Handstand Technique & Alignment | Rotation on shoulders
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 this post of the blog. And the second and third queues regarding opening the shoulders while keeping the thorax vertical were explained together in the last post that was shared before Christmas.
Now, we are going to move further explaining once again two queues in the same post as they share quite a strong connection. These queues are the fourth and fifth, referring to external rotation of the arms and protraction of the shoulder blades.
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.
Before diving into the reasons why this specific engagement of the shoulders is relevant and beneficial for handstands, it's worth taking a moment to explain what these movements actually are.
We typically refer to the shoulder as a complex joint that has a lot of movement opportunities. Let's look at the structures that allow our shoulders to express such a wide range of movements.
The humerus, which is the long bone of the upper arm, attaches to the shoulder in the scapula (fancy name of the shoulder blade). The end of the humerus has a spherical shape that slides and moves over a shallow cavity of the scapula. You can imagine the mechanics of this joint as a spoon covering a tennis ball. Here you can see an image of how it looks.
Another level of movement of the joint happens at the scapula. This flat bone is a peculiar one in regards to how it attaches to the body, as it is kinda "floating" over the ribs on our backs. Partly supported by the clavicle that creates a bridge of connection to the sternum (chest bone), most of its stability and rigidity thought, comes from all the muscles and connective tissue that attaches it to the body. This explains why the scapula can move so much and in so many ways over our backs. Take a look at this video to see some of the most important movements of the scapulas, which also includes an example of what is shoulder protraction, one of the important queues that will be discussed in today's post.
As a way of simplifying all this, we can say that all the shoulder movements happen as a collaboration of two motions. One from the humerus moving over the scapula, and the other from the scapula moving over the ribs.
All this anatomical and probably too nerdy introduction offers a really useful foundation for understanding the two shoulder queues of today's blog post.
The external rotation of the shoulder refers to the movement of the arm where the humerus pivots over the capsule of the shoulder blade (tennis ball over spoon joint structure). Even though this movement is affected by the position of the scapula on the thorax due to the muscles around it, it is an independent movement that can be done in isolation. This great video shows very nicely how it happens, both when the arms are on the sides of the body, as well as in an overhead position.
As shown in this video that was also linked earlier in the text, the protraction of the shoulders refers to the capacity of the scapulas to move apart from each other, sliding over the thorax towards the sides of the body. This movement is the opposite of retraction, which would be the scapulas approaching each other towards the spine. In order to control the protraction, you could think of it as trying to hide the chest among your shoulders.
We are usually not capable to own these movements separately without training them specifically, but we can definitely become able to control them independently. And even though it is something that is not at all necessary to be able to do a handstand, adopting an external rotation on the shoulders will add a layer of control and understanding of how you perform the skill that is necessary in order to progress to more difficult handstand stuff, such as the one arm handstand.
Here are some of the main reasons why I consider that we should adopt an external rotation on the arms and a protraction of the scapulas on the shoulders for our handstands:
Mobility gains. In an overhead position, the combination of these movements allows for a more natural shoulder elevation, which among other things increases the range of motion of our shoulder extension, so we're capable of bringing the arms overhead with more comfort (or less discomfort).
Alignment. In the same line as it happens with the shoulders push, when engaging the protraction and external rotation we are helping in keeping the thorax, or body, on top of the hands and base of support. Also, the external rotation invites the elbows to stay locked, as opposed to the internal rotation that invites to bend them. These factors will directly influence the efficiency of our handstand.
Engagement and control. Our upper back muscles like this shoulder shape. The muscle activation achieved when engaging these queues is strong and solid. They are able to push harder and more comfortably with this engagement than with others. This happens because there is a better biomechanical foundation. Which means that because we are less "on the limit", with more space for ligaments and such in the joint, the muscles can do a better use of their strength and balance control.
Health. The pressure that would otherwise go to joints and ligaments in a negative way, moves now to muscles and connective tissue that can handle it, especially thanks to the external rotation of the arms. That is what this video shown earlier tries to illustrate.
I'd say that these queues together with the elevation of the shoulders are the most important for a solid shoulder foundation of the ones discussed so far in the blog.
Being also the ones that can easily be implemented to some degree no matter what your level of mobility is, you should definitely be working on adopting them as soon as possible, as they can potentially have a huge impact on your handstand progress!
So this might have been the nerdiest post I've written to date!
It was by far the one that took me more time to research, write and edit so it's somewhat possible to understand and follow without being an anatomy nerd.
Of course as things are, I started the research and writing at the same time that our Open House event at my circus school Afuk happened, which required a lot of time and energy invested in production and preparation. And right after that, I left for Spain for the Christmas break, which of course meant a 32134% reduction in work time.
It took me way over a month to publish this one. But here it is finally! And I really think that it offers a very nice perspective of this aspect of shoulders in handstands that is hard to find online.
I really hope you can find some value on it.
On my side, these past two weeks we have restarted the proper classes at my circus school, and I couldn't be more excited about all the things that have happened already... including my very first time reaching a 10 seconds one arm handstand!