The journey to handstand can be as exciting as it can be equally frustrating. For some students, finding their handstand comes relatively quickly, and for others, it can take years before noticing any progress.
As with many intermediate and advanced postures, handstand requires a balance of strength and flexibility. Specifically, a handstand can be better supported with a more-than-average range of motion in the shoulders, long hamstrings, and a solid core. While arm strength is helpful, what will really help your handstand game is strengthening the muscles of the rotator-cuff (the muscles that surround the shoulder joint), so you can bear weight on the shoulders safely.
Let’s look at the following ways that can help improve your handstand game, and overall joint health/mobility.
Whether you’re in a straight-line handstand or more in a planche (because of tight shoulders), the wrists need to be able to extend 90°, or sometimes more. Here are two exercises that can help with wrist mobility.
1. Wrist Stretch in Tabletop
Coming to a tabletop position with your hands shoulder-width apart. Maintain the line of the wrists, turn the hands around so the fingers point towards the knees. Press down through the palms and the inner wrists, and begin to lean the pelvis towards the feet to a range that you can maintain without pain. Maintain for 5 breaths and then release. The same can be done from a high plank pose. Be mindful of the amount of pressure this places on the wrists.
2. Forward Shift in High Plank
Stepping into high plank pose, with shoulders above the wrists. Inhale in this position, and as you exhale, shift the weight forward so the shoulders begin to move forward of the fingertips. As with the previous drill, only move to a range that is not painful. Inhale back to shoulders above the wrists, like plank, and exhale shift the weight forward again. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
External Rotation of Shoulders
When you externally rotate the shoulders in handstand, you fire up muscles that support the shoulder joint. In addition to the muscles of the rotator cuff, the external rotation of the shoulders engages serratus anterior, which some might argue is the most important muscle group that supports shoulder joint stability.
Serratus anterior helps broaden (or protract) the shoulder blades/scapula, and furthermore, allows an upward rotation of the shoulder blades. These two actions are needed in a solid handstand.
1. Standing in Tadasana or lying on your back, hold a broomstick with your hands shoulders distance apart, or wider. Imagine breaking the stick in half creating an external rotation of the shoulder joint. Maintaining this action as you raise the stick steadily and slowly upwards towards the ears, holding the lower ribs in place (refer to hollow body).
2. Step into high plank pose, with arms completely straight. Press firmly downwards through your hands, and imagine trying to turn the hands outwards as though you were opening a jar (counter-clockwise with your left hand, and clockwise with your right). Notice any engagement around the shoulders, and along the side of your body below the armpit.
Maintain the external rotation of the shoulders, and the full extension of the elbows, as you begin to exhale, slowly moving your pelvis towards a Downward Dog. Push back only as much as you can maintain the external rotation of the shoulders. Maintain for 5 breaths, release, and rest in Child’s pose.
Finding a straight-line handstand, or stacking all of the joints, makes the handstand effortless, but getting to the straight-line is the challenge. Practicing the hollow body is a great preparation for the position you’ll want to find when inverted.
Lying flat on your back, draw the pubic bone towards your heart, and lift both legs off of the floor. Let the shoulders and neck remain soft, actively pulling the navel towards the spine on the exhalation. Consider literally hollowing out the stomach.
You can keep your upper body resting on the floor, and focus solely on the lower ribs drawing towards the top of the hips, with your arms alongside you, palms pressing into outer thighs.
If that feels stable for you as it is, you can raise the arms towards the ceiling, and as you externally rotate the shoulders, begin lowering your arms towards the sides of your head, keeping the ribs tightly drawn in towards the upper abdominals. For many, the arms might remain at an angle.
There are plenty of drills, exercises, and asanas that can better equip you for the handstand. And what works for some, may not always work for others. The steps above are some general guidelines that have helped a lot of my students towards their handstand.
A commitment and discipline to practice goes a long way, and letting go of an attachment to results. Whether your journey is short or long, persist in it, because once you achieve the handstand, it won’t be long until you are onto conquering your next challenging asana.
Image credit: Gordon Ogden