Muscles that work in handstands: How to strengthen them?
We know that holding a handstand position is very challenging, and it will require specific skills, and a different kind of strength is needed. When I first started, I thought I already have enough strength to do it, but I was humbled by how much strength work I needed to do to successfully learn to balance myself upside down in the middle of the room.
My muscles were just not strong and stable enough to handle the load in a handstand position. So what are these muscles?
When you are holding a handstand position, the muscles of your forearm, elbows, shoulders, and core will be working in unison to stabilize the body upside down. Sufficient strength work is needed for the forearm flexor muscles, triceps, deltoid muscles, serratus anterior, trapezius muscles, and core muscles that must be specifically designed for handstand training.
Let’s dive deeper to understand how important these muscles are in handstands training and how to strengthen them.
How to prepare the forearm muscles for handstands
Your hands will be the only part of your body that is in contact with the floor, which means that all the muscles in your hands have to be fully activated in order to support your entire weight and at the same time control the entire body so you won’t fall out of balance.
Since the muscles of your hands and fingers originate from the forearm, you need to train your forearm muscles, especially the forearm flexor muscles.
At first, you need to warm up your wrist so the joints and tendons of your wrist and hands will be primed for the strengthening exercise.
Make sure you stretch on both wrist flexion and extension movement by placing your hands with your palms flat on the floor (Wrist extension movement) and placing your hands with the back of your wrist on the floor to work on wrist flexion exercises.
Here is an article that I wrote which describes deeper how to warm up your wrist before your Calisthenics class.
How to train your forearm flexor muscles for handstands?
The Hand Heel Raise exercise - the best way to train your wrist and forearm muscles for handstands is to simulate how you place your hands on the floor like how you do it when you kick up into a handstand position. Then raise the heel of your hands up and down. Make sure you put the load on the first knuckle joint of your hands to activate the correct muscles.
This drill is an equivalent of a Calf exercise done on your hands. Since you will be standing on your hands, you have to treat them like your feet.
How to strengthen the arms and shoulders for handstands?
Training the arms and shoulders for handstands should be specific to handstands. General arm strengthening exercises like bicep curls, triceps extension, bench press, or even shoulder overhead press will not transfer very well to your handstands training.
Unless you are coming from a level where you really haven’t exercise at all, then the exercises I mentioned above will help to some extent, but once you have reached a certain level of fitness, you will still need to work on these specific drills.
There are two parts that you need to work for your arms and shoulders:
1. Horizontal Pushing Strength Training
This will be your foundation and priority as a beginner to prepare yourself for handstand training.
The High Plank exercise
This exercise will train your triceps, front deltoid muscles, and core in a static manner which is needed in handstand training.
Make sure your elbows are fully locked, and your entire body should be fully tightened up when you do this exercise. You should be able to do 60 seconds for 5 sets in order to build sufficient strength before you progress to the next part.
The Standard Push-up exercise
This exercise will train the same muscles as the high plank drill but in a more dynamic way.
The most common mistake on beginners doing handstands is that they rush going straight to handstands training, but they still cannot do standard push-ups on the floor. This will hinder your progress. Having the strength to be able to do push-ups is needed in order for you to hold a handstand position safely.
You should aim at being able to do at least 5 standard push-ups from the floor. This doesn’t mean that you can’t join the handstand class if you cannot do push-ups, but you should keep working on your push-up strength concurrently. Besides, it will take years to learn handstands. You only need a few months to work on your first push-up, so you might as well work on it first.
Here is an article that I wrote on how to do push-ups correctly for beginners.
2. Overhead Pushing Strength training
These will be the specific exercises to work directly on your ability to hold your handstand position. Make sure you work on gradually progressing with these exercises as they can be tough and will take time for you to progress.
Chest to Wall Drill
There are many wall drills for handstands that you can choose from but to be honest, as a beginner or even for intermediate practitioners, you only need this drill. Do it properly, and you will see results.
How to do the chest-to-wall drill - go on all fours position with your feet close to the wall, then slowly climb your feet up to the wall until your whole body is straight facing the wall.
If it is your first time doing this exercise, keep your hands where they were at all fours. Once you have developed enough strength, you can slowly progress by walking your hands until you are close to the wall. This will exactly replicate the real handstand feeling if you do it correctly. Tighten up the whole body as you hold the position and make sure only your toes will be touching the wall and nothing else.
Gradually progress with this exercise as this can be scary and dangerous if you don’t have enough strength. Find a training partner who can spot you safely, but still, don’t push beyond your limits even if you have one.
Your goal is to be able to hold this position comfortably for 60 seconds for 5 sets.
Pro-tip: Make sure you train yourself not to move at all once you have achieved the right position. Holding the balance in a handstand position will require a deep focus to not move as any small movement can throw you off balance. Practice stillness at this stage as it will pay dividends as you progress.
The Pike Push-up
One of the exercises that many beginners and including many coaches, skip is the pike push-ups. This is an invaluable exercise to have in order to achieve your dream of balancing yourself at the center of the room. Though many have bypassed this skill, including myself, and managed to balance upside down, your progress will not be as smooth compared to someone who had worked on this drill beforehand.
This exercise will target all the muscles in your shoulders needed to push overhead.
How to do the pike push-up?
Start in a downward dog position, and slowly bend your elbows until your head is almost touching the floor, then push back up. Make sure that your head should go in front of your hands as you go to the bottom of the movement and your elbows are pointing backward.
This exercise will be challenging to do correctly; make sure you have logged in enough work on your push-up exercise before tackling this drill. Suppose this is still very hard for you even after working with your push-ups. In that case, you can start with partial range pike push-up exercise by placing a block in front of you, so instead of going all the way down to the floor, you only need to go down a few inches. Slowly progress from here.
How to train the core muscles for handstands
You don’t really need that much core strength to hold a handstand; if you can stand up properly without collapsing, then you already have enough core strength. What you need instead is your awareness of your core muscles and the position of your pelvis. This will be the challenging part. There are 2 ways to do this.
The back alignment drill
Lie on your back to the floor and make sure that there is no gap between your entire back and the floor. Make sure you tuck your buttocks in this position. Then extend your legs horizontally down and your arms overhead while keeping your back still on the floor.
Aim to hold this for 60 seconds.
The front alignment drill
Lie with your belly on the floor, arms extended overhead. With your buttocks strongly tucked, aiming to flatten your lower back as much as you can, lift your arms off the floor. This position should look like a handstand position in a horizontal view.
This will be very tough if you have tight shoulders. You might consider stretching your shoulder flexion flexibility first by doing passive hangs on a pull-up bar.
How to improve your shoulder stability when doing handstands
The best way to improve the shoulder stability in the handstand position is to protract the shoulder blades, which will engage the serratus anterior muscles and at the same time externally rotate the shoulder joint to fully activate the rotator cuff muscles.
You can practice this movement by doing it first in a plank position to understand how it works. Then slowly progress up to the chest-to-wall drill to understand it fully in an upside-down position.
Here is a video that I created that shows you how to do scapular protraction in a plank position by doing straight arm push-ups.