Handstand Technique & Alignment | Opening shoulders
Updated: Dec 9, 2019
A couple of posts ago, we went through an introduction to the shoulders and their role in regards to handstand alignment and technique. In that previous post we covered what in my opinion should be the main queues to follow for a solid and strong shoulder placement for handstands:
Elevation of the scapulas (Shoulders to ears).
Shoulder flexion (Bringing arms overhead).
Keeping thorax vertical (“Ribs in”).
External rotation of the arms (Hiding armpits).
Protraction of the shoulders (Hiding chest between scapulas).
Shoulders on top of the knuckles/palm of the hand.
The first queue referring to the elevation of the scapulas / shoulder blades was explained in detail in the last post of the blog. Now in this one, we are going to move further and explain the second and third queues together, as they have quite a strong connection to the way we should try to "open our shoulders".
Take a look at the video attached down in the post for some visual context as well as some exercises to understand and practice the motion.
Shoulders flexion while keeping a vertical thorax
Which is the fancy way of saying "open the shoulders bringing the arms overhead while not letting the ribs flare out". This might be the shoulder movement that is the hardest to understand and develop from all the queues listed above, as it requires the separation of two movements that we tend to bind together naturally: Bringing the arms overhead and the spinal arch that helps the arms reach further up.
There is a simple exercise that will illustrate what I'm talking about and could help you feel it clearly, plus also show you the truth about your shoulder extension range of motion.
First, stand with the back in contact with a wall having the feet slightly forward and the knees a bit bent, as in a tiny squat. . From there, bring your arms completely straight and reaching forward and slowly extend them overhead. If you manage to avoid rushing the movement and bending your arms on the way up, you will easily notice the point from which the body will want to start arching to help the arms reach further up overhead. If you find yourself already in an overhead position but your lower/mid back is not in contact with the wall anymore, and your ribs are flaring out, it means that you already compensated arching the body without even noticing!
Try again slower and really pay attention to your elbows, back, chest, and ribs. You can also take a stick that you can grip at shoulder width, which would help keeping the arms straight and will also provide you a better feeling of your shoulder elevation and engagement.
With this exercise, you probably will notice how "unnatural" it feels to the body to keep the thorax vertical, the ribs in and the back straight, while bringing the arms overhead. Especially during a handstand or carrying weight.
This makes sense because:
It's easier to look up if our chest follows the arms (which can be related to the neck position too)
It allows for a more natural and common pushing position where we use strong muscles from the upper body, such as the pectoral muscle.
In almost any context we need to reach such a specific overhead position close to 180ª of shoulder flexion with our arms straight and in a "narrow" grip.
We tend to bring the arms overhead by sinking the shoulder blades instead of engaging an elevation in them, which creates a decrease in the range of motion of our shoulder extension plus highly increases the risk of injury.
Now, if doing this motion in this way is so unnatural to the body, why would we want to do it?
The answer is so we can take advantage of the biomechanic capacity of our body (Definition).
Holding a handstand for a long period of time is not a natural thing to do for humans in the first place, but using our bones, muscles, and connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, fascia, and such) in a certain way allows us to take advantage of its structure to be somewhat efficient at putting ourselves upside down.
These are some of the biggest advantages of learning to control and develop an overhead position keeping the thorax vertical without compensations from the spine:
Better stacking of the body parts involved in creating the foundation of your handstand. The body/thorax will rest directly on top of the shoulders and arms, which is an advantage in terms of counterbalance, one of the basic principles of handstand.
Better engagement of the muscles that are important for handstands. Even though keeping a tiny closed angle in the shoulders would help engage the chest muscles in our vertical push, this is an extremely inefficient way of holding our bodyweight upside down. Upper back muscles such as the trapezius can do a much better job at it, which will be taking over the load when reaching this technical overhead position.
Less stress for wrists and shoulders. By having a bit of a closed angle with the arms in respect to the torso we create a tiny forward lean on the shoulders (commonly referred to as mini-planche). This position adds extra stress to the wrists and shoulders that need to cope with higher loads because of the misalignments, that can create problems over time when adding training volume. (Where the shoulders should be and the mini-planche will be explained in a future post)
Increase in efficiency over time. When correctly developed and we become used to it, this shoulder and body alignment becomes a much more comfortable position to be in so we can hold the weight of a handstand for a reasonably long period of time. A lot of the heavy lifting will be placed on our bones and joints in a way that they can handle it, reducing the amount of unnecessary muscular activation.
Aesthetics. Let's not lie, we are all very influenced by the looks of how a handstand is supposed to look and the pursuit of a "perfect alignment", especially in the Instagram era we live in. Well, this queue is one of the most influential ones in order to get rid of the banana handstand and achieve a straight line.
One very obvious question might be in your head after reading all this: What to do for people that don't have the mobility to reach all the way up with their arms in this way?
Well, I'll cover this issue in a future blog post as it is a good topic to talk about on its own, but in a nutshell, I would advise these people to actually let the body compensate for the lack of mobility by arching the body. The most arch that can be created on the mid-back and not the lower back the better.
As recommended in this previous blog post about how to increase body awareness and engagement, the most effective way to learn this movement would be to isolate it and practice it first just standing, then laying on the floor, then on the wall, and then on your free handstand.
Let me know down in the comments what are your thoughts on this topic and if it was interesting to read about it. And as always, sharing this post and inviting people to my blog that could find value in it is always kindly appreciated:)
Now, as a brief update to my own handstand journey and situation.
For the last week, we have been working super hard at my class at the circus school (AFUK in Copenhagen) to develop a show that will be presented on the 11th and 12th of December in an Open House event.
In this show, I'll be performing a partner acrobatics and handbalancing act together with some of my classmates. I can't be more excited about it, as it's the first time I'll be participating in a show with actual make-up, costumes, and proper preparation. Also.. this is the first time I'm going to show my very inconsistent one arms on stage! If you want to see a bit of this process check my Instagram where I'm sharing bits and pieces of it (@a.handstand)
Keep up the upside down work!
And see you next week...ish ;)