Handstand Training: Fun Progressions to Build Stability and Strength

By Karen Smith

Oftentimes, people rush to lift heavy loads — sometimes too-heavy loads! — without thinking about spending time building their stabilizers. It's important to strengthen your joints in static positions before adding heavy loads or a higher volume of ballistic movements for which your joints are not ready.

I prefer to approach my training as a journey to being strong for life, while proving that age is just a number or a mindset.

Treating our strength training as a journey or a practice will keep us safe and making gains well into our older years… whatever “older” means to you!

While there are many ways to strengthen our stabilizers, I personally enjoy using handstand progressions. If you fear the thought of being inverted, don’t worry: there are progressions for all fitness levels. For the purpose of this article, I will cover several handstand progressions; if any of these seem too advanced, remember that you can regress to headstands first.

Headstands are fabulous place to begin your journey to a handstand, as they allow you to get comfortable upside down while building your balance. Headstands might be the end goal for some, while others may want to advance to handstands. No matter the end goal, we need to make sure to build a strong core and strong shoulder stabilizers.

As expressed in my other articles, it is great to begin slowly, with usable progressions, to build a solid foundation of technique before jumping “head first” into the deep end of advanced skills. With this in mind, try each progression and see which is suitable for your current strength level.

Step 1 — Floor Holds: Set-Up a Solid Base of Support

Begin on the floor where you will try to stack your hips over your shoulders in either a pike or straddle leg position. (The straddle set-up will be a bit easier for those with tight hamstrings.) If you are familiar with yoga, think about the downward facing dog position, but then walk your hands and feet closer together for a better stacked position.

Spend time holding this position with locked out elbows to strengthen your wrist and shoulders. Slowly add more weight over the hands, eventually unloading the feet. Don’t rush — this takes time. I promise your wrists and shoulders will thank you!

Once you’ve built up time holding this position, another way to become more stable prior to moving on to Step 2 is to begin doing shoulder taps, to make it even more advanced. This will teach you to shift your bodyweight from side to side in a safe position before loading even more of your weight over your head and shoulders.

Step 2 — Bench Holds: Begin Loading More Weight over the Shoulders

After spending time on floor holds and shoulder taps, it is now time to move up to the bench holds. These allow you to begin loading even more weight onto your hands and stacking your hips on top of your shoulders. There are a few options:

  • Kneeling on the bench
  • Feet on the bench

Both options are demonstrated in the video and each option loads more weight over the hands, making your wrists stronger. After you have spent time on this progression, you can add shoulder taps as we did on the floor, or you can keep one foot on the bench and begin extending one leg straight overhead to get slowly closer to balancing in a full handstand.

Step 3 — Supported Handstand Holds: Begin Holding Full Bodyweight over Hands

Just as in Step 2, there are several options for doing supported handstands. In the video, I show you two that I personally like: the rack-supported being my favorite and the wall-supported as my next choice. If kicking up to either a rack or wall still makes you feel unsettled, you can face the wall and walk up the wall with your feet. The supported handstand will load 100 percent of your bodyweight over your hands, building great strength and stability while decreasing the fear of falling over.

Supported handstands may be the end goal for some, while others may want to eventually do freestanding handstands or handstand walking. If you should choose to continue advancing to either of those, the great thing is that you will have already built great stability and strength from the above progressions. And if you choose to stop at Step 3, you will have strengthened your joints and just might be surprised at how much stronger your pressing, pulling and squatting are when you return to practicing those skills again.

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About the author:  Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person.

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