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Headstand FAQ

Headstand is an introductory inversion that can set the foundation for more advanced ones such as forearm stand and handstand. Because it is so easy to get into a headstand, sometimes it is achieved with compromised technique.

In this post I will be answering 16 of the most common questions I have received about headstands in workshops and private sessions. The questions are grouped based on the personality of the students: the optimists, the analytical minds and the scared ones.

 

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The Optimists

What are the benefits of doing headstands?

Because headstands is a pose accessible to most practitioners from the very start of their yoga journey it allows them to quickly get comfortable upside down. Of the 3 main invasions headstand is the only one where beginners can use a mirror for visual feedback. By accumulating time in a headstand you can improve your understanding of scapula depression and shoulder external rotation. There are also 3 benefits all inversions share: proprioception, breathing and mid-section awareness.

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What are the different types of headstands?

The main 2 variations of headstands is the supported and tripod one. In the supported headstand the forearms are on the floor and thus the weight on the head can be minimised. However those with tight trapezius often find this version restrictive. In the tripod headstand the hands are on the floor creating a triangle with the head. In this version it is easier to overload the front of the shoulders and “muscle it”. Despite that being not ideal a few practitioners find tripod easier for that reason.

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Is a headstand harder than a handstand?

You bet… The reasons that make handstands multiple times harder are:
1 The centre of mass is higher,

2 The base is smaller,

3 the shoulders are freer to move and that increases instability,

4 the wrists are loaded more and

5 getting into position is a lot harder.

Equally forearm stand is harder than headstand.

 

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How long should I hold a headstand?

A good initial goal to set for a straight line headstand is 2mins. Inability to hold for that long usually indicates that your alignment is compromised.

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How can I improve my headstand practice?

Once you are able to hold a headstand for ~ 1min you can start working on headstand variations. That will help you solidify your headstand practice. The progressions I suggest are in the following order:
1 Perform the 3 main leg variations and traditions between them,

2 Move your hands, initially between tripod and the supported version,

3 Transition from and into crow and forearm stand.

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Is it good to do headstand everyday?

If headstand is the most advanced inversion you can perform yes. If you can practice other inversions it will be better use of your time to practice those. Practice of more advanced inversions is usually sufficient to help you maintain your headstand skills.

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Is headstand an advanced pose?

Whether it is an advanced pose or not depends on your starting position. Some yoga students will take years to get comfortable in a headstand. At the same time I had students of no particular physical capabilities able to headstand on their own in their first yoga class. Was it advanced for them? Probably not. What matters is where your practice is and what you want to achieve. The greatest benefits come from practicing things we are not comfortable with.

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The analytical minds

How do I properly set up my headstand position?

The top of the head should be on the floor. As some students have an egg shaped head the top of the head may hurt a bit in which case they can double the yoga mat for extra cushion. If you put too much padding underneath your head it will make the headstand unstable.

At no cost should you not place the front part of the head on the floor or the hands underneath the head. The former is likely going to put pressure on your neck and the latter will create dependency on the hands which will be hard to break. After all it is called headstand because the head is on the floor. It is not called head-on-handstand…

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How do I balance in a headstand?

The balance in a headstand will be achieved (similar to all inversions) by keeping your centre of mass above your base. Three things that will help you achieve that are:

1 Set the top of your head on the floor, and keep most of the weight on your head (as opposed to your hands)

2 Keep your scapula in depression and shoulders in external rotation

3 Keep your mid section stable. The abdominal naval in manoeuvre is likely to help you achieve that.

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What muscles do headstands strengthen?

In headstand you will strengthen your neuro-connections with your shoulder joint. The strength demands for the shoulders and abdominals are minimal in this pose. If you feel tired in these muscle groups during a headstand practice chances are your alignment is compromised.

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Do I need to warm up before headstand?

If you are new to the practice you may want to warm up your shoulders and stretch your hamstrings. For tripod you can also warm up your wrists. Students familiar with the pose will not need any warm up.

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The scared ones

What are some modifications or variations for beginners or those with injuries?

If you are looking for modifications chances are you are experiencing pain in a joint, which indicates that your technique is wrong to begin with. Good technique is appropriate for beginners and those with injuries.

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What are common mistakes to avoid when doing headstands?

Instead of thinking of what to avoid it is easier to think what you should aim for. In a well aligned headstand should:

1 Feel light (ie. have minimal weight on your hands, if in a tripod)

2 Hold still for a few minutes

3 Breathe in a controlled, soft way.

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Why do headstands hurt so much?

If you are experiencing pain it’s because you are doing something wrong. There are 5 areas students often experience pain in a headstand. All of them can be avoided if the right technique is followed.

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How do you protect your neck in a headstand?

Your neck will be protected if you maintain your scapula depressed. To achieve that shoulders in external rotation will also be useful. Finally you should ensure that you keep the top (and not the front) of the head on the floor.

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Can you injure yourself doing a headstand?

You can get injured if the correct technique is not followed. A step by step approach and avoiding the use of the wall will minimise the chances of hurting yourself.

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the beneficts of inversions

3 overlooked benefits of inversions

While inversions in yoga get a lot of attention, partly due to how much practitioners stand out when performing them, their use and benefits are not always appreciated. There are 3 benefits of inversions that most yoga students overlook: proprioception, breathing and digestion.

 

Proprioception Upside-Down

When inverted, coordination is often out of the window. For most people it takes time and practice to understand where their body is in space while upside down. In the process of improving our practice, we have to build new neuro-connections, similar to when we learned how to walk, when toddlers.

Being able to coordinate yourself upside down is not a small task but the benefits are huge. Similar with bilinguals having reduced chances of developing Alzheimer’s, and other aging-related neurological diseases, in my opinion, so do those that invert.

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The diaphragm is fighting gravity

While holding a headstand or a handstand we still need to breathe. While this is not much of a priority initially when the holding time increases to 10+ seconds some form of breathing is useful. The diaphragm thought that facilitates breathing, has to move now away from the floor. The inverted movement of the diaphragm demands slower – deeper breathing.

You may have noticed that when inverted if your breath is erratic, it doesn’t take long to lose balance. On the other hand controlled, rhythmic breathing can help us keep:

• track of time

• the nervous system calm

• our midsection stable

While most asana practices will improve your breathing, inversions will definitely upgrade respiratory function.

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It takes guts

The midsection area of the body is actively involved in keeping us stable, upside down. The Abdominal Drawing In Manoeuvre (ADIM) is in most cases the most useful ab recruitment technique. This action promotes peristalsis in the abdominal muscles and thus digestive health. For this reason, I suggest inversions for those that want to improve their digestive function!
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Training your body to maintain your navel in when exercising, will help you keep a slimmer waist as well.
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Conclusion

Inversions is a key component of an asana practice. The more you practice them the more you will improve your alignment and understanding of poses practiced upright. At the same time for the reasons mentioned above inversions will help you get smarter, calmer and slimmer.

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Flexibility vs Strength: a zero sum game?

Without putting much thought into it, it is easy to claim that flexibility and strength are opposite qualities or even that they counteract each other. In my opinion: The above ideas hold true only at the end range of the spectrum.

The topic I think is a lot more straight forward than most people think. What makes it confusing is the lack of specificity.

3 factors that affect how strong and flexible you will get.

1. The degree of strength or flexibility need to be predetermined by a single skill, achievement or set standards.

2. The individual’s constitution will predispose him to favour strength or flexibility.

3. What maters most is how much you want the specific outcome.

Let’s elaborate on each of them…

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How much do you really need?

To perform a snatch you need some strength and some flexibility but so you do to perform middle splits on silks. The amount varies significantly and so do the joints involved. For the former task you need minimal ankle flexibility, for instance, while for the latter you need a lot!

While some skills are complimentary the more skills you are after the harder it is to meet the physical demands of each.

It is equally important to look at how the masters of each activity do. Let’s look into yoga. Anyone that can practice the 2nd or 3rd series of Ashtanga is strong yoga-wise. He is likely though to qualify as weak based on most other standards.

Naohisa Takato

picture source

In the image above you can see Naohisa Takato an Olympic champion in judo, trying to put his foot to his head in pigeon pose. Judo requires flexibility but putting the foot to your head is not a prerequisite for stepping on the podium.

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What are the key parameters?

Your genetics, alongside your upbringing will predispose you towards finding flexibility or strength easier. In extreme scenarios this holds true even for those that train only x2 per week.

You probably know someone that gets a pump just by looking at dumbbells or someone that puts his leg behind his head without ever having attended a single yoga class. If the 1st individual sets as a goal to become a contortionist, or the 2nd an IFBB pro body builder they both have an uphill battle ahead. While these are rare scenarios we need to appreciate that we all have an inclination.

Your joint structure, muscle bulk, connective tissue, proprioceptors, adipose tissue affect how you move.

If you are working on what comes natural to you, you are less likely to feel you are spinning wheels.

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It’s a mind game.

Your mindset and standards will be the biggest determinant on how far you go.

If you want to stay at the middle of the bell shaped curve, chances are that you will not get very strong or flexible and you will be able to increase both qualities simultaneously with some effort. If you want to go to the end of the curve however, go for it and be ready to pay the price.

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How to increase strength and flexibility at the same time?

Plan accordingly.

Assuming you:

a. want to put equal weight on both strength and flexibility and

b. are at equal level in both physical qualities.

you can see below what would be my suggestions for a training split.

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Does diet play a role?

Diet is a key component of training. Both strength and flexibility require protein to support the wear and tear of the joints, ligaments, and muscles.

Strength will benefit by keeping your body in a moderate, or high, anabolic state while flexibility in a moderately catabolic state.

If that comes as a surprise think of the typical yoga body. To that extent, a meat eating diet will support strength training while a vegetarian diet flexibility. For general health purposes though I suggest you refrain from black or white choices.

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What’s the effect on athleticism?

Athleticism should be trained on its own. If you want to be more athletic you need to focus on jumping and sprinting. You will not become faster through bench pressing or middle splits. With that said, there is a high component of strength needed in athleticism and a small of flexibility.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can you build strength with yoga?

It obviously depends on what your starting point is but there are certain limitations for targeting the back of the body and the legs. For that reason I often suggest some other form of strength training to be supplemented.

The biggest benefit yoga offers to strength athletes is the increase of body awareness.

This is massive and of bigger importance than the benefits from flexibility, calmness and breathwork.

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Does lifting weights make you flexible?

Again it depends on your standards. Weights will not get you seriously flexible, but you may still increase your range of movement in some body parts.

What is more critical though is how to avoid getting more stiff through weights, and for that you need to pay attention to the technique you use.
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Again… Pilates training is fantastic at targeting supportive muscles (the muscles no-one cares about and when ignored cause injuries). My training in Pilates influenced a lot my teaching in yoga and would definitely recommend reformer pilates to anyone that is allergic to the gym environment.

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What 10+ years of teaching yoga taught me?

I. Those that complain about tightness are the ones that need flexibility the least. Those that don’t complain are the ones that  need it the most.

II. Value the opinion of instructors above this of systems, methods, etc. Would you learn how to bake pizza from Dominos or your friend’s Italian father?

III. If you are starting out be a generalist. When you have lost track of the number of years you have trained, start making your training sessions specific. Yes you can train front splits for 1 hour.

IV. The best way to avoid injuries is to do what you don’t feel like.

V. Strength gains depend a lot on intensity and planning. Flexibility gains depend on patience and conditioning. Despite a common belief contortionist don’t just stretch.

VI. When in doubt ask your friend’s Italian father. The more my practice advances the more private sessions I take.

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How do I start learning inversions?

If you are new to inversions it may feel overwhelming to go upside! If you want to start learning inversions safely, I suggest you read this article fully and start dedicating some time daily to them.

 

I. Start from what you already know

Downward Facing Dog

Downward Dog is for many the 1st inversion they ever practiced. The checklist when practicing downward dog should be:

Hands as wide as the shoulders & feet as wide as the hips
Straight (as much as possible) spine – knees SHOULD be bent if hips & hamstrings are tight to allow for a straight back
External rotation of the shoulders & elevation of the shoulder blades
Heels towards the floor

Performing downward dog always this way will help you build the neuroconnections needed to activate the same muscles in more advanced inversions.

Limiting factors: As downward-facing dog requires some action from muscles in the entire body it is likely the limitation to come from more than 1 muscle or joint. Weakness in the lats, shoulders, and wrists as well as tightness in the hip, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves can challenge us in performing this pose.

Shoulderstand

Shoulderstand is another commonly practiced inversion accessible to many, prior to headstands and handstands. The goal here is to: Maintain feet – hips – shoulders in one line.

It is worth working towards that provided the neck stays pain-free.

Alignment factors: A well-aligned shoulder stand will require forward flexion from the upper back and abdominal strength.

 

 

 

 

 

 

II. Core Strength

Core strength for inversions

In my books core strength involves abdominals, lower & upper back muscles. When it comes to inversions while there is a certain amount of abdominal strength needed this involves primarily inner unit strength as opposed to the outer unit (ie. rectus abdominis – also known as 6-pack). In straight-line inversions, which is the main form most practitioners work towards initially, very little outer unit strength is needed. At the same time relying too much on “core” strength to hold the pose can promote bad habits and poor form.

If I was to choose 1 exercise to :

  • Promote awareness around the pelvis
  • Strengthen the core and
  • save time

that would be the plank between 2 elevated surfaces [Instagram image].

How much shoulder strength do you need in inversions?

Stable shoulders can go a long way toward supporting your inversion practice. The shoulder strength demands of different inversions vary a lot though, with headstands requiring less, handstands more and forearmstand even more.

Let’s look a bit closer into handstands :

While the shoulders will always be in flexion (arms towards the head), ultimately we want to be stable in :

  1. different degrees of flexion
  2. with the shoulders in both eternal and internal rotation

In a handstand press-up (for most people) the shoulders do not come into full flexion. When opening the thoracic part of the spine the shoulders move into flexion beyond 180 degrees. In both cases, we need them stable.

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Buteyko vs Yoga breathing

Buteyko vs Yoga Breathing

Both Buteyko and Yoga breathing techniques have benefited the health of many individuals and especially those with respiratory problems (ie. bronchitis & asthma). To the novice, the two systems may seem to contradict each other but I would argue there are many similarities between them.

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While Pranayama is a component of the yoga tradition, which also consists of meditation and physical postures, Buteyko is a system solely focusing on breath training.

*ref

Pranayama vs Buteyko Breathing

So far there has been only one study from the University of Nottingham that compared the 2 systems (ref). The study was conducted among 90 individuals (69 of which completed the study) that suffered from asthma and were on corticosteroid medication. At the end of the study, which run for 6 months, the Buteyko group showed improvement in both symptoms and a reduction in bronchodilator use.

 

Buteyko vs Pranayama Corticosteroid Buteyko vs Pranayama symptoms

How do pranayama techniques compare with Buteyko breathing?

Pranayama techniques, primarily due to the lack of one reliable source, are practiced in different ways. Many practitioners use “Light on Pranayama” BKS Iyengar as a reference. Exercises can be performed in various degrees of difficulty by modifying the duration of the breath. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain how this can be achieved but to help you grasp the concept think of box breathing:

Version A:  Inhale for 2 sec, Hold for 2sec, Exhale for 2sec, Hold for 2sec. Perform x5 rounds.

Version B:  Inhale for 20 sec, Hold for 20sec, Exhale for 20sec, Hold for 20sec. Perform x10 rounds.

While most pranayama techniques are (unfortunately) instructed without much reference to the volume of air, by the time the duration of each cycle increases minute ventilation will unavoidably reduce. Reduction in minute ventilation is at the heart of the Buteyko Method which aims to prevent individuals from chronic and acute hyperventilation.

In the table below you can see a list of pranayama exercises. Those with a sign 〰️ can lead to hypercapnia, while the ones with an ❌ are likely to cause hypocapnia.

Hypercapnia is a key element of Buteyko training.

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One of the hallmarks of yoga is Ujjayi breathing which often (and correctly in my option) it’s suggested to be performed at all times during asana. Given the different ways that ujjayi breath is practiced, it may appear to be diametrically opposite to Buteyko breathing.

Ujjayi breath is characterized by a sound produced during the exhalatio by the constriction of the throat. The sound, for some unknown to me reason, is sometimes exaggerated making the breath loud. In my opinion, ujjayi should be performed as follows:

Both the inhalation and the exhalation take place through the nose with the tongue at the top of the pallet. The inhalation is soft. During the exhalation, the back of the throat gently constricts allowing the elongation of the exhalation further than normal. The exhalation to inhalation ratio is 2:1 or much higher. The breath is quiet.

When practiced like this, the ujjayi breath will lead to hypercapnia and thus cause an increase in body temperature, similar to all hypercapnic breathing exercises.

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How to incorporate Buteyko in yoga?

To the extent that you want to support the oxygenation of your brain 🧠 and peripheral organs during your physical practice, you would benefit by breathing light from start to finish. Breathing this way is likely to cause a sense of air hunger, especially in classes where the pace is fast.

 

You can also incorporate hypoxic breathing in your practice depending on your level of experience and breathing capacity. It is always important to account for the challenges asanas cause to the breath during yoga.

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The role of Control Pause in Yoga

Buteyko practitioners, like myself, like to use the Control Pause (CP) test as an approximation of clients’ respiratory capacity. CP can also be performed at the start of a yoga practice. Below is a list of factors that need to be considered:

• CP will tend to be lower later in the day

• CP will be affected by fluctuations in hormone levels. That is likely to be more pronounced in women.

• If the practitioner is seating on the floor (as opposed to a chair), limitations in his posture is likely to affect the CP negatively.

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My take on Breathwork

The Buteyko method is a cornerstone of Breathwork. Not because I am a Buteyko instructor but simply because because its principles are in line the laws of respiratory physiology. Any breathing practice that ignores these principles are unlikely to have long term results as they are ignoring the laws of nature. At the same time the Buteyko Method is NOT complete (video) and yoga, both asana & pranayama can compliment everyones breath training.

Adopting only 1 of the 2 or considering them contradicting is in my opinion myopic. Merge the 2 practices and chances are you will see a significant benefit in your respiratory capacity. You can learn how to two can be combined in the Breathe Right 5d course.

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One vs Two Arm Handstand

One vs Two Arm Handstand

While the one & two arm handstand may seem a world apart there are some similarities as well as some big differences between the 2. In this article, I will cover where the training for 1 and 2-arm handstand overlaps and why 1-arm handstand is a different ball game.

Why OAH is no different to a regular Handstand?

1 You are fighting gravity

The easiest way to stay up is to maintain your center of mass above your base (ie. your hands). With your base being approximately 70% smaller in OAH (One Arm Handstand) the center of mass has to stay within a tighter range but the principle remains the same.

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2 Moving slowly helps

Standing on your hands is not natural. Doing something unnatural fast (initially at least) will cause a mess. It might seem counterintuitive to slow down something you cannot do yet but trust me, it will accelerate the learning process.

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3 Balance is always closer than you think

Nerves, lack of proprioception, and unnecessary body tension will get in the way preventing you from making the necessary adjustments and staying in balance. Try minimizing any adjustments you think you need to half. More often than not you will surprise yourself with how close balance was.

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4 Concentration is often underestimated

Staying focused on the alignment or on recovering balance or sustaining a soft breath will often determine if you stay up or fall. But even once you have come out of a handstand, you can stay focused on what you can take away from your last attempt. Each attempt is an opportunity to learn. Naturally, we pay attention to our successes but from which ones can we learn more: the successes or the fails?

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5 Lousy approach = Lousy results

Having the appropriate consistency & intensity in the training will bring the wanted result. For a long time handstands were an unsolvable 🔮 puzzle 🧩 in my mind 🧠. It’s not. Looking back when I was not progressing was because my training was messy whether I was training for a 2-arm or a 1-arm handstand.

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6 Show me a handstand and I will show you a patient man

Handstands will:

🤔 possibly change your posture

👍🏻 very likely help you understand your body. Whatever patterns you have standing will get exaggerated x10 upside down

🫣 make you more patient.

I used to be frustrated, thinking of training days as good and bad. There are no good or bad training days. There are intense and easy, technical and endurance-focused, those that we learn what we are capable of by achieving things we didn’t expect or realizing our limitations. Coming to terms with this will help you enjoy the process; one vs two arm handstand makes no difference.

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7 Balance starts at the end of your comfort zone

If you ever hear that handstands are easy this man (or woman) either learned a long time ago and forgot the struggle or never really learned. There is nothing comfortable about handstands, especially in the learning phase. If you are starting out now you may think that once you learn how to stand on 2 hands it’s going to be a walk in the park thereafter 🤔, think twice 😆.

Once you get into the habit of training on the edge of your comfort zone you will start seeing consistent progress.

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Why a OAH is a different animal than a 2 arm handstand?

Frequency & intensity need to match the expertise

At the start of one’s handstand journey, x3-5 40min sessions a week may be sufficient to progress. After a while, 1 hour of practice daily or more is needed. Apart from the frequency though, the intensity needs also to change over time. 2-4 minute breaks are ok while training for 2 arm handstands. In OAH the breaks need to be shorter.

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In how many ways can you fall?

Balance in a 2 arm handstand may seem fragile at times but ultimately you can fall forward or backward. In a OAH you can also fall sideways. This fact on its own will increase the demands on:

• the hand adjustments

• the shoulder corrections

• compensations due to body asymmetries

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Conclusion

Handstands are tones of fun to practice and all the challenges we face in the process just make the journey more worth taking. Whether you are starting out now or have a few years of training under your belt, take it as a given: there will always be more things to learn. What you have learned so far is the foundation on which you will build on. Just stay away from the handstand myths.

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