It’s a cool party trick, sure, and the ability to execute one earns you bragging rights in the gym. But athletes who can do a handstand have also clearly mastered something else: Body control. “Being in control of your body, which is a must during this skill, will help you in everything that you do athletically,” says Danielle Gray, a Tier 3 trainer at Equinox Marina Del Rey. That includes things like how fast you can rotate your arm as you throw a football to being more explosive in track workouts.
What’s more, a handstand is practically a total-body workout in and of itself, says Gray: Starting from the floor, you’re building finger (your digits work the whole time to keep you balanced), wrist, and forearm strength. Your shoulders are working hard pushing into the ground while your back is assisting them and your core is key in keeping your ribs in so you can maintain that “number one” body shape. Even your lower body—from your glutes to your quads, hamstrings, and calves—is working. Finally, all the muscles in your feet, ankles, and toes are turned on to keep your toes pointed. From a mental standpoint, it also shores up endurance and mental toughness.
But, even the fittest need practice to master the shape. That’s why Gray created this progressive routine to help athletes of any level build the strength it requires. “The moves goin order from basic to most complex. When you find your threshold, stay there, work on it, then you can progress to the next move,” says Gray, noting that even beginners should be able to get to the fourth exercise. “Keep in mind this isn’t easy,” she adds, adding that it’s important to listen to your body. Still, doing this routine two to four times a week (at the beginning or end of regular workout or on its own) will get you there, even if it takes a few months (Gray’s estimate for the average gym-goer, though this will of course vary based on body awareness coming in, athletic background, and more).
Complete two sets of each exercise before moving on to the next. Take 30 seconds to 1 minute rest between sets of the first 5 moves. Take 1 to 2 minutes rest between sets of the last three.
Hold a stress ball in your right hand and extend your right arm straight in front of you. Keep your arm still the entire time; only the wrist and fist should move. Squeeze the ball 20 times, then keep the grip tight on the ball and pivot your wrist up and down 20 times. Maintaining the grip still, move your wrist side-to-side 20 times. Finish by circling your wrist to the left 10 times, then to the right. Repeat all of this on the left side.
Begin lying on your back and lift your head and neck, legs, and arms off the ground. Engage your lower abs, squeeze your glutes and keep your legs together and toes pointed. Hold this for 30 seconds, making sure to breathe. Then, flip over so you’re facing the ground and place your arms at a slight angle in front of you so you’re in a modified high plank position. Hold for 30 seconds.
Attach a resistance band or cable at your right side around shoulder height. [Resistance should be set depending on strength.] You should be able to reach the full extension of the movement standing upright with feet close together, without tilting or compensating. Pulling the band or cable, keep your feet close together and bring your hands, with arms straight or bent, in front of your ribcage. Hold for 30 seconds. Engage your core and breathe normally. Repeat on the other side. As you progress, try to keep your arms straight throughout, which makes the move more difficult.
Begin in a forearm plank with your hands clasped. Walk your feet in towards your hands until you reach a shape similar to downward facing dog but on your forearms. Rock back and forth making sure your chin touches your thumbs each rep. Do 30 reps.
Start in a high plank position with legs slightly wider than normal for added stability. Lower down, first with your right arm, then left, to get to your forearms. Without shifting your hips side to side, use your right tricep, then your left, to push your arms straight. Do 10 reps on that side, then 10 starting with your left arm
Walk your feet partially up a wall or on top of a plyo box. (This can be done in an inverted-L shape or a plank depending on fitness level.) Without shifting your hips, push the ground away with your left palm to lift your right hand and tap the left elbow. For added difficulty, tap the shoulder. Do 10 reps on each side.
Starting in the same position as the previous exercise, walk your feet up the wall even further, keeping your core tight. Once you feel like you are comfortable, shrug your shoulders up to your ears, squeeze your bottom, keep your legs straight, and hold for 20 seconds. Then walk your hands and feet back out.
It is best to start out with a wall first for safety, and then when you feel comfortable, try kicking up on a softer surface like a stretch mat. Place your hands on the ground and kick up with one leg at a time. Align your body as if you are standing upright against a wall: Toes over hips, over shoulders, over wrists. When you feel very close to tipping, most likely you are vertical. Find your balance at the top, using your fingers and keeping your legs straight and together, and look in between your hands with your arms by your ears.