Whenever I meet a new client in person, I get an idea of how fit or unfit they are just by looking at their shoulders. This muscle group is often overlooked by people when they embark on a fitness program on their own and yet shoulders are so important to give an overall impression of strength and fitness. In fact, I would say that having great shoulders can help you look fitter than you really are and as such they should be one of the first muscle groups to be addressed in any body sculpting program.
There are different ways in which you can develop shoulders (and arms) strength: you could spend ages pressing increasingly heavier weights over your head OR you could challenge yourself and inject some fun into your exercise routine with some “old school” calisthenics in order to gain phenomenal strength in a way that is safe and allows you to work within the boundaries of your body’s unique geometry thus preventing injuries and annoying setbacks.
There is one exercise that will simultaneously develop the strength of arms, wrists and shoulders as well as help you develop agility and advanced balance: the handstand. Contrary to popular belief this, when practiced correctly, is a very safe exercise to perform and will help you step out of your comfort zone testing your courage and determination to succeed.
Some of the benefits of practicing handstands:
STRENGTH: by supporting the entire bodyweight your wrists, arms and shoulders will develop the kind of phenomenal strength that is typically the domain of professional athletes and will get you closer to look like one (fake it ’till you make it, I say 🙂 )
BALANCE: your vestibular system (the balance organ within the inner ear) learns to adapt to the upside down position and this in turn will help you retain your bearings when you find yourself inverted (think yoga poses, swimming, pole fitness)
HEALTH: because you are inverted, the brain gets a large flush of fresh blood thus helping relieve stress and mild depression.
One word of caution for the ladies though: because the flow of blood is also inverted during the handstand it’s best not to practice this move during menstruation.
The easiest way to start with the handstands is to stand with the back to a wall a couple of feet away. When you are ready you can place the hands on the floor and start walking up the wall with your feet, one little step at the time until the legs are at a 90º angle with the torso (see pic.). At this point almost all of your body weight will be on your wrists but you have still plenty of support from the adjacent wall and if you have a wobble you can easily step down in complete safety.
When you have mastered this first step you can try to walk your feet further up and your hands towards the wall until your legs are straight and the whole of your body touching the wall. Congratulations! You have just performed your first handstand!
The other way to practice the handstand is to start by facing the wall about 2/3 feet away. Place your hands on the floor with the palms flat and the fingers spread out to give you a wide base of support, arms are straight but not locked out. Bend the stronger leg so the knee is under your torso and straighten the other leg behind, then kick it up and towards the wall with the help of the other leg. You may have to do a few prances the first time you try this but eventually, as soon as you feel ready to make a wholehearted attempt, your feet will be touching the wall and your legs will be straight and you will be in a full handstand. As you can see from the picture on the left it’s OK at this stage to keep a slight arch in the back, this will help you with balance as you are leaning into the wall.
Once you are comfortable performing handstands against the wall you can step up your game by doing shoulder press-ups when upside down. This is a very demanding exercise and in the beginning you might not be able to bend your arms at all, however persist with your attempts and you will soon be able to do at least one good rep. When this happens it’s time to celebrate big time because this exercise is super hard and you have reached a massive milestone.
Of course you can take things further still. How about this for the next step up? 😀