Elizabeth Overton on Handstands

I hope that people who are new to handstands will learn in a safe and effective way. I hope the information they get is the kind that will help them reach their potential and keep them healthy and happy.

These days, being able to do a handstand is a goal for so many people across a wide range of disciplines. Handstands have become a goal for everyone from circus artists, yogis, and crossfitters to climbers, single parents, desk workers, grandmas… Ok, maybe not grandmas, but there’s so much easily-accessed information out there that it’s not too hard for anyone to start learning. However, most of this information is either unhealthy or not useful beyond being able to get upside down and not fall for a few seconds. This misguidance can sometimes lead to injury and almost always leads to bad habits that need to be fixed if the student’s goal is to progress beyond a fleeting hold.

        I think social media has been both a cause for this issue as well as a possible cure. Knowledge spreads over social media both directly (in posts) and indirectly (through teachers and teachings becoming more well-known). As the good teachers and practitioners make themselves more well-known, the social media culture of handstands will adapt. Even if teachers don’t want to or can’t take more students in person, when they become visible on social media, the average viewer becomes exposed to the training process and its results, which spreads better ideas about how handstands are supposed to look and be trained.

        I myself have direct knowledge of only two styles of handstands: those from artistic gymnastics and circus handbalancing style taught by Jean-Luc Martin. While I don’t remember much of how I learned a handstand in gymnastics at four years old, I do remember that my hands were rarely addressed by my coaches because their use was learned through trial and error. Elbows were expected to be straight, but medial epicondyle placement was not addressed. Shoulders were expected to be extended, but external rotation was never addressed. Rib placement was somewhat important, but more focus was on correcting spinal alignment.

        As long as I wasn’t getting deductions in competitions, this technique was considered good enough. But once I gained the goal of holding a one-arm handstand, I needed more precision. My elbows, shoulders, ribs, and more had to be addressed by Jean-Luc when our goal became to have a one arm that I could move freely within. His program was individualized to me but was still strict and methodical. While these details may not be what many average recreational handstanders want or need, the principles apply and can be taught up to the level the student wants to work for.        

        Everyone has a different body, so everyone has a slightly different ideal handstand line. Once that ideal line has been established, shapes that work for that body can be explored. The priority shared throughout different techniques is to keep the weight from resting in joints that are not originally intended to bear weight: wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Holding the weight in the muscles surrounding these joints will solidify them in the short term, and in the long term, putting the right kind of stress (pulling, not squishing) on the connective tissues will cause them to beef up and make themselves more prepared to bear weight.

Realistically, anybody practicing circus frequently is at risk of chronic injury. Muscle imbalances can develop and connective tissue can tear from misalignment, or you’ll overtrain or not warm up enough or become inconsistent in skills while still attempting the hard stuff. With handstands specifically, if you’re “sitting” in your joints all the time, they can become compressed and/or develop tendonitis, which can compress the nerves running through them and shred the connective tissue surrounding them. Good technique will minimize or prevent that damage.

        Hand activation, medial epicondyle placement, and shoulder rotation and extension are all pieces of the puzzle that can make or break these joints. As far as the basics of safe handstands go, an understanding of the anatomy involved and how to protect it is the best approach. How to get that information though? Students should see a coach who knows not only handstands but also all types of bodies so that they can help piece together that puzzle. Beyond the basics, as long as the information keeps you as healthy as possible, run with whatever feels right on your body and helps you reach toward your goals.          

        I don’t see a whole lot of information that is downright wrong or dangerous on social media, but there is a lot that is being left out or misprioritized. For instance, when someone arches their back because their shoulders don’t open, many well-meaning commenters will only address that back arch. But because gravity stacks from the ground up , the back will never straighten into the desired handstand line if the shoulders don’t open first. It is encouraging to see the sheer number of people who are being exposed to handstands on social media and trying them out, but that means it’s extra important for good advice to be shared and for quality sources to be acknowledged.

A lot of the handstands and handstand tutorials on social media are shared by yogis who don’t always share a concern for technique and physical longevity. But sometimes, well-trained handbalancers and coaches like Andrii Bondarenko gain popularity and their techniques gain greater exposure through their followings.

        More people than ever are trying handstands, and more people than ever are teaching them. I think handstands change people’s lives for the better, so I hope more good technique and examples are shared in the future so that average people learn healthy, sustainable, and beautiful handstands from the start. Luckily/fortunately, it feels like things are trending this way already!

Elizabeth Overton (@theacrosquirrel), when not balancing on Matt Fields-Johnson (@theacrobear), has become one of Instagram’s most popular handbalancers, with over 22,000 followers.

Click here to see this article in its full glory in the gorgeously designed Spring 2018 Issue of ACE Digital Magazine.

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