If you’re like most CrossFitters, handstand push-ups (HSPUs) intimidated you when you first saw them in a WOD. Perhaps they were even the bane of your existence for a while. But over time, you became proficient in the movement, so much so that now you’re perfectly comfortable seeing them on the whiteboard.
Then CrossFit ratcheted up the intensity, as it often does. Deficit HSPUs are now commonly Rx — and not just in competitions. But have you ever considered exactly how deficit HSPUs differ from standard HSPUs? Yes, the snarky answer is, “They’re harder,” so give yourself a gold star for that one. But there are other differences, and being aware of them can actually help you improve your performance. Because deficit HSPUs require deeper descent, you incur more downward rotation of the scapula, which means that the rhomboid muscles (whose primary task is to move the scapulae) are more actively involved. But beyond musculature, the two primary differences between deficit and standard HSPUs involve where you put your hands and how far you descend into the push-up.
Foundation of Support
When you bang out an HSPU on the ground, you have your full palm and five fingers in contact with the floor. This broad base enables you to effectively maintain your balance. When transitioning to deficit HSPUs via the use of parallettes, it becomes more difficult to balance because your foundation of support shifts from your whole hand to the small area of your lower palm that’s in contact with the parallettes. Furthermore, when doing a floor-based HSPU, the terminal end of your upper extremities is what we might call “closed.” That means, anatomically speaking, that your wrists are functionally, for all intents and purposes, in contact with the ground in a floor-based HSPU. Any wrist wobbling is essentially out of the question — you start in a wrist-extended position and stay there.
However, in deficit HSPUs with parallettes, the terminal end is more open. The position of the palms elevates the wrists enough so wrist flexion and extension (aka wobbling) are possible during the movement. In other words, you can easily fall if you lose stability in your wrists. So if maintaining balance in your deficit HSPUs is your limiting factor, try performing them from plates instead.
Depth of Descent
Clearly, the point of asking athletes to perform deficit HSPUs is to gauge their strength, balance and muscular endurance in the full range of the movement. When you perform a floor-based HSPU, you get stopped at the level of your head. Deficit HSPUs are more intense because they require more muscular work in that full range of motion. And athletes tend to be stronger in the lockout position (from the head up) than in the lower portion of the movement.
Anatomically, there are two issues that impact your success — setup and finish position. To see what we’re talking about, place your arms down at your sides. That’s right, you can’t. When you let your arms hang naturally down next to your torso, your forearms angle out to the sides a bit. This is called the “natural carrying angle of the elbow.” Make note of how far apart your hands are in this position. Then, when setting up for a deficit HSPU, position your hands (and the parallettes) midway between the width of your shoulders and the natural carrying angle of your elbows.
You can check the accuracy of your hand placement with this simple test. Have a fellow athlete or coach videotape your deficit HSPU. Now, from a side view, look at your forearm during the movement. It should remain vertical throughout the full range. If your forearm moves forward, position the parallettes a bit farther apart. If that doesn’t help, you are likely either descending too low or you are too far away from the wall.