Monday, 7 June 2010

The Handstand

I've been practicing the handstand solidly for a while now and am making slow but steady progress.

The basics of the position are relatively easy to learn but it feels like one of those things that take a lifetime to master.

I found one site particularly useful in building up the basic posture and body positioning. Jim Balhurst's Beast Skills is a site jam packed full of tutorial
s for a variety of bodyweight feats including the One armed pull up, the front lever, the human flag, the true one handed push up and of course the handstand. All tutorials have gradual progressions to build towards your goal and are illustrated with colour photographs.

While I've been learning, I've also tried my hand at teaching a few others how to handstand. It is through this and my own practice that I've put together some fundamental points in holding a handstand. Note: Many of these are already mentioned in the sites above but as they are extremely common mistakes I feel it's worth stressing the point.

Tips to an improved handstand

Use a shoulder Width hand placement: One of the things I've noticed is that people -especially men with built shoulders due to the reduced flexibility- seem to like to place their hands quite wide apart from each other. Before I started practicing them regularly, this is how I was doing it too.

The first time that I placed my hands at the relatively narrow shoulder width, I was shocked at how much easier holding the handstand felt. I believe the reason for this is that your centre of gravity follows a much straighter line with the hands tucked in by the ears. Widen your hand placement too far and you'll find holding the handstand significantly harder. The problem is that a wider grip feels more natural to most people. If your shoulder flexibility is limiting you, try Shoulder dislocates which will improve your ability to hold a handstand with a shoulder width hand placement.


2) Good posture is paramount: There's more value in a five second handstand with good posture than a ten second handstand maintained by walking on your hands, bending elbows and piking hips. Focus always on attaining balance, not greater time spent on your hands.

  • Open out your shoulders - Push the ground away from you and pull your shoulders right back behind your ears.
  • Keep your elbows locked straight - You can rescue a failing handstand by bending your elbows but this can easily become a bad habit and will only impede your progress.
  • The head must remain neutral - remain looking at hands rather than in front of you as this may cause your back to arch.
  • Keep your core and lower back tensed - Some conditioning for each may be required if you're constantly bending at this point which is common.
  • Tuck your hips - I never understood what people meant when they said this. The best way to explain it is to tense your glutes as tightly as possible. I also imagine that I'm pushing the sky away from me with my legs. This keeps your hips in line with your back.
  • Legs must stay together - Accomplished hand balancers can split their legs and maintain balance but as a beginner, it will only make it harder to hold.
  • Point your toes - I always forget this. I feel like it helps me maintain a straight body position when I do it though.
  • Walking is cheating - If you're trying to hold a static handstand but you're walking on your hands to balance, you're failing. I trained myself out of this one by handstanding on a low wall. On a wall, the last thing your mind will let you do is walk.   
WARNING: Make sure your pirouette from handstand is good and that you're confident doing it from an elevated platform before trying the wall handstand. For gods sake, don't try to forward roll out of a handstand on a wall... I'm told it hurts.

Time spent working on good posture is an investment and will yield far greater returns.

3) Practice on different surfaces: Until just recently, I had worked exclusively on hard floors like concrete, wood and even my tiled kitchen floor. It made me feel pretty good when people commented on how good my "head" must be to handstand on hard surfaces and so I continued doing so, blissfully ignorant of my developing over-specialisation.

However; every time I ended up hand balancing in a park on some grass, my handstands failed after a fraction of the time whilst those who feared concrete would outshine me. Each time I told myself that it was just a bad session and would subconsciously avoid uneven surfaces like grass as much as possible. I've finally started practicing on grass and hills etc. and have made enormous improvements. The only way to master the handstand is to develop proficiency in a variety of situations.

Hard surfaces help with posture and quickly teach you how to pirouette, uneven surfaces give you a greater versatility of balance and a better understanding of the handstand. You may also find that harder surfaces are more responsive to adjustments made through the fingers as they don't yield like softer surfaces do.

Practice everywhere!

4) Video yourself: Record yourself balancing as often as possible. Not only will you be able to monitor your progress, you'll be able to better analyse why your handstands are failing and how best to improve them. 

In fact; if you send me a link to a video of yourself in a handstand, I'd be happy to give you my opinion.

5) Feel it: No this one isn't a space filler. The most important method of improvement for me -greater even than a video- has been a gradual improvement in my physical understanding of what makes a handstand work. Knowing why your handstand failed by actually feeling it will help you better apply the correct technique in future. Try to literally feel each part of your body while you're inverted and build up a mental map of the relative positions of each component during your successful attempts. Spend some time focused on specific body areas and actions (like pointing the toes) and remember how it felt so that you can bring it all together later.

This takes time but will eventually teach you to rescue a failing handstand by altering your body position.

Finally, never let yourself believe that your handstand is perfect, there are always ways in which you can improve it. As soon as you let yourself believe that you have mastered something, you close yourself off to further learning.

On that note, if you can offer any recommendations on how I could improve my own handstand -see video- I would gladly hear them!


  1. AnonymousJune 08, 2010

    Again, so well written. Clear, concise and well set out. Ever thought of going professional as a sports manual writer?

  2. Thanks, I'm looking to move into teaching these skills eventually (Possibly at the Christchurch school of Gymnastics, New Zealand in August) but hadn't considered writing as a career before.

    If someone approached me offering a position for such a role then I would certainly be interested. Are you a head hunter anon?

  3. Nice work, Rich. A few years ago I took part in a half hour handstand tutorial in Finland (attending 'Supreme Parkour Armageddon'...) run by a guy who was a solid gymnast and Finland's best capoeirista. Bits that I (sketchily) remember:

    - instead of standing in front of a wall, planting your hands and kicking your feet up, face away from the wall, put your hands down and walk back up the wall, so that you are facing it in handstand position. This allows you to engage all the muscles required without having to worry about balance - tucking the hips, tensing the back/abs/etc, and pushing your shoulders towards your ears - much better than if you were the other way around. Always useful if can get someone to spot you for your posture.

    - practise straightness through headstands.

    Feeling inspired to start practising my handstands again. Cheers fella. :)

  4. Thanks Kiell. I agree with the front facing wall approach. It helps strengthen the forearms for balancing and stretches the shoulders open while maintaining a better shape than the back facing in wall handstand. Gradually moving the hands closer to the wall as you say achieves a better position and reduces reliance on the wall. I've recently found that even though my hanstands are improving free standing; endurance sessions against the wall help increase the amount of time I can open my shoulders for and thus hold a correct handstand. More on these soon.

  5. You've got a solid handstand and your approach is obviously working well. One tip I'd add to the tips you have here is to focus on the fingers and the toes, for different reasons, in doing the balancing.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. Are you on Twitter? John.