CrossFit and Handstands

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CrossFit Wall Handstand

I’ve been hand balancing for several years now, but I actually got my start in hand balancing from CrossFit.

Yup, I was an avid CrossFitter for several years and used to teach parkour classes out of a CrossFit gym in Colorado Springs.  I got my first muscle up while CrossFitting, hit a Fran PR of 5:55, and got my first freestanding handstand.  It was nothing special, but I was proud of it at the time.

Back when I first started learning handstands, it was mostly because of how much it was discussed in CrossFit circles.  HSPU (Handstand Pushups, for those who live under a rock) felt relatively common, and I wanted to get better at my WODs…so I started focusing on hand standing against the wall.  As my HSPU got better and better, I wanted to move away from the wall, so I started taking the necessary steps to do that.

Unfortunately, it took me over 12 months of training and research to get away from the wall and start performing freestanding handstands.  That’s is a big difference from the 4-8 weeks that most people experience when they work with me now.

The key for me was to actually look outside of CrossFit for advice, and I found a lot of great advice on hand balancing when I started branding out from CrossFit into parkour.

Since then, I have trained hundreds of people to get their first handstand, and thousands have started the 28 day handstand challenge.  A lot of people who sign up for the challenge mention that they are signing up specifically to get better at handstands for CrossFit.

This article will help you get better at Freestanding Handstands or Handstands for CrossFit.

CrossFit for Handstands

Rugged Wall Handstand

If you want to do CrossFit to learn freestanding handstands, then I have some bad news for you….

Achieving your first freestanding handstand through CrossFit alone is very unlikely.

This may come as a shock…. but CrossFit is not an effective way to get your first freestanding handstand.

I know firsthand.  I tried it myself, and I have several people who use the 28-Day Handstand Challenge who have also told me they just aren’t progressing on handstands using CrossFit alone.

There are a few reasons for this, starting with the fact that…

CrossFit doesn’t train the handstand frequently enough.

At the end of the day, the handstand is a skill and doesn’t require a significant amount of strength or “multi modal” training.
After all, once you can hold a handstand against the wall for about 60 seconds, you have more than enough strength to perform a freestanding handstand.  Nothing else aside from dedicated skill work can get you there.

The handstand is a skill because improving requires training in subtle movements and techniques.  Training skills are usually not very taxing and your improvement is directly related to how much you train (unlike a feat of strength, which is very physically taxing and requires adequate rest and recovery periods).

So, think about this for a second.  Once you are at an adequate base-level of strength (60-second wall handstand), handstands training is actually skill training that is no different to other skills, like juggling or playing the piano.

Let’s compare the skill training of the handstand to the skill training of learning the piano.

Imagine three budding musicians:
Musician 1: Practices 5 minutes, every day
Musician 2: Practices 10 minutes, 2x a week
Musician 3: Practices 20 minutes, 1x per month

Who do you think makes the most progress?

Because of the nature of skill training, the person who practices the piano at least a little bit every day will make the most progress.  For starters, they are building a habit…a positive addiction… something that must be done daily.  Fortunately, habits and addictions have a tendency to snowball on themselves.

Once you have a 5-minute habit established, it effortlessly grows into more frequent practice.

What starts as a single daily 5-minute training session blows up into two sessions a day, then three, then four…then maybe even hours of training every day.  We all know of at least one young musician, who is inseparable from his instrument.  It always starts with a small, consistent regimen, and grows from there.

You also have less time to forget.

Our budding pianist that trains 5 minutes a day is constantly exposed to the skill, so they have less time to forget (consciously or subconsciously) the lessons they learned in their last session.

If our musician just spent 20 minutes learning how to play “Let It be” by the Beatles, they will probably not remember the hand positions and movements 1 month from now.  They will need some sort of “refresher” period that can take at least 20 minutes all on its own.

And because our once-a-month musician is practicing so infrequently, their practice isn’t a part of a normal routine, it feels more like it is an intrusion on the day, rather than business-as-usual.

Now, if you just learned “Let It Be” yesterday, you won’t need as much time (or any time at all) to refresh, so the skill can be reinforced and built upon immediately.

Consistency is king.

And the time invested builds up much more quickly.

With all skill training, the amount of time that you invest is directly related to your performance.  This is something that Malcom Gladwell explores in his book Outliers. In his book, Gladwell suggests that 10,000 Hours is a requirement for mastery of a skill.

When it comes to getting handstands, your first handstand hold can likely be achieved with only 5-10 hours of work (2-4 months of daily 5-minute sessions), but the bottom line is the same.

The more time you put into the skill, the better you will be.  Period.

Using our example again, the first musician will have built up 2.5 hours of handstand work, whereas the second musician would shave only hit 2 hours, and the third would only have hit 0.33 hours!  When you practice a little bit every day, even if you don’t expand beyond 5 minutes a day, the amount of time invested balloons quickly.

(Never mind the fact that most people who really want to get the skill wind up training 2-50x more than that!)

For some reason, this is much more obvious when I use the example of a pianist, or a juggler or a writer…but the same principles apply to the handstand. In fact, I have put it to the test with the 28-Day Handstand Challenge and it works every time someone starts with the 5-minute a day commitment.

CrossFit doesn’t train handstands very frequently.

The boxes on the calendar below indicates handstand training days on CrossFit main page , the GymnasticsWOD and the 28-Day Handstand Challenge.  Notice how long it takes to get up to 14 days of consistent practice using the CrossFit/WOD approaches vs. the 28-Day Handstand Challenge…when we already determined that you should be training a new skill every day.

CrossFit vs. 28-Day Challenge

Notice how long it takes to get up to 14 days of consistent practice using each of these approaches…when we already determined that you should be training a new skill every day.

If you follow the CrossFit main page, you will be training handstands maybe 1-2x a month…usually in the form of HSPU.  This is more like Musician #3, which is a far cry from an ideal situation for learning a new skill.  (Let’s ignore the fact that CrossFit main page sticks mostly to HSPU — there is no build up or progression for freestanding handstands).

Lets assume you are a little bit more savvy though, and are using the Gymnastics WOD site, then you are more like Musician #2.  GymnasticsWOD even has a handstand progression, which is very helpful, but overall the frequency is still not ideal.  Most of the handstand-related WODs also revolve around HSPU, instead of on freestanding handstand progressions.

Compare that now to the 28-Day Handstand Challenge which is more like Musician #1 who practices for just 5-minutes every day.  This is where you want to be, with frequent skill practice.

In fact, people who use the 28-Day Handstand Challenge have told me that there is a HUGE difference between 5 minutes every day and 15 minutes, 3x a week.  Frequency is crucial to getting your first freestanding handstand.

But if that’s the case, why doesn’t CrossFit daily programming put more of an emphasis on handstand work? Well, thats because…

The Ideal CrossFit HSPU Doesn’t Translate to Real Handstands

The typical goal with CrossFit WODs is to do things as quickly as possible.  In the context of CrossFit, the handstand is used to load the hands with more weight, rather than actually work towards a real freestanding HSPU.

The picture above shows the difference between a CrossFit HSPU and a Freestanding HSPU.  There are some notable differences here.

In order to do HSPU as fast as possible, a typical CrossFit HSPU…

Involves a significant arch and closed shoulder, so that the chest muscles are much more involved.  This helps to recruit the pecs more thoroughly, which obviously makes it easier to perform the HSPU.

Benefits from a wider stance, since this will reduce the distance that you need to lower your body.  And, of course, less distance travelled during a movement means less work, and thus its easier and faster to perform.

Flares your elbows out, because of the wider stance, and also because flared elbows more thoroughly involve the triceps and pecs.  This makes it easier to perform the movement, but is a severely limiting factor in freestanding balance.  This is different from the freestanding handstand and freestanding HSPU, where you tuck the elbows in to maintain balance, and keep the Center of Mass (CoM) over the hands/Center of Pressure (CoP).

And, aside from all of these form deviations, there is the inconvenient fact that staying against the wall for all of your handstand work ignores balance training. Crucial skills like learning to pirouette bail and the Cambered Hand Technique go completely ignored.

To put it succinctly, an as-fast-as-possible, typical CrossFit-style HSPU is a huge deviation from freestanding HSPU form.  And, an undeniable truth about any athletic endeavor is that you always get better at what you train — so CrossFit’s approach to handstand will never get you to a freestanding hold.

Since you aren’t training freestanding handstands, you won’t make progress towards a freestanding handstand if you are only doing CrossFit HSPU.

That’s all well and good, and I am not hating on CrossFit here.  This isn’t a problem, insomuch as a difference.  The CrossFit HSPU has evolved over time to be fast and efficient, and performed against a wall.

Unfortunately, that means that the CrossFit HSPU doesn’t translate to real handstands…but is the reverse true?  Does freestanding handstand work help with your CrossFit performance?

Handstands for CrossFit

Handstand Feet

So, we know that CrossFit HSPU work (as per the WODs) has no translation to freestanding handstands or freestanding HSPU…but you may still think that training your freestanding handstands you will actually improve your WOD times.

Unfortunately, freestanding handstand work does not help with your WOD times.

The CrossFit HSPU is very good for faster, wall-relying handstand pushups.  It involves stronger muscles, and more musculature overall; the ROM is shorter; its easier to learn.  By contrast, the form for freestanding HSPU results in a slower, more difficult movement.

If you try to incorporate the form for freestanding HSPU into your WODs, your times will suffer significantly, and you won’t actually get better at CrossFit.  You will get worse.

And, consider that the past 6 months of main-page WODs involve only 14 handstand movements (out of over 150 workouts), and the 2013 Regional Events only involved one handstand movement in 6 workouts.

When you look at it that way, HSPU aren’t a big part of CrossFit at all…

Learning freestanding handstands or freestanding handstand pushups will prepare you for only a very small part of CrossFitting.

Focusing intently on freestanding handstands will not improve your overall CrossFit performance.

At best, you can hope for a translation from freestanding handstands to other CrossFit skills…

Maybe handstands will help you learn the benefits of an active shoulder, so your OH Squats and push presses/jerks will benefit. But even then, you run into the indisputable fact that you will always get better at what you train directly…so if you want to get better at OH squats and push presses, nine out of ten times you should just be focusing your training on OH squats and push presses/jerks.

If you want to learn freestanding handstands, the motivation should be that you want to accomplish the freestanding handstand and freestanding handstand pushups because they are a cool skill on their own.  A skill that is worthwhile, cool or impressive.

You should train handstands for a want to do handstands, not to help with CrossFit.

I wouldn’t want you to be deluded into thinking that good freestanding handstands will have a profound effect on your WOD times. They won’t.  They may help, but not that much.

If you really don’t care about hand balancing and just want to get better at CrossFit, you should really be working on your handstand pushups against the wall…and not much else in terms of handstand skills.

You have no reason to adjust form for freestanding handstands if you have no desire to obtain a freestanding handstand or freestanding HSPU.

In fact, fixing your form may actually hurt your WOD times as the CrossFit-style HSPU will recruit more relevant muscles and reduce your WOD times substantially.

Improving WOD Performance by focusing on CrossFit Style HSPUs

Now, lets just say that all you really care about is your WOD performance, and you don’t give a rat crap about getting a freestanding handstand hold.  If you find that you are getting caught up or held back by your HSPU performance, then you should work on that directly.

To do this, follow these few and simple steps:

1. Get a 60-Second handstand against the wall.

This is most easily done by performing only 5-minutes of against-the-wall handstand holds every day (a la the 28-Day Handstand Challenge)

You can do your holds after your warmup, but before your WOD.  (Doing them immediately after a WOD won’t be very effective.)  You can also train your handstand holds at any other point in the day before your workout…like on “coffee breaks” at work.  I used to do mine in the bathroom of my office, so people wouldn’t gawk at me while I worked on my goal.

When getting started, stick to a belly-to-wall position because it avoids suddenly loading your entire bodyweight onto your hands when you aren’t ready for it.  The belly-to-wall position is one I used with a lot of success in the (free) 28-Day Handstand Challenge and my book The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide.

It is crucial to get to a respectable hold against the wall.  You can’t possibly expect to hold yourself up long enough for 15 HSPU (let alone actually perform the pushups) if you can’t hold yourself upside down for at least 60 seconds.

2. Train HSPU Negatives

Once you can hold 60-second handstands against the wall, the best way to build the strength that you need for HSPU is to perform some negatives.

Negatives generally work a lot better than using the more complicated kipping HSPU technique.  Kipping can actually be a lot slower than strong handstand pushups.

Kipping HSPU are more useful when you are already competent in HSPU but very fatigued, and need to squeak out a few more reps to wrap up the WOD.

So, start with 1-5 reps of HSPU negatives for 3-5 sets.  Do that 2-3x a week before your WOD.  Yes, just one rep is enough to make significant progress, so long as you move on to 2, 3, 4 or 5 reps when you are strong enough.

And when you are at 5 reps, you start training the concentrics, and build up the volume from there.  At that point, you may even be ready to tackle it as part of your WOD.

Since HSPU Negatives can be quite intense, you should be doing them before your WOD, but after your warmups.  It should take about 10 minutes to do 3 sets of however many reps you can handle – which is hardly a big time investment.

You won’t need to branch out beyond CrossFit-style HSPU since you don’t care about freestanding handstands…

But what if your goal is to get a freestanding handstand because you think they are cool, awesome, incredible, inspiring, amazing, and all that stuff?

Getting Your First Freestanding Handstand as a CrossFitter

Badlands Handstand

If you are reading this section, I know that you want to get freestanding handstands; its in line with your goals, whether or not it will help your WOD times.  That’s exactly why I started learning handstands as a CrossFitter, too!

So then, how do you progress to your first freestanding handstand?

The first step is to build a daily handstand habit.

Since freestanding handstands are 90% skill and only 10% strength, you need to get your body up to the base level of strength as soon as possible – then practice as frequently as possible.  As a skill, you know that you will benefit from more frequent practice – so building a habit is absolutely necessary.

Eventually, your habit will turn into an addiction where you will want to practice all the time, everywhere.

Now, training everywhere and all the time isn’t necessary – its just a common trend I have seen in thousands of new hand balancers I have worked with.

Most people can see progress with only five minutes a day, so don’t feel like handstands need to have handstands consume your whole life.  Five minutes is a relatively small commitment that will go a long way.

You don’t even need to do your handstand training as part of your CrossFit workout session – you can do them at work, in the bathroom, in your home, during breakfast, etc.  You can literally train handstands anywhere since you just need a hard floor, a clear wall and 5 minutes of your time.

The Handstand Progression

Awesome.  You’re ready to carve a measly five minutes of practice into your day…but what do you do to build up to the handstand?

1. Start the 28-Day Handstand Challenge

The 28-Day Handstand Challenge has helped thousands of people get to their first handstand.  It lays out the progression to get a good handstand against the wall (which builds up the strength) and then, after a couple of weeks, introduces a bailing technique.

Many people who take the challenge also buy my book, The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide, because it provides rock-solid, tested techniques for moving off of the wall and into freestanding.

The book is a continuation of the 28-Day Handstand Challenge and includes a step-by-step progression, and a comprehensive look at the science of the handstand, including preparation for advanced skills.

The reason why The 28-Day Handstand Challenge (and my book) are so effective is because they don’t focus on just the progressions.

Most other articles, books, YouTube videos and progressions treat you as if you are some mindless machine that needs to just step through a series of steps…

Instead, the challenge and my book both focus on habit building and fear conquering, which are the two things that hold back most CrossFitters learning the freestanding handstand.

These techniques build the desire into a habit; and a habit into an addiction by using behavior modification techniques like baby steps and anchor events.  These are tried-and-true techniques that are promoted and researched by psychology labs around the world, including the lab of BJ Fogg at Stanford.

2. Integrate the 28-Day Handstand Challenge into CrossFit

The good thing about handstands is that they can be trained anywhere where you have a clear wall, a solid floor and 5 minutes of free time.

The freestanding handstand is not nearly as intense as HSPU training, so you can train much more frequently (and more frequent training will help you progress faster, right?).

You can practice outside of CrossFit training sessions, including squeezing 5 minutes of handstand work into a coffee break, before breakfast, or as soon as you get home from work or school.

You can practice during your CrossFit warmup by taking 5 minutes (literally 5 minutes) after your main warmup to do some dedicated freestanding handstand work.

You can integrate the handstand into your CrossFit WOD, if you are the kind of person who makes your own WODs.  For example, if you are still building up to a 60-second wall handstand, you can add wall handstand holds into your WOD circuit.  Here, lets look at an example of a handstand swap-out that you can use for Diane:

BEFORE
Diane
21-15-9 reps of:
225 pound Deadlift
Handstand push-ups

AFTER
Diane-MODIFIED
21-15-9 reps of:
225 pound Deadlift
30 second wall handstand

While this isn’t the best way to get to your first handstand, its definitely better than doing nothing at all.

What about rest days??

Your rest days should be sacred, where you don’t do anything taxing.  Doing heavy strength work is definitely not something you should do on rest days but…

..rest days are a perfect time for handstand skill training!

Once you build up to a 60-second wall handstand, and are working on freestanding holds, then you can train without restriction on rest days.  This usually results is very fast progress.

…But, if you are building up to your first 60-second wall handstand, the handstand is still considered strength training and should be avoided on rest days until it’s not so taxing.

Start Training. Right now.

Stopwatch

As my regular readers know, it always makes the most sense to start as soon as you are most motivated.  Start building the habit immediately and then it will be even harder to break.  If you let it go until you are “more motivated” or until “your next workout” then you will probably forget, or lose your motivation to get started.

So, sign up for the 28-Day Handstand Challenge right now, and get started on tackling the wall handstand.

If freestanding handstands aren’t your goal, and you are interested in just getting better at HSPU for CrossFit, then you need to focus specifically on CrossFit-style HSPU.  You need a to get your first 60-second wall handstand (which can be done with the 28-Day Handstand Challenge), but once you get there my book won’t be of use to you.

If you are a CrossFitter who found this article useful for getting better at handstands or HSPU, then do me a solid and tweet it for your other CrossFit comrades to see.

You also benefit from tweeting….my last survey suggests that if you get other people to do the 28-Day Handstand Challenge with you, your chances of success are much higher.

Happy handstanding!  Now go out and train!

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