mistake in handstands (handstand walking, handstand push-ups and just a free-standing handstand position) is a torso that’s as stable as a wet noodle. You’ll see an archy back, a head way out in front and probably really ugly leg positions.
Most of this can be remedied with a super-powerful ass squeeze and a tight tummy. With a tight enough bum and gut, an athlete’s pelvis will tilt forward just enough to hollow out the hips and get rid of that painful-looking lower-back position. And a tight core will solidify the handstand stability. Handstands begin with the core and finish with the extremities. With that alignment in place, the legs should come together (and with another cue straighten out) and solid foundation has been set to support any further movement.
2. Lock out your arms.
This is not a muscle movement. While it does require some strength, your handstand should rely primarily on skeletal support. Your skill will last longer and look better. Make sure those arms are completely locked out. Like an overhead squat, the catch of a snatch or the completion of a jerk, you’re allowing your locked-out position to support the load. Same thing applies to handstands. Support your bodyweight, but lock those arms out before you even kick up. Use the momentum of your legs to pivot into an upside-down position on top of those sturdy stilts we call arms. And voilà! You can hold a handstand for days or walk for solid distances.
3. Heels ahead.
I like to tell my athletes that whether they are kicking up to a wall or trying to hand-walk, they need to find their “oh-shit” moment. It’s that moment when discomfort and fear make an appearance. That moment when control feels a little lost and you find your feet past vertical. This is the moment when either your heels connect with the wall or (if you’re free standing) you gain some forward momentum. It’s a good place to be. It’s a place of progress. Many people just won’t let those heels ahead, preventing them from achieving an open and balanced handstand position. As long as your heels lead the way (only slightly), you have either kicked up hard enough or have forward movement. This is where you want to be, and this is where you want to stay.
4. Keep a fairly neutral head.
A neutral spine is always the best route to go. So against a wall, a head perfectly in line with the body is great. The gaze should be just as if you were standing up. But that gaze, while walking on your hands, can be a bit tricky. The perfect handstand-walking gaze position is just above the fingertips. Trying to look way ahead to a finish line can really do a number on the neck and back, and can throw off the stability of an athlete’s core. Keep the focus just slightly ahead to keep things in line and keep moving forward.
5. Learn to cartwheel.
Afraid of falling? Just practice your cartwheels in both directions, and when you have it moderately mastered, work on kicking to handstands and gracefully cartwheeling out of them. Most bad experiences with handstands involve landing on a flat back (stealing your breath) or crumbling to the ground in an effort to avoid a flat-back landing. Lead with a single leg. When you lose control, whether forward, backward or sideways, lead the movement with one leg for a safe landing. It might not be pretty every time, but it offers some landing predictability and it sure beats the wind being knocked out of you. Another option is to “tuck and roll,” which simply means tucking your chin and lowering to a somersault. I consider this slightly more advanced and only applicable to falls forward. Now go warm up with some cartwheels and somersaults.
Handstands aren’t just a great way to get a new perspective (upside down). They’re a great way to hone in on your body awareness and transition core strength, balance and stability into lifts and other movements. This is not a skill that is quick to perfect, so spend some time on it, even if that means using your empty walls at home. Once the strength is there, handstands are a no-excuse skill that athletes should tackle mentally and physically to improve their overall game.