Which of these is getting in YOUR way?
In my years of observation as a press handstand coach, I have noticed that it is always the same handful of physical hurdles that stop or delay someone’s journey to press– whether it’s the straddle, puppy, or pike press that they’re after.
Chances are, one of these will be the missing piece for you too.
The following list distills the 8 areas that are MOST LIKELY to trip you up on your way to press handstand. Bear in mind that these are not wild guesses. The list is carefully curated based on my decade of experience teaching the skills of handstand and press handstand.
Consider it your cheat sheet.
For each of the 8 obstacles below, I include a PRO TIP. That’s because I want you to be able to convert every one of these “weaknesses” into YOUR in-the-bag strength.
As you read along, consider: Which do you already have on lock? And which are you going to get to work on pronto?
#1 Shoulder Strength + STABILITY
It’s no surprise that you need serious shoulder strength to do the press with any ease. The trouble is, once you’ve lived for some decades, there’s a really good chance you’ve got some, er… history in your shoulders.
Shoulder injuries and imbalances are incredibly common — rotator cuff strain, tendonitis, bursitis, irritation, impingement, inflammation, the list goes on and on.
None of these afflictions put you out of the game entirely. Nonetheless, you’ve got to get saintly honest about what you’ve got going on before you can expect to build a press handstand.
Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring shoulder pain, which’ll only ultimately make it worse. Get real about what you’re feeling, and only move at the pace that will best suit your body, not your ego (hello, recovery days).
Remember: The shoulders are complex (but not unknowable). It’s not enough to geek out on the glenohumeral and acromioclavicular joints (AKA, the shoulder joints in isolation). You’ve got to pay attention to quite a few of the structures that support the wide range of motion your shoulders are afforded.
That means both strengthening and appropriately stretching the following:
- rotator cuffs,
- pecs, and especially the traps.
What’s more, for all the pushing you do when you train the press handstand, you’d be wise to incorporate pulling as well, for joint balance and stability.
Sound like too much? Don’t be intimidated. It’s totally doable, especially when you have a smart and thorough training plan that keeps shoulder health and shoulder girdle stability in mind.
If you’re a press handstander in the making, you won’t want to have just have beefy, somewhat uselessly strong and injury-prone shoulders. Instead, you’ll need a well-balanced, highly functional, efficient, and stable shoulder girdle structure that perfectly supports your inverted antics.
PRO TIP #1 - Shoulder Stability
Not everyone internalizes this advice as quickly as they should: Putting what I’m about to say into action — quickly — could be the difference between you nailing your press handstand or forever flailing in your press handstand.
Here it is. Ignore at your peril:
Get regular treatment from healing modalities that seem to work for you. That could be weekly or monthly massages, acupuncture treatments, acupressure, Rolfing, cupping, or anything else that supports your strength training.
Yes, it costs money!! The world is unfair! But if you’re serious about pressing into handstand, reaching out for this kind of therapeutic help is going to be worth it.
If you’re not totally convinced, then keep this in mind: The press is a pinnacle skill that takes the athleticism and dedication of a Cirque du Soleil performer, and Cirque performers receive weekly massages just for being part of the cast. You might not have your sights set on Cirque (or maybe you do!), but if you’re visualizing yourself doing the handstand press, then make no mistake: you’ve got your sights on something in that ballpark.
Bottom line here is… If you’re going to expect yourself to perform like an incredible athlete, then you’ve got to treat yourself like one. The strength and mobility training are the easy part. It’s the therapeutic support you get in between that can make all the difference.
#2 Hip Flexor Resilience
Let me not mince words. Most people do not have the hip flexor strength they need to do press handstand.
Even very strong people usually do not have this very specified strength. And in case this isn’t insanely clear, let me tell you that some of the VERY STRONGEST people I know IN LIFE STILL do not have the hip flexor strength required to do the press handstand. For that reason, don’t feel too bad if you’re strong as hell but somewhere down the line I end up telling you you need to work on hip flexor strength.
As you float your legs up into press, your hip flexors are eccentrically contracting (simultaneously being lengthened and engaging strongly). It take tremendous hip flexor strength to suspend your legs in air for any period of time, let alone to float them up against the force of gravity.
The word superhuman definitely comes to mind as appropriate here.
And here’s the real unfair part about it all!
…I don’t want this to happen to you…
A lot of people work like hell on their hip flexors and then THIS happens…
They overdo it.
They inflame, tweak, pull, or otherwise bother their hip flexors because they’ve been too focused on building strength without paying attention to the other side of the coin: in this case, resilience.
These unfortunate souls end up out of the game for 2 weeks or worse. They take 2 steps back, and they’re not going to move ahead until they learn the fullness of the lesson about the finicky nature of the psoas in particular.
We’re not going to let this unfortunate circumstance befall you. Here’s…
PRO TIP #2 - Hip Flexor Resilience
As above, your strength training is the easy part. The people who end up landing their press handstand are the people who ALSO prioritize restorative work for the hip flexors.
Here’s how to put it into action: Make sure you’re:
- getting adequate rest in between sessions (1-2 days or until you’re no longer sore, however long that may be),
- not overdoing it in each session (70%-80% of max perceived effort is probably better than 110% effort), and
- adding restorative poses to your regimen, like this one:
Lay down on your back, and place your calves and heels up on a couch or a chair. Your thighs and torso will make a 90-degree angle. Set your timer for 20 minutes (yes, 20 mins!). Try to do nothing but relax (often harder than it seems). It can really take this long for the hip flexors to release — they’re special that way.
If you treat your hip flexors like royalty, you’ll be well on your way to crossing the press handstand finish line.
#3 Core Awareness
Notice I didn’t say “core strength.”
That’s a phrase our minds pass over far too quickly. As a species we are prone to doing any number of “core strengthening” exercises ad infinitum with next to zero measurable results.
The key here is establishing awareness. Once you are truly in touch with, almost hyper-aware of, your abdominal wall (TVA if you want to be fancy), it then FOLLOWS that you want yours to perform optimally.
In that situation of connection and awareness, you learn exactly what is working when it comes to strengthening the core, and you learn which training drills are a waste of your time.
When you’re in a bonafide relationship with your ab wall, your training becomes more targeted and more efficient.
Half the battle is becoming aware of the ab wall in the first place though. What you’ve eaten (today, this year, the past decade…) plays a role. So does how much sleep you’ve gotten, what kind of mood you’re in, etc.
The most effective exercise I know (explained below) is best performed in the morning on an empty stomach after you’ve moved your bowels. So yeah, empty except for maybe coffee. You can do it at other times of course too. I just find it most accessible in that ideal situation.
PRO TIP #3 - Core Awareness
Practice nauli, the belly vacuuming kriya of yoga.
In advanced forms of this, your tummy rolls left and right and looks like the rolling waves of a choppy sea. You don’t have to worry about all that (unless you want to). It’s the first and second stages of nauli that put you in good touch with your deep abdomen.
Try this. Stand up with your knees bent and your hands on your thighs. Take a deep breath in and then exhale all the way out. Hold the out breath out as you pull/suction your belly away from your pant line and toward your spine.
It’ll look like you’re concave.
Once you’re pretty handy at that step, the next step is to suction all of your belly muscle into the center and to pump it forward rapidly — all of this done on the same exhale retention as step 1.
If you can do this (or even step 1), you’re in a great position to make your core work effective and then to kick off a cascade of helpful awareness — from your hip flexors to your spinal extensors — all of which will ultimately get you closer to your press handstand.
#4 Spinal Extensor Strength
The hip and spinal extensors must work in unison strongly in order for your lower body to defy gravity. But the posterior extensors are not like your anterior muscle groups. Here’s why.
They are generally thinner, longer, and more numerous than muscles of your front body. And that’s not all.
They also tend to be dormant, so to speak. What I mean by that is… Unless you’re regularly doing postures like yoga’s peacock, for instance (and maybe you are), then chances are you do not have a well established connection between your brain and these muscle fibers. If that’s the case (and it very likely IS), then you can’t just Hulk your way into strong spinal extensors — unless you want debilitating back pain for a few weeks.
The fact is, your brain and body need time and many chances to fortify their connection so that activation and strength become possible. If you go the route of taking a coaching program to get the press, make sure your instructor includes spinal extensor work.
If you find yourself following a program that promises lightning-quick results, then pay attention to how your back is feeling as you progress. Always proceed at your own pace. And don’t forget the recover + restore recipe (from the hip flexors) above.
PRO TIP #4 - Spinal Extensor Strength
Try this easy strengthener for the QLs and spinal and hip extensors:
- Lie belly-down on an ottoman or something like an ottoman.
- Your hands can support you wherever they can grip (even the floor),
- Your legs should dangle on the floor.
- Zip your feet and legs together like a mermaid tail,
- Brace your abdominal wall, and then…
- Lift your legs up until they are as high, or higher than, the rest of your body. If it goes well, you can repeat 3-10 times, pulsing 3x at the top for bonus points. Start slowly and make sure you feel good before adding on.
#5 Shoulder Mobility
It’s somewhat obvious that you need shoulder strength to perform a press handstand. What’s less obvious is the fact that you need strength toward the end range of motion in your shoulders.
In other words, it’s not just strength, and it’s not just flexibility that you need to press handstand. It’s both.
One of the best ways to train this kind of strength-at-end range is by training the Hollowback shape. That’s because this shape supports your whole weight while the shoulders are in a very flexed (arms overhead) position.
Another way to practice strengthening and opening your shoulders is to get very comfortable with your Wheel pose.
PRO TIP #5 - Shoulder Mobility
Work Hollowback on the wall and/or Wheel in the middle of the room until you can do them comfortably for 5-10 in + out breaths. Record on your phone so that you can study and iron out the line that extends vertically from your arms through your shoulders through your chest.
A cue that helps a lot of people is: “sternum toward the ceiling.”
There are at least a thousand more fun ways to gain active mobility in the shoulders, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll cap it here today. For a fuller regimen of shoulder mobility work, look into my membership site where I host many targeted classes.
#6 Hamstring Flexibility
If you’re hamstrings are tight and you know it, clap your hands.
No, don’t. Having tight hamstrings is usually the least of our problems when we go to approach the press.
If yours are tight, you can 100% practice with bent knees and still “do the thing.”
That said, straight legs WILL place your hips in the highest possible position before lift-off, meaning it makes the whole thing just plain easier.
If you’re determined to open your hamstrings, then here’s your…
PRO TIP #6 - Hamstring Flexibility
Befriend the foam roller. Seriously.
Don’t just buy one and stuff it in the corner behind your stability ball. Whip it out and use that thing for many minutes at a time, 3x a week.
You’ll be surprised at what succor a good, hard foam roller can be for both recovery and flexibility.
Spend extra time in the most stubborn and fruitful-feeling places. Expect a little soreness in the following days. And finally…
Don’t take a run without stretching afterward. And don’t go more than a couple days without stretching your legs (unless you’re nursing an injury or soreness).
#7 Wrist Extension Strength
It’s not enough to have strong and stable wrists. You’ve got to have weirdly flexible wrists that are also very strong in that weird range.
It takes a bit of patience to develop this freakish and specific end-range strength.
See, on your way to press, in the moment before lift-off, you’re going to be in something akin to a planche position — meaning: your shoulders are quite a bit farther forward than your fingers. Take a second to picture that! (Or look closely at the pic)
Most adults don’t naturally have that wrist flexibility… to say nothing of a fortified neural pathway that activates and engages muscle fiber while in the extended position.
Interestingly, this is one area where, in my observation, females tend to possess an advantage when it comes to learning the press handstand. Not always, but often.
So, how to develop this planche- and press-specific superhuman mobility?
PRO TIP #7 - Wrist Extension Strength
Starting on your knees (and following a warm up that includes wrist activation), slowly work yourself toward being able to comfortably point your fingers toward your knees. (The first phase is to point your fingers outward).
When that becomes comfortable, work your way into plank with these same deeply extended wrists and eventually even downward dog.
Finally, don’t forget to counter your extension work with flexion by pulling all of your fingers toward the soft side of your forearm.
#8 Serratus Activation
The serratus anterior muscle group runs like fingers on the sides of your ribs. When activated, they pull your shoulder blades apart.
You can try this in the position called “high plank” to practice it.
When you can learn to keep the serratus activated even when you walk your feet toward your hands (from plank), then you can succeed in taking quite a lot of pressure out of the shoulder joint, thereby distributing your weight very nicely and keeping the shoulders happy.
This engagement not only makes the whole process of pressing into handstand easier, it also makes it safer for the shoulders by preventing impingement. You’ll want to keep the engagement as you press into handstand and as you negotiate your balance in the handstand.
PRO TIP #8 - Serratus Activation
From a downward dog position, practice rolling your shoulder blades away from each other and externally rotating your upper arm bones. You can record yourself to make sure your shoulder blades are coming apart if you like.
Then: Keep this protraction (the shoulder blades apart) as you walk your feet toward your hands. Notice the moment when you lose protraction (if you do).
Correct it by spending more time in that “threshold space” right before you lose the engagement, Maintain strong awareness to keep the serratus fired the whole way up.
As with any great recipe, the list of required ingredients for building a press handstand has already been written for you. Skip an ingredient and impact the outcome.
There is no need to guess your way through to the press. Learn from the many students of press handstand who have come before you by applying the tips above.
Identify your own likely obstacles so that they don’t have to hold you back forever.
HERE THEY ARE IN ONE PLACE:
- Shoulder Strength + Stability
- Hip Flexor Resilience
- Core Awareness
- Spinal Extension Strength
- Shoulder Mobility
- Hamstring Flexibility
- Wrist Extension Strength
- Serratus Engagement
It takes bodily prowess, for sure, but I hate to say it… It’s the mental grit that separates the press handstanders from the wannabes. Do you have both??
Cheering you on from afar!
p.s. Want to know how many weeks I predict it’ll take you to achieve the press? Click here to take the 10-question quiz.