Inversions might seem intimidating at first, if not downright impossible, but a handstand is an achievable goal for any active person with the right mindset, says Heidi Kristoffer, a New York City–based yoga instructor. All it takes is a few weeks of dedicated daily practice, according to Kristoffer.
A handstand is a lot more than a neat party trick. Not only does it work upper-body and core strength, it also trains balance, body awareness, deep breathing, focus, and discipline—skills that are transferable to every mountain sport and outdoor activity, as well as daily life. “You have to be in the present to balance on your hands. You can’t be thinking or worrying about something else,” Kristoffer says. “Handstand pose grounds your breath, helps you clear your head, and forces you into the moment.”
Kristoffer recommends the exercises below to help build the necessary strength and confidence to finally add the move to your repertoire. “Handstands come down to fear for most people,” she says. “Step one is to get comfortable being upside down on your arms, then you can progress to balancing on your hands and eventually perfect your form.”
If it takes a little longer than anticipated, don’t give up. “When you’re practicing, it’s easy to get frustrated, but just remember, your body has been in the other direction your whole life,” says Kristoffer. “Take a breath, give yourself time to learn this completely new skill, and approach it with levity.”
First, it’s important that you’re injury-free and healthy. Handstands place stress on the wrists and shoulders and require adequate mobility in the lower back and hamstrings. If you have any pain in these areas, hold off until you’re back in action. A good warm-up is essential to injury prevention. Begin with a yoga session or your favorite moves to loosen up and open your shoulders and activate your arm, core, and back muscles.
As you work toward the real deal, start with the first three moves of this exercise progression, and continue until you find them easy and comfortable before moving on to practicing a handstand pose with a wall. Move at your own pace, and remember, consistent practice is key.
“L” Handstand at Wall
What it does: Builds arm and core strength, helps you get comfortable upside down on your arms, and encourages proper hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder alignment.
How to do it: Stand with your back to a wall. Bending forward at the waist, position your hands on the floor in front of you exactly shoulder width apart. Your hands should be a leg length away from the wall. (To determine the correct distance from the wall, sit on the ground facing it with straight legs. Inch forward until your feet touch the wall. Then place your hands at your hips to mark the distance. This is where your hands should eventually be placed, which ensures your hips will be eventually be directly in line with your arms and torso.)
Spread your fingers and press your palms flat on the ground. Walk your feet up the wall until your legs are parallel to the floor—this will center your hips over your body. Be mindful that your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders are all in line on each side. Hold the pose for 20 seconds to a minute or as long as you can maintain good form. As soon as you start to shake or lose proper form, walk your feet back down the wall and rest. Make the exercise harder by aiming one leg at a time toward the ceiling.
“Arm alignment is really important so that your shoulder and back muscles don’t go into overdrive,” says Kristoffer. “People new to handstand often make the mistake of placing their hands too wide, because it feels like a better base to balance on, but in doing so, you’re crushing your shoulder muscles and rhomboids and risk injuring yourself.”
Volume: Five to seven repetitions. If you cannot hold the position for 30 seconds at a time, break it down into shorter durations, such as three ten-second holds with a short rest between each, until you build up the endurance.
What they do: Continue to build arm and core strength as you practice entering a handstand without the risk of flipping over backwards.
How to do them: From a standing forward bend, place your palms flat on the ground, shoulder width apart, roughly six or more inches away from a wall. Check to ensure your arms form a straight line. Raise one leg in the air, then hop with the other to launch your feet straight overhead. Lightly tap the wall with your heel, then return your feet to the ground for one repetition. Repeat, and switch the hopping leg every set.
Volume: Three to four sets of ten reps
Crane (Crow) Pose
What it does: Trains balance on your hands, while continuing to improve body awareness and arm and core strength.
How to do it: Squat with your feet a few inches apart and your palms pressed flat on the floor, directly below your shoulders. Position your knees just wider than your hips, and press them into your upper arms as high you can. Stand up on your toes, and lean forward to place the weight of your torso on your upper arms (through your knees). Continue leaning forward until your feet leave the ground. Find your balance, and hold for 20 seconds to a minute or as long as you can. Slowly tip back into a squat to get out of the pose.
It’s OK to keep your elbows bent and focus only on balance, but to perfect your form, work toward straightening your arms.
Volume: Five to seven reps
Handstand with Wall
What it does: Allows you to practice a handstand without the fear of flipping over backwards.
How to do it: Start this as you would for wall kick-ups. From a standing forward bend, place your palms flat on the ground, shoulder width apart, one to two feet away from a wall. Check to ensure your arms form a straight line. Raise one leg in the air, then hop with the other to push your legs overhead, but try not to touch the wall. Find your center point of balance, and hold there for as long as you can.
If you feel like you’re going to fall backwards, slowly bend one of your legs and use the wall for support. You might need to use the wall frequently when you first start, but attempt to use it less and less until you’re comfortable without it.
Volume: Practice daily until you’re comfortable without the wall.
What it does: Improves upper-body and core strength, balance, body awareness, deep breathing, and focus.
How to do it: Get in the position for a standing forward bend. Plant your palms firmly on ground, exactly shoulder width apart so that your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders are all aligned. Spread out your fingers to create a stable base. Raise one leg in the air, then take progressively larger hops with the other to eventually position your hips directly over your shoulders. “If you take a leap that’s slightly enthusiastic, your fingertips can act as your brake,” says Kristoffer. “Really press into those fingertips so you don’t feel like you’re going to tip over backwards.”
Keep your legs split, and use microadjustments to find a central balance point. Once settled, slowly bring your legs together until they’re both overhead and pointing toward the sky. Think of a handstand as stacking your body upside down, then moving toward midline. Move slowly, and breathe. Jerky movements are more difficult to control if you begin leaning too far in one direction and can cause you to overcorrect.
Volume: Practice daily.
- Practice on a padded or soft surface, like a grassy lawn or the mats at a climbing gym or fitness center.
- Have a friend spot or catch or hold your legs as you practice.
- Do not attempt a headstand. While it might seem easier—and you see photos of it all over Instagram—the risk of injury is high. “I’m adamantly opposed to headstands for beginners,” says Kristoffer. “If you cannot do a handstand with control, you should not be doing a headstand, because you’ll mistakenly put your full body weight onto your cervical spine, which is really dangerous.”
- Find and practice a safe way to bail out of handstand if you lose balance. “Once you know how to properly fall, the fear goes away,” says Kristoffer, who teaches popular workshops about falling safely. “Everybody is going to have a different escape route” based on flexibility and comfort levels, she adds. Some people can do a full back bend, whereas others prefer to cartwheel out. Whatever your plan, it will certainly help your head game if you practice.