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!

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