This Is Exactly How To Work Your Way Up To A Handstand

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
Ask any yogi, and they’ll tell you the handstand is one of the most (if not the most) intimidating poses. To accomplish this move, you need a lot of physical skill, including killer core and upper-body strength and impeccable balance. But also, because it takes guts to kick yourself upside-down, you need a hefty dose of bravery, too.

Mastering the handstand takes time and dedication. But that’s also what makes landing it that much sweeter. It may be a long process for some of us, but the best part about training yourself to do a handstand is that no matter how long it takes you to nail it, you will be making gains in strength, flexibility, and balance (all of which are important for your overall physical fitness) along the way.

“The most challenging part of a handstand is remaining patient to the process and listening to the cues your body is giving you,” explains John Kasten, a movement coach at CrossFit Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

With Kasten’s help, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to handstand training. Click through to get all the tips and moves you need to turn your world upside-down.
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First, Work Out Your Routine
As we mentioned, this is a process, which we’ve broken down into three parts: Strengthen and Stretch, Headstands, and Handstands. What’s important is moving through the steps at your own pace, only going on to the next one when you can reliably kick butt at the last. Handstands are cool; falling on your head because you haven’t mastered how to hold your arms super-strong and straight? Not so much.

At the end of your regular workouts (two to three times a week), or as a mini-workout on its own, do the exercises in Part 1 as described, completing each move before going on to the next.

When all of that is a breeze, you’re ready for Part 2, headstands. Warm up by doing all of Part 1 as you have been, then start playing with the variations in Part 2, progressing only as you feel totally secure. Then it’s on to Part 3, where you’ll take it to your hands.

How long this whole process will take for you depends on your fitness at the start, meaning some of us will move through it faster than others. Again, the most important thing to remember is to be mindful of your body, and not to rush through it.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Part 1: Strengthen & Stretch

Core Work
To land the handstand, regular core moves just won’t cut it. Those are important, too (for many reasons), but if you’re trying to achieve a strong handstand you’ve got to focus on building what’s called “quadrupedal movement,” Kasten says. Basically, this means being able to stabilize with your core while shifting weight among your four limbs. These moves also “allow you to start learning how to distribute and shift weight on the hands without high risk of injury to the spine,” he says.

Bird dogs are a great first step, allowing you to train the core and work on your balance skills.

How-to: Start on all fours.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Extend one arm and the opposite leg straight out from the torso, and hold for at least three seconds, then switch sides. That’s one rep. The longer you hold without losing your form, the more strength you build. Do at least 10 reps (doing the move on both sides counts as one) before resting one minute and going again.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Bear crawls take a similar core-stabilization effort, but teach you to distribute weight side-to-side. This is important because keeping your balance in a handstand requires being able to constantly shift side-to-side (albeit in a micro-movement). Plus, bear crawls get you used to shifting some of your weight into your arms — where eventually all of it will have to go.

How-to: Return to all fours.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How to (cont.): Now curl your toes under and lift your knees a few inches up, so that you are holding up your body on hands and toes. Take slow, methodical steps forward without losing the integrity of your flat back. (It’s tougher than it looks!) Go at least 10 paces forward or across your room before resting and coming back. A few paces of the floor should be plenty.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Upper-Body Strength
The next piece of the handstand-preparation puzzle is getting your upper body used to bearing more of your weight. You’re also going to need both strength and control in your shoulders.

Scapular push-ups are one way to strengthen in particular just the muscles around your shoulder blades, without involving the arm muscles as in a traditional pushup. Handstands require a lot of strength in the shoulder girdle in order to hold the pose and stay balanced.

How-to: Start in a long-arm plank position.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Isolating the shoulders, pinch the blades together down the center of your back — your chest will drop, but only slightly.
Press your hands firmly into the ground and shoulder blades back apart — this will raise your chest back up slightly.

It’s a relatively small move, but you really want to focus on feeling those shoulder blades go apart and come together (here's a helpful video of what we mean), without any involvement from the arms. If you’re not feeling it, go super-slowly, or add five more reps (or more) until you do. On the other hand, if the full plank is too much at first, start on the knees, but be sure your butt isn’t sticking out and is instead in a straight line with your knees and shoulders.

Repeat for 10 reps before resting a minute and going again; two sets total should be enough, but feel free to add a third set if you’re in the mood.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Wheelbarrows help you shift your weight into your arms and shoulders safely. You’ll need a towel and a hardwood floor, or two paper plates if you have carpeting.

How-to: Come into high-plank position with your toes on your tool of choice. The towel or the paper plates are there to help you slide.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Keeping firm through your shoulders and core, walk your arms forward while dragging your feet behind you across the floor. Take 10 steps forward before resting and repeating. You want to pace the floor two to three times, resting only if you need to.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
With a partner, you can also try this harder version of the wheelbarrow.

How-to: Grab a buddy to hold up your feet while you hand-walk. This changes the angle on your upper body more toward what it would be in a handstand, and allows your arms to get used to bearing more weight.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Keeping firm through your shoulders and core, walk your arms forward while dragging your feet behind you across the floor. Take 10 steps forward before resting and repeating. You want to pace the floor two to three times, resting only if you need to.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Flexibility
This downward-dog sequence is the best way to improve flexibility in your hamstrings and shoulders, so you can kick yourself up. You’ll start in your basic dog, and then move through the sequence.

How-to:
Get into the downward-dog position on hands and feet, pressing your chest down and back and your rear in the air.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Slowly walk your feet in, one small step at a time, getting as close as you can to your arms while keeping the weight in your hands.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Now, send one leg up and back behind you, keeping your hips square to the ground, for a downward-dog split. Hold for a few seconds, then lower that leg and do the other.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Walk your hands back out and reset your downward dog. Rest and repeat the whole downward-dog sequence from the top two more times.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Part 2: Headstand
Once you feel confident with completing the previous exercise for three sets each in the same workout, you’re finally ready to go upside-down. But before you can reasonably expect to stand on your hands, you’ve got to stand on your head. Why? “Balancing on the head and hands gives you three points of support, which provides more stability than just the two points (hands only) that you have when in a handstand,” Kasten explains. In other words, it’s a natural stepping stone to your ultimate goal.

How-to: As a safety net, set up your mat in front of a wall (face the wall to start). Now to create a good, solid base, place your hands down at shoulder-width apart, and the crown of your head in front of them to form a triangle with the three points of contact (now the wall will be at the back of your head). Your triangle should be pretty close to equilateral. Come onto your toes and straighten your legs, aiming to move as much of your weight as possible into your hands primarily and head secondarily.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Bend one knee and place it atop your forearm, then do the same for the other side. From here, brace your core and continue pressing firmly into your palms.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Slowly extend one leg up the wall, while allowing the other to float up after it.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Straighten both legs, using the wall as needed to help maintain your balance.

Very important:
When you’re ready to come back down, bend your knees slowly and use your core to control your lower body.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Once you can reliably do a headstand against the wall, it’s time to take it to the center of the room — with someone to spot you, just in case.

How-to:
You’ll come up similarly — hands and head in a triangle, legs extended. You can use the exact same knees-on-elbows action you’ve been doing to get up, or try a light hop, which will serve as good practice for when you get to handstands. (They’re coming really soon, promise!)
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): From straight, extended legs, send one leg high into the sky, as you did in the downward-dog split.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Bend the supporting leg slightly and hop up; ask your spotter to catch your legs to help you stabilize. Very important: If you start to feel like you’re losing it, tuck and roll into a somersault to protect your neck.

Otherwise, come down safely the same way you did, with tucked knees, from the wall version. “Once you can do 10 consecutive headstands” — and hold them for at least 10 seconds each — “without a break, you’re ready to attempt handstands,” Kasten says.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Part 3: Handstands
By now, you’ve done a ton of work (applause), and you’re ready to take the next step: handstand variations.

One of the hardest parts of a handstand is the “blocking” of your upper body. In order to be successful, you need solid, straight torso alignment of hips over shoulders over wrists. A “supported L” handstand is one way to practice that form while taking the lower body somewhat out of the equation. You can use a bed, the back of a couch, or a tall box at the gym.

How-to:
Line yourself up so your hands are a couple of feet in front of whatever your legs will be resting on. You can either come from the top and place your hands down, or start on the floor and place your legs up — whichever feels easier. The goal is to rest your legs, while focusing on your hip-shoulder-hand alignment. Hold as long as you can with good form, then rest.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Next up, take your “standing L” to the wall.

How-to: To measure your appropriate distance, stand facing the wall and raise one leg up so it’s straight out and the foot is flat on the wall. On the spot where you are standing, turn around and place your hands on the floor. Walk your feet up the wall until you are forming an L, as you did with the legs-resting move previously. Really focus on firming your core to get that hips-shoulders-wrists alignment once more.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Feeling good with the L handstand, and can hang out in it for at least 10 seconds? Let’s add the legs.

How-to: From your L handstand, walk your hands in and your feet up the wall, until — woohoo! — you’re in a handstand. Keep thinking belly button in, strong legs, and straight arms.

Very important: If you feel yourself losing it, tuck your head and roll out of it to protect your neck.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Once you totally got the facing-the-wall handstand, it’s time to try for the very last handstand skill, the kick, but against the wall for safety.

How-to: Stand about a foot away from the wall facing it, and place your hands on the floor. Walk your feet forward into a tight downward dog, staggering them slightly.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Bend the front knee and hop, sending that rear leg straight up first and the hopping leg up to meet it. You don’t want to whip 'em up there, but the wall serves as a great stabilizer if you over-kick.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Point your toes and hold it, thinking: strong firm arm, strong firm core, strong firm legs. To come down, lower one leg at a time, hinging from the hips with control.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
Soon, you’ll be playing with one foot and then one toe on the wall as you find your balance. Once you’re there — and more importantly, once you can kick up without using the wall as a brake to right you, get a buddy to spot you and take it out freestyle.

How-to: Plant your hands on the floor, walk your legs in, bend your front leg, and hop on up.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
How-to (cont.): Ask your spotter to catch your legs as they rise, and help you stabilize, but do not rely on them to hold you up there. You gotta exercise your great form, eyes gazing at fingertips; shoulders, core, and glutes engaged; arms and legs firm with toes pointed. Do not forget the very important advice that if you feel yourself losing it, tuck your head and roll out of it.

Eventually, your spotter will be able to take a step back and just let you stand on your own.
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Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell.
You did it! Now you’re ready for handstanding anywhere (though we won't judge if you still want to keep a wall nearby). In this upside-down world, you’ll fit right in.
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