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Handstand Mobility - A Hidden Key to Scapular Mobility

The handstand is an ever impressive calisthenic goal to achieve. Seeing someone with the ability to turn upside down and balance themselves on their hands is almost always a marvel. Yet, when it comes to training it, there are often issues that arise. Shoulder problems, scapular imbalances, and spinal immobility are but a few things that can stop a calisthenics enthusiast just short of the handstand.

I mean, the way that people train often contributes heavily to that immobility. Chest and arm intensive exercises build a great base of mirror muscle, but leave out the essential strength and mobility gained through back training. Furthermore, even people who deadlift, which is great for developing back strength, can suffer from thoracic spine immobility. You’ll see rounded back deadlifters placing incredible strain on their lumbar spines while trying to lift heavy weights like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.


Don't be this guy with your dead's.

But if that’s an issue...how can handstands help? In all honesty...they won’t. At least, they won’t help too much if you’re exclusively training the handstand. What you want to train to increase your thoracic spine mobility, scapular mobility and shoulder strength is handstand mobility.

Let’s take the handstand pushup against the wall, for instance. I know more than a few people who have practiced HSPU’s on the wall like a religion, yet can’t maintain a static handstand for much longer than 2 seconds. After training handstand mobility for all of two weeks, I can maintain at least a 10 second handstand without undue strain. What’s the difference, and how can that difference help you?

The difference is in the variation. The handstand pushup is a strength and rep based exercise. How many handstand pushups can I do? What if I increase the weight? In that regard, the handstand is no different from an overhead press with your bodyweight.

Let’s see how changing the focus to variation affects the training. Okay, you managed to work yourself up to a handstand pushup; now try walking your hands out from the wall, and walking your hands back to the wall. All of a sudden, the muscles and tendons at work seem a bit different. You feel your shoulders, traps, and scapula working in ways you didn’t feel from the HSPU’s alone.

For another example, let’s take an exercise that is a great precursor to the handstand, which is the back bridge. The back bridge is incredible for thoracic mobility, scapular mobility, and shoulder strength, as well as grip strength depending on the surface you use. The back bridge hold is generally known exercise in the strength world. What happens if you try doing pushups in the back bridge position? What if you try holding the back bridge, but wiggling your shoulders side to side?

When your training focus is for reps and intensity, you will develop strength in that position. However, when you focus on variation, you will develop mobility where you have lost it over the years. If your goal is to increase motion, training motion will help.

Jasper Benincasa, undisputed master of hand balancing

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