Mythconceptions is a word I have officially made up. It is part myth, part mis-conception. It’s a mythconception. And there are two I see in handstands all the time.
The first; that every element of the handstand is perfectly vertical in a perfectly vertical handstand. The idea of ‘finding your stack’.
The second; is the thought that the shoulder in a handstand is ‘open’. Or the idea that the solution to the problems you’re seeing in your handstand is ‘you just need to open your shoulders more’. Typically what they’re seeing is a lack of scapula elevation that’s masquerading as a shoulder angle issue, and a more appropriate cue would be ‘push up’ / ‘push tall’.
That is what we’re gonna get to the bottom of today.
A Brief Explanation of Balance
Balance is a game of keeping your center of mass over your base of support. Your center of mass is a point located somewhere inside your body (and sometimes outside it) that defines where your center is. It changes location depending on the position of your body. Your base of support is whatever you’re balancing on, be that feet or hands or whatever else.
By manipulating the position of your body, you’re able to manipulate your center of mass to (hopefully) stay over your base of support. If your center of mass stays over your base of support, you are on balance. If your center of mass is not over your base of support, you fall.
Congratulations, you’ve passed balance 101.
‘The Myth of the Stack’
I’ve already given away my punchline but, a straight, vertical handstand is actually not completely straight / vertical at every section. Here’s some images of what I think most of us would consider ‘a really nice handstand line’, complete with a couple lines to illustrate my point.
The yellow line is a straight line from the wrist to the shoulder
The blue line is from shoulder to the ankle, and represents what could be considered their ‘handstand line’.
The white line is a sort of ‘plumbline’ that is a completely vertical line that intersects with the center of the hand. Consider it a reference point to see how truly vertical their handstand is.
The blue line, their ‘handstand line’, typically flirts with the vertical white line closely or bisects it somewhere in the center. But, what you can see is that the yellow line is never vertical, it’s not even close.
Why is that?
People like to say that:
‘A handstand is just like standing up, except you’ve got to stack everything on top of your hands instead of your feet.’
Except, your foot and your wrist aren’t built the same and so that doesn’t quite pan-out. Let’s have a little peep at the foot in comparison to the wrist and you’ll see why.
Here is a helpfully-color-coded-and-animated-foot-x-ray.
The white dashed line represents your center of mass. When you’re standing up, you can shift your center of mass into three different places: in front of your shin into your forefoot and toes, centered and directly in line with your shin, or behind the shin bone into your heel.
Now, lets compare that to the wrist:
It’s ever so slightly (read: very) different.
When our center of mass is directly above our forearm, we can only shift the weight into two places, directly under the forearm, or forwards into the palm and fingers. What we can’t do is shift our center of mass behind it, because there’s no base of support back there. What little we do have behind the forearm isn’t even touching the ground. When our weight sits directly underneath the forearm the hand only has two points of balance, forwards and center.
The key difference here is that your foot has a heel, it has something behind the shin bone. Your hand does not. By default your foot has three places the weight can ‘sit’, while your hand only has two.
So what does this mean????
That, in order to gain a larger base of support on our hands, one that’s capable of having a back, center and front, we have to create an ‘artificial heel’. We do this by manipulating our center of mass slightly further forwards by shifting the shoulder, so that our weight sits over the middle of our hand rather than directly above the wrist and forearm.
This slight forward shift of the shoulder results in a non-vertical arm, but it does mean we now have three points of balance on our hand. We have created, against gods will I might add, a fake heel. By shifting our entire center of mass forwards to the point where our shoulder in most cases sits above the palm or center of the hand, we have managed to conjure up three potential balance points.
That’s what creates the non-vertical line from our wrist to our shoulder, and that’s what gives us the ability to balance and correct our handstand. If our mass continues to fall forwards, then it shifts into our fingers. If we’re perfectly on balance, the weight remains in the center of our hand. And if we fall back, we can apply pressure through the heel of our hand. Our center of mass no longer falls into nothingness.
Now, there are other ways to manipulate your center of mass to create three points of balance. And they work. So before you start sending me photos of great hand balancers who’s shoulder and arm position doesn’t conform to this theory, take a second and look to see if they’ve created an ‘artifical heel’ or three points of balance in another way.
Every single person who goes upside down is unknowingly chasing this ‘artifical heel’ and those elusive three points of balance.
- Banana handstand? Artifical heel.
- Ass out, slightly piked handstand? Artifical heel.
- Shoulders too open, straight body over the top handstand? Artifical heel.
They are all unknowingly trying to manipulate their center of mass over the their base of support. There are many ways to do it, the method I’ve outlined above is what I would consider the most efficient, acrobatically useful and aesthetically pleasing way to do it for the purpose of hand to hand.
I appreciate and am aware that other acrobatic / gymnastics disciplines have other requirements from their handstand, this is not a catch all technique. But the technique I prefer, have been coached to do and propose as a coach for hand to hand and hand balancing.
For our purposes, the shoulder angle should be closed in a handstand. The forearm and arm angle in relation to the rest of the body cannot be vertical. In fact, the more your arm angle trends towards vertical the more your handstand will trend away from it. There are exceptions to this rule, an excessively negative carrying angle in the elbow or specific rib cage anatomy, but they are rare.
‘Open Your Shoulders’
This leads us nicely to why ‘open your shoulders’ is a bad or unhelpful cue in the overwhelming majority of cases.
We’ve already covered and outlined above why it’s crucial that the shoulder remains slightly closed, the polar opposite of the popular advice: ‘open your shoulders’.
So instead, let’s talk about something called the ‘Length Tension Relationship’.
In a nutshell, your muscles are capable of producing force
The amount of force (/strength) they can produce at any one given time is dependent on a number of factors, the factor we care about today is their length. An overly shortened, or overly lengthened, muscle produces less force than a muscle that’s in a ‘range of motion sweet spot’.
See the graph below:
So, lets bring this back, and relate this, to the frequently heard cue of ‘open your shoulders’. When you tell someone in a handstand to ‘open their shoulders’ you are actively encouraging them to move towards their end range of motion, a position where they able to produce less force (/are weaker).
The closer they get to their end range (the end / limit of their range of motion), the weaker they get. Think about that for a second.
When you tell someone to ‘open their shoulders’ you are not only encouraging them to move toward a vertical arm angle (that we now know is not the goal) thus ruining their chances of a great, straight handstand, you’re also making them weaker.
So what does that mean?
This means, we should be letting people work their handstand in their own unique ‘range of motion sweet spot’, while simultaneously trying to improve that range of motion outside of handstand training.
If my maximum range of motion through my shoulder, with no arching or rib cage flaring, is this far:
You have to be completely, 100% honest with yourself about your actual range of motion. As soon as your rib cage or spine begins to change, you've surpassed your shoulders available range of motion and are 'stealing' it from elsewhere.
My ‘range of motion sweet spot’ is roughly 10 – 20 degrees off the previous position.
Now, if you have a limited range of motion you’re going to have a hard time maintaining a traditionally ‘good’ handstand line (straight / vertical from the shoulders up). So, in the meantime you should make do with what’s possible and train a less than ideal handstand body position.
But, you should also be working to increase your maximum range of motion outside of your handstand training. (Ex 1 , Ex 2 , Ex 3 ) As increasing your maximum range of motion will move your ‘range of motion sweet spot’ or your ‘working range of motion’ closer and closer to where it needs to be.
Put another way: Your ‘work in progress’ handstand is ‘your full range of motion minus 10 to 20 degrees’. Your ideal handstand is ‘a full 180 degrees range of motion minus X degrees’ where X is specific to you and your body.
Who said algebra isn’t useful in the real world?
The complicated thing is that everyone’s ideal shoulder angle is dependent on their individual morphology and differs person to person. Things like forearm to upper arm length ratio, the carrying angle in your elbow and rib cage anatomy can & will affect what a person’s ‘ideal’ handstand will look like.
I would love to go into scapula elevation and the idea of ‘pushing up’ or ‘pushing tall’, but that I feel requires it’s own post entirely as it’s fairly complicated. In the meantime, the next time you feel compelled to say ‘open your shoulders’ tell them instead to ‘push tall’.
End Range of The Article
So remember, a vertical body line (as defined by a line from from wrist to ankle) in a handstand is difficult (if not impossible) to achieve without specific anatomical traits, and for the vast majority of people not something we should be chasing. A slightly closed shoulder will allow you to find a much more stable, and straight handstand than having a more open shoulder angle.
I’ve said it already, but there are exceptions to this. Handstands are superficially simple, but devilishly complex under the surface. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ advice. What there is, and what this article is trying to do, is ‘one-size-fits-most’
If you have questions about your handstand, or how this advice relates to you, shoot us a message on the gram and I’ll take a peep and give you my $0.02.
Thank you to everyone who submitted handstand photos!