A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Handstand Push-Ups

Here's everything you need to know about this challenging and beneficial exercise.

Most people are familiar with the standard movement of a Push-Up, but there are many variations that can increase the challenge of this classic bodyweight movement. One of those variations is demanding in both technique and strength: the strict Handstand Push-Up or HSPU.

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What Is a Handstand Push-Up?

Handstand Push-Up

In its simplest definition, a strict Handstand Push-Up is when an athlete holds a fully extended handstand against a wall, lowers his or her head all the way to the ground, and then pushes the body back up the wall until the arms are once again fully extended. The challenge factor is fairly obvious: in a normal Push-Up, the feet are still on the ground helping to maintain core stabilization and support the body weight. This of course doesn't apply in a Handstand Push-Up, when the athlete is forced to rely solely on upper-body/core strength while attempting to push his or her body weight in the opposite direction from that which gravity is trying to force it. In short: the Handstand Push-Up is no cakewalk.

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Handstand Push-Up Benefits

Handstand Push-Up

Just as with the standard Push-Up, the HSPU strengthens the triceps, trapezius (traps), abdominals and pectoral muscles. But, where it far exceeds its basic cousin is by targeting additional muscle groups, including the latissimus dorsi (lats), obliques, quadriceps, and gluteus maximus (glutes)—not to mention the huge boost to balance training. The Handstand Push-Up truly is the total package in bodyweight movements.

Having said that, the movement takes quite a bit of patience and finesse to learn. Once you feel confident in your regular Push-Ups (you can do 10-15 in a row while maintaining your form), you can begin training for your strict handstand Push-Up by practicing the series of progressions below.

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How to Do a Handstand Push-Up

Handstand Push-Up

Progression 1: Push-Up with knees on a box

  • Start with a box roughly 16-18 inches tall (as you move forward with this progression, increase the box height).
  • Place your knees on the front edge of the box. Do not hook your feet on the box, which can cause it to tip forward.
  • Place your hands directly under your shoulders on the floor in front of the box.
  • Lower your head so that it is slightly between and slightly in front of your hands (picture your head and hands creating a triangle).
  • Keep your elbows tucked in, and push yourself back up. You may need to stack an ab mat or something soft that provides a little bit of height underneath your head. The next step would be to complete the movement without assistance from the mat.

Progression 2: Push-up with toes on the box

  • Set yourself up on top of the box as you did in the progression above, only this time come up onto your toes (which are still at the back of the box)and raise your butt in the air.
  • Keep your hands underneath your shoulders, as before.
  • Lower yourself down until your head touches the ground, then push yourself back up. As with the above progression, placing a mat underneath your head to increase the height may be needed until you feel comfortable with the movement.

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Progression 3: Handstand hold

Once you feel you have mastered the Push-Up with your toes on the box, you can move to the handstand hold. There are two ways you can approach the wall: by kicking up from a lunge position up or by flipping up from a standing position. The kick is a little easier to execute and is recommended for beginners.

  • Once you are in position against the wall, your main focus should be stabilizing your core.
  • Make sure your back is not arched and that your neck is in a neutral position.
  • Hold this position for as long as you can.
  • Repeat several times until you feel comfortable getting up on the wall by yourself and holding the position for longer than one minute.

Note: being upside down can be a little daunting, so if you have apprehension about this, practice the toes-on-the-box progression a little more until you are comfortable with your head being where your feet normally are. Also, have someone spot you the first few times you do a handstand hold to reassure you that you're not going to fall.

Progression 4: Negatives with mats

Now that you have mastered the handstand hold, you can begin conditioning your body to the mechanics of the push.

  • Grab approximately three ab mats or another soft, elevated object you can safely and comfortably rest your head on.
  • Once you are in the handstand hold, slowly lower yourself down, keeping your elbows tucked in, until your head touches the top mat.
  • Flip down, and then repeat.
  • As your strength and comfort levels rise, you can begin to remove the mats one at a time until you can complete the negatives, lowering your head completely to the ground.

Progression 5: Push-Ups with mats

Lastly, you are ready to begin the actual push phase of the Handstand Push-Up.

  • First, stack your mats under your head as before.
  • Lower yourself down while keeping your elbows tucked in, as always, then push yourself back up the wall once your head touches the top mat.

Maintaining a tight core is essential in this movement. If you do not stabilize your back, abs, lats, etc., you could collapse and/or be unable to push yourself back up. As you get stronger in this movement, you can begin removing mats until you can do a complete handstand push-up without assistance.

From this point, you may want to move into the Kipping Handstand Push-Up or Deficit Handstand Push-Up, or move forward in your progressions to the Handstand Walk. Wherever your fitness journey takes you, be sure to remain patient and learn all of the proper steps in executing these challenging movements.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: CORE | ABS | PUSH-UP | CHEST | TRICEPS | BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES