Let’s Handstand: Drills and Tips for Better Handstands

Last week I mentioned that I am FINALLY able to do my handstand after working on it for literally most of my life. I also mentioned that it has really only been in the last several months that I’ve made any progress. It’s  honestly all down to the amazing tips I’ve picked up here and there from some other amazing teachers. I thought I’d do a few posts consolidating the tips and drills that worked for me in order to help out those who are still working towards this challenging pose. If handstand is your goal, read on and start incorporating these tips into your practice to build a solid foundation for your handstand. Let’s get to it!

Warm It Up!

No matter where you are on your handstand journey, it’s essential to take the time to warm up. Whether you are just starting out or have been doing handstands for years, it’s never a good idea to just start kicking up without an appropriate warmup. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcom, don’t be so preoccupied with whether or not you could to not stop and think whether or not you should. (Yeah, I’m a dork. I know.)

Handstand Wrist Warmups

The first thing I like to do before starting any handstand drills or practices is to warm up my wrists. First I make a fist and gently roll my wrists in circles, first clockwise and then counterclockwise. This starts to get the blood flowing and to gently loosen up the area.

The next thing I do is some simple stretching. Keeping my hand flat, I gently push on the top of one hand with the other, bending my wrist so that my palm is facing down towards my forearm. Then I reverse and push on the palm to move the top of the hand back towards the top of my forearm. Finally, I stretch my thumbs by pulling them gently towards my wrists. The key word you’ll notice in all of this is “gentle”. Do not try to force any of these stretches. If you can’t get your thumb to your wrist, that’s fine. I can’t either. Just stay within a range of motion that gives you a little stretch without pain.

Handstand wrist stretches
My wrist stretching routine. If your wrists aren’t as flexible, only go as far as is comfortable for you.

Finally, I’ll come into a tabletop position for some additional wrist warmups. I’ll start to gently rock forward and backward over my wrists, just going through my range of motion in that position. Then I’ll turn my hands so that my fingers are pointing out to the sides and rock back and forth. The last thing I do is to turn my fingers so they are pointing towards my thighs and gently rock back towards my heels and then back up over my wrists. This is another particularly delicate position, so take care here to stay within your range of motion. Stop immediately if you feel any pain.

Handstand Shoulder Warmups

There are a couple of great shoulder warmups I alternate through in my handstand practice. My favorite for a quick warmup is to get into tabletop. From here, protract the shoulders by pushing the floor away from you. You should feel your shoulders sort of round and the arms come forward in the shoulder socket. On an exhale, drop the shoulders back down into a relaxed position. Remember to keep a neutral neck and spine by looking down and slightly ahead of your hands. I like to do ten reps here. If this feels easy and comfortable, you can take it to knee plank or even full plank and repeat the exercise.

Another great warmup involves a block. Hold the block between the palms, keeping the thumbs tucked alongside the flat of the hand. Squeeze the block between your hands and protract the shoulders by pushing the block out and away from your body. Inhale and lift the block so that your arms are parallel to the floor. Keep squeezing the block and protracting the shoulders. Hold for three to five breaths. On your next inhale, raise the block a little higher to a roughly 135 degree angle from the floor. Hold again for three to five breaths. On another inhale, raise the block until it is straight over your head, taking care to keep the ribs knitted into the core. Hold for another three to five breaths, then release back to the floor on an exhale. You can repeat this whole exercise several times.

Handstand shoulder warmup with block
It’s surprising how heavy that little block can feel after a few rounds of these warmups.

Building Your Foundation

With handstand, wrist and shoulder strength and mobility are of great importance. Realistically, your hands and shoulder girdle aren’t built to support the weight of your entire body. These parts aren’t capable of taking the same kind of stress as your feet and pelvis. It is essential to be careful to build strength slowly and purposefully to avoid injury.

Planks are a great way to begin to build the strength needed for handstand. Work on gradually holding your plank for longer periods of time to increase your strength. If you can’t hold a full plank yet, then start with your knee plank and build up. It may not feel like much, but every bit of work you do will eventually yield results. Have faith and do the hard work.

You can also build your wrist and shoulder strength through chaturanga. We flow through it a lot in classes, but it is a pose by itself. Stopping in chaturanga and holding it is a fantastic way to build your upper body and core strength for handstand.

Finally, you can help build up your strength with any number of arm balances. Crow, side crow, Eka Pada I and II, firefly, and more are all great choices. Start where you are in your abilities and build from there. I truly believe working my way systematically though arm balances helped immensely in my handstand practice.

Advanced Strength Building for Handstand

If you aren’t exactly new to yoga or your handstand journey, you might need some more advanced drills to build wrist and shoulder strength for handstand. That’s where these moves come in.

If you’ve got a rock-solid full plank on the floor, try wall planks. These are exactly what they sound like. Come to tabletop at the wall (or door!), with your feet up against the baseboard. Slowly start to walk your feet up the wall. You may also need to walk your hands back towards the wall in order to feel stable and comfortable. Once you get to a position on the wall that feels challenging, but sustainable, hold your wall plank. Stay there for anywhere from three to ten breaths, then walk your feet slowly back down to the floor.

Another great exercise is what I’ll call a forearm raises. Think about doing a calf raise, but with your forearms and hands rather than your calves and feet. In tabletop, see if you can lift both palms up off of the floor at once, rolling up onto your fingers. No joke, this is really, really hard, even in tabletop. It’s fantastic for building forearm strength, though. Once that becomes easy for you and you can do ten without problems, try again in knee plank. If you can do ten there with ease, try full plank. You’ll be better than me if you can do ten in full plank, and you could probably beat Popeye at arm wrestling at that point.

Forearm raise for handstand strength
That’s as hard as it looks. I’m good for about two in full plank.

Core Strength for Handstand

You’ve heard it a million times before: handstand is all about the core strength. The thing is, it’s about a really deep core strength, not just the superficial abdominal muscles. You could do crunches for days and not build the core strength you really need for handstand. Tapping into that deep core strength and building from there is key.

Again, planks of all stripes will be your friends here. They are key in beginning to feel those deeper core muscles and build strength and stability. Building up the duration of your ability to hold your plank will assist you in holding your handstand.

Another great core builder is low boat, or hollow body hold as I first heard it referred to. Start in a seated position with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Hold onto the backs of the thighs for assistance and start to lower your hips and lower back to the floor, keeping the head and shoulders a few inches above the ground. The key here is to keep your lower back suctioned to the floor. If there is any space between your lower back and the floor, you won’t get the benefit of the pose. Let go of the thighs and hold yourself here. Initially it may be difficult enough to simply get into this position. Just do what feels best for you and build up as you get more comfortable with the drill.

If you feel strong and stable with your feet on the floor, take it to the next level. Slowly start to straighten your legs and lift them into the air. The further your feet are from the floor, the easier this pose is. As you gain strength, keep lowering your feet towards the ground until eventually they are just a few inches above the ground. You can also try raising the arms above the head. If you can get that far, you’ll have a good feel for the core engagement needed in your handstand.

Kicking Up to the Wall

Once you have gotten comfortable with these warmups and strength drills, it’s time to start kicking up to the wall. A word here about using the wall for handstand practice: you will never, I repeat, NEVER find balance on the wall. A lot of instructional information about handstand refers to wall practice without that essential warning. It sucks to hear, I know, but if you never move away from the wall, you’ll never get your handstand. It’s that simple and that hard.

Another issue is kicking up to the wall from very far away. If you have a lot of anxiety about kicking up and you really need the space, that can be okay for the first little bit, just to get your feet over your head. However, know you can build some really bad habits here, namely kicking up too hard and overbalancing to a “banana back”. If you can, you should always try to do things in a more beneficial way from the beginning. It may make for slower progress, but you’ll get more payoff in the end.

With all of that said, the wall is great for helping with the psychology of kicking up into handstand and for building strength. The key is to use it correctly, and knowing the purpose behind using it goes a long way towards that goal.

Guidelines for More Effective Use of Paul the Wall

This is the way Kino and Kerri teach to kick up to the wall in their handstand course, and it helped me immensely, so I’m sharing it here. First, stand facing the wall with your toes and forehead resting on the wall. Look down and see how far away your heels are from the wall. That’s roughly where you want the heels of your hands to be when you kick up. It will look very close to the wall, and probably much closer than you’ve seen other people doing it. It will be okay, I promise.

Place your hands on the ground and spread your fingers. Thumbs should be spread more gently than the rest of the fingers: make a “J”, not an “L”. Step your feet back, raise one leg up, and use your standing leg to gently hop up into your handstand. You may not do it on the first try. That’s okay, just keep trying, visualizing a magnet in your lower back that draws you up to the wall.

Once you kick up, place the crown of your head and your butt against the wall, letting your legs and feet come slightly away from the wall. This helps to give you a better idea of the alignment you need in your handstand once you start practicing away from the wall. Use that shoulder protraction you practiced in drills to push the floor strongly away from you to build strength and stability in your handstand.

Steps for wall handstand
Done properly, and with the right intention, wall handstands can help you on your way to the ultimate goal of freestanding handstands.

Work on holding this for a count of ten, and then come back down. Gradually build the length of your hold, being careful not to overdo it, which could stress your wrists and shoulders.

It’s a Journey

I’m going to wrap up for this week, because the post is getting pretty long. Next week, we’ll talk about getting away from the wall and some other methods for getting into your handstand.

My final words for this week are to remember that this is a journey. There’s a lot here to think about and start incorporating into your practice. Some of it may be beyond your current abilities, and you may feel overwhelmed or discouraged. Remember my words from the beginning of this post. I literally worked a lifetime towards this pose, and I’m still working on it and refining it. Every little bit of the work you do will build on itself and bring you closer to your goals. Be open to the journey and the things it has to teach you.

I hope this post has been helpful, and I look forward to continuing the discussion next week! Keep practicing!


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