As a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor, there are a number of workout moves I’ve mastered or improved on over the last few years. But there are still a few things on my fitness bucket list I’ve yet to attempt or conquer. (Yep, you read that correctly—I have a fitness bucket list!)
One of those movements is the ever-elusive handstand. Growing up, I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me do gymnastics, eager to perform the back handsprings, flips and—yes—handstands that other girls and boys my age had already perfected. Alas, my pleas went unanswered. So when I watched Jen Esquer, PT, DPT, creator of The Mobility Method, perform flawless handstands during a photo shoot, I knew I had to ask for her tips to mastering this incredible fitness feat.
24Life: I want to be able to do a handstand—what movements, exercises, stretches, moves should I do (and how often) to work my way up to a full handstand?
Jen Esquer: Specific exercises and stretches depend on the current strength and mobility level of the person. Overall, I recommend improving mobility in the hip flexors, hamstrings, latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major. These are all important for kicking into the handstand and for getting the shoulders effectively overhead.
For general strength tips, I always recommend hollow-body holds or the “banana shape” core exercise, prone Superman holds and pike push-ups or “Downward Dog” push-ups. These are great for strengthening the alignment shape of the handstand as well as the shoulder strength and mobility needed when holding a handstand.
If your mobility and strength is lacking quite a bit, I highly recommend working on stretching daily and strengthening three to four times per week. In general, the more consistent with the exercises and work, the faster you will build the strength necessary for the handstand. I do recommend practicing Crow Pose, headstands from a tripod start on the hands and head, and simple pike holds with the feet elevated on a wall or bench to create a 90-degree shape from the feet to the hands. These static poses should be done at least three to five times a week (or even daily!) to build tolerance and awareness for being upside down.
24Life: What are the major progressions up to a handstand that you recommend I start with and work my way up through?
JE: The major progressions would be learning Crow for finger grip, tripod headstand for body awareness inverted, and progressing the pike position from feet on an elevated surface to feet walking up the wall and getting the chest/belly closer to the wall. Practicing handstands or the pike position with the belly facing the wall is very important to build strength and proper awareness on those hands. I recommend beginning at three to five sets of 10 seconds and progressing all the way to three to five sets of one-minute holds. Eventually, once the hands are able to get closer to the wall, I recommend practicing simple kicks toward the wall where you kick with just one leg in the air (like an “L-shape”) with your back toward the wall. The goal here would be to NOT touch the wall as you kick up. The wall is only there for comfort so you don’t fall over.
24Life: What are the benefits of handstands? Why should we all spend some time upside down?
JE: Personally, the greatest benefit is that it releases endorphins and makes me feel fantastic! This can happen for you, too, when learning new skills. That rush of adrenaline will make you feel great and kick off some endorphins, as well. You build strength in your upper body. I hardly ever lift weights for my upper body, but I get tons of complements due to my dose of daily handstands. It also helps keep those shoulders healthy and active in overhead positions, which we will need for lifting or reaching overhead.
24Life: What are some common misconceptions surrounding handstands?
JE: One of the most common misconceptions is the idea of core strength. Yes, it helps to perform core exercises to understand how to maintain a straight line once learning the balance upside down, but it is not essential to actually holding a handstand. Turning on the core will not be the key to holding a handstand. In fact, it is actually easier to arch the back or do a split to hold for longer. True strength and stability for handstands come from the ability to grip the ground with the fingers and to push from the shoulders in that overhead position.
24Life: What are some commonly overlooked exercises, moves and stretches that are extremely important to achieving a good handstand?
JE: Warming up and gaining full mobility of the wrists is very important when learning handstands. I see many wrist injuries happen during handstand training when a person does not have adequate range of motion for the handstand. A person should have nearly 90 degrees of wrist extension in order to prevent injury with the handstand. I always recommend a two-minute wrist extension stretch, followed by some controlled wrist presses up to the fingertips and back to the palms about 10 times before diving into handstand work.
24Life: I can do a handstand but can’t hold it for long. Any tips for improving?
JE: The best tip is to practice handstands with your chest/belly toward the wall. Walk the hands in as close as you feel comfortable to the wall. Press through the hands and shoulders. Hollow out the body so that only the toes are barely touching the wall. Look between the thumbs so you begin to understand how your body is stacked over you. If you can, practice tapping the toes away from the wall and practice holds.
24Life: How often should I practice handstands or working my way up to a handstand, and about how long will it take for me to progress through the stages of achieving a handstand?
JE: Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how long it will take for someone to obtain a handstand. Each progress will be unique. But it is important to practice getting upside down daily if you truly want to master the handstand. Consistency is key. It takes about three weeks to make a neuromuscular change, so the first bit of progress can be made rather quickly due to the brain increasing awareness inverted. From there, it will be a slower process depending on strength.
Want to learn to do a handstand? Jen Esquer’s six-week handstand program can help you get there! Learn more here.
Photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com