By Coach KB
Here we are in Week 2 of our Handstand-strengthening series and, while I haven’t heard anyone say it, I can see it in your faces - “Why are we doing handstands? They are fun, but seriously… How is this an important part of training?”
Ohmygoodness! You guys! Handstands are the best thing ever! When you master handstands you basically master life. In just one move, everything comes together in harmony. Everything. Handstands-CHECK! Zen master-CHECK! See how it works?
But seriously, let’s get serious about handstands. Admittedly, positioning handstands second in our 10-part strength series may seem early given their relative difficulty compared to, oh, say a squat (which is why they were first). But they help improve all the other movements we will be workshopping, so... (And honestly, we will probably put handstands in again at the end anyway after you all become even stronger beasts than you already are.) But here’s the thing - handstands are so stinkin’ hard because they require strength, balance, coordination, proprioception, patience, and discipline. (The truth is that ALL movements we do require all those things, too, but for some reason being upside down takes the level of difficulty up 10,000 points… This is where the Zen-master part comes in.)
Truthfully, mastering handstands will improve all of your other fitness undertakings, whether they are in the gym or outside in real life. Additionally, your posture will improve both because you are so strong and poised and balanced, and also because you will walk a little taller having the inner knowledge that you are a handstand-master. You will be proud of your accomplishment since it took such hard work and dedication to excellence for you conquer this inverted enigma and you will be more likely to endeavor even more difficult feats in the future.
But for right now, let’s focus on this feat. Handstands. Standing on your hands. What on earth are the benefits, other than having a super-cool party trick in your repertoire?
1. Your brain and your body will get smarter as you practice handstands. Learning new things develops new neurological pathways, giving your brain more options for how to access information. Your body will react to these new pathways and will understand the way it moves how each part relates to the next one. We are so used to being on our feet we can balance and perform complex movements with relative ease. Take yourself upside down and everything gets flipped, literally! The fancy term for the way the parts of the body interact with each other is called the “Kinetic Chain.”
Everything in our body is connected and, when we are balancing on our hands, even just the slightest shift can throw off the whole thing - your body has to immediately react to account for these shifts. Your whole kinetic chain is trying to prevent falling. The good news is there are tons of nerve-endings in our fingers - think of how much we use our hands to feel the world around us. Standing on our hands is one of the best ways to activate attention in all other areas of our body - our elbows, shoulders, hips, and feet all have to be perfectly placed. If they are not, it is our hands sense it and send the ABORT message to our brain and dictate how we will fall.
A note of caution: Even though it seems like our bodies may have a vested interest in perfecting a handstand quickly, you might want to ask your parents how long it took you to learn how to walk. Learning to walk on your hands may take just as much time and practice, but you will have rewired your brain to do something totally new and your kinetic chain will have made lots of new connections, thus making it easier to do other new things in the future.
2. How many times have you heard me say to activate your abdominals? Or to keep everything tight? Or to hug everything into the midline? Or that it is easier to balance a dry piece of spaghetti than a wet one? Mastering handstands means mastering the art of “internal tension.” When you are upside-down on your hands there is no room to be loosey-goosey. Everything has to be tight. This will lead to you staying tighter in other moves as well… push press, deadlifts, pullups, lateral cone jumps… everything is easier after you develop strong internal tension. This tension can also be applied as spine-stabilization. One of the most injured body part in adults in the back. When the tension must be applied, not just out-to-in, but up-to-down and down-to-up and side-to-side, all of the core musculature is working to stay tense. This strengthens and therefore stabilizes your back more, thus preventing injury.
3. You will develop a lot of shoulder stability. We do a lot in life that requires strong shoulders. It seems unfair to require so much from such a small muscle group and, since shoulder injuries are also among the most common adult injuries, we could clearly all benefit from strengthening the musculature around this complex joint. In a handstand your shoulders are basically the relay-point for information between your hands and the rest of your body. The muscles at the shoulder joint have to activate and adjust to the constantly changing center of gravity over such a limited base of support. The more micro-adjustments your shoulders make, the more stable they become.
4. A common complaint during farmer carries or heavy deadlifts is that your grip-strength fails before your leg strength does… And then I annoyingly say that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Well, lucky you - handstands improve grip strength. I will often cue to push the floor away in squats, rather than to just stand up. More directly related, I say the same thing when cueing plank. When the body part that is not moving (feet in squats and hands in plank) has an action to do it develops strength there and also helps to keep the whole body active since it is now “moving” all the way to the extremities. This is also true in handstands. Since our hands are a shorter lever than our feet are, it is even more important that they stay active to keep pushing us up. Our fingers will get stronger as we teeter back and forth and they grip the floor, which, in turn, will also strengthen our forearms. DOUBLE BONUS! Stronger fingers, stronger hands, stronger forearms... stronger grip strength. BOOM!
5. Handstands are tough but you are tougher. You know how much handstands will improve all other aspects of your life so you are committed. Tough people know that it takes practice and time to get good at something new. These people are tough because they have the tenacity to stick with something until they get good at it (this is the part where you become a Zen-master). You will be humbled by handstands. You must develop the patience to take a disciplined approach to learning them. This means starting with modified versions and spending consistent time practicing them. Even if you can successfully kick up into a handstand, employ the wisdom to know that more modified versions will be beneficial and give you a more solid foundation, leading to the ability to perform a wider variety of handstands down the road.
I am so excited to continue our movement-specific training with all of you. All Zen-master jokes aside, I truly believe the sort of conditioning we do at POINT - the type that does NOT use weight machines and instead uses our bodies as machines - not only makes us better athletes, but also better people. Using machines at the gym takes the brain out of the brain-body equation. When you have to focus on what your whole body is doing during each movement, especially when a movement is unfamiliar, we are more in-tune with our bodies and have more of a purpose to keep them strong and healthy. Handstands are humbling. But the journey to mastering them will be gratifying and will make you better at everything in life. And also you will have a really cool party trick. :)