Handstand Technique & Alignment | Shoulders Push
Some weeks ago we went through a brief introduction to shoulders and their role in 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 and engagement 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.
In today's post, we are going to break down the first of these queues.
Take a look at the video attached further down in the post for some visual context as well as some exercises to understand and practice the motion.
Elevation of the scapulas / shoulder blades (Shoulders to ears)
Of the queues described earlier, this one might be the easiest to understand whilst having a huge impact on the stability of the shoulder foundation for our handstand. It becomes especially relevant after breaking the barrier of a free handstand and when starting to work on transitions between shapes and progressions towards the one arm handstand.
Handstands are all about staying on top of the hands and holding our body weight pushing away from the floor. This is due to a thing that you might have heard about called gravity.
Gravity pulls us down, so the way we counteract that force is by pushing up and away from the floor.
The elevation of the scapulas can be understood as the equivalent to having a tall spine while dancing or avoid sitting on the hip while running.
By engaging the shoulder push with an elevation of the shoulder blades we are sending a signal to the muscles in the upper back to get active. This activation will not only be beneficial for an overall stability of the handstand but it will also prevent us from sinking down.
Sinking down in the shoulders is something we want to avoid for several reasons.
It will have a negative consequence in the handstand alignment. Sinking in the shoulders will invite our body to arch. This is because sinking the shoulders decreases how much we can extend the arms overhead, reducing the "verticality" of the thorax (the whole ribcage).
It invites the elbows to bend. It is harder to maintain an external rotation of the shoulders and the elbows completely extended and locked if the shoulders are sunk (this concept will be further developed when talking about the external rotation of the arms).
It would make us "hang from the joint". Something you might have heard somewhere before as a positive queue, this is perhaps the most important reason to avoid sinking in the shoulders. Far from being good, the lack of activation of the upper back muscles means that all the stress of holding the weight of your body is now instead handled by the ligaments and tendons of your shoulders. Among other things, this scenario creates a reduction of space inside a part of the shoulder joint called subacromial space, which can lead in time to a severe health problem called shoulder impingement syndrome (Wikipedia link).
It has a negative impact on engagement and activation. As the muscles of the upper back involved in holding the body weight and creating a solid base for the arms are less active, the foundation that the body needs to do the balance work (ideally happening mostly on the hands) is more prone to "wobble around". This lack of tension and "rigidity" invites a lazy activation of all the tiny things that happen to create balance.
A simple queue to avoid this sinking and being able to push tall from the shoulders is thinking to stand as far away from the floor as we can. The common "shoulders to ears" phrase can work, but it can invite to do weird things with the head position instead of acting on the shoulders.
As recommended in this previous blog post about how to increase body awareness and engagement, the most effective way to include 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.
While it is possible to do a handstand without shoulder elevation, 99% of the time it carries with it a chain of reactions that kills your alignment and efficiency, as well as increases the stress that the shoulder joint needs to handle, which can lead to important injuries over time.
Sinking in the shoulders is also a usual sing that we are still not so strong in the upper back muscles involved in handstands, or that we have reached fatigue in our practice.
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 and inviting people that could find value in it to the blog is always kindly appreciated:)
From now on I decided to add a little text at the end of each blog post to talk a little bit about my own handstand journey and the development of this blog.
The last few weeks have been quite intense for me, not only because of the Circus program that I'm studying in Copenhagen but also due to some other work-related opportunities. The combination of it led to some overuse in my shoulders that required me to take some time away from handstands and partner acrobatics (the two disciplines I'm studying at the school), as well as having less free time to write this blog and manage the website.
Far from keeping me away from thinking about it, I decided during this time to change a bit the format of the blog towards a less strict structure and deadline. This means that from now on I might take more than exactly one week between posts, but they will also develop further in each topic being a bit longer but in my opinion offering more value to you :)
Shoulders are feeling also better these days, so it seems that I'll be back on training at full mode for a couple of weeks before the Christmas holidays!
Keep up the upside down work!
And see you next week...ish ;)