In case you missed it, make sure to check out Part 1 in the Yoga for Climbers blog series to learn more about strengthening and balancing your shoulders.
Handstands are just as technique-based as climbing. Of course we need strength to hold us upside-down, however, refining and building on your technique will quickly advance your handstand practice.
As climbers, practicing handstands is an awesome way to strengthen your oppositional, pushing strength. You'll also practice your balance, enhance body and spatial awareness, and have a lot of fun. Don't be intimidated, we'll provide an approachable, progressive and safe way to build the strength and learn the technique.
Practice the next few healthy alignment adjustments on your hands and knees in tabletop pose. These alignments will assist your stability in handstand and also help keep your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints healthy!
All your weight rests on your hands and vulnerable wrists, so let's start there. Ensure that you spread your fingers wide to provide a big base of support. Take the distribution of your weight off of your wrist joints and into your pointer finger knuckle. This spot on your hand is structurally the strongest part of your hand and can handle the majority of your weight. Putting your weight here also assists your balance. If you need an experiment to prove this, stand on the balls of your feet with your heels lifted. Notice where your weight and balance naturally is, when you lose balance, where does it reorient and come back? Is it when you are on your big toe knuckle mound? That's where it should be! Your big toe knuckle mound is structurally equivalent to your pointer finger knuckle.
Warm up your forearms thoroughly in tabletop by rocking your body forwards, backwards, and sideways, changing the position of your hands (fingers forward, toward each other, sideways, and backwards all with your palms down). If you skip this step you will have a hard time aligning your wrists, shoulders, and hips. Warm them up so much that you can lean your shoulders over your wrists in tabletop and plank. You'll find that you have very tight forearms if you neglect stretching your forearms out. (Note: This kind of stretching is not recommended before you climb!)
Next, rotate the crease of your elbow (the non-boney side) toward the front of the room. Another way to think about this rotation is biceps point toward the front of the room, triceps toward the back. This is external rotation in your shoulder joint. There is no need to crank your arms into this rotation, just find a comfortable, healthy place without too much force. I talked about this healthy shoulder alignment in Part 1 of this blog series, check it out for more in-depth information regarding this!
In downward facing dog and/or plank, keeping the above two adjustments, add a pushing motion from your shoulders into the ground. Because of the external alignment we just practiced, your shoulders won't come up snug to your ears. You should feel your shoulder blades wrapping around the sides of your body and broadening on your back. This is the oppositional strength you'll gain throughout a handstand practice. While climbing we are pulling, and our shoulder blades move toward each other and squeeze together. In handstands, our shoulder blades and shoulder joints are moving in opposition.
Practice these above three alignments in downward facing dog. You'll build strength toward handstands practicing these alone! If you can hold downward dog for a period of time keeping these alignments you absolutely have the strength to handstand.
Let's move on to the next progression, L-Dog. Find downward dog with your heels at the point of where the wall meets the floor. Walk your feet up the wall and bring your body into an L shape. Align your hips over your shoulders, shoulders over your knuckles. Look at the wall to bring your spine completely neutral, and find those alignments we talked about. Hold for five to ten seconds. Maybe challenge yourself to lift one leg and then the other.
Moving on, we'll find the vertical line. I practice and teach handstands against the wall before I move to the middle of the floor. This is to help us gain strength and get comfortable with being upside-down. As you can see in the video, I demonstrate the belly-in versus belly-out wall handstand. When you handstand against the wall, make sure that you hold your handstands with your belly against the wall instead of belly out. The belly-out wall handstand creates poor alignment patterns in your handstands; your body instantly arches and you lose all abdominal contraction strength. The belly-in and nose-touching approach lets us practice optimal alignment and challenges our bodies to strengthen and work hard. Walk your feet up the wall and move your hands as close in as you can. Ideally your nose touches the wall and you find a complete vertical line with your body. You'll build immense strength with this exercise.
If you are ready to leave the wall but do not feel 100% confident I suggest you practice handstands one arm's length away from the wall. Measure where to put your hands, one arm's length away from the wall. Walk up the wall (belly-in), and practice holding it with one foot lifted into half handstand. Begin to slightly take weight off of your toes on the wall and bring your feet together as you are ready. Find the balance point in your alignment. Keep your core engaged and if your ankles go over your head one tactic is to claw the ground with your fingers. This helps activate your balancing muscles and reorient your alignment.
Once you feel confident and comfortable holding against the wall, as well as falling out of handstand from the wall, move on to handstands in the middle of the room. You can always ask someone to spot you, watch the video for spotting technique. Kicking up to handstand is not a bad way to begin practicing without the wall.
Place your hands on the ground not too far from your feet. As I demonstrate in the video, lift one leg and kick up, keeping your legs in a split position. Focus mainly on kicking your hips over your shoulders, instead of your legs over your torso. Be in control and try to correct the arch that tends to go into the back when you kick up by engaging your core and bringing your tailbone toward the heels. Align your knuckles, hips, shoulders, and ankles!
A more advanced way to enter handstand is the press handstand. Pressing looks impossible for those who haven't mastered the technique, but can be learned with a few technical tidbits. A great drill to begin learning presses is press walks, demonstrated in the video. Make sure you warm up your forearms and are able to lean your shoulders over your wrists in plank before you begin your press practice. Forearm flexibility is an essential step to pressing; if your forearms aren't flexible you can increase your flexibility by doing the stretches seen in the video.
Press walks (and pressing) is all about transferring weight off of your feet and onto your hands. This is done by leaning your hips over your wrists and strongly engaging your core. If you need a little extra lift put your feet up on blocks. With a lean and a core engagement you will be able to find a bit of lightness in your feet, then bring your feet in as close to your hands as you can. For more strength building bring your feet in between your hands or even pause and touch your toes above your wrists, hovering your feet off the ground, and then place them in between your hands. As your press walks progress keep the lift of your feet by continuing to lean your hipsand engaging your core (belly draws up into spine).
In full straddle press there are a couple of super helpful actions to take. Begin your weight transfer and lean that you did in the press walks. Continue the lift of the hips by both broadening your sit bones and strong core engagement; really lift your belly! Broaden out your upper back, pushing the ground away and coming into a 'cat' back, or a round upper back. See the video below for a couple looks at the press.