As a former gymnast turned Crossfitter and gymnastics coach, one of my favorite skills to discuss is the handstand. Several of the gymnasts and crossfit athletes I work with become frustrated with handstands because they feel like they aren’t making progress no matter how hard they try. Through years of experience, I have found almost all handstand limitations come down to lacking overhead mobility and stability. If you’re struggling to kick your feet up the wall or just wanting to improve your handstand form, follow these steps to get handstand walking in no time.
Step 1: Overhead Mobility
Shoulder mobility: As Dr. Zach Tallie discussed in our last blog post, one of the greatest limitations to overhead mobility is lat tightness. You can assess your lat muscle tightness by sitting with your back against the wall and raising a PVC pipe overhead until your knuckles touch the wall. If you are unable to touch your knuckles to the wall or cannot keep your back flat against the wall, you likely have tightness in your lats or upper back. To stretch these muscles, you can practice the prayer stretch in the picture below. Do this stretch for 30 seconds, 2 times per day for the best results.
Prayer Lat Stretch
Wrist mobility: Handstands require significant wrist mobility in order to properly balance in an inverted position. In order to test your wrist mobility, place your hand behind a stable object such as the leg of a table or couch and move your shoulder forward over your wrist while keeping your entire palm on the floor as shown in the photo below. You should be able to maintain full hand contact with the tip of your fingers 3-4 inches from the base of the object for sufficient mobility. In order to improve wrist mobility, you can perform the wrist mobilization in the photo below, gently rocking back and forth for 30 seconds while placing pressure on at the base of your wrist with the other hand. Do this 2 times per day for optimal improvement.
Close Chain Wrist Extension Test Wrist Extension Self Mobilization
Step 2: Overhead Stability
Shoulder stability: In addition to overhead mobility, it’s important to have shoulder stability in the overhead position in order to balance in a handstand. You can improve overhead shoulder stability by carrying a moderate weight dumbbell or kettlebell overhead while walking as shown below. Do this exercise 30 seconds per side for 2 sets.
Overhead Kettlebell Walk
Upper Back Muscle Strength: General strengthening of the upper and mid back muscles is critical for your ability to hold a handstand. While there are several ways to strengthen these muscles, I recommend exercises with your arms overhead for optimal transfer to your handstand. In the first exercise, you will lift your fully extended arms off the floor while in a child’s pose. This position helps to isolate the mid back and shoulder muscles. You will hold your arms off the floor for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 times. The next progression is a tuck handstand, in which you will perform a handstand with your stomach to the wall and tuck your knees into your chest. Try to hold this position for 15-30 seconds.
Child’s Pose Shoulder Flexion
Finger/ Hand Strength: The final critical component to balancing in a handstand is the ability to push your fingers and palm into the floor similar to how you push your toes into the floor when balancing on one foot. When coaching gymnastics, we refer to the concept of curling your fingers to push into the floor or against the beam as using your “monkey fingers.” You can develop this hand and grip strength by hanging from a bar or weight shifting in different directions while in a push up position.
Try out these exercises and have fun practicing your handstands! If you are experiencing pain or would like to work with a physical therapist to help improve your overhead mobility and handstand walking, reach out to us and we’d love to help you!
Dr. Rachel Trammell PT, DPT, CSCS
Alpine Physical Therapy & Sports Performance