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12 Overhead Mobility Exercises for Better Handstands

Why You Need Overhead Mobility for Handstands

Allow us to paint you a picture. You kick up into a handstand, feel strong and straight, and come down feeling confident and adept. You are the handstand king. Yet when you consult your audience or check out the photographic evidence, your spirit is crushed. Your chest and belly are thrusting out, your back is arched and your toes are flung over your head. We hate to tell you, but you're a banana.

Handstands are all about stacking - elbows over wrists, shoulders over elbows, hips over shoulders, toes over hips and so on. If you don’t have the adequate overhead shoulder mobility to actively put yourself in this position, in order to be upside down, compromises must be made elsewhere. The banana handstand is epitome of this in action and can be characterised as chest and ribs protruding, back arched, hips over shoulders but legs and feet far over your head.

Theo doing a straddle handstand to show overhead mobility wearing So We Flow...

I Like Bananas. So What?

We must at this stage say that there is nothing inherently wrong with a banana handstand - in fact, it’s the way old school hand-balancers and yogis have done it for centuries gone by. It’s argued that the modern gymnastics handstand evolved as a simple case of aesthetics, though we would dispute that after feeling the pressure exerted on one's lower back. You need to ask yourself why you want to become better at handstands. If your answer is to attain a press to handstand or one arm handstand, then working on the straight handstand is of huge importance. If your answer is to have fun or develop a new skill and nothing more, then by all means stay fruity.

(N.B. A straight handstand isn’t necessary to attain high level skills. Check out Professor Paulinetti, the Godfather of hand balancing. He clearly adored bananas but could pull off feats of balance and strength that even the straightest of handstanding humans could never hope to achieve.)

What’s The Difference Between Mobility & Flexibility?

We generally use these terms interchangeable, but the reality is a little more intricate, and there is certainly a distinction.

1. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle to stretch or lengthen.

2. Mobility is the ability of the entire joint (muscle, tendons, ligaments, soft tissue etc.) to move actively through its intended range of motion.

“Oh I get it!” We hear you say. So you understand now that flexibility is only one of numerous aspects of how a joint functions. But what does that mean? A lack of mobility will be a combination of instabilities across the entirety of the joint and associated areas of the body. A person can have excellent flexibility, but poor mobility - for example, if one's stabilising muscles are weak, they won’t have the strength to move themselves into their flexible range.

Still don't understand? Try this. Stand up straight, with your tailbone tucked, belly in and lower ribs down. Bring your arms overhead as far back as possible. That's your active range. Now do the same but facing a wall. Lean forward and bring your hands to the wall. Use the wall to push your arms back overhead. You can go much deeper right? That's your flexible range.

What's Restricting My Overhead Mobility?

A perfectly straight handstand requires the flexibility to have your arms straight overhead, but also the mobility to get your arms there without any external assistance. There's a number of reasons why you might have poor overhead mobility - tightness in the shoulders, chest, lats and triceps, or a lack of strength in your flexible range (poor active range). It's likely a combination of everything, but the exercises we recommend will help identify your weak areas. We've put together a comprehensive series of 12 Overhead Mobility Exercises for Better Handstands which, given discipline and time, will guarantee to improve your active range of motion. So let's get stuck in.

12 Overhead Mobility Exercises for Better Handstands

We don't have a specific prescription for the following exercises. All we will say is that regularity is more important than the duration of a single practice. If shoulder mobility was your primary focus, ideally, you would complete each of the following poses sequentially, every day, holding each for 10 slow breaths. That should only take 10-20 minutes out of your day. We recommend you ensure the arms and shoulders are active in the pose so that you build into your active range as well as your flexible range.

Bound Forward Fold (Uttanasana) 

For Chest & Front Shoulder Opening

Man doing a bound forward fold wearing So We Flow...

  1. Begin in a standing position, with your feet hip distance apart and the outer edge of you foot parallel to the mat.
  2. Draw your shoulder blades back and down, clasp your hands behind your back and straighten your arms.
  3. Start to fold forward with a slight bend in the knees until you reach a point of tension. Bring your arms overhead as far as possible, pushing them up and away from you.
  4. Straighten your legs and go deeper if available to you, otherwise bent legs is absolutely fine.
  5. Hold for 10 breaths.
  6. Come out slow and controlled, rising up first with slightly bent legs and final releasing your hands.

Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Shvanasana)

For Overhead Shoulder Engagement 

Man doing Downward Facing Dog wearing So We Flow...

  1. Begin on all fours, with your hips above your knees and shoulders above your wrists.
  2. Bring your hands slightly forwards of your shoulders, with your index finger pointing forward, spread your fingers.
  3. Think about creating a suction cup in the middle of your palm by pressing through the outer edges of the palm, the base of the fingers and the fingertips. 
  4. Create a spiral action in your arms by rolling your upper arms away from you and your forearms spiralling inwards.
  5. Tuck your toes under, and on an exhalation, engage your lower belly drawing the navel back to the spine. Press through your hands and lift your hips back and up to bring yourself into an upside-down V pose.
  6. Keep your knees bent at first as you find length in your spine.
  7. Slide your shoulder blades down along the spine, collar bones spread. The base of the neck relaxed.
  8. Maintaining length in the spine, ‘walk your dog’ by alternately bending and straightening your legs. Eventually bringing both heels towards the floor. They do not have to touch the floor.
  9. Press into the ground, engage your arms and shoulders. Stay for 10 breaths. 
  10. To come out of the pose, bring your knees back down to the floor and come into Child’s pose.

    Extended Puppy Pose (Anahatasana)

    For Shoulder, Chest & Lat Opening

    Man doing Extended Puppy Pose wearing So We Flow...

    1. Begin on all fours, with your hips above your knees and shoulders above your wrists.
    2. Place your hands about body length in front of you until your hips are comfortably past your knees.
    3. Bring your butt towards your heels until your thighs are perpendicular to the ground, and your chest and head lower towards the ground between your arms.
    4. Ensure you engage the arms and keep the pelvis tucked and navel in so the back remains straight. We want to feel this in the chest, lats and shoulders, not the back.
    5. Hold for 10 breaths. 
    6. Come out the opposite way you came in, finishing on all fours.

    Modified Puppy Pose (Anahatasana)

    For Tricep & Lat Opening

    Man doing Modified Puppy Pose wearing So We Flow...

    1. Place two blocks, books or alternative raised and stable object on the mat.
    2. Begin on all fours, with your hips above your knees and shoulders above your wrists.
    3. Place your elbows about body length in front of you on the blocks, until your hips are comfortably past your knees. Clasp your hands behind your head.
    4. Bring your butt towards your heels until your thighs are perpendicular to the ground, and your chest and head lower towards the ground between your arms.
    5. Ensure you engage the arms and keep the pelvis tucked and navel in so the back remains straight. We want to feel this in the triceps and lats, not the back.
    6. Hold for 10 breaths. 
    7. Come out the opposite way you came in, finishing on all fours.

    Basic Reverse Prayer (Pashchima Namaskarasana)

    For Front Opening & Scapula Positioning 

    Man doing Reverse Prayer wearing So We Flow...

    1. Sit in a comfortable seated position.
    2. Bring your hands behind your back until your palms meet in a prayer gesture.
    3. Push the hands together, retract the shoulder blades and open through the chest, keeping the lower back straight and ribcage down.
    4. If you can't access the position, try fist to fist, or easier still, grab opposite arms.
    5. Hold for 10 breaths. 
    6. Release the arms slowly and return to your starting position.

    Cow Face Pose Arms (Gomukhasana)

    For Tricep, Lat & Front Body Opening

    Man doing Cow Face Pose Arms wearing So We Flow...

    1. Sit in a comfortable seated position.
    2. Bring your right arm overhead, bend and place your palm between your shoulder blades.
    3. Bring your left arm behind your back, reaching the back of your hand between your shoulder blades.
    4. If accessible, clasp your hands to complete the bind and deepen the stretch.
    5. Even if you can bind, try without the hands clasped, using your strength alone to maintain the position.
    6. Hold for 10 breaths.
    7. Release the bind and repeat on the opposite side.

    Eagle Pose Arms (Garudasana)

    For Shoulder & Lat Opening

    Man doing Eagle Pose Arms wearing So We Flow...

    1. Sit in a comfortable seated position.
    2. Bring your right arm in front of you, bent at 90 degrees.
    3. Bring your left arm underneath so your elbows are stacked, then loop the left hand over the right bicep and try to touch palms.
    4. Lift your elbows so your upper arm is parallel with the floor.
    5. Hold for 10 breaths.
    6. Release the bind and repeat on the opposite side.

      Arm Pigeon 

      For Deep Shoulder & Chest Opening

      Man doing Arm Pigeon on his left side wearing So We Flow...

      Man doing Arm Pigeon on his right side wearing So We Flow...

      1. Start on your stomach with your forehead on your palms.
      2. Outstretch one arm in a t-position, palm down at shoulder height.
      3. Turn your head in the opposite direction so that your cheek is on the floor
      4. Place the palm of your opposite hand on the floor by your chest. Use this hand to gently roll yourself on to your hip.
      5. Bring your knees towards your chest and open your chest towards the sky.
      6. For more intensity, open the top knee.
      7. You may choose to leave your palm on the floor for support. Alternatively, you can use the hand to press the knee open or wrap it around to your lower back.
      8. Hold for 10 breaths.
      9. Come out slowly the way you came and repeat on the opposite side.

      Wheel Pose (Chakrasana)

      For Deep Overhead Opening 

      Man doing Wheel Pose wearing So We Flow...

      1. Come to lie on your back
      2. Bend your knees, bringing the soles of your feet onto your mat close to the buttocks. Reach down with your fingertips and make sure that you can just graze your heels. The feet should be parallel and hips distance apart.
      3. Lift your hips high into bridge. Stay here if wheel is inaccessible for you.
      4. Bend your elbows and bring the palms of your hands overhead, placing them underneath your shoulders with the fingertips pointing towards your feet.
      5. Inhale and press down into your palms and your feet as you lift your shoulders and hips up off the floor. Do not press all the way up yet.
      6. Bring the crown of your head to the mat, making sure not to put too much weight on the neck. Use your hands and feet for leverage. Pause here for a moment as you make sure that your elbows are staying parallel and not splaying out to the sides.
      7. Straighten your arms as you lift your head off the floor, making sure to keep your feet parallel and knees in line with your feet.
      8. Reach your chest towards the wall behind you and begin to straight your legs.
      9. Hold for 10 breaths.
      10. To come down, tuck your chin into your chest and lower down slowly.

      Reclined Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

      For Chest Opening & Central Nervous System 

      Man doing Reclined Supine Twist on his right side wearing So We Flow...

      Man doing Reclined Supine Twist on his left side wearing So We Flow...

      1. Lie down on your back.
      2. Bend your knees and put the soles of your feet on the floor with your knees pointing up toward the ceiling.
      3. Press into your feet to lift your hips slightly off the floor and shift them about an inch to your right. This is an important step because it sets your hips up to stack one on top of the other when you move into the twist.
      4. Let your knees fall to the left, so your shin is parallel to the mat and your thigh is perpendicular.
      5. Your right hip is now stacked on top of your left hip. You can hook your right foot behind your left knee if you like.
      6. Bring your right arm out to the side and bend 90 degrees at the elbow. You can bring your left hand to your right knee to assist the twist. Alternatively, mirror your right arm and tuck your right foot under the left knee.
      7. Turn your head to the right, bringing your gaze over your shoulder to your right elbow. You can skip this step if it doesn't feel good on your neck.
      8. Hold for 10 breaths.
      9. To come out, inhale and roll onto your back, drawing your knees into your chest. Release both legs to the floor to neutralise your spine for several breaths before repeating on the other side.

      Supported Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

      For Passive Front Body Opening

      Man doing Supported Fish Pose wearing So We Flow...

      1. Set up either a bolster or two blocks on your mat, and lay down onto the support. The end of the bolster or block should be at your mid-back so that your shoulder blades can rest on the support. The top of the bolster or second block is under your head, so that you can rest your head back and open the throat.
      2. Shift your hips towards the bottom of your mat and be sure that your pelvis is completely rested on the floor. Legs can be straight, or bend your knees, bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open.
      3. Allow your shoulder blades to wrap around the bolster or block. Bring your arms down by your sides with the palms face up.
      4. Hold for 10 breaths.
      5. To exit the pose, bend your knees, plant your feet and bring your arms down by your side. Press into your forearms and engage your core to sit up off of the bolster or blocks and move them to the side. Lay back flat onto your mat for a few breaths.

      Hang

      For Deep Vertical Opening

      1. Find a pullup bar or safe object where you can hang from.
      2. Grip the bar with two hands, about shoulder width apart and hang.
      3. First, relax everything but your grip, extending your shoulders completely and decompressing the spine. 
      4. Engage your back and try to bring your shoulder blades together, attempt to pull the bar back beyond your head and bring your chest between your hands.
      5. Hold this active position for 10 breaths.
      6. Bring your feet lightly to the ground and, if available to you, release your left hand for a one arm hang. You can hang without the support of your feet if you have the strength.
      7. Hold for 5 breaths.
      8. Bring both hands back to the bar and repeat on the right arm.

      --- 

      Enjoy folks. We'd love to see your overhead mobility progress using these exercises. You can either tag us on Instagram at @soweflow, email me at jake@soweflow.com, or join and post in our So We Flow... Movers Community group on Facebook.

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