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Handstands are something many of us remember from school. But they're also a great way to build some serious athletic ability, whether they're a support movement for your main weight training or a key component of a bodyweight training program.

Handstands are something that many of us can remember doing – or trying to do – at school. But in later life even those of us who could hold a few minutes upside down against a wall with the greatest of ease find that we’ve lost the knack.

And handstands are hard to progress with. In fact, that’s a problem common to all bodyweight training really. If you don’t have some progressions laid out, you get past the first post and it can be hard to see how to get from where you are to where you want to be. 

I want to talk about two ways you can use handstands to get better performance.  If you’re already pretty strong and healthy, you can use handstand work to improve your shoulder health and get a better overhead or even bench press. If you’re just starting out on your fitness journey or you prefer bodyweight exercises, handstand pushups are the bodyweight overhead press and require no more equipment than a wall. The loading pattern on the rest of your body is different, but for your upper back and shoulders, handstand pushups are equivalent to pressing your bodyweight overhead; not record-breaking by any means, but a solid achievement. Throughout this article I’ll use ‘handstand’ to mean any upside down pushing move, referring to both a true handstand and a headstand (until the difference matters, when I’ll clarify the issue.)

Experienced Athletes and the Handstand

If you’re already strong or an experienced lifter, this section is for you. If not, skip ahead to Bodyweight and Beginners. 

For people who want to get big and strong, bodyweight exercises can seem wimpy and futile. After you can do 20 pushups, for instance, why carry on? Why do more? Isn’t the bench press a better exercise for the chest and arms, allowing you to progressively add load and increase strength incrementally? Well, yes and no. Some bodyweight exercises are futile and wimpy, like crunches. Others, like pullups, are the tools of champions – including Arnold Shwarzenegger in his heyday, who used them regularly. Handstands aren’t necessarily different: they’re harder to add load to than dips or pullups, and a handstand belt doesn’t seem like such a good idea to me, but they’re hard enough that for most people, a couple of sets of handstand pushaps doesn’t bring on the thought: ‘I must find a way to make this harder!’

Bodyweight training can augment weight training very well. For instance, the deadlift certainly affects the legs and arms – in fact it’s hard to think of a lift that affects more of your body. But it’s primarily a hip hinge exercise: a core exercise, promoting growth and strength in the ‘outer core’ of glutes, lats, traps and hamstrings and hip flexors as well as requiring a serious stabilizing contraction in the ‘inner core’ of the pelvic floor, abdominal and low back muscles and diaphragm. Don’t you think your deadlift would be better if you could do front and back levers, hanging from a bar overhead by just your hands with your body level with the floor? 

In the same way, the headstand/handstand can really improve your pressing with barbells or dumbbells. It does that by loading the shoulders but not the back (so much), allowing some safe deterioration of strict overhead pressing form to take place without danger to the spine, and by requiring a more conscious contraction of the core. Additionally, most people’s handstand work involves some static hold work, and static holds build connective tissue, small muscles like the serratus muscles and rotator cuffs – you know, those things that paid for your physio’s Bentley – and increases the strength of tendons. Tendons have less blood flow than muscles so they grow less quickly, meaning that your muscles can outstrip the strength of the tendons that hold the whole affair together. That’s a recipe for injury, but static holds can help avert it and even help cure injuries you did get that way. Throw some serious bodyweight training in after your main lifts and see the progress you make towards a stronger, injury-free future.

Beginners and Bodyweight

if you’re just starting out getting fit, bodyweight movements can be more forgiving than weightlifting ones. Oftentimes, a beginner will be best served by loading only very heavy movements like the squat and deadlift. Upper body work especially is often less punishing to the beginner’s shocked nervous system and can be more intuitive while allowing him to shift some weight – his own! That means using pushups instead of benches, pullups and dips instead of the lat pulldown machine and it can mean throwing some handstand work in as raw strength training. Using handstands to develop stronger shoulders will aid you when you transfer to the heavy weights as you get stronger. 

And if you don’t want to transfer to the heavy weights, take heart:  Down the line you could be doing sets of handstand pushups on the still rings. That’s an athletic feat most people – including plenty of strong people – couldn’t approach. You can get seriously strong with bodyweight exercises and the handstand will see you along your journey from calisthenics to gymnastic exercises, staying relevant and challenging the whole way.

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