Handbalancing - is your alignment misaligning you?

Too long - did not read

  • A handstand alignment should be replicable and energy efficient.
  • Positioning yourself in a 100% straight line isn´t a necessity - even though it may allow for other progressions at a later time, it is not the first step to achieve a handstand.
  • A handstand consists of three interdependent elements; Alignment, entry and balance.
  • Most beginners will benefit from focusing more on their entry and balance and less on "proper alignment".
  • This article is a introduction to the next in the series which will focus on some different exercises to enable entry into inversion, and balancing.

Common denominators

Whenever I wish to learn a new skill or master a new movement, the number one thing that I attempt to do is to identify the common denominators - the shared traits, habits, exercise regime and/or mindset of those who know how to perform that specific skill or movement. 

That doesn't mean that I exclusively try to mimic the habits and practice of those who are the best at what they do - world champions are first and foremost world champions because they have certain disposition, a very specific priority and because they've spent more time perfecting what they do than most of us can fathom.

They don't necessarily focus less on the basics than the rest of us should do and rarely does their practice include the utilization of "secret weapons", kept hidden from the public eye (with the possible exception of performance enhancing drugs). That, of course, doesn't at all illegitimize the way the best of the best practice, but as novices and intermediates we're probably better off observing what not only a chosen few elites do, but what the majority who knows how to perform, and improve upon, that specific skill are doing.

As an example:

  • Powerlifters: Lift heavy stuff frequently, tailor their lifts to their individual build so as to optimize leverage and force production and keep accessory work to a minimum.
  • Grapplers: Take advantage of their own/their opponents weight, know how to hit/defend against basic submissions from several angles/positions/during transitions and expose their extremities to a minimum.
  • Those who can do a basic handstand: See below.

Proper alignment - the good

If anyone one us were to Google "How to do a handstand", the words, or concept, that we would most frequently be exposed to would in all probability be "proper alignment".

Most of us are familiar with the position these two words are referencing to:

Ulrik Ask Fossum with a stunningly beautiful line - a commendable achievement and a testament to his dedication.

Ulrik Ask Fossum with a stunningly beautiful line - a commendable achievement and a testament to his dedication.

  • Pointed feet.
  • Fully extended knees.
  • Extended hips.
  • Straight spine (ribs in and posterior pelvic tilt - ie: "Hollow Body")
  • Elevated scapula
  • Fully flexed shoulders with a slight external rotation ("Open shoulders")
  • Fully extended elbows


All in all, it's about positioning yourself in a really straight and aesthetically pleasing line.

The best part about "proper alignment", besides the fact that is visually pleasing and that it potentially can diminish social media backlash, is that it works. 
 


You can balance in this position, and here's why:
 

Replication

A straight line is very easy to replicate - just make yourself as tall as possible.
The farther your feet are from the ground, the straighter the line.
The good thing about this is that if you can replicate the conditions, you'll be able to repeat what you're doing, which in turn allows you to progress.

Energy efficiency

Stacking joints on top of each other is energy efficient. This is why most of us normally stand upright, as opposed to constantly hinge at the hips (with the exception of Miley Cyrus).

Adjustment

By conservatively contracting the muscles that" lock out" every single joint, it'll be easier create the tension necessary to adjust your body as a unit when trying to prevent yourself from overbalancing (when your backside falls towards the floor) or underbalancing (when the front of your body falls towards the floor).

Without this tension, the force generated through the fingers will produce movements in the individual joints, as opposed to move the body as a unit (which is more efficient). 
You'll see this happen whenever someone starts moving their hips, knees, feet, elbows, scapula, shoulders, elbows and spine when they attempt to prevent themselves when overbalancing. 


(Side note: To prevent underbalancing, it's perfectly normal to bend at the hips/elbows and extend/close the shoulders - in fact, you probably have to.)


proper alignment - a common denominator?

All in all, the reason why a "proper alignment" is "proper" is because it creates conditions that facilitate a consistent, dedicated and efficient practice towards a freestanding handstand. It will also, at a much later time, allow for advanced variations of a handstand.

But the question still remains;
 

Is this "proper alignment/perfect line" the common denominator for everyone who knows how to perform a handstand?


And by "those who can perform a handstand", I'm referring to those who can consistently get into an inverted position and stay there for a fair amount of time - nothing more, nothing less. 

Well, if we take a look beyond the horizons of an isolated google search and observe the many cultures where a handstand is being cultivated, we´ll soon see that there is a fair amount of variety in the way people position their bodies, and that there are many people whose line is far from perfectly straight that still have a vast array of inversion skills.
That's not to say that alignment doesn't matter - it does, but the fact of the matter is that we don't need to a perfectly straight line to perform a handstand, as long as our chosen position allows for replication and energy efficiency.

Achieving and balancing in these positions are not dependent "proper alignment". They're the result a learning a skill: Getting ones COM over ones BOS and being able to keep it there (see below for explanation).

Achieving and balancing in these positions are not dependent "proper alignment".
They're the result a learning a skill: Getting ones COM over ones BOS and being able to keep it there
(see below for explanation).


why does this matter?

The reason why this matters is simply because it has become a misconception that "proper alignment" is a "must" - that the laws of physics gets turned on its head simply because we've chosen to be inverted, and that our body has to be in a specific position to enable balance. Our train of thought runs of its tracks because we believe the entirety of a "proper alignment" and its components (hollow body/elevated scapula/posterior pelvic tilt etc) is a prerequisite to do a handstand. As a result, many people who are interested in learning handbalancing are investing too much time in perfecting an alignment that is only one part of a much larger picture.

If we boil it down the essentials and the fundamentals, we'll see that the common denominator for handstands actually consists of several parts:

 

the common denominator:

Getting your center of mass (COM) over your base of support (BOS) and keeping it there

 

Simply put: Our alignment doesn't matter if we can't get into it or balance in that specific position! To perform a handstand we need to approach it as a "holy trinity":

  • Alignment
    • A replicable and energy efficient position.
  • Entry
    • How you enter the above-mentioned alignment.
  • Balance
    • How you adjust your alignment in order to keep COM over BOS.

There will be times when prioritizing one of these three elements more than the others, but to learn a handstand you should rarely omit any of the three elements at any given time, seeing as they all influence each other.


proper alignment - the bad


nr.1 - you are an individual

If you're a trainer or you've spent some time on fitness related websites, you've probably seen the quote "Don't fit the individual to the exercise. Fit the exercise to the individual". A very valid point, seeing as no movement is a "one size fits all", and we all come in different shapes and sizes.

This principle also applies to your handstand alignment - some people simply aren't built to position their joints in such a way that their bodies' will produce this perfect line. This may be due to where their center of mass is, as well as their god-given bone structure. 

nr.2 - Balance

"Proper alignment" = a straight line.
A straight line = a "taller" body.
A "taller" body = higher center of mass.
Higher center of mass = increased difficulty in terms of balance.

#physics

Nr.3 - holistic practice

A perfectly straight line is difficult to achieve, and will demand more of your time and focus.
If this reduces the effort you invest into learning how to kick/press up into an inverted position and how to actually balance in it, then the immediate cost of the "proper alignment" outweigh the long-term benefits of it.


proper alignment - the kinda ugly

So why is this particular handstand alignment being advocated to the degree that it is?

Well, for one, it works and it's a good position from which to develop other skills (when that time comes). But although lifting 300(+) pounds in the deadlift is a really good way to get strong and prove your strength, it isn't necessarily where we want to start off if we're only just getting into strength training. 
Second - a proper alignment is aesthetically pleasing. A ballerina points her foot, not primarily because physiology or physics demand it from her, but because it's pretty. The same applies to "proper alignment" and most other movements - if it's widely regarded pretty, we like it and we aim to copy it.

Then there's the third, and less obvious reason:

We value information, even more so when we can associate it with a specific price, and the fact of the matter is that most of the websites/books where we can find and buy information regarding handstands has a background in gymnastics.

Gymnastics is one of the form of training that's been integrated into the fitness culture with the greatest ease - probably because of its established structure and it's production of aesthetics and feats of strengths. It's also an activity that relies on a very specific handstand alignment - the hollow bodied straight line. This particular alignment transfers well to many of the movements/transitions/apparatuses used in gymnastics - also, because of this straight line is easily visibly measured, it allows for the judges to decide upon a score with greater ease.


Take home points

  • If you've yet to establish a handstand, spend less time perfecting the your alignment.
    • Stacking your joints on top of each other is a good idea, but your line does not need to be perfectly straight.
    • Make sure that you can replicate the position, that it is energy efficient and that you can achieve a degree of "tightness" that allows for easier balance.
    • If you've got a heavier lower body, you're a particularly tall individual or you feel like a straightish line doesn't allow you to balance, start off with a position where center of gravity is lower to the ground. - a slightly tucked, straddled, split or arched position is a good place to start.
       
  • Spend more time learning how to enter and balance in your chosen alignment.
    • Focus equally on every aspect of the handstand. Even though you wish to adopt the "proper alignment" because of its benefits in terms of progression and appearance, your first priority should be to enter an inverted position and stay there. After you have a clear understanding of how all of these elements influence each other, you can start playing and exploring "proper alignment".
       
  • Check out the next part of this series of articles where we´ll take a closer look at how to enter and balance in a handstand.
     

- Jon