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.
In today's post, we are going to break down the main queues to follow for a solid and strong shoulder placement and engagement for handstands.
Handstands are all about bone-stacking, staying on top of the hands, and holding our body weight pushing away from the floor. The main queues to follow for a solid shoulder placement and engagement for handstands are:
We are usually not capable to own these movements separately without training them specifically, but we can 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 to progress to more difficult handstand stuff, such as the one arm handstand.
We typically refer to the shoulder as a complex joint that has a lot of movement opportunities. Another level of movement of the joint happens at the scapula. This flat bone is peculiar in regards to how it attaches to the body, as it is "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.
Gravity pulls us down, so we counteract that force by pushing up and away from the floor.
The elevation of the scapulas can be understood as the equivalent of having a tall spine. 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 the overall stability of the handstand but it will also prevent us from sinking.
Sinking in the shoulders is something we want to avoid for several reasons.
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-standing handstand.
Shoulders Flexion + Vertical Thorax
There is a simple exercise I'm talking about that could help you feel it clearly, and 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 by arching the body without even noticing!
Try again slower and 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 keep 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.
Now, if doing this motion in this way is so unnatural to the body, why would we want to do it?
Holding a handstand for a long period 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.
Below are some of the biggest advantages of learning to control and develop an overhead position keeping the thorax vertical without compensations from the spine:
- 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.
- When correctly developed and we get 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. 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.
External Shoulder Rotation
The external rotation of the shoulder refers to the movement of the arm where the humerus pivots over the capsule of the shoulder blade. 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.
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. To generate the protraction, you could think of it as sliding shoulders blades away from the midline towards the lower ribcage.
Here are some of the main reasons why I consider that we should adopt an external rotation on the shoulders and protraction of the scapula for our handstands:
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).
In the same line as it happens with the 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 allows the elbows to stay locked, as opposed to the internal rotation that allows to bend them. These factors will directly influence the efficiency of our handstands.
Engagement and control
Our upper back muscles like the protraction in combination with shoulder external rotation on the straight arms. The muscle activation is achieved when all the joints are aligned in a same line from the wrists, elbows, shoulders, head, hips, legs and toes. They can push harder and hold for a longer time comfortably with this engagement. This means that because we are less "on the limit", with more space for ligaments and in the joints, the muscles can do better work of their strength and balance control.
The pressure that would otherwise negatively go to joints and ligaments, moves now to muscles and connective tissue that can handle it, especially thanks to the external rotation of the shoulders.
I'd say that these queues together with the elevation of the shoulders are the most important for a solid shoulder foundation.
Being also the ones that can easily be implemented to some degree no matter what your level of mobility is, you should be working on adopting scapula control as soon as possible, as they can potentially have a huge impact on your handstand progress.