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Gymnastics: Handstand Phase 3: Mobility, Re-Balancing, & Back Strength

Posted 9th January 2017 by Josh Schouten

Handstand done correctly are a great reflection of the dedication and hard work that someone has taken to master the skill.  Part 1 and Part 2 of the handstand classes has delivered some positive results, and some members are holding some nice straight handstand lines.  The third phase of our handstand training method will focus on refining the ability to re-balance and maintain the correct body line.

A handstand is considered skill training which means you will continue to refine it over time. Simply kicking up and hoping you don’t fall over won’t get you very far. A basic tenant of skill training is that technical refinement can only happen successfully after the physical structure has been established. Students who adopt such an attitude of mastery will become far more successful (and less injured) than the impatient student who attempts to skip ahead with the incorrect movement learning patterns.

Balance and body line are closely related. However, body line can be taught with the absence of balance – thanks to our front body and back body line drills and the use of the wall or a spotter.  On the other hand, balance is harder to obtain without the correct body alignment.

There are some different exercises we can work on to refine and develop the handstand body line and balance.  However, we are going to be using exercises based on their ease of application, spotting requirement, and skill transfer for future handstand classes.

Consistency and regular practice are even more critical as we start to see progressions in our handstand ability.  In the early stages, improvements come slowly, and thus it’s important to ensure that the volume and intensity are high.  You need to be practicing these exercises more than once a week to keep making gains and speed up the rate of improvement.

Weaknesses in strength and mobility are quickly uncovered when performing handstands.  For instance, the pike handstand requires flexible hamstring and superb back strength.  The journey is long and slow, but anything worth doing takes time.

Most non-gymnasts typically have:

– Weak mid/lower traps (mid back)
– Limited shoulder extension (interlace fingers behind you back and then take your arms overhead without letting the grip go) – this is where athletes often fail in the muscle-up as they have limited shoulder extension
– The spinal mobility of a lego man
– Don’t care for mobility work as it’s not seen to be the sexy work, until they get injured
– Want high-intensity workouts and fail to see the link between mobility, movement, and performance
– Trying to build technique by putting weight on the bar, but failing to find the correct range of motion.  This quickly leads to injury.

Body Alignment and Movement Quality Matter

If we spend 40minutes working on the handstand, we might get lucky enough to spend 5minutes in a correct alignment handstand. Then we might spend 10minutes working on flexibility and mobility for handstands. Not a very worthwhile session when you put it in perspective!

What we should be doing is spending 30-40minutes working on strength, mobility, flexibility and alignment and then 20minutes of actual quality handstand work. This is a worthwhile session that will speed up the results of learning to handstand. The issue of alignment is very important, and it can not be ignored or worked around. If your not willing to spend the time working on your posture and body alignment, you will never achieve a perfect handstand.

Hand balancing depends on our ability to maintain our body weight over the base of support (hands), which is greatly regulated by the processes feedback from the central nervous system (CNS) through proprioceptive, visual, and vestibular feedback. Balance in the handstand is controlled through the wrists, elbows, shoulder and hips. The term has been coined by different coaches as “counter-balance,” “on-line balance,” or even “re-balancing.”

The wrists provide stability in the handstand, and the strength of the hands is essential. The hands make the adjustments that keep you balanced. Inflexible or weak wrists force you to make large, exaggerated adjustments which usually result in falling over. Whether you want a great handstand or to counter extensive computer work, wrist preparation needs to be part of your daily routine

1. Wrist and finger warm-up and strengthening

– Wrist mobilisation and lubrication
– First Knuckle push-ups
– Finger tip push-ups
– Fist push-ups

Scale: Perform on knees and slowly progress to FLR position.

2. Shoulder Extension Mobility and Wall Facing Handstand Stamina

– Shoulder extension passthrough with stick or band
– Shoulder Extension Hands behind back

– Kneeling German Hang –  (0:33 of video below)
– Shoulder Ring Passthroughs – (01:00 of video below)
– Feet supported German Hang (1:20 of video below)
– Tuck German Hang (1:35 of video below)
– Full German Hang, Hips full extended (1:55 of video below)
– German Hang Pulse (2:00 of video below)

Between sets of shoulder extension stretches, perform wall facing handstand holds for :40-:60sec focusing on body alignment (partner assistance advised)

3. Hamstring flexibility, Rebalancing heel pulls, front body line drill. Between sets of heel-pulls perform one of the following hamstring stretches, and:30-:60sec of the front body line drill

– Heel-pulls – Kick up into a handstand against the wall, one to two palms of distance away from it. Harden body line following the cues in the body line drills. Once a good and rigid body line has been achieved, press through your fingertips into the floor by flexion of the wrist. This press will transfer throughout the body and pull your heels away from the wall. Once you have gently pulled the heels off the wall 1-2 inches, release the palm tension and lower back without crashing into the original wall supported position. Notice you are not arching away from the wall, but maintaining perfect body line. Notice you are not kicking off the wall but pulling the heels away through the palm tension. Repeat for the prescribed amount of reps

– Single Leg Good Morning – stand on one leg (Right for example) and lift the other foot off the floor. Place one hand in the small of your back to check for the lordotic curve or stand sideways to a mirror to see it. Exaggerate the arch in your lower back as much as possible and with a locked knee on the standing leg, start to fold forward slowly while maintaining the arch. Go as low as possible without losing the arch and when you cannot anymore – reverse the motion. Pause for the last rep in the stretched position for the duration prescribed. Tension will be felt on the back of the knee and hamstrings. Start easy and increase ROM as you become better. Do not lift the free leg behind you, but keep both knees more or less in the same line and free foot off the floor.

– Yoga Plough Stretch

– Straddle Walks  (scale by sitting on a box or a stack of weights.  Find a height that allows you to maintain straight legs)

A video posted by StreTch (@stretch_rayner) on

– KB Jefferson Curl

– Front Body Line Drill

4. Hip mobility, Rebalancing toe pulls, back body line drill. Between sets of toe pulls perform one of the following hip stretches and :30-:60sec of the back body line drill

– Toe Pulls – Assume a chest to wall HS one palm distance from the wall. Lock the position in – glute-ab-scapulae lock, tight and strong. Initiate the movement by pushing your shoulder forward.  Take your butt forward towards the same direction as the shoulders (away from the wall) this will in time pull your toes off the wall. As your toes lose contact with the wall, be ready to assume the tight body line and press with the fingertips to lock the HS and immediately (no pause) return into the wall. Start again for reps.

– 4-Position Lift – 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 an 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 the 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 specified.

– Active Pigeon Stretch – 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 the stretch position,  push the chest towards the thighs and try to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior pelvic tilt) to increase the stretch.  Think of the pelvis like 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 shin 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 only lower as deeply as you can by externally rotating the front leg. The back knee stays off the floor for the duration of the set. Keep externally rotating the front leg down and up into the lunge slowly and dynamically.

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

5. Horse stance (:40-:2min)  and partner supported kick to handstands. Between sets of horse pose perform partner assisted kick-ups and holds :10-:15sec

– Horse Pose – Increase time each week by 10 sec, keep feet parallel, completely upright body, slight posterior pelvic tilt and broomstick resting on thighs without holding it as a gauge of the depth of the stance. (parallel thighs)

6. Straight body partner supported handstand, and core work (Garhammer Raises). Between sets of straight body partner assisted holds, perform 20-30reps gar hammer raises

– Garhammer Raise

– Straight Body Handstand – Kick-up to handstand with a partner to catch and support you.  Your partner’s goal is to help organize your body alignment.  Once everything is stacked nicely, you will tuck your chin to your chest and look at the ceiling.  This will help you to perform a straight body line handstand.  Remember to use your hands to re-balance. 

7. Mid-back strength

– Trap 3 Variations – The trapezius muscles, commonly referred to as the traps, are large muscles that spread across the entire back and are often revered by fitness enthusiasts, strength coaches, and bodybuilders alike. Ironically, the athletes who typically have the biggest traps are actually gymnasts, and they build their strong and sizable traps by doing handstands.