Deconstructing the One Arm Handstand

Ryan-Hurst-One-Arm-Handstand
A short while back, the guys from GMB Fitness got in touch with us to talk about handstands, training, impressive skills and all of the other stuff we love on this blog.  When their program director, Ryan Hurst, asked if our readers would be interested in his experience learning the One Arm Handstand (OAHS), I said “Hell Yes!”

With the growing popularity of my latest book, The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide, I know you guys would love to see how an unthinkably awesome skill can be learned.

Ryan took the time to write out how he achieved this amazing skill, and I immediately noticed parallels between learning your first handstand, and achieving an uber-impressive feat like One Armed Handstands.  Below is Ryan’s account of how he learned the OAHS, and you can find my notes peppered throughout, explaining some of the similarities that you may see as a new handbalancer.

-Chris


The One Arm Handstand was an interesting skill to pursue.

With my competitive junior level gymnastics background, I am very comfortable on my hands, but we had never worked on this skill in our practice. In fact, I’m not sure I know any gymnasts that can perform the OAHS.

Along with the fact that it looks damn cool, this was one of the reasons I chose to train for it at the beginning of the year.

I sought instruction from a great coach and set my mind to doing whatever it took for as long as it took to develop a base level of ability with the skill. Due to my consistent effort and a solid plan, I achieved my first steady holds after about 14 weeks of practice.

Most people who learn this skill do so as part of a circus or equilibre’ school, or if those aren’t nearby, resign themselves to self study, which must lengthen the process interminably. I sought the assistance of Steve Atlas, a coach who much like me chose to learn the skill at an older age than most.

His guidance and experience helped me to progress efficiently and safely.

I had achieved good competency in planches, levers and the like, but the difficulty of the OAHS became readily apparent as soon as I started.

I would rate the difficulty of this move some notches higher than those other skills.

First, the Fundamentals

Looking back on the last few months of training, it became apparent how my previous years of consistent practice of fundamental strength and skill exercises prepared me for the rigors of this training.

It may sound cliché, but learning this skill is truly about needing to know how to walk before learning how to run.

I consider the ability to maintain a stable two arm handstand for one minute, with a decent straight body line, a minimum prerequisite prior to working on the OAHS.

This, along with adequate hip flexibility (for the straddle position), wrist and finger strength and dexterity, and a hefty amount of patience, will allow for realistic and manageable OAHS practice.

An Outline of My Training

Throughout this process, my basic schedule was 6 days a week of handstand practice, working up to twice-a-day sessions of progressive emphases as outlined by my instructor. I began with 10 sets and ended with my current training of 50 sets per hand.

Hurrying through the various OAHS transitions will get you nowhere fast.

It can be very tempting to quickly lift your arm to the side and try and get into the OAHS. However, 99 times out of 100 this will only result in a failed attempt.

The fastest way into the OAHS is through a deliberate and specific practice with each progression. When looking closely at masters of the OAHS you’ll see that they still go through some of these progressions with every setup into the hold. They don’t rush into lifting their arm and they also follow a specific ritual for entering the OAHS each and every time.

This breeds consistency and reliability into their performance, and is a good analogy for training for the OAHS in general.

[Chris’ Note: For readers of The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide, you will notice a strong similarity here between the “ritual” of the person holding the OAHS and the ritual that is called the 4-Points Checklist in Challenge #4 of the book.]

With respect to the progressions toward the straddle OAHS, the approach is not complicated. The OAHS is a skill that you get through a series of steps that, while building upon each other, don’t necessarily follow a planned pattern. In other words, you should not have an expectation of simply following these progressions with an improving ease finally leading to lifting one hand up of the ground.

What you’ll probably experience, and what I certainly did, is that the level of effort and volume waves from level to level and even within a level. The strength and body coordination of a consistent OAHS is remarkable and so is the training leading up to it.

I’m sharing the progressions that I went through, and that my coach gave me, not because they are a secret and magical sequence to “The OAHS in 6 easy steps!” but because they represent the logical building blocks to the correct performance of the skill.

Straddle Handstand hold

  1. Shift side to side
  2. Side Flexion
  3. Palm up
  4. Up on all fingertips
  5. Up on 3, 2, then 1 finger
  6. Elbow lift
  7. Extending arm fully for the final hold.

Of course, within these progressions there are a multitude of details for their proper execution, and those build on each other systematically.

My particular progression will necessarily be different from another person’s, but an analysis of my process is helpful for a look at the development of the skill in general.

Here are some of the major points I experienced in my own journey:

Progression One: Side to Side Shifting

OAHS-Weight-ShiftWhen I first started, the biggest thing for me was the execution of the side-to-side shift without allowing the shoulders to travel too far past the vertical line over the hand.

My coach referred to this action as “Skiing.” Too much skiing will cause too much lateral play and makes it difficult to find the proper balance.

You need some lean but not Tower of Pisa leaning.

If you’ve got the shoulder strength you might be able to muscle through it but, ultimately, you want your shoulder in that vertical line directly above your hand. In the beginning this is extremely difficult, so when you begin this training a little bit of skiing is necessary to perform the exercise and get enough repetitions in to be worthwhile.

It took me some time to fully comprehend how important it is to maintain scapular elevation while shifting side side. It seems like common sense but when shifting your weight to one side it’s difficult not to just relax and lose that elevation.

If there is one concept you should drill into your head over and over, it’s to push away from the floor as hard as you can in that straddle stand and to keep that position the entire time.

Once you lose that elevated position you’ll lose stability and you’ll waste precious energy pushing back into it.

Progression Two: “Side Flexion”

In handbalancing the term “side flexion” refers to the lower body hinging at the waist, while your upper body remains strong and stable.

This breaking at the waist brings the legs down as a counterbalance for the weight shifting to one hand support. Good side flexion necessarily involves two components: Flexibility and Strength.

When I moved to this progression, I was advised to aim for at least the  9 and 2 o’clock positioning. The leg opposite the supporting hand is at 9, and the other is at least at the 2 position. This will of course differ depending on your flexibility however I still work this position as I continue to bring my arm up to horizontal and above.

The need for hip and waist flexibility is apparent – if you cannot fully straddle you won’t be able to drop the legs in the correct positioning for counterbalance. In fact, increased flexibility can compensate for lesser strength, since the legs can be dropped further to assist as a counterbalance. So consistent practice in active flexibility is a must for OAHS work.

Strength at the waist and upper torso is also critical for side flexion.

Your shoulders must maintain their positioning, so the movements at the hips and waist must be controlled by your trunk’s ability to move your lower body fully separately from your upper body. This takes a tremendous amount of strength and muscle control.

As you start to develop your side shift and your side flexion you’ll that your shifting will take a considerable weight off the outside hand. That is very good but fight the urge to just pull it up off of the ground! It just means that you are ready to let your palm peel up and hold.

Progression Three: Palm Up

The progressions are additive and with proper positioning and weight shift, going to the palm up posture will be intuitive. The heel of the hand will begin to float up as the majority of your weight shifts to one hand. Again resist the urge to lift the hand up, instead feel for the natural “peeling” off of the hand as the weight shift settles and the pressure into the ground gets lighter and lighter.

I stressed the importance of scapular elevation earlier because that strength and positioning is now even more needed at this point, since without that elevated posture, the hand will feel heavier and you will attempt to muscle it up rather than allowing it to flow up.

This is a key distinction that runs through all of the OAHS progressions, the need for efficient use of energy and the feeling of easing into the positions.

That sensation of the palm “wanting” to come up off of the floor is extremely important because it is a cue that you are at the correct position. If that outside arm feels heavy it means that you are not in the correct position.

Remember, we don’t want to just throw that arm out of the side and pray that we can hold it! It simply doesn’t work that way.

Progression Four: Up on All Fingertips (progressing to one)

OAHS-FingertipsAfter many hours of practice in the palm up stage, increasing stability and a stronger weight shift now allows for pulling up onto your fingertips. Again rushing into this progression leads to more trouble rather than faster progress.

Don’t get too anxious and take your hand up off of the floor to “tent” your fingers. As your palm starts to peel away, continue the momentum and slide your fingers into the tented position. You will find your elbow will bend slightly without intention. This is a good thing and a precursor to going up onto 3, 2 and then finally 1 finger.

When it feels time to do progress to less finger support, shift weight to the fingers you want to use, don’t actively lift the other fingers.

Elbow positioning is important as you work down the fingers, keep that hand’s elbow pointed outward. This detail will help with removing weight evenly from that arm.

I found that as my fingers decreased going from 5 to 1, I needed to pull my fingers back into line with my other hand before extending the arm. In other words, I needed to bring my fingers back slightly so that they were on a straight line with the center of the palm of my base hand.

This was especially important in the 1 finger posture.

That way it allowed me to extend straight out to the side instead of at a slight upward angle had I left my finger where it had originally been. This isn’t necessarily an issue for me now but it helped when I was first working on the next step.

Progression Five: Lifting Elbow

OAHS-Lifting-ElbowYou will likely spend a considerable amount of time and effort on the one finger progression, I know I did! I’ve been harping on patience and really taking your time on each progression, but this level in particular does not abide any rushing.

Rushing here will topple you over right away. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Once you feel solid on the one finger progression, you can allow the elbow to float up. I use these terms “allow” and “float” precisely to paint an image of patience and ease. The strength and balance control of a OAHS is amazingly difficult, and a lack of patience is the surest way to never achieve it. You will notice this right away when your elbow begins to float up, almost immediately you’ll find that your structure seems to start falling apart.

So think of terms of “floating” and “allowing” and simply pull your elbow up a half an inch and reassess.

Progress in fractions of an inch.

Progression Six: Full arm extension

OAHS-Arm-ExtensionAt this point you are fully balanced on one arm, which I’m sure you will agree is impressive enough! But for aesthetics and the full straddle OAHS, you’ll want to have full elbow extension.

In my training, this progression happened relatively quickly, perhaps because the weight shift was complete and I was simply working on removing extraneous motion that would interfere with my balance point. At this stage it seemed like an errant gust of wind would blow me over! I am not at the expert level where they can maintain balance with big extremity movements.

This is why the “pointed out” elbow that I mentioned earlier is important. In this positioning you won’t have to move your elbow, you simply extend your forearm in the line. Any sideways action can disrupt the fragile balance point.

It’s so important I’ll say it once more.

Do NOT swing your entire arm upwards from the floor.

With a bend in the elbow, fully extend the arm by focusing on pushing the forearm to the side.

I suggest practicing some sets of this progression with your toes grazing a wall, just be sure that you are set into the proper position. You won’t rely on the wall at all, it’s simply there to give you more time to fine tune your elbow positioning prior to the elbow lift and the final arm straightening.

Putting the Progressions into Perspective

At first, this can all seem very daunting. However, the training itself is simple.

Focus on deliberately achieving the specific form of each progression before moving on to the next, and include a second “conditioning” exercise after the skill work.

For example, I practiced side flexion control daily with the goal of legs at the 9 and 2 o’clock positions. Then after completing the prescribed amount of sets for that day, I would then perform a side flexion hold against the wall for “X” amount of seconds each side.

Currently for my conditioning exercise, I am using a full OAHS hold with toes on the wall and arm out to the side horizontally for a 75 second static hold per arm.

[Chris’ Note: Notice that Ryan takes small steps to achieve an incredible impressive skill. His OAHS hold durations are only 75 seconds per arm. Thats about 3 minutes of working out to achieve an incredibly impressive goal. Of course, Ryan has built up to this over time, but that is nothing more than a series of days that he has been working on things he finds impressive and awesome. Even at this high level of accomplishment, the key is small changes and consistent practice.]

It can be extremely frustrating to work through all of those set-ups only to miss the OAHS attempt and have to go right back to the start. That’s why it is so important to be able to nail each prior progression before the full OAHS and not neglect the necessary time to eke out all of the benefits of each level.

These progressions aren’t about patting yourself on the back for how “advanced” you are. They’re a tool for knowing how far to back up when you can’t perform the skill.

That’s key: when in doubt, always back up.

Technical Details of the One Arm Handstand

Proper OAHS Positioning from Head to Toe

Head Position

Beginning with head positioning, in the standard variation I achieved, I noted that my chin is tucked in slightly and rotated away from the base arm. This happened quite naturally and I attribute the need for this position as a counter for the tendency of whole body rotation in the OAHS.

We are working hard to minimize this body rotation and the positioning of the head is crucial to this endeavor.

Without the proper head positioning it will also be difficult to attain full scapular elevation which is necessary for maximal handstand control.

Shoulder Girdle And Elbow

In the shoulder girdle, the essentials are scapular elevation and humeral external rotation for a “locked in” position of the scapula and humerus.

Scapular position is also in slight retraction, as any winging will result in a loss of elevation and power.

There is also a stabilizing force created with the humeral external rotation and wrist radial deviation and pronation for maintaining upper extremity stability. This creates a co-contraction of the biceps and triceps to further stabilize the positioning.

Any internal rotation at the elbow will cause a whole body rotation and possibly force you to bend your arm in order to to fight and muscle yourself back into position.

If you are very strong you may be able to muscle it better than the next guy, but it definitely takes energy and drains your muscular endurance and ability to sustain holds.

This is why it is always optimal to attain proper scapular elevation and external rotation of the shoulder elbow.

I really can’t stress enough the importance of scapular elevation and building the strength and stamina you need to maintain that position throughout your entire practice. Supplemental strength work such as handstand shrugs, band work, and other activities are essential for continued improvement.

Wrists and Hands

Moving towards the wrist and hands, the fingers are splayed and the fine control of balance is achieved by the interplay between the heel of the palm and all five fingers.

The adjustments and weight pressure will change, depending on the stage of the OAHS (and the particular variant), e.g., the initial weight transfer from two hands to primarily one, and the start of the lift of the floating arm.

There are different preferences for hand placement ranging from a flat palm to a tenting of the fingers with the heel of the hand. Despite the differing preferences, the balanced weight distribution at the hand is the same.

The primary weight distribution in the completed handstand is from the base of the thumb to the base of the fifth finger, with emphasis on the center of the hand, rather than laterally. The strain on the forearms is remarkable and I noticed wrist thickening over the past months due to the muscle and tendon hypertrophy in the lower forearm.

I was amazed at how thick my forearms have become from my OAHS practice.

Torso and Spine

Moving on to the torso and spine, the sternum is lifted (thoracic spine extension) and rotated away from the base arm in a diagonal vector.

In the lumbar spine, there will be varying degrees of extension dependent upon the relative heaviness of the lower body. A more extended position (arch) is necessary to counterbalance for bigger hips and thighs.

Lower Extremities

There is significant lower body action, not just simply for holding the straddle position, but also for active maintenance of proper hip positioning through locked knees and plantarflexed ankles. There is significant use of hip internal rotation and hip adduction throughout the hold.

Locking out your legs and keeping your toes pointed isn’t just to make the OAHS look better. It helps your form and stability immensely. In the beginning you’ll find yourself focusing on a specific task such as the weight shift or weight distribution. But make full knee extension and pointed toes a subconscious constant and you’ll improve your stability with less “wobble”.

And every little wobble you have in a OAHS means that you’ll expend that much more energy. So lock your legs and point your toes!

Play-by-Play of One Arm Handstand Performance

By way of summary, here’s a walkthrough of where I focus my attention at each step in performing the skill:

  1. I start in a two handed straddle handstand and shift my weight towards one arm, dropping the same side leg for side flexion. At the same time I pop my supporting hand up onto my fingers and then push harder into the ground to maintain scapular elevation.
  2. My attention goes back to my lower body to ensure my knees are locked straight with toes pointed.
  3. From here, I transition onto two fingers, then one finger, and finally pull my elbow up slightly before straightening my arm.
  4. I concentrate on first pulling the elbow up slightly, which sets my arm at such an angle that when I simply straighten my elbow again I am in a low OAHS.
  5. My extended arm is barely off the ground, and I push that extended arm downward at a slightly oblique angle to full shoulder girdle elevation. This helps as a further counterbalance and allows me to raise the hand further.
  6. This “full extension” is a very important concept. Both of my arms and legs are actively extending away from my center and there is no part of me that is relaxed. If I relax any part of my body at this point I will likely fail at the attempt and come crashing down.

Making Continual Progress on Your Individual Journey to the OAHS

Though there are a lot of amazing handbalancers out there performing this skill, there hasn’t been a detailed accounting of the training necessary to achieve it.

As a result, the best and fastest way to learn has always been to seek direct coaching. That’s what I did, and it’s still what I recommend for most people, because the value of a great coach simply can’t be oversold.

[Chris’ Note: Ryan and I are in complete agreement here. Direct coaching is the best resource, or, failing that, a great guide that has been known to produce results.]

I believe part of the reason is that the journey towards the OAHS is remarkably individual. There is no magical progression towards the skill.

Oftentimes when pursuing a particular and difficult bodyweight skill, we get stuck on a level. Whether for a few days, weeks, or even months, it’s easy at that point to assume you are doing something wrong. That there must be another way, a “magical” in-between level that can take you step by step more easily to your endpoint.

Part of my reason for writing this article is to say, “Sorry, but that doesn’t really exist.”

What’s real is consistent effort over time. Effort in regular practice, effort in assessing and correcting deficiencies, and hard effort in continuing to work despite seemingly unending plateaus. Every athlete that’s gone through long stretches of hard work with little to show for it knows this.

This is actually extremely liberating.

If all it takes is relentless consistency of effort, then we can all get there even without secret teachings. You get to stop worrying about whether you are doing the perfect thing and just end up doing what you need to do.

[Chris’ Note: Again, we are in complete agreement. It is always more fruitful to keep plodding on every day, sticking to your commitment log, rather than giving up when you can’t find the magical solution to your problem.]

Now, what do you think?

Hi, Chris here. I’m sure that before you read this, you thought that the handstand was nearly impossible, or very difficult, let alone the one armed handstand! But now, after reading the systematic breakdown of the one armed handstand, doesn’t it seem possible?

If you have seen any progress on the 28-Day Handstand Challenge so far, then learning the handstand feels within reach. You feel like you CAN do it if you just stick with it.

So why should the one armed handstand be any different? It’s just a little bit further down the same path!

Does the one armed handstand seem possible to you now?

Ryan Hurst, the guy who wrote this post, is the Program Director for GMB Fitness, where he teaches bodyweight exercise and movement skills. These guys have some of the best online workout videos available anywhere on the web, and the quality of their work is stellar.

2 Responses to “Deconstructing the One Arm Handstand”

  1. Marcelo February 13, 2014 at 6:38 pm #

    Awesome! Maybe I start train this skill! Regards from Brasil!

  2. Matt September 2, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    I’ve had limited range of motion when trying to extend my elbows, i.e. I can get to 180 degrees, let alone a slight hyper extension. As I try to hyper extend each arm, I just hit a hard stop around 170 degrees. My elbows have been like this for as long as I can remember. There is no pain in them at all, and I’ve never had an injury in either.
    I feel like this is going to limit my handstands significantly since I cannot lock out. I’ve looked at elbow anatomy, and I don’t understand why my arms are having this issue.
    What to do? Can this even be fixed? Are there stretches/exercises I should be doing to help?

Leave a Reply