Of all of the impressive fitness moves that show up on my Instagram “Explore” page, the handstand push-up wins the top spot. On their own, handstands and push-ups are no joke, and when you put them together? It’s enough to make my upper body hurt just thinking about it. But as difficult as they appear, with the right training they’re totally possible for us mere mortals to achieve. Keep reading for everything you need to know about mastering the move that’s sure to make you stronger… and impress your Instagram followers in the process.
Benefits of the handstand push-up
Obviously, a handstand push-up is a great way to burn out your upper body because you’re using those muscles to lift and lower the entirety of your weight. “It’s a great exercise for toning your shoulders, triceps, and—to a lesser extent—your chest muscles,” says personal trainer Mike Matthews, CSCS, founder of Legion Fitness. “It also works your core, glutes, and legs because you have to contract these muscles to maintain your balance throughout each rep.”
While handstands and push-ups individually work each of these muscles, putting the moves together gives you a whole lot more bang for your buck. “Compared to the handstand, the handstand push-up is much more effective for building strong, defined shoulders,” says Matthews. “And compared to the push-up, the handstand push-up emphasizes the shoulders more than the chest and goes a long way toward improving your balance and coordination.”
How to build up to doing a handstand push-up
Since this move falls into the “advanced” category of the fitness world, you’ll want to be sure you’re properly prepping your body before you drop down and attempt to give a (vertical) 20. To do this, Matthews suggests focusing on improving your strength, coordination, and mobility.
Understandably, holding a handstand and pushing your bodyweight over your head requires some serious upper-body strength. “You need to improve your general upper-body pressing strength by doing lots of heavy barbell and dumbbell overhead pressing,” says Matthews. If you’re new to weight training, start with a lighter weight and work your way up to the heavier options.
“This exercise trains the same muscles as the handstand push-up, but allows you to gradually increase the weight over time so you can work your way up to pressing close to your body weight.” For what it’s worth, you don’t actually need to be able to overhead press the barbell equivalent of your bodyweight before you’re ready to try a handstand push-up, but training your body in this way will set the foundation for the strength you need to do it in the actual move.
In addition to upper-body strength, you’ll also want to be sure your core is strong enough to hold you up. Classic planks are great for targeting the area, and doing them with the correct form will help you learn how to properly engage your core. And if you need even more abs-spiration, this list of handstand-friendly core moves is a great place to start.
Another helpful building block to improve your strength is the negative handstand push-up, which is like the real thing’s little sister. “This involves getting into the starting position of the handstand push-up, slowly lowering your body until your head touches the floor, and then lowering your feet to the floor and ending the rep instead of pushing yourself back up into the starting position,” says Matthews. Try to repeat this for as many reps as you can with proper form, take a break and rest for a few minutes, then cycle through two more sets.
2. Balance and coordination
For most of us, being upside down feels pretty unnatural, so you’ll want to take the time to get your body used to the feeling of literally being flipped on its head. “The hardest part for many people is simply getting into the proper starting position, so focus on this at first,” says Matthews. Before going into a full handstand, you may want to try a modified, more supported version first.
“Walk your feet up the wall and [walk your] hands towards the wall so you finish with your chest facing the wall,” Mike Aidala, a strength and wellness coach in Denver, previously told Well+Good. “Getting comfortable being upside down is the key, and this exercise helps build strength to hold a handstand in the middle of the room. Once you’re at the wall keep your arms straight. Look between your thumbs and focus on your breathing,” he adds.
Once you’ve got that down, you’re ready to try kicking up into the real deal—but again, start slowly. “Play with different hand positions, kicking harder or more softly, and so forth. It can also be helpful to have a friend act as a spotter to catch you if you start to fall,” says Matthews. After you’ve mastered the basic handstand—and can hold it safely, without a spotter, for at least 30 seconds— you’ll be ready to add the push-up element into the mix.
How to do a handstand push-up
1. Set up
Start by placing a yoga mat or pad near the wall—which will help to cushion your palms while you’re in your handstand—and face the wall. Place your palms six to 12 inches from the wall shoulder-width apart. “Be sure to grip against the floor to evenly distribute the weight across your hands, and improve your balance,” says Matthews. This will come in handy later on.
2. Kick up
With your hands and feet on the floor, get your body into a pike push-up position with your arms straight and your knees slightly bent. Keeping your arms straight, kick against the floor with your legs, lean forward, and swing your lower body into a handstand position against the wall. “You’ll probably mess this up a few times—don’t worry about it,” says Matthews.
3. Hold up
To hold the handstand with proper form, “contract your core, glutes, and quads, straighten your toes, and push your hands hard into the floor so your whole body forms a straight line from head to toe,” says Matthews, adding that you should be thinking about engaging these muscles throughout the duration of the exercise. “A common mistake is to let your butt and chest flair out in opposite directions. While this often feels easier in the moment, it actually makes the exercise more difficult, especially when you try to ascend.”
4. Push up
Now, for the real challenge. “Brace your core and bend your elbows to slowly lower your whole body until the top of your head grazes the floor. Allow your ankles to slide down the wall as you descend,” says Matthews. “Once your head touches the floor, push hard into the floor with your hands to drive your body upward and return to the starting position.” Be sure not to put any weight on your head at the bottom of the move (this is a handstand, not a headstand, after all), and push back up immediately after it (gently) makes contact with the floor. Et voila—you’re well on your way to impressing your Instagram followers with perfect form.
Need some help building that pre-handstand push-up upper-body strength? Follow along with the video below.
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