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'I practised handstands every day for 2 weeks - here's what happened'

Doing a handstand has never been a goal of mine. While I admire people who can handstand walk in the gym - and perform gymnastic-related antics generally - embodying grace, poise and stability, I know I'm so far removed from that level of ability that I don't bother trying. Defeatist? Moi? As someone who is also petrified of heights and inversions, handstands are, again, an obvious no-go.

Strength training and resistance training are usually my preferred fitness pursuits in the gym, due to a desire to increase muscle mass and ward off sarcopenia (the loss of strength and muscle mass with increasing age and declining activity). After breaking my arm in Year 8 and being made aware of the dangers of brittle bones, I decided to take up strength training to prevent osteoporosis, as it's been shown to improve bone density.

Generally, I do a mixture of cardio (rowing and cycling), functional fitness and basic Olympic lifting technique at London's Gymbox. I don't really get involved in (what I would call) more advanced calisthenics - pistol squats, dips and kipping pull-ups are all moves I shy away from.

Basically, there was a lot of angst and baggage involved before I even came anywhere near this challenge. To straighten me out and break down the technique of this tall order are David Wiener, training specialist at AI-based fitness and lifestyle coaching app, Freeletics, and Chris Pratt, trainer at Move Fulham.

As always with these fitness challenges, this is indicative of my experience alone. The rate at which I (don't) progress and the ease or difficulty I find I have with the movements is not a reflection of what anyone else may go through. If you're unsure about a new fitness regime, check with a qualified fitness pro.

How to do a handstand with good form

The straight line handstand is 'a difficult skill to master,' admits Pratt. 'It can take years to perfect your form or ‘line’.

'To do so correctly involves:

  • Your hands at shoulder width, your middle fingers facing forwards, your fingers spread wide and your finger tips gripping the floor;

  • Your eyes looking through your eyebrows, between your hands;

  • Your shoulders should be stacked over your hands;

  • Your hips are over your fingertips and your feet and toes are over your wrists; and

  • For extra marks, your toes are pointed to the ceiling and your chin is neutral (don’t flare at your neck).'

How do you progress to doing a handstand from not being able to do one at all?

As Pratt advises, 'In order to hold a proficient handstand, there are some pre-requisites. These include adequate overhead mobility, shoulder stability, and body or core control.'

You also need to 'become comfortable being upside down' by '[spending] more time in the position,' Pratt recommends, which brings me no small amount of apprehension.

Here are his progressions:

1.Wall-facing handstands

Pratt suggests 'beginning with wall-facing handstands. To start with,' Pratt continues, 'set yourself up in a downward dog position with heel pressed into the wall. From here, lift one leg at a time up the wall to create a 45-degree angle. If you feel comfortable here, you can begin to walk your hands towards the wall and feet higher up.

'Over time, the aim is to take your nose to the wall, with just the tops of your toes pressed into it for stability. Start with 10-15 second holds and aim to build towards 45-60 seconds.'

2. Box-facing or press handstand

Pratt advises: 'Set your feet on a box or bench and walk your hands towards it until your hips are stacked over hands. This is a great exercise for perfecting the alignment of your hips over your hands.

'Once comfortable here, you can practise lifting off one leg at a time and finding upper-half alignment.' He also recommends 'filming yourself from side on so you can reference your form.

'Start with 5-10 second holds and aim to build towards 20-30 seconds (eventually removing both feet from the box in an effort to find balance).'

Which muscles do handstands work?

Wiener says that 'Handstands are a great exercise to work all of your upper-body muscles, including your triceps, shoulders, traps and lats. Once you’ve got perfect form, you will also engage your core and glutes. However, it’s not just a strength exercise, as handstands require good balance, concentration and flexibility as well.'

Pratt's take on it? 'When coaching handstands, I consistently reference ‘body tension’. For me this refers to the necessary recruitment of your calf, quad, hip and shoulder muscles required to hold a line.

'But more specifically, pelvic control, core strength and shoulder strength (in range) are the most important areas. The good news is that both of these will evolve simply by getting upside down in the correct positions.'

What are the benefits of doing handstands?

The way Pratt sees it, 'The handstand is simply the cherry on top of the cake. Whilst they are incredibly fun to pursue and to eventually hold, they aren’t exactly the most important element of human movement. We do not move upside down, after all!' That said, there are many benefits.

1.Improve strength and mobility

Wiener says that 'Handstands really are a fantastic all-round exercise', as 'they can improve your strength, flexibility and coordination'. Pratt agrees: 'The pursuit of a handstand involves becoming stronger in complex positions, improved mobility, increased body awareness and better pelvic control.'

Substantiating their assertions, a study in Isokinetics and Exercise Science shows that handstand training increases the muscle activity around your shoulder, while another study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning reveals that handstand straining develops strength of your upper-body muscles such as your traps, pecs, lats, biceps and deltoids.

2. Improve mental discipline

Pratt notes that conquering a handstand displays 'the focus and discipline required to master a new skill, and the satisfaction that comes with doing so', while Wiener speaks of increased concentration.

Backing them up is a study in the Journal of Physical Education and Sport, which finds that gymnastics is beneficial for improving mental focus and concentration.

3. Improved blood flow

'Handstands increase blood flow throughout your body, which can strengthen your immune system,' continues Wiener.

A study in Frontiers in Medicine finds that handstands promote cerebrovascular health AKA blood flow to the brain and even delay aging signs.

Tips for fear of falling

Pratt empathises: 'It is natural to be scared of falling and intimidated to start. My advice? Find a friend to practice with. Or better, a coach. That's obviously an expensive option, but there're more gyms now offering handstand-specific classes and these will always be your quickest route to success.'

Two of the easiest ways to conquer your fears that Pratt recommends are:

1. Learn how to fall safely

'This is best done with a coach (or someone who understands the transition),' says Pratt.

Wiener echoes him: 'If you are scared or heights and falling, the first step to dealing with these fears is to accept falling could happen, and to have a plan for when it does. If you are trying to complete a handstand and begin to fall off balance, you can try rolling forward to avoid falling on your face and hurting yourself.'

2. Improve your overhead mobility and strength

'The more stable you feel on your hands, the less fearful it is,' Pratt advises.

'You should work on your shoulder strength before trying to complete handstands, as your shoulders are what will help a successful handstand,' Wiener agrees. 'Try exercises such as dead hangs - hanging from a pull-up bar for as long as possible - to improve muscle strength.'

My experience

Day 1: Because I'm a newbie, I'm deciding to incorporate some beginner progression exercises, starting with this wall-facing handstand that Pratt suggests.

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Wall-facing handstand Hearst Owned

Day 2: Pratt suggests the press handstand as the next progression, which I attempt. It feels OK, but trying to lift both feet off just proves impossible.

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Box-facing handstandHearst Owned

Day 3: I've practised handstands against the wall in some functional fitness and calisthenics classes at Gymbox, mainly with instructor and PT Bianca Pegrume.

Wiener suggests that, 'To successfully perform a handstand with good form, it’s important to work on all the beginning steps first, such as leg kicks. Once you’ve mastered a handstand against a wall, you can begin to perform handstands on your own.

  1. Stand one length from the wall.

  2. Put your hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart.

  3. Spread out your fingers, which will help with your balance and control over the movement.

  4. Keeping your eyes fixed on a specific point on the floor between your hands, lift one foot off the ground and kick it up against the wall.

  5. Do the same with the other foot, making sure to activate your core muscles to help kick your legs up.

Rather than kicking up with one leg, I usually 'bunny hop,' as Pegrume says, where you kick up with both feet, while both hands are on the ground. I find this much easier.

Pratt echoes Wiener in terms of wall kicks being the next progression. To become comfortable kicking up, 'split time between kicking up to a wall and kicking up in open space. The wall is without doubt the best tool for developing handstand conditioning and alignment.'

The first time I did this a few years ago, having my hips stacked vertically over my hands set off my fear of being upside down and of falling over. My chin wasn't neutral, as I didn't like looking at the world the wrong way round. It all seemed very unnatural and precarious.

Today, it takes a few tries to get my legs up to the wall, and I find my instinctive aversion to that feeling of my centre of gravity shifting flaring up. Even when I manage it, there's always a moment that seems to last forever before my feet hit the wall - I feel like I have no control and am just waiting for the momentum of the kick to push my body into position.

Day 4: One of the drills in a previous calisthenics class with Pegrume involved single-leg lowers, which I repeat today:

Day 5: After a functional fitness class, one member working on their handstand walks tells me about shifting your weight from one hand to the other, which I try. Initially, I struggle, feeling super unstable, and I don't want to take either of my hands off the ground. However, at one point it sort of clicks and I see how it's about using your shoulder to bear the load.

Day 6: One of Pegrume's calisthenics classes involves drills trying to jump to free-standing handstands. I sort of clumsily end up jumping to tuck handstands. My legs never fully straighten out, but there are a few joyous, fleeting moments where I feel weightless, and I glimpse what full stability would be like.

Days 7-10: More of the same: press handstands on a box, kicking up to wall handstands, weight shifts and leg lowers. It does seem to be getting easier to kick up with one leg and I'm getting more comfortable with the process of being upside down.

Day 11: One of Pegrume's classes involves some wall walks, which I do in addition to some handstand practice.

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Wall walks in PegrumeHearst Owned

Day 12: So as not fall into the trap of Pratt's 'over-reliance' on the wall - 'it can just prolong the ability to kick and hold' - I gingerly try to lift one foot and then the other off the wall, with little success apart from the odd snatched second.

I also try again to jump, either with one or both legs, into a free-standing handstand, with little success. Plonking my hands on the floor, I just end up jumping repeatedly a few feet in the air. It's definitely one of my more ungainly moments.

Day 13: At one of Pegrume's functional fitness classes, she teaches us handstand push-ups, which involve 'bending your knees and kicking up as hard as you can'. Again, I find these very challenging.

Day 14: I try the handstand push-ups again, as well as the regular drill of kick ups, leg lowers and weight shifts. I seem to be fairly comfortable against the wall, but the free-standing handstand appears as elusive as ever.

handstand challenge
Trying unsuccessfully to handstand push-upKate Cheng - Hearst Owned

What handstand progressions can you do?

It seems telling that Wiener's first response is: 'You can only say you have accomplished a handstand once you’re able to hold yourself up in the handstand position for at least 30 seconds. If you can’t, you need to keep working on your form before you try to progress onto the next level.' I clearly did not make it past this.

'Once you are completing the perfect handstand, you can begin to try different variations such as a scorpion handstand, which requires different levels of strength and flexibility,' says Wiener. A scorpion handstand is where your spine arches in the handstand and your feet come towards the crown of your head.

Pratt suggests progressions that include the tuck, where your legs are bent towards your chest, and straddle, where your legs are spread wide. 'Beyond this you have a press handstand (shifting weight forwards into your hands and seamlessly lifting both legs at the same time), a one-arm balance and the walking straight line handstand.'

3 things I learnt

1. Handstands involve shoulder and upper-body strength

It's kind of stupid, and I'm really not sure why this was a surprise, but I thought it'd involve more core stability, sense of balance and coordination, and not as much reliance on arms and shoulders. I'd viewed it as a technical balancing exercise that involved some strength, rather than a strength exercise that involved balance. While I will still need to address my core tension, it gives me hope, as I consider my upper-body stability to be one of my stronger points.

2. I became more comfortable with looking like a fool

Looking silly by completely mis-gauging the height and only jumping a pathetically short distance off the ground, or only being able to bend my arms a few degrees in the push-up, made me let go of the self-consciousness around looking ridiculous that I'd previously had with handstands, and just lean into the beginner status of being rubbish.

While I wouldn't say that I've gotten used to, or particularly enjoy, the sensation of my stomach doing flips, doing all the variations was enjoyable and it was surprising how little changes could make such a difference. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll even learn to fall.

3. It was satisfying to address my fear of heights

Being upside down and doing anything inversion-related definitely isn't where I'd choose to be, but it felt good to challenge my fear of heights head(stand) on. It'll take probably another 1000 reps at least before I'm so comfortable with that sense of weight shifting and my stomach dropping that I'm, say, happy with going on roller coasters or down in a glass lift, but there is some sense of accomplishment in trying to tackle such a long-(hand)standing (sorry), deep-rooted and instinctive aversion.

My conclusion

Even though it was definitely a struggle - expectedly - I'll keep trying to get better at these, and am leaning into doing more 'acrobatic', technical movements. Thinking along the same lines as Pratt, I think I neglected them because they didn't seem like an 'essential' movement, and I was focusing on building basic strength before. However, now that I've become more accustomed to exercising with weights, I'm ready to practise another skill set and to try to develop into a more well-rounded mover.

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