Written by Hannah Dykstra
If you take a look at competitive gymnastics, you will find that each level has a list of definitive skills that an athlete must be able perform in order to compete at that level. The mastery of basic skills will ensure that an athlete has the proper entry to the next level of competition. The first skill an athlete must master at the most basic level of competition is the handstand. For gymnasts, the elemental purpose of a handstand could be compared to that of a baby learning to crawl. When a baby first learns to move, they begin to develop their motor skills, strength and coordination to progress into walking, running and agility. Similarly, the development of the handstand in gymnastics develops the strength and coordination to be able to master higher level skills such as tumbling, giants, cast to handstand, etc. As a retired competitive gymnast myself, I can vividly remember the hours of constant drilling and technique work spent on the handstand alone.
Gymnastics is not a sport of brute force or strength, rather, it is a competition of skill and efficiency in highly demanding positions with incredible accuracy and consistency. Although CrossFit often involves a great intensity level to that of gymnastics, there is a certain translation from the sport of gymnastics that can benefit any CrossFit athlete by understanding the high value of proper positioning and technical efficiency. The pedestal upon which movements such as muscle-ups, butterfly pull-ups and handstand walks sit often blind us from considering the most basic foundations involved in these movements. Before you can run you must walk and before you do that, you must crawl. The handstand involves some of the most fundamental aspects of gymnastics and mastery of this movement is essential to both safety and efficiency, even in CrossFit. After all, gymnastics movements makes up more than 75% of the standard benchmark workouts seen in CrossFit.
In order to achieve a proficient handstand, you must understand the concept of alignment. Consider the the mechanics of a handstand to be a kinetic chain. The strongest chain is the chain with each link stacked on top of each other and the least amount of slack. Therefore, to achieve the strongest handstand one must act as a chain; wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, hips, knees, ankles and toes are all links that must be stacked on top of each other. After being stacked, a chain should also be pulled tight to take out any sort of slack creating weakness and likewise, so must our body must also be pulled tight. So how do we “stack” ourselves? The key here is in what is known as the hollow body position or posterior pelvic tilt.
The following series of drills and exercises will help you mater the basics of the hollow body and translate it to the perfect handstand.
FLOOR BELLY BUTTON LIFT
This drill will force you to keep your abdominal muscles tight as well as achieve the pelvic tilt. Start by lying face, then press your finger tips and toes into the floor. Initiate the pelvic tilt by bringing your belly button and mid section off of the floor and tuck your chin to your chest. Practice rhythmic breathing.
Start in a normal plank position – make sure to use your cambered grip (see below) and stack your shoulders directly on top of your wrists. Walk your feet up through your toes as you actively press into the floor until your upper body is inverted and stacked on top of your shoulders.
This is where you can most effectively translate the belly button lift drill to an inverted position. While keeping your core tight and shoulders active, walk your feet up the wall until you’re completely inverted. Once you’re inverted, pull your belly button away from the wall to create the hollow body/pelvic tilt. Reach your hands and shoulders deep into the floor for stability, squeeze your thighs together and point your toes. Find a focal point on the wall and focus on your breath; take three deep breaths, then focus on normal breathing for as long as you hold this position. This is stacked position you must master in order to begin working the free handstand.
At some point you will achieve the confidence to graduate from the wall-facing
handstand to the free handstand. Once you have mastered the correct positioning to create the “chain” effect, it’s time to drill the kick-up. It’s important to understand that the kick-up is a hinging motion and you should not be flexing the torso in order to lower to the floor. Hinge at the hips and keep your core tight as you place your hands on the ground as close to your f
oot as possible; this will force you to create that stacked position by reaching straight down instead of reaching outward. Begin this drill with a small “donkey kick” and focus on maintaining tension and proper position. If you don’t make it vertical on the first try, that’s okay! Slowly progress into bigger and taller kick-ups.
Eventually, your kick up will progress to a fully inverted, free handstand. If you master each of these drills, the handstand will come as a natural progression of everything you’ve worked hard for.
The key components of your positioning that you should have acquired by the time you’ve reached this point are…
Hands: Grip the floor by acquiring the cambered position – keeping your palm on the floor, curl your knuckles up by pressing your finger tips into the floor.
Shoulders: Be active in the shoulders by pressing continuously into the floor.
Head/Neck: Tuck your chin, find a focal point to look at and make sure you breathe evenly.
Hips/Legs: Squeeze quads together as tight as possible (imagine trying to hold a piece of paper in between your legs).
Toes: Point your toes and reach them to the ceiling.
Even at a highly competitive level of gymnastics, I can remember the countless hours I spent drilling the basics of the handstand. With the endless challenges of CrossFit, it can be easy to become impatient, but it’s important to remember that you can’t expect to perfect a skill that takes even the best gymnasts years to perfect. There is a fundamental progression to the gymnastics skills that you want to achieve and if you follow the proper steps, everything else will fall in place.
Enjoy your inversions!