It’s time to have a look at the exercise that’s going to give you seriously strong shoulders. The Handstand Push Up.
It’s the bodyweight equivalent to a military press. If you think it is an inferior shoulder exercise (compared to dumbbell presses or shoulder shrugs), something only crossfitters, think again, my friend. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself used to set after set of handstand push ups back in the day. When performed with correct form and trained progressively using various progressions you’ll have a powerful tool in your arsenal. A compound movement, superior to isolated exercises, involving many muscle groups at once, including the triceps, deltoids, traps, lats spinal erectors and many more. What makes this movement even more difficult is the fact that one has to balance on one’s hands, without any support.
Some of the progressions actually consist of two exercises – one being a static handbalancing exercise, the other being an isotonic exercise to strengthen the muscle groups mentioned above.
Just as with Push Ups, I’ve made the decision to keep the master step from the original Big Six, which is the One Arm Handstand Push Up. Some people say it’s impossible to do one, but we’ve heard people say that way too often. More on that later.
Get ready for the 10 progressions, from absolute beginner to maniac, starting with:
level 1: headstand
This is a fairly easy way to get started with handbalancing. There are three points of contact – both hands and your head, your weight being evenly distributed. That means your arms won’t have to bear the entire weight of your body, but also that your head is not bearing most of your weight. For that reason your body shouldn’t be perfectly vertical, instead, if you’re doing the exercise in front of a wall facing away from it, which is good to begin with, your body will slightly lean away from the wall. But when you’re starting you can lean against the wall, as shown on the photos.
Place your hands on the ground roughly shoulder width apart, then our head as well, creating an equilateral triangle. Kick one leg up whilst simultaneously pushing with the other one against the ground, the joining the leg that’s already up in the air. Make sure at thi point your head, hips and ankles are all in one line, though not entirely vertical, as explained above. Hold the Headstand for 5, 10, 30 seconds. It’ll help you get used to the feeling of being upside down.
level 2: Crow pose
Pike push ups
This progression requires to practice two exercise alongside each other. That is the Crow pose, known from yoga for handbalancing and static strength, and the pike Push up to build up the strength necessary for a full handstand push up.
Crow Pose: Starting from a squat, place both hands on the floor, shoulder width apart. Then rest the inner part of both knees, one after another, on your arms just above the elbow. Lean forwards by bending your arms and lift your feet off the floor. Hold the position, up to your 30 seconds. Remember that it’s not that much about using the muscles of your arms to hold yourself up. It’s about resting most of your bodyweight on the part above your elbows and using the structure of your body for support.
Pike Push Ups: This is the easiest version of this exercise. Start in a basic push up position with your feet hip distance apart, as if you were to do standard push ups. Bend in the hips into a pike, also known as the downward dog position in yoga. From there bend your arms in he elbows, lowering your head and body to the ground and towards your hands under a roughly 45 degree angle. Once you reach the lowest point, push yourself up back into the pike. Most of the work has to be done by your triceps, delts and traps, not much by your pecs.
level 3: wall handstand
pike push ups
Following the previous progression, it’s time to hold a full handstand leaning against the wall!
Place your hands in front of a wall, with your fingertips a bit less than one foot away from it. They should a bit more than shoulder width apart, fingers spread out and digging into the ground. Kick one le up and follow with the other leg, until they both touch the wall. At the beginning you will most likely do a banana-back handstand, but you should work on straightening it up, so that your body is in a straight line, maintaining a hollow body position.
It is very important that you keep your arms locked out in the elbows. This way you are relying on the structure of your body, rather than pure muscle strength. Look between your hands and hold it for 5, 15, 30 seconds.
Alongside the wall handstands one should be training Pike Push Ups as well. Not the beginner’s version from the previous level though. With this one you have to place your feet together and closer to your hands, go on your toes and not flare your elbows out. Instead of lowering your head down in between your hands, your head needs to go further forwards, as shown on the photos.
level 4: freestanding handstand
elevated pike push ups
Now that you can hold a wall handstand, you need to start working holding a handstand without any support. The easiest way to do this, is to push your legs ever so slightly away from the wall and try to balance on your hands as long as you can.
Maintain a hollow body, in other words keeping everything aligned in a straight line and engaging your core certainly helps. Once again, make sure your ar s are locked ou in the elbows and and your fingers are spread out.
You can also try to kick you legs up into a freestanding handstand with no wall in front of you and practice every day. The more often the better.
Elevated Pike Push Ups are the best exercise you can do to build up strength for a full HSPU. Place you toes on a sturdy waist high object, your hands are on the floor, shoulder width apart. Your arms and torso create a straight line (as seen from the side) perpendicular to the floor and your legs. From there bend your arms and lower yourself down until your head touches the floor. Push back up into the starting position.
level 5: wall handstand push ups
Now that you can do a decent amount of elevated Pike Push Ups (10, 15 or more) and hold a handstand with ease you can start training full handstand push ups leaning against a wall. This will strengthen your arms and shoulders. A lot.
Place your hands on the floor in front of a wall, not more than one foot away from it, shoulder width apart from each other or slightly more. Kick your legs up into a wall handstand (see level 3). From there bend you arms and lower yourself down until your head lightly touches the floor. Push back up into the handstand and repeat.
At the beginning you can lower your head directly in between your hands with your elbows flaring out, nothing wrong with that. But eventually you need to go down with your head closer to the wall (as with Headstands), hands not more than shoulder width apart and elbows in, which is the same as when you do a Freestanding Handstand Push Up. If you can’t go all the way down, do more elevated Pike Push Ups, the do partial reps. To add some resistance, use a step on each side to increase the range of motion.
level 6: freestanding handstand push ups
Having to balance on your hands whilst doing push ups makes this progression superior to the previous one, by far. You might be able to hold a static handstand for 30 seconds or more, but trying to hold it whilst moving is very different.
Start by getting into a freestanding handstand. These are a few ways how to do so:
– Kick your legs up in the air as with the previous progressions (easiest option)
– Push up into the handstand from a Crow Stand
– From a headstand
– From a pike
– Press to stand (straight arms).
Then begin to lower yourself down as I f you wanted to do down into a headstand. Holding a hollow body position, keeping everything tight and aligned in one straight line is crucial here. As you go down your body won’t perfectly perpendicular to the ground – it’ll lean slightly as shown on the photo. Push back up into the handstand, where your body is vertical.
As always keep your fingers spread out and digging into the ground, breathe, hold the hollow body position. Go lower and lower as you get stronger and are able to balance on your hands better.
level 7: Close handstand push ups
This an exercise I very rarely see anyone do. It targets the triceps much more than the previous progressions, and it does a great job doing so!
The technique is very similar to standard wall HSPU, except the hands being very close, thumbs and index fingers touching each other. Try to keep your body relatively straight and your elbows will naturally flare a bit more out, similar to diamond push ups. Aim to go low enough until your head touches your hands.
level 8: uneven handstand push ups
The first unilateral exercise from the handstand progression series, so that you can work towards the one arm HSPU and build a lot of strength along the way.
Place one hand on the floor in front of a wall, the other hand on something that’s at least ten inches high. Kick your legs up into a handstand and lean against the wall. Shift your weight on the extended arm, as much as you can manage. Bend both arms, go as low as possible, then push back into the starting position. Repeat, then carry on with the other arm, same amount of reps on both sides, or a couple more on the weaker side if necessary.
level 9: lever handstand push ups
At this point almost all work is done by one arm, the other one is there to help you balance and gives only little support.
Go into a handstand in the corner of a room, or next to something you can lean against. Shift all your weight on one arm and lean to that side. that’s going to free up your other arm, which you can place on the floor in front of you, palm facing up. Bend the arm and lower yourself down, whilst you slide the supporting arm forwards. The push back up and repeat if you can. Repeat on the other side.
At first you can begin with partial reps and slowly build yourself up to do the full range of motion.
level 10: one arm handstand push ups
We’re here. The master step some people think is impossible to perform.
I’m not going to dissect or do calculations whether a one arm HSPU is even attainable. People in the past thought that running a mile in less that 4 minutes would make one’s heart explode, but then Roger Bannister came along and did it, as well many athletes after him. The author of Convict Conditioning and the original Big Six, Paul Wade, claimed in his book to do 10 or more one arm HSPU in one set whilst he was in jail. Maybe, I don’t know. But as of now, one can only find a few attempts to do this beast of an exercise on the Internet, none with perfect form. For now…
Go into a wall handstand in the corner of a room, lean to the side against the wall and lift the other arm off the floor to your hip. Lower yourself down as low as you can, then push against the floor hard and push yourself up without bending your legs or arching your back, back into the one arm handstand.
“Everything is impossible until someone crazy enough comes along and makes it possible.”