Beginner’s guide: Unassisted Handstand

Calisthenics Training

It’s summer 2016 and, just like every four years, I am glued to watching the gymnasts perform in the summer Olympics.  In watching these extremely fit individuals I am reminded of the beauty of well performed body weight exercises.  Body weight training gets treated as a gimmick and dismissed in some fitness spaces and I’ll admit for the last 5 years I’ve certainly haven’t given it much thought. But looking at these gymnasts I’m reminded of the immense strength they develop primarily with body weight exercises. Why don’t more people in the fitness world get excited about bodyweight exercises? Well it boils down to two things: Marketing and difficulty.

The fitness industry turns up its nose at calisthenics because it is hard to market. The fitness industry loves to promote their lifting accessories, supplements, and equipment. In general, they promote a culture of excess. But body weight exercises are essentially minimalistic and don’t require endless accessories.  The only way to market calisthenics exercises is typically as an instructor.

The second reason we don’t typically like to engage in more body weight training is the perceived difficulty.  Sure you can do 20 push ups but how do we make it harder? Just do more? Well that’s boring, and jumping straight into a hand stand push up is likely to end horribly.  It’s much easier to stick with weights where we can always just add 10 more pounds.  The remedy here is knowledge; by learning about simple progressions  we can start at a reasonable difficulty and get better incrementally.  No ridiculous jumps in difficulty and, more importantly, no insane amount of push ups.

After some research I found “Building The Gymnastic Body” by Christopher Sommers.  Coach Sommers is a former U.S. Jr. National’s team coach and laid out some beautifully simple progressions in this book.  I cannot tell you how many times I would look at the progressions and think “Why the hell couldn’t I think of that?!” If you’re serious about learning the ins and outs of gymnastics strength training you need to pick this up.

In addition to Coach Sommer’s book I researched the “calisthenics gurus” online, and even looked into the methods of CrossFit Gymanstics.  I found some great materials that I’ll link to as we go along, but I also came across many people that were amazing athletes but horrible teachers.  More often than not I found advice that could easily result in injury for someone untrained in calisthenics movements.  If you’re going to take any of the advice you find online, including in this article, practice it under the supervision of a coach and/or training partner.

After going through plenty of resources I narrowed down the difficult bodyweight exercise I wanted to master first: The Handstand.  Performing an unassisted handstand works your entire body: wrists, arms, and shoulders are obviously supporting your entire body weight and every other muscle, from your traps to your calves, are holding a huge amount of tension to keep your body in line.  This really is the biggest bang for your buck exercise.

The Unassisted Handstand

Some people can do handstands their whole lives. If this is you, you will not understand the difficulty and frustration the rest of us experience trying to pull it off. For one, it can be terrifying being upside down for some people and overcoming the disorientation that accompanies inverting your body is going to be an achievement in itself. Secondly, if your built with monkey arms and long legs then it becomes much more difficult to control your center of gravity (with all these lever arms flailing about). I’m going to address each of these obstacles in turn:

1. Getting used to being inverted

For this best exercise I’ve found is a wall assisted handstand but not the conventional one.  Most people will stand facing the wall and kick their legs up so that they are facing away from the wall.  This leads to an excessive arch of the back so that the heels make contact with the wall for support. By starting in a plank and walking up the wall we end up facing the wall and are in a strong position (i.e. feet directly over our head).  I’ve found the most benefit from this exercise by timing the maximum amount of time I could hold this position and then perform 4 reps for 50% of that time, twice a week, for 4 weeks. For example, if the longest I could hold it was 44 seconds I would then perform 4 reps of 22 seconds every Monday and Thursday for 4 weeks.  After the 4th week I’d measure a new maximum.


2. Mastering balance

Being able to hold your body weight overhead while you’re inverted with just your hands is a feat.  The biggest “aha” tip for me was when I was told that you want to arch your hands somewhat so that you can control the distribution of the weight between your palms and fingers.  After that it’s just a matter of getting your body over your head.

For this we are going to utilize the frogstand and transition to a headstand (A headstand allows you to use your head as a third leg of a tripod).  Start with the basic frogstand, use the same protocol as before: measure your max and perform 4 sets at 50% that time twice a week for 4 weeks.  If you can easily hold the frog stand for 20 seconds for all 4 sets then proceed to the next stage.

Notice in the first stage (second picture) that my head is not yet touching the ground.  This is the frog stand and when we are in this position we want to focus on being able to balance with just the hands.  As we move into the headstand (3rd and 4th pictures) the head comes in contact with the ground, try to make this contact as minimal as possible.  Focus on keeping the majority of the force on your hands.  Also, once we are in the headstand phase we want to keep the back straight, do not let it round or overextend.

It is important to take the training very slow.  Again the progression to use is:

  • Week 1: Measure maximum time you can hold the exercise
  • Week 2: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 3: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 4: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 5: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 6: Rest or Deload.  Perform 3 sets at 25% for deload.

Slowly as you progress you will be able to hold each exercise longer and with more confidence.  As you progress you should be able to take all the force of your head in the head stand and rely less and less on the wall for support.  One thing I’m learning with calisthenics as I attempt to master the handstand is that you can’t muscle your way through the exercises and more isn’t always better.  So get started and to quote Coach Sommers: “Make Haste, Slowly.”

Taking the next step

This video, by BarStarzz, shows a great training circuit for building the strength and mobility necessary to performing a straight arm press handstand. I took some of the ideas from this video and simplified them with some of the methods laid out in Building the Gymnastics Body.  If you want to take your handstand to the next level give the routine in this video a try, it’s harder than it looks, and it looks really hard.