Handstands aren't just a cool party trick or Instagram-worthy photo op, they're a challenging, full-body workout, too. And anyone who's ever attempted this upside-down move can attest that they require Hulk-like strength, control and balance.
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Even if you're wobbly now, with practice and determination, there's still hope for honing your skills. Here, Joanna Silvers, CPT, RYT, CPI, a Chicago-based certified personal trainer, yoga teacher and Pilates instructor, explains what may be holding you back from holding the perfect handstand, plus tips to help you balance on two hands like an Olympic gymnast.
If You: Can’t Balance for More Than a Second
You Might: Have Incorrect Hand Placement
In a handstand, you have to be perfectly vertical from head to toe in order to stay balanced. And where you place your hands — which provide the sturdy base of the pose — is essential when it comes to achieving proper form. Basically, if you don't position your hands correctly, you're bound to topple over.
Think of your hands like feet, says Silvers. When you scrunch up your toes, your feet become smaller and it's much more challenging to balance. "The more surface space we have to 'stand,' the better potential for balance and stability," she says. In other words, you need to spread your fingers wide and ground down through the heels of your hands to build a strong support for your handstand.
In addition, your hands need to be aligned directly under your shoulders — not too wide and not too narrow. "One of the best ways to begin that practice is by building a better understanding of Downward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana," Silvers says. After all, it's technically an inversion just like handstands.
Downward Facing Dog
- Start on all fours with hands placed a little wider than shoulder-distance apart.
- Tuck your toes under and lift your hips toward the ceiling.
- Keep your knees bent slightly.
- Bend your elbows out to the side (like you're doing a push-up), then rotate them back toward your legs.
- Slowly straighten your arms and your knees, drawing your thighs back and lifting your hips higher.
- Engage your quads and press your heels down.
- Keep your fingers spread wide and your hands in alignment with your shoulders, making sure that you're also pressing up and out of your shoulders.
If You: Collapse to One Side
You Might: Have Weak or Tight Shoulders
Got stiff shoulders? Slumping over a desk all day, which leads to rounded shoulders, isn't doing you any favors. "Shoulder mobility is a large piece of the work necessary to build a handstand practice," says Silvers. "When your muscles are tight, they limit the degree of shoulder flexion, making it difficult to reach your arms overhead."
So if you can't reach your arms straight above your head, you don't stand a chance when it comes to landing this move. Adding shoulder stretches to your daily routine can help increase your mobility and get you one step closer to nailing a handstand.
Shoulder Mobility Exercise
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and your head in line with your spine.
- Hold a belt, scarf or resistance band taut, hands two to three feet apart.
- Create tension in the strap as you inhale and lift your arms overhead.
- Exhale, lowering back down to the front of the hips, creating an arc-shaped movement.
- Repeat 5 to 10 times, moving with your breath.
If You: Rely on Momentum to Kick Up
You Might: Need to Slow Down and Engage More Muscles
"Approaching your handstand with all momentum, and very little strength, will only allow your handstand practice to go so far," Silvers says. That's because you're not teaching your muscles how to activate correctly to stabilize the pose.
Being upside down shifts your equilibrium and makes it challenging to tap into your mind-muscle connection. That's why it's important not to rush things. "Moving slower, with more awareness, allows the muscles to begin to understand what they need to do to hold the bones in a specific shape or posture," Silvers says.
It's not just your upper body, though. Activating your leg muscles is also important. "Being able to control the rotation of the thigh bones inward will be a huge asset in 'hopping' up to handstand and stabilizing once upside-down." To practice engaging your muscles, try this move:
Downward Facing Dog With Leg Lifts
- Come into Downward Facing Dog.
- Lift one leg back and up, keeping your toes pointed down toward the mat (internal rotation).
- Hold for five breaths, then lower and switch sides, repeating on your opposite leg.
If You: Arch Your Back
You Might: Have a Weak Core
Though the upper body gets a lot of attention during handstands, the true star of the show is your core. During a handstand, your abs and other muscles in your torso work hard to keep your body steady, still and straight. So if your core is weak, your body is likely to bend at the middle, causing your back to bow and throwing off your balance.
"Without awareness and strength in the muscles that make up the core, the body has very little stability," Silvers says. That said, activating your core during a handstand is particularly tough. That's because once you lift your arms overhead, your core muscles tend to disengage and push forward, creating a distinguishable arch in the lower back, according to Silvers, who adds that being upside down compounds this curving.
To avoid this "banana handstand" and build core strength, awareness and control, practice the following moves:
Decline Leg Raises
- Lie on your back with both arms down by your sides.
- Stretch both legs up vertically toward the ceiling.
- Pull your ribcage down toward the mat, while scooping your hip bones up toward your navel.
- Exhale as you lower your legs a third of the way down.
- Pause, inhale, then exhale to tw0-thirds of the way down.
- Pause, inhale, then exhale and lower your legs to hover just above the mat.
- Pause, inhale, then exhale, lifting both legs up vertically to the starting position.
- Repeat 5 to 8 times.
Hollow Body Holds
- Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and your legs straightened.
- Tilt your pelvis under, press your lower back into the floor and pull your belly button in.
- Squeeze your abs, quads and glutes, then lift your arms, shoulder blades and legs off the ground. Don't let your lower back arch.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds.
If You: Are Terrified of Toppling Over
You Might: Lack Body Awareness
Being upside down can be a rush (literally, as all the blood in your body drains straight to your head). But this unfamiliar feeling can also throw your senses out of whack and create fear. And when you're afraid to fall, you're more likely to hesitate or give up, which won't take you any closer to achieving your handstand goals.
Why do handstands make you feel so topsy turvy? Well, flipping upside down alters your proprioception (the ability to perceive where your body is in space), Silvers says. In short, it's unfamiliar and out of your body's comfort zone.
Feeling scared about falling is totally normal, but with time, patience and practice, you can overcome your handstand hang-ups by building body awareness, Silvers says. As you become accustomed to how your body feels in a handstand, what was once a strange, foreign sensation will become more status quo.
To build toward that, Silvers recommends doing this series to help you grow at ease with being upside down:
Downward Facing Dog Progression
- Come into Downward Facing Dog.
- Lift one leg back and up, keeping your toes pointed down toward the mat.
- Shift your focus between your thumbs and take little hops off the standing leg, keeping your shoulders in line with your wrists.
- Remember to keep your fingers spread and press into your hands.
- Lower your leg and switch sides, repeating on your opposite side.