Skills and Drills with Coach Rachel: Scaling the Handstand Push up

Last month, Coach Rachel covered the basics of technique and progressions for mastering the handstand push up.  This month, she discusses progression and scaling options for athletes that are either uncomfortable getting inverted or are still working on the strength and/or flexibility needed to perform handstand pushups on the wall.  If you’d like to see the video version of this month’s blog, click here.

Box Handstand Pushups

One of the most effective scaling options is having athletes perform handstand pushups off a box.  This is a good option because it helps athletes get comfortable being upside down without them having to deal with the balance and kicking-up issues of being on the wall.  Additionally, if performed correctly, it allows the athlete to get in the same position and perform the same range of motion that they will use on the wall.  Practicing box handstand pushups correctly will help the athlete gain the strength, flexibility, and movement patterns necessary to be successful on the wall.

Replicating the Handstand Pushup

Unfortunately, it is also pretty easy to perform box handstand pushups incorrectly.  If we aren’t careful, we end up doing regular pushups off the box and not replicating the wall handstand pushups.  To that end, Rachel has some tips on how to ensure you are doing box handstand pushups in a way that replicates an actual handstand push up as it would be performed on the wall.

First of all, most athletes will start by using a 20-inch box.  If an athlete is extremely tall, they may be more comfortable on a 24-inch box, but that would be an exception to most cases.   Additionally, most athletes will start with their knees on the box and progress to toes on the box.  If you are a very strong athlete who is just not comfortable being upside down, you may start on your toes.

Get Stacked

Once the athlete has set up the box and is on top of the box on his or her knees (or toes, possibly), it is important that he or she puts her hands on the ground in a position that ensures the hands, shoulders, and hips are stacked on top of each other.  This means that the shoulders would be directly on top of the hands and the hips would be directly over the shoulders (as much as possible).  In other words, the athlete’s upper body should be completely vertical in the starting position, with the rear pointing to the ceiling.  Other tips for this starting position, which mimic an actual handstand push up, include having the hands turned slightly outward and tucking the chin so that the athlete is looking directly at the box.

Avoid the Regular Pushup

When first attempting the box handstand pushup, many athletes will have their hands pretty far out in front of their shoulders and hips with their head looking up.  This position is more like that of a regular floor push up and will not really help the athlete get comfortable being inverted or develop the specific strength, flexibility, and movement patterns needed to learn the wall handstand push up.  For some athletes, it works to begin with hands a little farther out from the box and then walk them back into the stacked position.  If you are working on this alone, be sure to get a friend or coach or use video to make sure you are getting in the correct position.

Shift Your Weight to the Shoulders

From this starting position, we are ready to complete the actual handstand push up.  In order to replicate the movement pattern of the wall handstand push up, there is an important step that must take place before the athlete lowers towards the floor.  From the starting position, the athlete will need to shift his or her body weight into her shoulders.  The hands will not move, but the head and upper body will shift slightly in front of the shoulders.  This shift is important because it loads the shoulders in preparation for being able to move the bodyweight, just as they will have to on the wall.  Not completing this small shift will keep the athlete from replicating the movement pattern needed on the wall.

Create a Triangle

Once the body weight is shifted over the shoulders, the athlete will lower towards the ground.  The head will end up in front of the hands, creating a triangle between the head and hands, just as we would in the wall.  With athletes that are just beginning this scale or are working up to having the strength to move their upper body, you can place an ab mat or an ab mat with plates underneath as a target for the head.  This will help the athlete hit a consistent position every time and put them in a position to successfully complete the pushup.

Press Back to the Box

After the athlete has lowered his or her head to the floor or mat in the triangle position, it is time to press up and return to the starting position.  To do so, the athlete will push both up and back towards the box, returning to the stacked starting position. Sometimes athletes will lower themselves straight down and up from the starting position, but this does not truly replicate the movement pattern they will be using on the wall.  Taking the time now to move correctly will help build the strength and muscle memory needed to be successful on the wall.

5 Simple Steps

Here is a brief summary of the process:

  1. Set up with knees or toes on the box.
  2. Place hands on the ground, turned out slightly, with shoulders and hips stacked vertically on top.
  3. Hinge upper body forward slightly so that weight is in shoulders and tuck chin.
  4. Press down and slightly forward until the head is touching the ground or mat and making a triangle with hands.
  5. Press up and back towards the box, returning to the stacked starting position.

If you are working on getting into the vertical, stacked position but are just not comfortable getting vertical or lack the flexibility to get completely vertical, you can start with your hands a little farther from the box.  HOWEVER, you should still tuck your chin and work on pressing down with your head landing slightly in front of your hands.  Then, still press up and back towards the box to finish.  This will help your body get more comfortable getting inverted and gain the strength and movement pattern of a handstand pushup instead of you just doing regular floor pushups with your feet elevated.

Scaling Up

As an athlete gets comfortable and efficient on a 20-inch box from the knee position, it’s time to talk about progressions.  First, the athlete can switch from knees on the box to toes on the box. After this position is successful, the athlete can scale up to a 24-inc box, which will allow them to build more strength.

Other Options

If an athlete is simply not ready for box handstand pushups due to strength or comfort issues or injury, there are other options.  For athletes who are unable to get inverted but still want to build the strength that comes with handstand pushups, seated dumbbell presses are an alternative.  For athletes that are very uncomfortable getting inverted but want to work on it or may not have the pressing strength but want to get inverted, box handstand holds are a good place to start.  For these, the athlete would get into the starting position for the box handstand pushups but not complete the pressing elements.  Start with 20 to 30-second holds and progress from here.  Athletes can scale up to doing the hold on their toes instead of knees.  Once an athlete is comfortable in the hold, they can work on shifting their weight from hand to hand, which will help prepare them for the pressing part of the box handstand pushup.

As the athlete gets comfortable in the box hold, they can start incorporating wall walks and holds.  Eventually, it will be time to start kicking up to the wall for handstand holds.  The great thing about starting with box holds or box handstand pushups is that doing them correctly prepares an athlete for moving from the box to the wall.   If you have any questions or would like to help working any of these scales into your routine, reach out to Coach Rachel at rachel@crossfitxtramile.com or to any of our great coaches.  See you in the gym!