- July 3, 2017
A few weeks ago one of my students stayed after class and asked me an important question. She was wondering why I talk so much about handstands, and how they relate back to functional movement, because from the outside looking in, handstand seems to be just another advanced trick. She told me that as a 70 year old woman she had never dreamt of working on a handstand, nor did she completely understand the “why” and “how”. The next day she came in I taught an entire all levels class on the hidden benefits of handstand training and how handstands can help us understand our bodies from the inside.
When we look at a handstand we might see one of two things. On the one hand we could be observing a beautiful moment of grace and control, but on the other hand we might see a fancy trick that feels inaccessible and more aesthetically glamorous than functional. Over the last five years I’ve taught many handstand workshops and seminars, and one thing that I continue to stand by, is the idea that it’s not really about the handstand at all.
Handstands when practiced well demonstrate a new level of physical control, strength, power and grace. By practiced well I mean practiced in a a safe and constructive progression, honouring all the systems required to have a positive experience. When we understand what a handstand requires of us, we can build out the right program to help us reach our goals. If we don’t understand what handstand practice requires on all the different levels, we might spend years kicking up at the wall, unsuccessful, discouraged and possibly even injured.
Handstand practice requires significant upper body strength, core integration, wrist strength, endurance, cardiovascular adaptation in the head/neck/shoulders, functional mobility, enhanced body awareness, proprioception and interoception. Its not just about going over to a wall and kicking up a million times, hoping that one day the movement will stick.
Handstands require a lot of shoulder, elbow and wrist strength, the type of strength that might take someone a couple of years to develop. Imagine this for a moment. You walk into a gym for the first time and the teacher tells you to walk over to a barbell and lift your entire body weight, pretty challenging right? Now imagine you were instructed to take that weight over your head. Insert the feeling of instability coupled with fear, anxiety, and probably the feeling that we are not good enough. In strength training, no one would ever tell you to do this on your first try, but in body weight movement we sometimes expect ourselves to be able to just jump ourselves into this movement, without acknowledging the essential preparation.
Upper body strength is obviously very important for handstand practice, the shoulders must be strong enough to carry full bodyweight in the over head range. Strength in the wrists and hands is also incredibly important and often times over looked. The hands are responsible for most of the rebalancing of the pose, and in order to stand on our hands, we have to prepare our hands to act like feet.
Core strength is also a vital component of handstand training, but not in the way that we sometimes think of it. The strength of the abdominals or having a ripped belly has little to do with performing a great handstand. Core strength for inversions lies in the ability to connect and integrate the limbs through the centre of the body, which is more than just practicing crunches and ab-work. Having strong connections between the full-body-core is what will keep the pose streamlined like a garden hose. If the hose has a bunch of leaks, its not as efficient, and for most people the core area can be a big energy leak for handstands. If we focus on just the abdominals, or pulling the belly in, we might not actually address how the legs and arms connect to the core.
Integrated strength in the wrists, shoulders and core are things that most people could use more of, regardless of whether they care about a handstand or not. These are elements that seniors, kids, and even people that are chair-bound can work on for overall well-being. Most of this training can be scaled and practiced sitting down, at a wall or on the floor, meaning it can accommodate different levels of practitioners, and its’ not all completed upside down.
Another part of handstand and inversion training that we sometimes forget is the importance of cardiovascular adaptation and the effects of blood pressure. The cardiovascular system, like the other systems in our bodies adapt based on use. When we go upside down we are creating elevated blood pressure in the shoulders, head, and neck which for some people can be uncomfortable. I’ve seen people leave their inversion practice with black eyes, or feeling wound up like they have been put on another planet. If inverting the body is leaving us uncoordinated, dizzy, seeing stars, or anything else like that its very possible that we must further adapt our capillary network around our head and neck. How do we do this? Try inverting the body for short periods of time, while maintaining calmness. Then try inverting while using the muscles of the shoulders and neck, again for short periods of time until you feel you have enough infrastructure to withstand the elevated blood pressure in the upper body.
The last thing I think is important to point out is the effect of not having enough strength to comfortably execute a handstand. In my experience working with hundreds of students on handstands, when there is a lack of strength, our bodies react in different ways. In these cases we usually see some type of fear or anxiety around the movement, and I think it is important to challenge our fears, but first acknowledge why they might be present. If the upper body isn’t strong enough to carry the weight of the body overhead it will give us some feedback, it will try to stop you. If we push past this in a mind-over-matter way, we don’t address the underlying message our bodies are trying to give us, which is, WE HAVEN’T PREPARED FOR THIS.
When strength matches mobility we end up with a level of control that we can’t get by pushing to our limits, this is where the mindful element comes in. Going upside down requires a different type of coordination, and orientation skills that are only developed with mindful practice. If we push too hard, or a teacher tries to lift us into inversions, we don’t get a chance to develop our orientation skills to the upside down world. To be able to invert and carry out a conversation, breathe, think, take feedback, and make decisions.
At the end of the day, everything required to practice a handstand is completely functional and can be scaled for any type of practitioner. At the end of the day, or more realistically the year, it doesn’t matter if you actually practice a handstand.
At the end of this post, if I didn’t plug my handstand online course my marketing helper would have my head, so I will take this moment link to my online course that outlines everything I’ve talked about in this article. Click here for more on that!