What You Need to Know
When performing handstand push-ups, you should be aiming for these qualities simultaneously:
- Functional scapular motion (upward/downward rotation, protraction/retraction, elevation, and depression)
- Sufficient diaphragmatic control (core control) to overcome lumbar hyperextension
- Reduced cervical hyperextension (NOT cranking neck “up” to look “down” to the floor.)
- Global tension from peripheral parts of the body.
Many exercise classes and gyms will be attracted to the most attractive exercise or “flavor of the month” exercise that your respective gyms’ may represent. For better or worse, handstand push-ups often get clumped into these favorite “lists”, and are more or less are executed with insufficient technique. I could see the appeal of wanting to be upside down – it’s cool. It’s fun. Often times people need to view the world from a different view, in order to “progress” both from a physical and metaphorical point of view.
With that being said, whenever you take an exercise and apply it to the mainstream public without understanding the implications of “proper” technique and movement within the confines of a supposedly “strength and conditioning program”, you can get many interpretations of one exercise.
(In the grand scheme of things, many “handstand push-ups” are probably better served being called “headstand push-ups”, because the movement will in many cases, stop when the athlete or dancer reaches end-range – their head makes contact with the floor as they descend downwards.)
In the Beginning…
Around 10 or so years ago, I was watching VHS tapes of bboys and dancers doing some pretty acrobatic movements. This was pre-YouTube, and DVDs were just catching on, so not many people, including my family, had a DVD player. This was a fun time for discovery, because the internet was increasing in popularity (this was around Windows 2000-ish), and I remember having to find clips of people doing freezes and awesome powermoves before obviously, attempting to fail at them myself. The best instruction I had at the time was through reading text, and I can remember practicing capoeira in the play room with my cousins based off of these scripts for the moves. (I had a pretty decent ginga for never seeing it at the time, and later seeing it a few years later.)
Now, since I was a full fledged capoeirista, and budding bboy, I decided now was a great time to get stronger to power-up for my moves.
After performing push-ups to failure many times, I naturally moved towards the best progression – handstand push-ups. With my lithe, 120ish-lb frame, I hoisted myself up to the wall and performed what seems like a few handstand push-ups, but ultimately never excelling in the strength movement initially.
But since I was a full fledged bboy, what else was I to show off with? I couldn’t master the extreme movements of control seen in the hollowback and inverts, largely in part that whenever I pushed my end range, I usually subluxed my shoulders anteriorly (I found out later, that I am hypermobile.) So I got to thinking that I could perhaps utilize my head in the freeze, – or the dynamic stopping on a dime to exaggerate a portion of the song – and just do headstands. So I worked on transitioning in and out of that freeze. It’s the least I could do.
Now fast forward 10 years. I’m 160 on a good day, and I’d like to say a little stronger as well.
Further, I don’t feel like I pop out of my shoulders when I reach my end range of shoulder flexion during a handstand freeze! So what have I performed differently, and how can you better approach your handstands so you don’t need to wait years on years to perform these exercises?
Exploring the Movement
For starters, getting used to being upside down is a large shift in direction for the majority of those who are just looking to explore movement. You might never need to be upside down, and in all honesty you don’t need to perform the handstand push-up. If you’re goal is to increase muscle mass or lose fat, this movement (and skill) is largely unnecessary.
However, if your dance requires it, you want to pass some lasers, or if you want to perform it for any combination of those movements, then yes approaching the handstand can get a little tricky if unawares of the intricacies involved.
Before I star in anymore of the Ocean’s Eleven sequels (Ocean’s 14 starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon… and me), I’ll stick to helping you with the movement and technique involved with performing handstands.
With that being said, I recommend reading The Push-Up Series Part 1, 2, and 3, if you are having issues with normal push-ups.
Troubleshooting the Handstand Push-Up
When performing the handstand, keep these points in mind:
1. Brace abdominals (specifically, your obliques). Doing this appropriately will bring your ribcage closer to your pelvis, as opposed to further, which aims to aid force production from the floor, to your hands, to your arms, to your core, to your hips and then your feet. This is key if you want to perform free standing push-ups AWAY from the wall later on as a progression.
2a. If using PVC pipes or dumbbells for your hands, grip them tight. This will allow your rotator cuff to fire more appropriately, and if anything will serve to facilitate movement via the mechanism of the next tip.
2b. If you aren’t holding anything in your hands, but have your palms flat on the floor, imagine spreading the floor apart as if you were trying to rip a hole in the floor. This will serve to fire your shoulders’ external and upward rotators eccentrically as you descend into the bottom position of the handstand, which will aim to guide your scapulae down and back.
3. Now that you are bracing your stomach and gripping an implement, keep global tension through the rest of your body (butt muscles, quadzillas, and calves for days). If you are “loose” in any of these movements, it could affect the rest of the kinetic chain in a negative fashion.
4. *BONUS* Tip: Play with the position of your neck to facilitate different results. In other words, look towards the floor, and see how it feels. Afterwards, bring your ears in line with your arms (or biceps if you’re gunny like me) and aim to have your eyes looking forward, which will more or less keep your neck in a neutral position.
I prefer to have my neck and eyes looking forward when performing handstand push-ups against the wall, and I tend to keep my cervical neck in neutral (as opposed to cranking my eyes towards the floor). Asseman et al noted that there were no increases in performance with the neck in hyperextension (looking “up” when standing, or “down” when inverted) vs a neutral neck (1).
Despite this, I view this exercise in the eyes of a relative strength exercise, YET… this exercise has many nuances involved with the vestibular-visual system, which means they are involved with balance and proprioceptive awareness as well. It is often for this reason among others that this exercise may not be preferable to be performed for any specific person – some folk belong upside down, and some will take a bit longer to respond appropriately.
From a muscular and biomechanical point of view, I can make a justification that if your neck is cranked into hyperextension, your upper traps and levator scapulae, among other muscles, could be recruited into what I understand to be synergistic dominance, or “overusing” the “wrong” muscles. (The “correct” muscles that help with the handstand push-up involve the upward rotators and protractors of the scapulae, along with those muscles controlling the movement eccentrically downwards.)
So keep these points in mind when you are using handstand push-ups for training, and feel and perform better when you are out on the dance floor or in the gym.
Keep it funky.
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