Handstands – Tips and exercises to help you start your training
It seems that handstand training is one of the latest fitness crazes. No longer just the domain of gymnasts and circus performers, conquering the handstand, and more advanced skills such as the handstand press, have also become popular with cross-fitters, movement practitioners, pole dancers and gym-goers.
Handstands require a high level of mobility, balance, shoulder and core strength to achieve, they are an amazing exercise and can be quite addictive, so it is no wonder that everyone wants to be able to do them. However, an unfortunate downside of starting handstand training as an adult can be acute or chronic injury with common injuries including:
- Wrist ligament sprains and carpal instabilities
- Wrist tendinopathies
- Shoulder impingement and bursitis
- Neck and arm pain
If you start to experience pain during or after handstand training it is important to get a Physiotherapy assessment as soon as possible as this will diagnose the source of the pain and identify contributing factors. Early assessment and treatment can stop the progression of injuries and can prevent them from turning into a chronic problem that is more difficult to resolve.
As a Physiotherapist with a special interest in treating the injuries of circus performers, pole dancers and gymnasts, I have seen a large increase in the number of injuries from adults starting handstand training for the first time which has led me to this blog post: how can adults start handstand training more safely?
When it comes to injury, prevention is better than cure, so here are some tips and exercises to help you start your handstand training and avoid injury:
**Always check pre-existing injuries and medical conditions with your GP or Physiotherapist before starting a new training program**
What you should do:
(1) Get an expert coach – Handstands require specific and progressive mobility, strength and balance exercises to achieve the correct technique. It’s not a good idea to start your handstand training by practicing handstands leaning against a wall or pole as this encourages incorrect positioning. A qualified gymnastics or circus coach will be able to guide you through exercise progressions that are suitable for your level. Keep in mind that it is more beneficial to do a basic exercise with perfect technique than a difficult exercise incorrectly.
(2) Check your line – When training basic handstands it is important to aim for a “straight line” posture with the arms positioned in line with the ears and the ribs tucked in. This is the posture where there is minimal muscular effort required and the joints are being loaded in an optimal position (particularly the wrist joints). Achieving this posture requires good mobility in the shoulders and thoracic spine as well as flexibility of muscles such as Latissimus Dorsi and Pectoralis Major and Minor. Working on mobility and stability (see next point) are good starting points for anyone who is new to handstand training, as practicing a handstand in an incorrect position can lead to injuries and delay progress with the skill. Here are two exercises to help you with mobility for handstands:
Thoracic mobilization on foam roller: Starting with the foam roller positioned below your shoulder blades, tilt your pelvis backwards to help isolate your thoracic spine (upper back) and then gently arch back over the roller. Do 5-10 arches and then repeat the exercise moving the roller up your spine in 2cm increments.
Latissimus Dorsi Stretch: Bend your arms and put your elbows on the edge of a table or box, push your chest down towards the floor and then try to bring the forearms together. Hold the stretch for 20 – 30 seconds and repeat 3 times.
(3) Work on stability and endurance
Handstands require a high level of endurance and control in end of range shoulder positions, so it is important to include exercises in your program that work on strengthening shoulder stabilizing muscles in overhead and handstand specific positions. Muscles that are important to strengthen include the rotator cuff muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint as well as scapula rotators and stabilisers such as trapezius (upper and lower) and serratus anterior. Wrist flexor and extensor strengthening exercises should also be included as these muscles help to stabilize the wrist and they also help to balance handstands. When starting handstand training, it is important to build shoulder stability and endurance in a push up position (known as ‘front support’) before gradually progressing exercises into an overhead position as progressing exercises too quickly can lead to an incorrect technique. Here are some examples of some great stability exercises that are beneficial for handstands:
Scapula Movements on Wall– Tie a theraband in a loop and position above the elbows. Bring forearms onto the wall (slightly pushing outwards on the theraband) and go into a front support position with the chin slightly tucked in, the ribs in, the spine neutral and the hips straight.
Part 1: Maintaining this posture, start by shrugging your shoulder blades up to your ears and then smoothly lowering them. Repeat 10-15 times keeping the movement symmetrical and controlled.
Part 2: Set your shoulder blades slightly down and then isolate bringing your shoulder blades together (sag chest towards wall) before pushing your shoulder blades apart (push chest through shoulders). Repeat 10-15 times keeping the movement slow and controlled.
Repeat the whole exercise (part 1 and 2) for 3 sets to help build endurance of the scapula stabilisers and rotator cuff.
(4) Build your body awareness – To be able to hold and balance a handstand you need to develop your body awareness of the correct handstand position and this involves being able to find the correct position as well as being able to move into and out of the position in different directions. There are many exercises you can do to start this training in a non-weight bearing or semi-weight bearing position and these exercises allow you to develop your body awareness and control without putting a lot of pressure through your joints. When practicing these exercises it is important to come out of the exercise when you reach “form fatigue” or if you experience discomfort or pain. Initially, it is best to only practice your full handstand with a coach as they can give you feedback about your position and technique. Here is an exercise to help you build awareness of your handstand position and endurance within this position:
Pike Handstand with Fit ball: Starting with the fit ball on your shins, walk your hands forward into a front support position (image 1). Keeping your elbows straight, push your shoulders down towards your hips and pull the fit ball towards your hands using your feet. Allow your hips to come up until they are positioned above your shoulders and you are in a pike handstand position (image 2). Keeping your arms next to your ears, draw your ribs in and push your shoulder blades up (feel like you are trying to squash your ears with your arms). Look at your hands out of the top of your eyes without allowing your neck to arch back. Hold this position for 30 seconds or until you reach “form fatigue” which is when you start to lose the correct posture. Repeat exercise 3-5 times to help build body awareness for the top half of a handstand.
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