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The Handstand Push-up: getting up when you’re upside down

By August 24, 2016November 19th, 2019No Comments

We’re almost done with our August Push-up Challenge, so I think it’s only appropriate to talk about a related (and inverted) movement… the Handstand Push-up.

Because you’re working against the weight of your entire body (as with the pull-up), the handstand push-up is one of those movements that looks easy, but turns out to bite your ass—much like most CrossFit workouts. If you’ve ever attempted a handstand push-up, you know how difficult they are. You flip yourself upside down, sink your head to the floor, and then… don’t budge upward one inch. On top of trying to press your entire body off the floor, you’re also upside down, blood rushing to your head, struggling for air—which doesn’t help, especially if you’re in the middle of a WOD and already struggling to breathe.

But don’t despair! That elusive Handstand Push-up is not impossible, despite what your cramped neck, shaking legs, and immobile arms may tell you.

As with anything that makes you better or stronger, achieving a handstand push-up takes time. And if you’re like me and waiting makes you angry, here are some tips you can work on during that frustrating portion of time to make it shorter.

Even if you already have handstand push-ups, these movements can make you more efficient and help you breeze through bigger sets, which is always fun.

  1. Strength for the Handstand Push-up

A handstand push-up is essentially an upside-down strict press (or shoulder press). So in order to do a HSPU, you have to be able to press something close to your bodyweight (not the whole weight, necessarily. Because…arms). Strength is the foundation of this movement. Arm strength, shoulder strength, core strength… so practice these movements to build those guns and washboards:

-Dumbbell strict press

-Barbell strict press

-Close-grip push-ups (more, more!)

-Plank holds (make sure you stay in the “hollow body” position—don’t let your back sink!)

-Handstand holds

-Wall walks. (Yes. Just do it.)

-Negative handstand push-ups: One modification of a handstand push-up is stacking Abmats under your head to lessen the range of motion and thus make the movement easier. To build strength with negative handstand push-ups, find the lowest number of Abmats it takes for you to do a strict HSPU. Then remove one mat and do negatives at that height (kick into the handstand and slowly lower your head to the mat). Complete about 3 sets of 5 three times a week until you can do a strict HSPU at that level, then continue to remove mats from there. (Be careful with your head. Your neck will be sore for days if you drop your head to the ground. Plus, if the motion isn’t slow and controlled, you defeat the purpose of a “negative” HSPU. Slow and controlled—if you can’t control it, take a break.)


Handstand push-up

Dumbbell Strict Press FTW! Sandy knows what it’s all about.

  1. Skills for Handstand Push-ups

You have the strength, but you also need to know how to correctly perform the movement. First of all, I mentioned core strength. If your core isn’t tight, you can’t hold your body up. Your core is used to holding the weight of your torso, not your massive CrossFit legs. So give those abs an extra squeeze while you’re inverted.

As you’re tightening your core, think about slightly rounding your spine (hollow position!) so that your lower back almost touches the wall (more on this with kipping later).

Don’t let your legs flop all over the place! Keep them together. Little hint? Point your toes. It’ll keep everything tighter and direct your body upward.

If you want to get a feel for the movement but still don’t have all the oomph to press your body, or you’re able to do one but want more practice with range-of-motion, try handstand push-ups with bands. There are a couple different ways to create “backpacks” with resistance bands by hanging them from a bar on the rig. Loop your arms through the bands and can kick up into a handstand, wrapping a leg around the bands for balance. From there, you can do a full-range handstand push-up with a little resistance help from the bands. This is a method you should only use if you’re very close to being able to do an unassisted HSPU (or can already do one or two). Don’t use the bands if you’re still using several Abmats on the wall.


  1. Kipping the Handstand Push-up

Yes, you can kip handstand push-ups! But as with pull-ups, we don’t recommend this method until you can do at least one strict handstand push-up with no assistance. You can seriously jack up your shoulders if you try to  kip pull-ups before you have the strength for a strict one. With handstand push-ups, this rule is even more important, because if you try kipping when you don’t have the strength for a strict HSPU, you’ll end up driving your head into the ground after you kip, and you could seriously injure your neck. Shoulders can be fixed. Necks cannot.

If you’ve conquered a couple strict handstand push-ups, here are some tips to work on kipping:

-Practice on the floor. Lie on your back, bring your knees to your chest, and then pop your hips as you kick your legs to the floor. The key is being explosive through your hips—that’s the motion that will propel your body upward when you’re in the HSPU position.

-On the wall in the handstand push-up position: before you bend your legs, think about bringing your lower back into the wall. This is a part of keeping your core tight. Then bring your knees to your chest—it’ll be like curling into a ball. Then explode with your hips as you push off the ground. Think about driving your heels into the wall and pointing your toes to the sky. Bam! You’ve been kipped.


  1. Don’t hurt yourself.

I know, “duh,” right? But there’s a reason this gets a category all its own. You’re upside down, probably leaning against the wall, and the first thing to make contact with the ground is your head. After several reps, it’s tempting to rest in this position, head on the ground, pressure off your now-feeble arms… but don’t. At least not for more than a few seconds. You’ll end up putting too much pressure on your neck and you’ll hurt yourself. Similarly, don’t come crashing to the ground as you knock out your reps. Be fast, but you’ll discover soon why you don’t want to slam your head into the ground repeatedly. It hurts. And if it doesn’t hurt during your workout, it will hurt the next day. And again… most injuries will heal just fine, but you need to be careful with your neck.


That’s all for now, folks! See you on the wall!