First, I need to apologise to all the folk who read this blog expecting the odd nugget of Photoshop wisdom. This post couldn't be further from Photoshop!
Second, and more important, I need to apologise to my mate Adam, who has been asking me since before Christmas for advice on teaching himself to do a handstand. Adam, I hope this is worth the wait! And who knows ... maybe somebody else out there would like to learn as well - it's never too late!
No challenging physical activity should be attempted without a bit of a warm up. Do a few stretches before each session. It needn't take more than a few minutes, but it's very important.
Handstands are likely to put more strain on your wrists than most other sporting pursuits, so this one is important. Do a few wrist stretches at various angles, particularly like this:
A good handstand requires a modest level of shoulder flexibility, so be sure to find a stretch which will encourage a 180+ degree angle from back to arms:
Plus, some general leg stretching is a good idea, and any particular stretches that you are familiar with from your other sporting experience. You may have specific needs for stretching your back, or your calves, or whatever.
Safety and Risk Management
Handstands are not easy, and they can be damned dangerous if attempted without the proper strength or skill (or while drunk ... but that's another story!)
In this post I'm going to give a broad progression of skills, each of which should be mastered before moving to the next. Please don't expect to learn handstands in a day, if you've never done them before - it may take weeks, or months.
The two biggest risks when attempting handstands are: (a) inadequate midsection strength, resulting in poor back position and potential back pain; and (b) inadequate shoulder strength, resulting in collapse, usually forward. I will be mentioning these two risks frequently throughout this post.
At any sign of pain in wrists, back, etc, please cease the exercise, and manage appropriately.
To have any chance at all of learning handstand, you need to begin with enough strength to hold this position for at least thirty seconds:
You don't need to have quite the hunched back that I had here, but it's critically important to have a "hollow" chest and stomach. Any sagging of the midsection indicates insufficient strength. Make sure your stomach is pulled in hard, and your butt and legs are squeezed tight.
Please don't proceed further unless you can do this.
(By the way, please forgive the headphones in these photos - I was listening to the footy!)
Stage 1 (Basic Shape)
Head position is critically important to a handstand. You must be able to see your hands, or else you have no chance of balancing. But if your head is stuck too far out, it introduces a curved back, and the strong risk of back pain.
So begin by kneeling on a raised surface, and practising the correct head and arm position like this:
As much as possible, the goal is to keep your ears hidden between your arms, and keep your eyes looking at the ground between your hands.
This position forces you to suck your head right in (a bit like a frightened turtle!), and will feel a bit awkward at first. But trust me, it's extremely important. It (a) protects your back from excessive arching, and (b) maintains your spacial awareness, to protect from shoulder collapse.
Once you're comfortable with the kneeling position, challenge yourself by doing it with straightened legs:
You should be able to comfortably hold this position for at least ten seconds before progressing to the next stage. Remember - ears between arms, and eyes looking at hands.
Time to try what we called "bunny hops" at our gym. I'm sure there's a better name than that! Anyway, this is the first time you'll challenge your shoulders to stay stable under the pressure of motion:
Believe me, you might find this a heck of a lot harder than it looks. The ability to be able to leap your butt into the air (even only a small way), and land back with your feet in exactly the same position, while maintaining the correct head position, is not entirely simple.
Please notice that my knees remain quite close to my chest throughout the movement. Do not let your knees move more than a few inches away from your chest - this is an extremely important safety matter.
At the beginning, very small leaps will do. But your goal is to be able to leap your feet up to your butt, and get your hips nice and high, and land with enough control to be able to perform several repetitions without pause.
Also in Stage 2, you need to begin walking up the wall. At this point, an angle of 45 degrees is sufficient. Remember the correct head position (ears hidden, eyes looking at hands), and that safe "hollow" torso that we discussed at the beginning. Any sagging of the back is asking for back pain!
Hold this for at least ten seconds, then walk down safely.
Begin with "Static Half Handstands". These are a more advanced version of the Bunny Hops from before. This time, you begin in a "lunge" position, then leap one leg high in the air each time, while the other one remains low. (Don't attempt to leap both feet up in the air at this stage!)
Again, this is much harder than it looks. You need a lot of shoulder strength to hold the position.
Once again, you can see the important head position while nearing the vertical position - ears between arms, eyes looking at the ground between your hands.
The vital factor here is the silence of your pushing/landing foot. You might laugh at that, and say "Why does Damo care how much noise I make when I'm learning handstand?" Well, if that foot lands heavily and noisily each time, it indicates that you have very little control over the half-handstand that you're performing.
Don't move to the next stage until you can perform at least ten Static Half Handstands with minimal noise.
Also by this stage you should be able to hold a wall handstand at about sixty degrees. Don't forget your correct head position and hollow torso:
Hold this for at least ten seconds, then walk down safely.
Once you have mastered the Static Half Handstands from the previous stage, you can add forward motion to them:
This will challenge your shoulders even more, because that foot must land forward of its takeoff position. Once again, the goal is near-silence ... not only your foot, but also your hands. You need to have enough control through your shoulders and leg to avoid any "slapping" sounds throughout the movement.
Your upper leg should be approaching vertical by now, but don't go crazy - the main goal is still your shoulder strength.
Because we are getting closer and closer to real handstands, it's time to start a bit of balance training. Your fingers, wrists and forearms will need to do a lot of work to balance you once you're up there.
I call this one "froggy", for want of a better name. It's a matter of putting your partially-bent elbows inside your fully-bent knees, then tipping gently forward until your feet come off the ground, and you're balancing on your hands:
What's important here is the finger control. Take a look at this closeup of my balancing act:
Your fingers never stop working. You've probably never thought about it, but your toes do exactly the same thing every minute that you're standing. Try it - just stand still and close your eyes, and feel what your toes do to keep you balanced. Well, your fingers have to be trained to do the same thing.
You should reach a point where you can hold "froggy" for at least ten seconds without any trouble.
Ok, let's get closer to vertical. This time, not only will you walk your feet up the wall to about sixty degrees, you'll also walk your hands in even further, so that you end up at about eighty degrees. Then you have to walk back down safely:
Again, you should be aiming to hold this for at least ten seconds; but make sure you leave enough energy in the tank to come down safely. By this stage, your shoulders should be building up some decent strength.
Time to attempt your first real handstand. Begin standing at least your own body length away from a wall, then raise your arms, step forward and lunge into the handstand. Your hands should be more than the length of your forearm away from the wall. The heel of your upper leg should touch the wall, and you should balance yourself on that one foot, before bringing the other foot to meet it. Hold for a few seconds, then step down:
For heaven's sake keep your shoulders strong and open! The risk of your shoulders collapsing forward cannot be overstated. Do not attempt this skill until you have mastered the half-handstands in Stage 4.
Needless to say, your leading heel should not slam into the wall. Over time, you will develop just the right strength of kick to reach handstand without over-balancing.
At this stage, you need to also develop a cartwheel. It doesn't need to be pretty (mine sure isn't!) but it just needs to be functional:
Why? Well, in the next stage you'll be attempting a genuine handstand, and what happens if you kick too hard and start to over-balance? You certainly don't want to crash flat on your back! So you need to be able to turn your hands and transform your unsafe handstand into a safe cartwheel.
You don't need to be able to do your cartwheel on a straight narrow beam like gymnasts do. Nobody's giving you a score out of ten for this. But you need to be competent and confident enough to do a cartwheel on the spur of the moment.
Don't proceed to the next stage until you can do all of the previous skills confidently.
Once you can do the wall handstand easily, it's time to challenge yourself! Kick up to handstand and gain your balance against the wall, then try to gently pull your legs off the wall (one at a time) and balance:
I've got no real "tricks" for this - it just comes with practice.
As you get more confident with your handstands at the wall (and your cartwheels) you can try it in the open. Remember, if you over-balance, move one hand and turn it into a cartwheel like this:
Don't forget the golden rules - Eyes look at hands, and ears stay between arms! This is not so you look pretty, it's so you don't hurt yourself. You must watch the ground for balance, and you must keep your head in to protect your back from injury.
Eventually, you'll be able to hold a handstand. And you will be the toast of parties!
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Comments or Questions?
If you have anything to add or ask about this article, please visit me at my Ask Damien page.