The Elusive Freestanding Handstand

If you aim to master your bodyweight, the freestanding handstand is an essential skill. More than developing any one area, the freestanding handstand will help you learn to use your muscles together, allowing your entire body to function as a single unit. Developing this ability is important as you progress towards more difficult bodyweight exercises like levers and the human flag.

Before attempting a freestanding handstand, I recommend getting comfortable with simpler inversions like headstands and handstands against a wall. From there, move on to practicing basic hand balances like the crow pose.

Off The Wall

The freestanding handstand can be intimidating because there is nothing to catch you if you fall. You must take a leap of faith and go in with confidence that your body will know what to do if you tip over. If you’re having a hard time getting over your nerves, it can help to have a spotter. I also recommend practicing on a soft surface like grass or rubber.

While a freestanding handstand can be a challenging shoulder and arm workout when held for long enough, the balance is typically the most difficult part to learn. It takes a lot of time to find the “sweet spot” between over-balancing (tipping over) or under-balancing (falling back to your feet).

Unlike your foot, which was made for standing, your hand doesn’t have a true heel, so it’s best to put slightly more weight in your fingers than in your palms when balancing on them. If you are a tiny bit over-balanced, you can stay up by pressing your fingers into the ground. When you’re under-balanced, there is less you can do to keep from coming down.

A Tale of Two Handstands
In modern gymnastics, handstands are performed with a perfectly straight line from top to bottom. For this reason, a lot of people will tell you that arching your back during a handstand is bad form. In my experience, however, it is helpful to allow your back to arch while you are learning to find the balance. In time, you can work on reaching your legs upward, pressing into the floor and tightening your abs, lower back and glutes to achieve an aesthetically pleasing straight line from head to toe (or hands to toe as the case may be).

Practice, Practice, Practice
Transitioning from a handstand against a wall to a freestanding handstand is a challenging and potentially discouraging process. I was terrible at hand balancing when I started out, but I’ve been practicing for a while now. For me, the key has been consistency; I rarely miss a day of practice, even if it’s just a couple of minutes at the end of a workout. Some days it comes harder than others, but when I fall, I just get up and try again.


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

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  • John

    I have finally been ahead of the video in my workouts and working on the handstand against the fence….It’s fun and as all things Al, harder than it looks – Great video…. Hard core in the snow…..

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    You know how we do it. Rain or shine, sun or snow.

  • Asteve_a

    I have watched a lot of videos on handstands and yours is head and shoulders (pun intended) above everyone else’s.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Wow – thanks! I must say I think there are guys out there with a better handstand than mine but thanks for the kind words (and the pun).

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  • http://nellysfoodandrunning.blogspot.com/ Nelly

    Looks great! I’m still working on learning just a headstand but hopefully I’ll be using these tips before too long.

    What’s your opinion on keeping the eyes open while you do this, at least in the learning portion? My various trainers and spotters tell me I should, so as to watch my hands, but the big thing that gets me is seeing what appears to be a huge gaping chasm beneath my unsupported feet – it’s kind of terrifying, and then I freak out and fall. I’d love to hear your take on it.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Nelly! I agree with your other trainers that keeping your eyes open is a good idea. I recommend looking in between your hands though, rather than looking towards your feet.

    Having said that, if you feel more comfortable/confident with your eyes closed then give it a shot and see if it works.

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  • IvyBlue

    Thought of you and this post and tried “salt water assisted” handstands this week in Maine.

    I’m nowhere near doing them on dry ground yet but in just over 2 feet of water they come surprisingly easy.  Perhaps a way for folks to work on form before attempting them on the ground.  

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Way to be creative, Ivy!  A bit unorthodox but whatever works for ya – just be careful you don’t drown!

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  • jj

    FYI, for people that have a very bendy back (i.e. if you can do comfortable back bends easily) DO NOT arch your back if you’re just learning handstand.  If you have a strong arch it’s actually a different balance point than the straight handstand.  

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yes the balance is a bit different depending on whether your back is straight or curved, but I still think it’s fine for a beginner to learn with an arch.  I am well aware that this advice is in contrast to the conventional wisdom put forth by the hand-balancing community, but I stand by it.

  • Fyture

    Do you have to be a natural athlete to learn to hold handstands?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Of course not!!!

  • Fyture

    ok. also 2 more questions on handstands/handstand pushups. is it necessary to practice handstands on a completely level ground? i do it in my backyard and its sloped a little bit. but not too much. does it make a difference? and also, is military presses with a straight barbell, a good way to build up to more handstand pushups? i can do like 4 or 5 against a wall right now, but then the blood rushes to my head and i cant think lol.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Work with what you have at your disposal.  And yes I think barbell presses are a worthwhile exercise.

  • elliott

    how often do you train for handstands?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Your question is answered in the article, Elliott.  Give it another read over.

  • Michelvandenhoek

    Do you have any advice on how to go into handstand, using frog stand as the starting position?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yes, that is something I discuss in my new book, Raising the Bar.  The book will be available soon!

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  • Anil

    I can do a handstand against a wall for 15-20 seconds. I keep practicing on handstand pushups. I cannot do any yet but I will keep working on it.  The most important thing I have learned today is the importance of handstands in bodyweight training. I did not know that it was a fundemantal move. I think I need to scrutinize the blog and reread the articles eyes wide open :)

    By the way, do you think that getting comfortable with the handstand pushups would increase the number of dips or normal pushups or maybe even help with the straight bar dip stregth? I am trying to figure out the combained effects each move. Like the dimond push up helps to increase the reps in dips and maybe plyometric pull-ups helps with the explosive pull up stregth et cetra. What is your oppinion about this based on your deep experience about bodyweight training? Maybe getting comfortable with the handstand will make you much more capable about other bodyweight trainings?

    Thank you.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    All of these exercises have some degree of carry over to the others, though there is also skill specificity involved.  Be patient with handstand push-ups – they can be extremely humbling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Jim Bathurst from BeastSkills.com suggests a technique which he learned from a Chinese acrobatic instructor where, instead of having your hands flat on the ground, you curl up your fingers so that only your fingerprints are on the ground, while the 2 other sections form a hump; the middle knuckle is at the top of this hump. The idea is that it gives you more control as an extra balancing point. I can’t say anything about the efficacy of this technique, since I have yet to achieve this skill, but Jim swears by it nowadays.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yes I am familiar with this technique (Jim calls it the “cambered hand”).  I personally feel better with my fingers straighter, but there are many ways to skin a cat.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/nikola.cicovacki Nikola Cicovacki

    Hello Al i just wanna ask you if u can help me with something.I made a bet with my friends that i could do a freestanding handstand pushups in 2 month i can do about 7 s handstand max.Any ideas about how to learn a handstand pushup,i only need to do one and i am willing to train everyday for few hours if needed i bet a lot of money so i have all the motivation i need.Can you tell me some training ideas besides practice,practice,practice.Thank you in advance.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Good luck with that bet, Nikola! You already know what you have to do – tons of practice!

    Also, check out my blog post on handstand push-ups: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/05/handstand-push-ups/

    There’s also more info on HSPUs in my recent book, Raising The Bar: http://www.dragondoor.com/b63/?apid=4e8cb1ea167b0

  • RobbyTaylor

    Well for starters work on holding a handstand for longer. As for the push up, get good at doing them at a wall first. Once you can comfortably bust out a few at a wall, start working on the free standing HSPU. Get someone to spot you; hold your handstand, and in doing the push up, have someone there to ‘catch’ you if you start to fall over. With practice you will need less and less of a spot, and eventually you will be able to do it on your own! This goal is not going to be easy, but with enough specific practice I think you can do it. I saw a post where a guy had made a bet that he could work up to holding an iron cross for 5 seconds in 4 months…now for the vast majority of people that would pretty much be impossible. I’d also recommend balancing your handstand work out with pull ups. This way the brunt of your efforts are toward your goal, while you will still be getting a reasonable balance for your pulling muscles.