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Gymnastics: Handstand Phase 2: Kick-Ups, Alignment, & Wrist Strength

Posted 18th November 2016 by Josh Schouten

The handstand is often cited in gymnastics as one of the most, if not the most important, skill to master for beginners and for higher-level gymnastics.  The handstand is performed on 5/6 apparatus used in both male and female artistic gymnastics, with the only exception being the vault.

In the early stages of developing the handstand the focus is directed to developing the athletes ability to be able to assume and maintain a straight body line (shape), and the entry into the handstand (lunge/kick-up).  The athletes can be introduced to balance strategies and encourage to practice them, however at this stage balance is not a priority.

The first stage of learning the handstand is based on preparing the body and the mind to be able to recognise the correct body position (shape).  Volume and constant shaping are the most critical training parameters, ideally we need to be maintaining the shape for a minimum of :15-:30seconds in the early stages of learning, before advancing to more difficult skills (like press to handstand).

Phase 1: preparation and alignment has hopefully give you all a little more awareness of you shoulder mobility, weaknesses and strengths.  All of the material in this phase is IMPORTANT to your future success and not to be left on the sidelines.  As the handstand phase moves forward, each individual needs to continue to work on their limitations and re-test their overhead mobility with the test in phase 1. Between handstand sets, during your warm-up, between deadlift sets in a  normal Crossfit class, whenever you can find the time to do some stretching.. DO IT!!

Our next little phase is going to continue with kick-ups, exiting the handstand, body alignment, handstand stamina, wrist strength, and the most important aspect, the mobility.


A. Wrist Mobility – Always, Always, ALWAYS warm up the wrists before you start doing a handstand.  This can be with specific wrist drills, or simply by performing locomotions with the hands on the floor.

Lunge and Kick-ups

The lunge entry is the simplest technique to teach and master for beginners, it is also a fundamental entry action for more advanced skills.


We need to think about the handstand as stacking the joints (wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees , and feet) one on top of the other.  There are many alignment points and in the beginning, we need to aim to have them stack perfectly to achieve balance.  In the kick-ups, you want to lock as many of the joints as possible because it’s easier to transfer from a position we are already in that to kick up with a super-out-of-control body and then attempt to align it when we are upside down.  Hence, we start out with arms overhead, shoulders covering the ears (like ear muffs), chest up, shoulders elevated, legs together, tight and hollow through the core.

During the kick up motion, we are only going to change one part of the setup: the lunging leg.  The lunging leg is going to become the hinging point that the straight body will rotate over, as not to compromise the straight body position.

When setting up for a kick up, the lunging leg should step out approximately half you height in front of you, and the weight is shifted onto this leg as you start to tilt forward and reach out with the hands.  The key with the lunging leg is to keep the knee as straight as possible and aim to feel the tension in the hamstring.  Once the hands touch the floor, you need to grip the floor with the fingers to catch the handstand as it kick-ups.  The tension in the hamstrings is needed to bring the legs into alignment and balance the lower body.

Once the legs come together we should have the perfect handstand position.  If any part of the body is out of alignment like the legs are spread apart, the perfect handstand shape is lost and compensation is needed to find balance.  This is when you often see a banana shaped handstand.  This is not ideal, bit it happens when learning.   This is where a camera to a quality spotter can give you an outside perspective on what you are doing wrong.

Executing the lunge to handstand it a difficult skill and something that needs continual work.  Practising this more than once a week is a good idea.  One of the best things about learning a skill is that fact that you can practice it every single day…. You may find it useful to use a wall in the beginning but don’t rely on the wall to catch you, aim to not touch the wall if you can.

B. Lines and Locomotions

Gymnastics coaches often use lines and locomotions to warm up the athletes before they start their gymnastic sessions.  Lines and locomotions arena great dynamic tool that can be used for muscles activation, mobility, proprioception, lubrication of joints and to warm-up the body.  Our lines and locomotion will focus on hamstring mobility, wrist mobility, shoulder mobility, hand balancing, and kick-ups.  There are endless numbers of lines and locomotions that can be used, here are just a few

  • forward/backwards bear walks, changing the position of the hands (forward, inward, outwards)
  • forward/backwards frog hops,  changing the position of the hands (forward, inward, outwards)
  • left/right travelling monkey, tuck position sideways jumps, straddle position sideways jumps
  • forward rolls
  • cartwheels
  • heel to toe pike bounces + feet together squat
  • table top walks ,  changing the position of the hands (forward, outwards, backwards)
  • straight leg kicks
  • forward lunge + cossack squat
  • forward lunge + swinging hands under + straight leg lift (as if kicking to handstand)
  • forward lunge + swinging hands under + straight leg list + kick to handstand
  • forward lunge + swinging hands under + kick to handstand
  • forward lunge + hands overhead + kick to handstand
  • jump to tuck handstand
  • jump to straddle handstand

Many of you might be reading this and thinking, “I can not kick to handstand!”  Even though this might be the case, this mindset needs to be put aside and the replaced with the willingness to practice and build confidence.  It’s not going to happen overnight, they say it takes 10,000 quality repetitions to master a skill, so you best get started now.

C. Rolling out and Cartwheels (Pirouetting)

Rolling out of a handstand is the extension of a forward roll on the floor.  If we are not confident in the forward roll on the floor, you should first practice this on a soft matt.  In the forward roll, you want to apply pressure to your hands such that when you tuck the chin to your chest you will be able to put the weight on the upper backhand roll smoothly out of the movement.

Likewise, from a handstand position we are going to want to bend the arms slowly so that we can lower toward the floor in a controlled fashion.  From there we are always going to tuck the chin to the chest and curl the body into a metal position and let gravity move us through the roll.

The cartwheel is also a valuable tool for exiting the handstand and confidence is required to perform them correctly. 

The role of the spotter is critical in handstand training – “Don’t be a shit bloke” and make sure you are giving a load of input as a spotted to align you, partner.

D. Alignment

The back body line drill and the front body line drill on the floor are the best bang for you buck at this stage of the learning process.  We will continue with these positions in the warm-ups,  Many of use are not yet able to perform these positions to the quality required and for a duration of 60sec.

Note: There are different ways to perform the hollow body position, and at this point, in time we are aiming to keep our head on the floor.

E. Stamina and Hip Mobility

In the beginning, we are going to be using the wall facing handstand to build stamina.  We need to comfortable holding these positions for extended periods of time.  We should be able to hold 5sets of 60seconds wall facing handstand with perfect alignment.  Set yourself a goal and aim to increase the time each week by 5-10seconds.

It is important to use a camera or a spotter to help you understand the body alignment when you are upside down.  You may think you are doing a great job, but the reality can be a long way off.  Remember that a freestanding handstand requires the body alignment to be perfect and hence you MUST focus on this during the skill development stage.

E1. The Inverted 45* Body Alignment

Many people struggle to perform the wall facing handstand with the correct body alignment. If you are one of these people you best option is to scale the intensity of the exercise and focus on the alignment. The inverted 45* body alignment exercise will help you progress faster than performing an out of alignment wall facing handstand.

E2. Chest to Wall Handstand (CTW-HS)

When beginners get inverted, their proprioceptive awareness declines and they forget to stay tight, so here are some cue’s to help:

  • Lock those arms out. Zero bend in the elbows.
  • Hands should be shoulder width apart, not wider or narrower!
  • Take this time to really work on engaging everything
    • shoulders shrugged up to the ear like ear muffs
    • tucked tailbone (posterior pelvic tilt! hollow!)
    • glutes active
    • inner thighs together
    • legs straight, knees locked
    • toes pointed
  • Practice shallow breathing evenly. Do not suddenly inhale/exhale a bunch of air. If you did that while freestanding, you’d lose stability.
  • Don’t go until failure so you have energy left to walk your hands back out.

Tip: When you feel the floating feeling in that CTW-HS and think you’re going to go over, DIG YOUR FINGERS INTO THE GROUND and it will help prevent you from toppling over! We will revisit this and other “rebalancing” drills further throughout the article.

Once again volume is more important during the learning process and the more term spent in the correct body alignment the better.

If you’re after an extra challenge try performing the wall facing handstands with your eyes closed.

Hip Mobility

By now you should hopefully start to see the importance of alignment and hence mobility.  Unfortunately, many of us have very limited mobility because we spend far too much time sitting down, lifting heavy objects, and not stretching as much as we should.  Our main focus in this phase of the program will be around the internal and external rotation of the hips.  The hip is the centrepiece of the handstand and the pelvis orientation is essential for more than just a straight body handstand.

E3. Active Pigeon Stretch  [10reps + 10sec hold each leg] – From a lunge stance, with the back toe on the floor and the front foot flat, place both hands on either side of the front foot. Make sure the front knee is aligned above the front heel and not over the front toe. Aim to straighten the front leg as much as possible, extend the front knee, to feel a stretch in the hamstring. 

Tip: In this stretch, position aims to push the chest towards the thighs and try to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior pelvic tilt) to increase the stretch.  Think of the pelvis as a bowl of water, the aim is to tip the water out of the front of the pelvis.

After feeling the hamstring stretch, bend the front knee to 90* and externally rotate the front leg until the shine touches the floor.  Try to maintain at 90* positions to the back leg and keep the hips square and position the torso upright. Try to reach the floor with the front keen without losing the 90* angle, if this is not possible simply lower as deeply as you can by externally rotating the form the hip. The back knee stays off the floor for the duration of the set. Keep rotating the front leg down and up into the lunge in a slow but dynamic fashion.

Once you complete all the prescribed reps, pause for the last rep in the stretched position for the prescribed time.

E4. 4-Point Lifts [10reps + 10sec hold each leg] – Sit on the floor in a ‘Four Position’ with both knee’s bent at 90* or less (according to flexibility), the ankle of the back leg is flexed (harder). Lift yourself up by rolling onto your front shin only until you reach a completely open hip position. Slowly flex at the hip and trying to bring the glute of the back foot as close to the floor as possible.

As you raise up onto the shine, rotate the torso toward the front knee, as you lower back down rotate away from the front knee.This will create an internal rotation hip stretch in the back leg side. The strain on the knee indicates a weakness of the tendons and surrounding musculature and requires that you back off and allow adaptation to occur slowly. Keep raising and sinking towards the back buttock, realising it may never touch the floor. Once you finish the prescribed reps, pause at the lowest active position possible for the duration prescribed.

Tip: Think of the hip hinge movement like a good morning exercise.  As you lower the hip back towards the ground you hinge at the hip and lean forward with the shoulder to allow the hips to go back.

F. Wrist Strength

As you can imagine balancing on your wrists is initially difficult.  Handstand newbies will often use their shoulder and hips to change body shape to find balance in the handstand.  This is to compensate for the lack of forearm strength and control required to perform a balanced handstand.  We need to try and resist this temptation as it will instil bad habits that can be difficult to break.  A proper handstand held for more than “60sec should leave the forearms exhausted, and the rest of the body feeling fine, maybe a slight shoulder burning sensation.

It’s time to get your wrist pump on!

Barbell wrist curls and DB reverse bicep curls are on the cards

3 Rounds of:

20 Kneeling BB Wrist Curls, 2020, rest :10sec
20 Standing DB Reverse Curls, 1010, rest :90sec

Popeye would be proud!!!