The Beginner’s Guide to Handstands: Journey to the Upside-Down

I bet you’ve always wanted to do a handstand.

It’s okay, you can admit it.

It demonstrates balance and control over your body, something we happen to put great importance upon here at Nerd Fitness. It’s also one HELL of a party trick, something you can work on without a single piece of equipment, builds functional strength and muscular endurance, and it’s a skill you can work on in just a few minutes every single day.

How do I know this? Because I’m typing this while in a handstand RIGHT NOW. Okay, I can’t do that. But Jim, Master of the NF Fitness Universe, and our lead trainer for our 1-on-1 coaching program) can:

jim typing

I love working with gymnastic rings, because they have such a great tutorial level. Handstands are exactly the same way: it’s a great skill to work on as a beginner, but also is infinitely challenging depending on your skill level.

Plus, in addition to Jim, Luke Skywalker does them. It’s time to stop looking at other people doing cool things and start today saying “hey, I can do that too!”

Why handstands are awesome

Jim-Bathurst

Team Nerd Fitness member Jim Bathurst has been training and working on handstands for years.

From humble beginnings, he taught himself a standard handstand and eventually worked his way up to one-handed tricks like the photo above.

Fun fact: I can’t say the word inverted without thinking of Top Gun’s line “because we were inverted,” but that’s only because I used to watch that movie with my brother every day from ages 3 to 5.

I’ve fallen in love with handstands for a few reasons:

Like other bodyweight training, there’s no excuse. If you have room to stand up, you have room to practice handstands.

It recruits DOZENS of muscles in your body. From arm strength to wrist mobility to core strength to shoulder mobility and muscular endurance, handstands do it all. When you are trying to balance, it makes your body work as one complete unit.

It scares you – yes, that’s a positive. We grow outside our comfort zone and for many people, just the thought of a handstand is enough to make their palms sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. Vomi… nevermind. The point is that the handstand is just as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one.

How scared do you think this guy gets on a regular basis?

jim chair

The biggest challenge with handstands isn’t what you think

fear egg crush

Sure, we need to build strength to support ourselves upside-down, but even that hurdle is overblown.

A proper handstand actually starts to feel easy. That’s because once you’re balanced and aligned, it becomes uber efficient. Just as you don’t exert yourself much if you stand straight with good posture, a good efficient handstand is the same way… it will soon start to feel effortless.

Actually, the biggest hurdle to overcome – especially at the beginning – is the mental fear. The voice/feeling in the back of your head that says “you could get hurt doing this!” SCARY!

And I won’t sugar-coat things, you can hurt yourself working these skills… but it’s no different than if you walked into the gym first day, slapped 315 lbs on the bench press and gave it a go. Or went out and tried to run 13 miles without training. The exercise itself isn’t dangerous. Only if you approach it too fast.

If you wouldn’t load up a bar to 500 lbs your first day, why do so many people just kick and fling themselves up into a handstand, failing repeatedly, hoping one day they’ll “get” it? There’s a smarter way!

How do we overcome this fear and keep ourselves safe? Just like learning any other fitness skill: slow, easy, successful steps! These small victories accumulate over time to bring us to our goals safely while having a lot of fun.

Are you ready to learn?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on for ways to safely progress to handstand mastery!

The Safe Way To Start: Wrist and Shoulder Handstand Warm-up

For any handstand exercise, there is going to be a significant amount of stress on the hands and wrists… you’re not Cap! So, it’s important you stretch and warm things up.

Here is a video from our NF Handstands course going over some of our favorite wrist stretches to prepare to get upside-down. Go through each stretch about 10 times.

The shoulders are another stressed area in the handstand. There are several ways we can prepare them for work, but a few rounds of jumping jacks or even just arm circles will get the blood moving and the area ready.

Beginning Handstand Progression: Start Small and Level Up As You Get Stronger & More Confident

wall walk 2

For the first two weeks of your handstand journey, we’ll have you work with some balance drills and some positional drills.

Nothing too crazy, and in fact some of these might seem TOO EASY. That’s fine! That’s what we want, remember?

We’re using small victories to motivate us. Dropping you on your head in the quest for a handstand is not a way to motivate anyone. Well, maybe this guy.

We recommend you focus on four exercises: the wall walk, hollow body, quadruped rock, and crow pose:

Wall walks

wall walk

In this drill, we’ll get started right away working toward something that actually looks like a handstand! If you’re like me, you’ll probably get excited and start to overreach a bit at this point. But I believe in you: don’t let the enthusiasm and suspense get the best of you!

All we’re trying to do with this exercise is support our bodyweight on our straightened arms (just like the front plank or pushup).

So, the first level of this exercise is to simply get yourself up into the top of a pushup and hold. If that’s too hard,put your hands up on an elevated surface and/or rest on your knees and hands instead.

Once this is mastered, level up by simply lifting your hips in the air into a down dog position!

From here, it’ll be a matter of getting your feet onto a higher and higher surface. Note: putting your feet up something (I like bumper plates) even a few inches off the floor counts – small steps! As you progress, add more bumper plates (or whatever you’re using) so your feet are higher and higher.

Once you are supporting yourself with your feet on a high box, try walking your feet up the wall. (Think of it like a really tall box!)

Be careful at this step: Be sure you have enough energy to walk back down safely and second, and that you don’t walk too close to the wall and risk flipping onto your back!

See the part below on Pirouettes to safely exit these wall walks if you happen to “go over!”

With each of these variations, we’re looking to build up to a solid 15 seconds under control before moving forward.

Hollow body

hollow body

The hollow body is one of the best ways to to engage the midsection and stabilize the body. It will help to give your handstand a good shape. Do you need to master the hollow body to master the handstand? Not necessarily, as there are plenty of handstands out there that are a bit banana-shaped. But the hollow body will help you create a more efficient position.

Start by laying down a yoga or exercise mat on the ground and laying on the ground face up. Think about pressing your lower back down into the ground and engaging your midsection like you’re coughing. You should still be able to breath!

Once the midsection is set, tuck your knees to your chest and hold your shins like you’re getting ready for a wicked cannonball. Holding the shins will help you maintain that lower back and midsection position.

Still feeling good? Then try rocking! Rock your body forward and back slightly from the upper back to the lower back, like a rocking chair. Head and feet stay off the ground. If you are stable then you should move as one unit.

If you need more of a challenge, reach your arms by your ears, keep the knees tucked, and rock some more. Without the hands holding the shins, the midsection really has to keep engaged in order to give you a smooth rock.

Again, with any of these positions, build up to be able to rock for a full 15 seconds under control.

Quadruped Rock

quad rock

You may be thinking that feeling the balance of a handstand is going to be brutally difficult. Not so! We can start quite easily on our hands and knees in the quadruped position.

From here, we will simply rock forwards and backwards on our hands. Seem familiar? If you did the wrist mobility we described above, it’s the same motion! Isn’t that handy?

As you are rocking back and forth, feel where the weight rests in your hands. When you rock back, it sits more in the heel of your hands. When you rock forward, you’ll feel it in your knuckles and fingertips.

Where do we want it in the handstand? Right around the knuckles. This is a balanced spot – similar to the balance you find when standing. You don’t sit all your weight on your heels, and you don’t lean all your weight forward, gripping your toes hard into the ground, do you? Find and feel that balance when you rock.

Ready for the next step? Try Crow Pose.

Crow Pose

crow pose

To enter Crow Pose, move forward from the Quadruped Rock position so that your knees are on the outside of your arms. You can even bend the elbows a little and rest your legs on them.

Rock forward in the same manner as before, putting a little more weight on the hands and a little less weight on the feet.

Important: this isn’t Assassin’s Creed… We are not making a leap of faith here! Don’t jump!! We are simply looking for less and less weight on the feet.

Take things slow and easy – rising up on the toes when you can. When you are ready to pick the feet up and hold yourself off the ground on just your hands, it should come naturally.

Be sure to grab into the ground hard to hold and control yourself, and feel free to put down a pile of pillows or mats in front of you if you should fall!

All these rocking and balance drills can be done for several sets of 5-10 reps. Listen to your wrists and give things a rest as needed.

Wall Walks, Learn to Bail Safely!

As you start to get better with Wall Walks, and you practice getting closer and closer to completely vertical while upside down, there’s going to be instances where you start to “tip over.”

In order to safely return your feet to the ground, you’re going to want to do what we call a pirouette. Jim and I demonstrate how to do so here:

This is one of the most important skills you can learn as you develop your handstand practice, as it will allow you to safely exit any handstand without any risk of injury as you develop your balance!

Tips and Tricks

handstand tips

Nothing beats patience and hard work, but there are a few tips and tricks we can provide that will allow you the best chance for success.

Make sure you go through a proper warm-up: We’ve given you several options for the wrists and shoulders. Not only will a warm-up help prevent injury, but it will get the muscles and joints properly prepared to get the most out of your training.

Prioritize Your Handstand: You can work the skill on its own time, and it won’t interfere or be interfered by anything else, but what if you’re doing other exercises during your workout? When do you handstand?

The best time to work the balancing drills is at the beginning of your workout, after you’ve warmed up. These skills require concentration and a fresh focus to really benefit and progress with them. Trying to balance after you’ve exhausted yourself with a tough cardio session is an exercise in futility (pun intended).

The best time to work the positional drills would be sometime during your strength session, and before your cardio. These drills are not as dependent on completely fresh muscles, but we still don’t want to try and hold ourselves upside-down after a grueling workout.

Too much, too soon.

We’ve mentioned this a million times because it’s so important. Taking on too much too soon is a way to develop bad habits and possibly injure yourself. Take your time! Enjoy and really master each step!

Take it Easy: In the same vein, we want to look for success.

What do I usually see when people practice handstands: Someone kicking up 100 times and kinda getting a handstand once or twice. How much sense does that make?

While we might not be batting 1,000 with all our attempts, but we should be looking to successfully complete around 8 out of 10 attempts. If we’re not? Then we might have taken on too much, too soon!

The 5-Minute Rule: Practice Handstands Every Day and Be Amazed at What Happens

Commit to 5 minutes a day. That’s it. But do it every day.

If you want more instruction, a skill-tree leveling system, and exact directions on what to do, for how long, and when to advance, check out our course, NF Handstands.

I’ll see a lot of people go all in for a single handstand session, and then not touch the skill for a week or more. Dan Gable once said, “If it’s important, do it every day.” Now this is a simplification, but with handstands, this is ESPECIALLY important.

When you first start out, your arms and shoulder may only be able to do 5 minutes before they are DONE.

Doing them for a short time each day is the best strategy to improve strength, endurance, and balance.

Have you ever tried to kick up into a handstand?

What’s the one thing holding you back?

What questions can I answer?

-Steve

PS: In addition to our handstands course, we do also offer 1-on-1 instruction through our Online Coaching Program. Here you’ll get paired with a coach that will build a workout program and nutritional strategy with your specific goals in mind, like handstands, deadlifting, becoming more flexible, or all of the above!

You can schedule a free call with our team at the bottom of our Coaching Page to learn more about the program and we can see if we’re a good fit for each other!

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  • Adrian Chiru

    You had me at spaghetti

  • Mark Kinsley

    Great starter guide! When I developed and tested Kippo shorts, I had to learn a handstand so I could prove the pocket would keep a smartphone from falling out (we’re better than 99% when the device is inside a tacky case). Nice refresher! http://kipposhorts.com/

  • Erin

    I will use the core exercises, but I am afraid the actual handstand is not meant to be. I lose all proprioception when I’m upside down–seriously can’t tell you where my feet are. Been that way since I was a kid in gymnastics camp. I was great on the balance beam until they asked me to do a somersault. Even the crow pose falls apart as soon as my head is upside down. I figure it’s an inner ear thing…

  • AbrianC

    Awesome! No matter how much strength training I do, I never feel like I’m really improving my ability to climb around and do things with my muscles.

    So I’m back to body weight training, and my goal has been to do a handstand with splits. It’s been a slow process since the only training I knew was to wall walk and hold it, plus crunches. This guide will help for sure!

  • Corinne Dasher

    I’m a bit weird in that I used to be in gymnastics, and never worked up to a handstand. Moreover, I’ve since become afraid to do so much as a front roll (which I could do fine before), so I’m terrified of handstands. And MOREOVER, I’m still perfectly fine doing front or back rolls on a balance beam. Because that makes all kinds of sense. So I’m totally clueless what’s going on with my fears and how to properly counter them. All I know is that, even kicking up to a wall, I can’t get myself to kick hard enough because I’m scared, even though there’s no possible way I’m going to flop over with a wall behind me.

  • Ton Loc

    Quick question – So I’m fairly fit, strong, and lean compared to your average Joe. I flew through your beginner versions of the exercises and when I moved into the “advanced” versions, I discovered two things: 1) My balance is TERRIBLE (Crow pose for the next 6mos!) and 2) The inside (palm side) of my wrists have a considerable level of discomfort when I put more weight onto them in the advanced exercises. Is this a lack of strength or flexibility? It feels like the “ligaments” in my wrist aren’t happy to be stretched that far and under load. OOOOOOOR am I just a big dumb animal not using proper technique?

  • I haven’t done a handstand in a while.
    I found that a good lunge is also key to a good handstand.

    ps. I love kicking up into handstand.
    pps. now I need to get back into handstanding.

  • Jim Bathurst

    Erin, try the down dog position and see how it feels. As for the crow pose, keep the head higher (with only a slight bend in your elbows). This might not resolve any deeper issues, but it’s worth a shot. Good luck!

  • Jim Bathurst

    It’s all about taking things step by step, so that you build up success and confidence! We’ve given you a few things to work on here in this article, and something awesome planned for next week!

  • Jim Bathurst

    We’re all big dumb animals in a certain sense. Your wrists just might not be use to the load/stress being put on them right now. Stretch them before and after practice, and know when to call it a wrap for the day!

  • Jim Bathurst

    I love kicking up into a handstand too! We’re giving everyone something a little simpler here. The kick itself is a skill too!

  • ScaryJ

    These sound like a good set of instructions – its amazing what is possible when you have instructions on how to do it unlike 1990’s PE type teaching which was more along the lines of ‘bark at someone until they magically learn to do it’
    This is why I have only learnt to do chin ups and ride a bike as an adult.

  • Jim Bathurst

    Haha, also why no one ever learned to climb a rope. (I’ve made a video on YouTube about that too).

  • rhian

    Thank You once again for a great starter – will be practicing til the next step in lesson.
    On another note: I ran into some great Paleo recipes on a site called Peaceful Planet, if anyone wants to check it out.

    Thanks again!

  • Christina

    Practiced a little handstand against the wall last night! Love the article, and love all Jim’s ridiculous handstand pictures <3

  • Rémi

    How about the rush of blood that makes you feel like your head is gonna explode? what can I do about that?
    Otherwise it is a great article, I wanna train for handstands now…

  • Ulfi

    What about us overweight rebels? 95kg at 176cm. I know I have the strength but I am not so sure about my ligaments. I do not want to hurt my shoulders. 5min a day sounds way too much

  • run_brown_wolf

    This article is great! I just have one question going forward, and that is, let’s say that I have an epic training montage and months go by, and one day I find myself in a legit handstand. What should I do if I start to fall toward my back? Is there a safe way to fall out of a handstand?

  • Nnimn

    Sweet article (I’m actually motivated to do handstands again) -I died laughing at the Lose Yourself reference.

  • blaboy

    There are all kind of tutorials on youtube that discuss this, good luck!

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  • tricia

    I swear, I think PE teachers have done more to convince kids that fitness is hard/scary/not for them than anyone else on the planet!!

  • Emma Jennet

    When I hear the word ‘invert’, I think of pole dancing. Like when you have to flip yourself upside down on the pole… it’s brutal!

  • Sarah

    I got very excited to start working on this, but I found that when I try to put any weight toward the knuckle portion of my hand, I got excruciating pain shooting up the inside of just my right (dominate) wrist (palm side, toward the thumb). This happened with very little weight, while doing the quaduped rock. I stretched and warmed up first. Suggestions? Do I just need more stretching?

  • Pingback: How to get started with handstands. | Nerd Fitness()

  • run_brown_wolf

    Hey! I hope you have been playing with handstands since posting this. I have, and the rush of blood to my head isn’t as bad as it was at first. I have no idea if physiological changes have occurred or if I am simply used to it now, but a few things that I have done to help include practicing downward dog as a warmup and laying with my legs up a wall for twenty minutes a day to get my body used to the pull of gravity on my blood from another direction. These things have really helped me go upside down without as much discomfort. Have you been playing?

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  • Judy

    I was taking a yoga class years ago when the instructor had us try a handstand. She complimented me, said I really seemed to know what I was doing. I didn’t but that encouraged me to try harder & I ended up injuring my neck. I had to visit the chiropractor, never went back to that class. I just turned 75 recently, haven’t formally exercised in awhile although climbing 3 flights up/down & carrying (or dragging) things counts somewhat. I belong to a hiking club (I go to events-not hikes) & have younger friends I keep up with. I’m 4’11” wgt 91 lbs in pretty good shape except NOW I have bone on bone arthritis in left shoulder, right hip which hinders me many times. I intend to start a program w/a personal trainer but I don’t think handstands is on the menu.

  • Great post! I defiantly want to work on my hand stand.