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Handstands for shoulder performance

Handstands for shoulder performance

Regular readers of our blog will know that the first port of call whenever I sit down to write is to check the research database and see if the scientific community has caught up with my current applied practice yet!


That’s a joke…kind of...


Above all what is important to me is that I write from a place of authority.


Now this is not as simple as it sounds.


The mission at Dynamic Shoulders is to pioneer the evolution of shoulder rehabilitation and training.


Forging a new path isn’t easy because you carry the initial burden of proof for the innovative work you’re doing. If your practice is adopted by the mainstream, the evidence will follow.


The challenge in the meantime is that often little to nothing exists to directly support our thought experiments.


Therefore, we must construct our hypotheses using pockets of related thinking and evidence to create a rationale which is credible, trustworthy and stands up to critical evaluation.


Which brings me to today’s subject:


Handstands for Shoulder Performance

This started as an n=1 study. The 1 being me. For the non-scientist reader, n relates to the number of participants in a research study. Generally speaking the bigger the n the more reliable the results because method has been tested on a larger number of people.


After repeated shoulder dislocations and fear of instability, I decided to learn to handstand. Sounds kind of stupid but the results were far better than anything I had experienced during standard rehabilitation post-surgery.


Disclaimer: Handstand training isn’t for everyone with a shoulder dislocation. Book a call with us if you’re curious to find out how you can get your shoulders back to doing the things you want post instability.


So the question is whether handstand training might offer similar benefits to other people.


In terms of current practices, it’s not something which most physiotherapists or rehab practitioners will prescribe.


Now that could be because rehabilitation practitioners or coaches have considered the rationale and don’t believe it has a place in their strategy or it could be because they can’t handstand and practitioners don’t often prescribe things they can’t do.


But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right training strategy.


So, when you’re looking to recondition your shoulder, it makes sense to go to a coach who has a bigger toolbox.


So in this blog, let me give you some ideas to cogitate so you can make your own decision. Each of the points I am going to make below could be evidenced through a literature review of the scientific publications. However, rather than turn this into a research article itself I’ll provide the headlines.


If you’re a coach reading this and you want more, take each point as a springboard into the rabbit hole of PubMed. 


1.    Handstand training is a closed kinetic chain exercise

A closed kinetic chain movement occurs when the hand ‘meets considerable external resistance that restrains its free motion’. Think about the hand being fixed by being in contact with the floor.


Closed kinetic chain exercises are favoured during the early stages of the rehabilitation process with individuals who have a shoulder injury. This type of movement has been shown to increase joint compression forces, increase muscle co-contraction of agonist and antagonist, decrease shear forces and facilitate higher eccentric contractions.


In turn it leads to an increase in joint congruency, proprioception, neuromuscular control and functional stability.


These are good things for shoulder performance.


What handstand training does is take these very established principles utilised in rehab settings and scale them so they become relevant in a late stage/athletic performance strategy. 


2.    Handstand training can be easily regressed and progressed

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to go straight into a full handstand. You can start the hand-balancing journey in much less vulnerable shapes.


In terms of joint angles, the Frogstand (Crowstand) has a very similar shoulder flexion demand as a push up. i.e. ~90 degrees shoulder flexion.


So if you can hold a push up position, all we do in a Frogstand is shift your centre of mass and decrease your base of support and apply it in an isometric hold. We simply scale the demand through the shoulder.


In rehabilitation, you might be asked to do a shoulder tap exercise in 4-point kneeling or a bear crawl. The Frogstand is simply a progression of these same principles.


From here the progressions continue in the form of balance positions, wall walks, kick ups etc. Each creating a stimulus which we can argue could improve function in overhead tasks.


3.    Handstand training integrates the kinetic chain

The scientific literature is a little divided on whether training movements that incorporate multiple joints is important for muscle activation at the shoulder.


The problem with this research however is that it is somewhat reductive.


Gathering isolated shoulder muscle activation (EMG) data based on whether someone is stepping or squatting during shoulder flexion lends itself well to a research study where controlling variables is essential.


It lends itself less well to more complex athletic patterns and environments.


Kinetic chain integration is no doubt important in force transfer.


You must be able to transfer forces generated by the lower body, through the mid-section and across the shoulder in a tennis serve for example. If you can’t, the shoulder will often try and pick up the slack and can easily exceed its tissue tolerance resulting in injury.


In handstand training you have to integrate the shoulder with the spine, pelvis and lower body in order to find and control the balance position.


Whilst this may not mimic sport specificity outside of gymnastics, as a general preparation exercise, being able to connect and control the kinetic chain in closed chain exercise could be a valuable addition during the appropriate phases of athletic development and training.


4.    Handstand training progressions utilise high intensity isometrics

There has been a considerable increase of interest in isometric training in the strength and conditioning field over the last 5 or so years. The reported benefits include an increase in maximum strength, rate of force development and tendon stiffness.


There are two main forms of isometric training:

‘Push’ method, (pushing against a non-movable object)

‘Hold’ (exerting equal force against a load)


The isometric strength opportunity for the shoulder in handstand training comes largely in the strength focused progressions rather than the skill acquisition.


I have always believed that the stronger someone becomes in handstand specific patterns the easier it is to learn the skill of balancing due to increased efficiency and the ability to perform more high-quality practice.


Once the simple balance component of a Frogstand is mastered, the cue becomes to push as hard into the floor as possible for 5 – 10 seconds. This is a high intensity short duration contraction which have been shown to result in strength gains.


The transfer of isometrics into athletic performance seems to be joint position specific, so training at a range of joint angles would be advantageous for improving strength through range. You could achieve this through basic hand balance progression like the Frogstand, Pike Push Up or wall handstand push up progressions.


You could ask why not train these isometrics in barbell pressing? My answer would be to combine the other benefits explained in this blog.



5.    Handstand training trains mobility + stability

Typically, people struggle with range of motion in overhead positions and/or stability overhead. We are able to produce less force at end ranges and typically people feel less stable in an overhead loaded position.


These things are often linked. In order to achieve and retain range of motion we need to add stability. Handstand training can offer you a number of things to help this cause.


Mobility: The goal of a handstand may sharpen your attention and commitment to mobility training, the key of which is consistency and frequency.


Stability: As you positively impact your range of motion in overhead positions, training the shoulder to be more stable in those positions through the fine motor control required and positional awareness in handstand practice can help consolidate that range of motion.


Layer in the advantageous conditions created by the closed chain environment and we add weight to the argument that this is an effective environment to improve shoulder function in overhead positions.


What I think it super interesting is what happens when you take these motor skills into an athletic context whether that be sports or overhead strength training. The upgraded chassis could well find itself being able to express more force.


6.    Handstand training challenges the visual and vestibular system

This is an emerging area of athletic performance and for me offers a far better lens of how we view reconditioning and physical preparation. That being a brain-based approach.


Simply put the brain’s priority is survival and therefore threat perception sits high on the pecking order when it comes to resource allocation. Your eyes and ears are critical to the brain assessing risk and should it sense threat, we will see a reduction in athletic performance potential.


For example if your shoulder lacks stability, your brain is likely to reduce mobility so you stay in safer ranges.  


So part of a reconditioning journey is to help the brain to better gather and process information. The more environment and context rich information the brain gets matched with confidence in the systems ability to move, the less ‘at threat’ it is likely to feel and the more athletic expression it will allow.


If you don’t believe this is a thing, get a group of adults to try and kick up into a handstand against the wall. You’ll find a lot of people are scared even though it is something they did as a child without thinking.


So what changed?


The brain’s perception of threat.


Being inverted is a sound way to present the brain with novel neural inputs and ask it to move under those conditions. That could be a gateway to better shoulder performance.


7.    Handstand training improves physical literacy and athleticism

If you have more movement options, you can move in more ways. This for me is the basic premise of athleticism.


When I was working with British Para-Swimming I used handstand training to improve athletes physical literacy. I also wanted them to get better connected with where their body was in space and with the first contact point controlling movement being the hand in an overhead position, just like in the pool.


If we were talking about a field sport like hockey, football or rugby, we would certainly be having a conversation in the physical preparation team about change of direction, quickness and agility.


For those in upper body sports or activities, we should be having the same conversation about the shoulder, yet we don’t.


Handstand training is sure fire way to layer in upper body skills which will improve overall physical literacy which can then be utilised to express athleticism.


8.    Handstand training is fun and therefore encourages engagement

One of biggest challenges in rehabilitation is adherence. Research suggests 60 – 70% of people don’t do the exercises they are prescribed. That’s a problem in people getting results.


For those looking to scale shoulder performance post injury, the percentage that will continue their ‘rehab’ exercises once pain goes away will be tiny. That is despite late stage rehab being as important as early stage in terms of reducing future risk or re-injury.


Why do people drop off? Because rehab exercises are boring, they don’t fit well in a ‘normal’ workout structure and they aren’t scalable/progressive.


Take all the benefits I have explained above, factor in that handstand training is fun which means you want to do it and that will go a long way to keeping you engaged in something positive for your shoulders.


So herein lies at least some of the rationale as to why handstand training could improve performance. Handstand training ticks boxes when it comes to giving the shoulder what it needs to perform well.


I can’t call it a no-brainer (see point 6) but it is pretty damn close!

What does handstand training look like?

If you like all of the above and want to start your handstand training, you may find the journey a bit ambiguous. In this video, we share the stages you need to move through so you know how it all sticks together to achieve your goal of a freestanding handstand hold and to start your handstand training.


If you're struggling with shoulder pain, instability or a lack of confidence that's keeping you from reaching your training or sporting goals. Book a FREE consultation call.


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