Demystifying the Handstand Pushup

Arms as strong as legs?

Have you ever seen a person walk on their hands? It’s a pretty amazing feat. Behold…

Aside from being a really cool party trick…I mean come on, who doesn’t want to see somebody walking on their hands at a cocktail party. Especially in a tux – that would be oddly fun to watch…

…the handstand push up provides a myriad of fitness benefits if you put in the time to actually train it.

Check out this list of benefits courtesy of Legendary Strength:

  • strengthen the triceps, shoulders, and chest
  • strengthen a lot of stabilizer muscles
  • improves coordination/balance

Also, it provides the documented benefits of inversion (being upside down). Being inverted is something the yogis have known about for awhile. As its making its way into the mainstream, we can all benefit. Check out this blurb on FitandMe.com regarding the benefits to the endocrine system. Scroll down to benefit #3 to see it.

Everyone’s journey to the handstand pushup will be a little different. At minimum, and this is from my own personal experience, you need to be able to do at least these two things before trying a handstand push up:

STEP 1:

  • Hold a static handstand for at least a minute

    • Look at it this way – if you can’t hold a handstand for even a couple of seconds, then how are you going to be able to be upside down long enough to knock out even 1 push up? Take some time to get comfortable being inverted.

There are two ways to get inverted on a wall – walk up or kick up.

Walk up:

Kick up:

I am personally a fan of the kick up because I can get my hands closer to the wall and mimic the back bend you’d have with a freestanding handstand. This is also the position in which I do all of my handstand push up work.

In general, I aim to have my fingertips about 6-12 inches from the base of the wall. When you are at the top of the movement, you’ll want to externally rotate your shoulders, and rotate the insides of your elbows forward (similar to elbow and shoulder positional cues in a proper plank). You should feel your latissimus dorsi (big back muscles) engage as well. At that point, settle in, and see how long you can hold that position. I spent time working myself up to a solid 60+ seconds for multiple sets. When you are first getting started, do multiple sets of lower time so you can get used to the sensation of the blood rushing to your head. Hopefully it goes without saying – don’t try to hold the position if you start feeling light headed – get down immediately.

STEP 2: 

  • Perform multiple reps of pike push ups (I’d recommend progressing to elevated pike push ups before trying the handstand push up).

    • The pike push up is kind of like an assisted handstand push up. By having your lower body connected to either the ground or a platform, you are reducing the overall load that your arms need to push. You are still pushing along the vertical plane, so you are training the movement properly.
    • In the month of February this year, I challenged some of my workout partners to strengthen their pike push up capacity. Each day of the month for 28 days, they added a rep to their pike push up count (similar to the “grease the groove” tactic that I’ve talked about in the past). By the end of the month, some of the athletes were doing 20+ pike push ups in a single set when they could barely do 5 before starting the protocol. This is a move you CAN improve at if you work at it.

Pike push up with feet on the floor:

The progressions here are pretty simple. The further away your feet are from your hands, the less vertical your torso is, and the easier the move is. The closer you move your feet to your hands, the more vertical your torso is, and the harder the move is. Notice in the video how I crept my feet forward a little bit to intensify the move. In terms of elbow movement, aim to have your elbows go back at a 45 degree angle from your torso. You don’t want to flare out a full 90 degrees, and you don’t want your elbows scraping your ribs – 45 degrees is a good mechanical position. In terms of hand position, just outside shoulder width, or at shoulder width is a good starting position. You can make the movement harder by moving your hands inside shoulder width.

Pike push up with feet on a platform:

As you can see, raising your feet onto a platform puts your torso in a more vertical position. This will be an intense position. You will need to spend some time in this movement pattern building strength and endurance via high reps and multiple sets.

GRADUATING TO THE HANDSTAND PUSH UP:

Congrats! If you’ve been able to hold some 60 second static handstands, and been able to knock out a good amount of reps in the elevated pike push up (10+ reps per set minimum), you are probably ready to start dabbling with the handstand push up.

A note about hand position:

Similar to other bodyweight exercises, you can alter the intensity of the movement by manipulating your hand positions. In general, slightly wider than shoulder width apart is probably the least challenging hand position. I’d recommend you start with this position. In order to be able to replicate my sessions, I actually marked off about 20 inches on my floor with a sharpie, and put inch markers every 4 inches. This way, I can make sure I’m putting my hands in the same position each time. For me, my “easy” hand placement is with my index fingers 20″ apart.

20″ Wide Handstand Push Up:

Notice that I set my hands, then I kick up into position. On the lowering (eccentric) phase of the movement, my elbows flare about about 45 degrees relative to my torso, I lower until my head kisses the ground, and then I push back up (concentric phase).

Rinse and repeat.

A 2:1:2 tempo (2 second eccentric, 1 second bottom, 2 second concentric) is fine. Note that the kick down is controlled as well. You should leave a rep or two in the tank here – don’t train to failure – you might collapse onto your face and cause serious injury. Be very aware of how you are feeling and adjust your sets accordingly.

Note – if going through the full range of motion is too intense at first, start with half-reps (lower through half of the range of motion and push back up). Build up reps and sets with this movement, and then try the full range of motion again. 

16″ Wide Handstand Push Up:

Note the hand placement is pretty much at shoulder width apart. All of the same cues from the 20″ apply – only difference is that my hands are closer together.

12″ Wide Handstand Push Up:

As my hands get further inside of shoulder width, you’ll notice that my elbow angle starts to come inside of 45 degrees a little bit.

8″ Wide Handstand Push Up:

The closer you bring your fingers to touching, the harder the work becomes. You’ll also find that your tempo naturally slows down on the descent. Once you are doing diamond handstand push ups (index fingers and thumbs touching), you will have reached the apex of difficulty for basic wall-assisted two armed handstand push ups.

Beyond that, you can try graduating to unassisted handstand push ups (freestanding – no wall), or start working on one-armed handstand and one-armed handstand push up work. The one-armed handstand push up is defined as the “master-class” progression in the Convict Conditioning book.

If you are skeptical about that being possible…enjoy…

Or, if that seems too gnarly, check out some of the other movement patterns that people have concocted with the handstand push up…

Every day, I’m amazed more and more by what the human body is capable of. Bodyweight calisthenics like the handstand push up really give you a window into what is possible with proper training and some creativity.

 

Do you train the handstand push up? If so, please let us know in the comments and tell us about your experience and progressions. If you enjoyed this article, please like and share. Thank you!

Advertisements

Push, Pull, Yoga, Meditate, and repeat…

I think I said previously that my week of pushing, pulling, and doing yoga was boring. 

I guess on its face, that seems true. Compared to some of the other workouts I’ve done in the past, and the variety I like to expose myself to, yeah, doing a basic push/pull and yoga routine is pretty pedestrian.

You know what though – I’m kind of digging it.

In case you are new to the terminology, and don’t know what I mean, a basic push/pull routine is pairing together a pushing movement (like a push up, dip, handstand push up, etc) with a pulling movement (pull up, row, etc). Those are two of the major movements we (as humans) do on a normal basis, so there certainly is no harm in training them. And, if you really study bodyweight calisthenics, you can find MANY different variations to pepper in and keep it fresh. To allow for proper recovery, I’m programming at least one day off between each push/pull session.

For example – I’ve been averaging about 3 push/pull sessions each week, and to keep the push side of things fresh, I’ve been alternating various types of push ups in one session (following the protocol of P90X3’s “The Challenge”), and in the next, I’ll do handstand push ups, and in yet another, I’ll do dips. In terms of pulling, I’ve been focusing on various hand positions with the pull ups, just to train from different angles.

In practice, here is how my last push/pull workout went…

I cued up P90X3’s “The Challenge” just to have some background noise, but, and most importantly, to give me defined time intervals for the movements and rest. In “The Challenge” you end up doing 8 total sets of pulling and 8 total sets of pushing. So, if I set my rep number properly, I’m getting a lot of volume. Since I hadn’t done lever push ups for awhile, and I wanted to get some extended work in with close-grip pull ups, I decided to make those my two exercises for all 8 sets. I set my reps at 8 for the level push up, and 7 for the close grip pull up. I was able to complete all of the prescribed reps, so at the end of the session, I ended up with:

  • 8 sets of 8 lever push ups = 64 on each arm
  • 8 sets of 7 close grip pull ups = 56 total
  • Burnout – 10 sets of 1 around the world chin up and 3 push ups
  • BONUS – 3 sets of 10 hanging knee raises (I felt like peppering in some core)

I’m pretty happy with that session.

On non push/pull days, I’ve been tinkering around in the Beachbody Online Yoga Studio. After having a bunch of fun with the 3 Week Yoga Retreat, I wanted to keep the yogi momentum going. I’d say I’m averaging about 2-3 yoga sessions a week. My practice is getting much stronger, and my body feels great. If you aren’t doing yoga, you really should.

Even as yoga becomes more mainstream, I think there is still a misconception that it’s about mind more than body. I was talking to a buddy of mine about incorporating yoga into his workout program, and he thought it was a suggestion for mindfulness. I told him that certainly is a benefit; however, if that wasn’t enough of a selling point, the major benefit/advantage is what it does to your body. You improve your mobility/flexibility, and it will support and enhance your primary training modes. I look forward to talking with him more about it.

I challenge any athletic person who has never done yoga to complete a 30 minute flow. Tell me at the end that you didn’t get a good workout. I dare you! Even if you don’t buy into the mind/body connection, just do it for the shear impact of the workout. It will get you. I promise.

Also in the Beachbody Yoga Studio are some sessions on meditation. This is a topic that has intrigued me since I read Dan Harris’ book called “10% Happier.”  It was a very interesting story about how he found his way to meditation, and the benefits he’s realized as a result of the practice. There is a SIGNIFICANT amount of science now that shows your brain will physically change (for the better) as you engage in the practice of meditation. Do a google search and check out some of the findings – it’s fascinating.

In the book, Dan cataloged that it took him awhile before he could feel some tangible benefit, so the take away for me is that this is a practice, and you just need to put in the time. So, I’ve been doing a 10 minute session after each workout (push/pull or yoga), and have only missed 1 or 2 days a week for the past couple of weeks. It took me a few sessions to find a comfortable posture (I tried the different sitting positions), and finally settled on laying down in corpse pose. I’m not going to say that I’ve had a breakthrough, but I’m going to say that I enjoy that 10 minutes of focus and relaxing, and I look forward to each time I do it. This is something where it can’t help but benefit me. Really – is there any way that laying down and relaxing my brain for 10 minutes each morning can hurt me? I don’t think so. Therefore, I’ll keep doing it!

 

Do you have any workout or health programs that you enjoy doing on a repeated basis? If so, please let us know in the comments below. And, if you enjoyed the article, please like and share. Thank you!

My Favorite Pull Up Variations

The pull up is one of my desert island exercises. Meaning, that if I’m stranded on a desert island, and after I get my food, water, and shelter situation resolved – I’m building a pull up bar!

These muscles are directly impacted by the pull up (and chin up)…

  • Lats
  • Biceps
  • Infraspinatus
  • Traps
  • Pecs
  • Erector spinae
  • Obliques

The pull up is a tough exercise to perform because you are pulling your ENTIRE bodyweight through space and against gravity. In a home (or basement) workout environment, you aren’t going to be training your pulling movements unless you actually install a pull up bar and do the movement.

At the gym, movements like lat pulldowns and rows do train pulling motions, but they really don’t mimic the benefit of true bodyweight pull ups.

In this article by T-Nation, all of the surveyed trainers agree – DO PULL UPS!

Unless you have an insurmountable physical condition that prohibits the movement, or you’ve been ordered by your primary care physician to literally not do them, then you are doing your training a disservice by not incorporating it.

My personal pull up journey is heading towards the fabled one-armed pull up. It’s a long path, and I just need to be patient, and keep after it. Along the road, here are some of the pull up variations that have aided me in gaining pulling strength.

Inverted Row

This one is a great jumping off point into the world of bodyweight pulling movements. Find a surface (or bar) that is about hip height from the ground, crawl under it, grab on, and pull your chest to the surface (or bar). You want to keep your core and glutes engaged and locked in. You don’t want to sag your hips down. Also, and this is very important – don’t round your shoulders at the bottom of the move. You want to keep your shoulder girdle engaged the entire time (like you are trying to juice an orange by squeezing your shoulders together behind you). Bad row bottom

The above is a BAD bottom position. Note how close my shoulders are to my ears. In this position, my core isn’t engaged, and I’m just in a dead-hang. This is not a good position for inverted row reps.

Good row bottom

This is a GOOD bottom position for the movement. Notice you can see my neck between my shoulder and ears. At this point, my core is engaged and my shoulders are trying to “juice” that orange.

When following the “Convict Conditioning” program, I spent a good 4-5 months working up to 3 sets of 30 inverted row reps. At the time, I could do pull ups, so I had the strength. But, spending time in this beginning progression and going for higher reps paid dividends in terms of strengthening the connective tissues around the primary muscles affected by the movement. This will aid my quest for single limb movements.

 

Scapular pull up

Before you can do your first pull up, you should be able to hang from a bar for as long as it takes to do one set of pull ups (heck – even just one pull up). That is why I’d recommend dead hang work as part of your progression. It’s simple – just grip a bar, and do a full dead hang. Nothing engaged but your grip. Once you can do that for about a minute, then you should move into scapular pull ups. This is a small move, but a great move for training the shoulder motion required for doing the pull up. The first move when you pull yourself up is for your shoulder girdle to engage. So, this is a move you should train like a little mini micro pull up.

Keep your arms straight throughout the movement. Don’t bend your arms and use your biceps to raise you up. Just focus on pulling your shoulders down. I know that sounds funky – but you’ll get the idea when you try it.

 

Standard pull up

With an overhand grip (palms facing AWAY from you), grab the bar just outside of shoulder width, and with as little momentum as possible, pull your body UP, and chin above the bar. If you are flailing and kicking your lower body to get up, that is called a “kipping” pull up. That isn’t your ideal pull up. You want to go through this range of motion with little to no lower body movement. You want to engage your core and glutes as you pull yourself up. Your lower body will rock forward a little bit – that is just physics. Once you can do a pull up, congrats – that is quite a strength feat. You can go for high reps, you can go for weighted reps, you really can program a lot of different challenges for your body just with this move.

 

Standard chin up

Same idea and cues as the pull up, but this is an UNDERHAND grip (palms facing you). Most people find this variety easier than the overhand grip pull up because the bicep engages more.

 

Wide grip pullup

Like with push ups, you can alter the physics of the exercise to make it more challenging with your hand placement. By going wider, you are putting more emphasis on the shoulders, and you are reducing the range of motion that you will pull through. Be careful – everybody’s shoulders have different range of motion, so don’t do something that hurts. Oh, and do this overhand – don’t do it underhand.

 

Close grip pull up

This is a tough one, and I recommend spending some time with this one. The range of motion is the largest, and it challenges your wrist strength/flexibility.

 

Alternate grip pull up

I’ve heard this one called “mixed-grip” also. It’s a nice stepping stone to starting one-armed progressions. One hand has an overhand grip, and the other hand has an underhand grip.

 

Towel pull up

This one is a great way to improve your grip strength. And, it’s pretty simple – just throw some towels over your bar, and PULL.

 

W pullup

This is another nice building block to one-armed work. It’s basically three pulls for one rep. Pull your chin to your left hand, return to bottom, pull your chin center, return to bottom, pull your chin to your right hand, return to bottom. Go back and forth as much as you can. By pulling to one side specifically, you are transitioning more work to just that arm. So, its not a 50/50 effort anymore. Maybe it’s 70/30 or 80/20…

 

Uneven chin up (one-arm assisted)

This is where I spend a lot of my time right now. I’m working on gaining high reps in this movement. I’d say the work is about 90% the hand touching the bar. The further down your wrist you grab, the less work the assisting hand does. Just like I recommend being able to dead hang for as long as it takes to do a single set of pull ups, I recommend mastering a dead hang with a single arm before trying this movement. Right now, I’m up to 25 seconds dead hang on each arm. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, this single arm action really challenges your core. Your body will want to twist when you hang – you need to lock out your core and not let it.

 

Rock climber switch

This is a fun way to challenge holding the upper portion of the pull up. If you want a simple challenge, but a good workout – try to hold the upper portion of a chin up for 1 minute. Pausing at the top, and doing a very slow and controlled descent for many seconds is called a negative chin up (or if you have the overhand grip, a negative pull up). That is a great pull up progression if you aren’t getting yourself above the bar with a standard pull up yet. Just grip the bar, jump to the top of the movement and HOLD ON FOR DEAR LIFE. Once you reach your limit, slow the descent for a good 4-5 seconds.

The rock climber switch is a variant of that idea. You get to the top, and rather than just a static hold or a controlled descent, you change your grip between overhand and underhand one hand at a time, and as many times as you can. It’s a tough move and you might fumble around the first few times, but it’s worth getting proficient at.

 

Do you have any favorite pull up variations? If so, please let us know about them in the comments. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” and share. Thanks!