Discover the secret of old time strongmen for building badass overhead pressing strength
Handstand pushups: for LEGENDARY upper body power
Putting heavy stuff over your head is the ultimate show of strength. Always has been, always will be. Deadlifting, squatting, and every other worthy strength move will always be useful and important, but no exercise separates the men from the boys quite like the military press. Powerlifting coach extraordinaire Marty Gallagher once made an interesting observation. Go to an island populated by natives who had never seen strength equipment before and leave a barbell there. Come back in a week and they would have figured out how to put it over their heads. It would never occur to most people to lie down to try to lift it a la the bench press. But putting it over their heads military press style? It appeals to seemingly everyone the world over. No wonder it still remains as the classic test of upper body strength – even in a bench press-obsessed world.
So how – if at all – can you replicate the amazing benefits of the military press in your calisthenics training? How can you sculpt the broad-shouldered doers physique of the dimensionally perfect Greek statues so well that you’re almost mistaken for one – WITHOUT external weight? The answer is simple, and it lies within your hands.
I’m talking, of course, about handstand pushups.
Many people overlook handstand pushups as a novelty of sorts – a harder variation of regular pushups that you just kick up against the wall and go to town with. Not something they think of training seriously. However, when trained with single-minded determination and focus to make them progressively more difficult , they become an indispensable tool in your arsenal of upper body brute strength. American strength legend Paul Anderson – known by the hard-to-impress Russians as the Wonder of Nature – was a big proponent of them, and he used them as an assistance exercise to help him achieve his 400+ lb military press. When was the last time YOU pressed that much overhead? Don’t answer.
So where do you start?
First things first: your mobility. If you have a difficult time putting both arms overhead, elbows locked, without wincing and making an ugly face, then you’re not ready for handstands or handstand pushups. Take some time and improve your thoracic spine mobility and shoulder mobility before you tackle this exercise. Your joints will thank you.
If that’s not an issue and you’re ready to give it a shot, start off by stretching your forearms and fingers. Pull your fingers gently out of their sockets, stretch your hands out and lift your forearms. Think “jazz hands”, only more manly.
Next, your hand placement. It should be the same as it would be for a strict pushup. Let your arms hang by your sides and flare your lats. Then put your hands up at about chest level. That’ll likely be your most comfortable handstand pushup position.
As far as your actual training goes, you’ll want to start off slowly. This is important, because many people aren’t used to being inverted, and it often takes a long time to get adapted to it. This article may be a crash course in handstand pushups, but don’t take liberties with the whole “crashing” part. Trust me. If things go South because you were impatient and did too much too soon, handstand pushups will suddenly seem much less appealing.
You’ll train these next two steps at the same time – first, headstands. Get your hands about a foot away from the wall, place your head on the floor somewhere in front of your hands (it will vary from person to person based on your build) and get accustomed to the groove of holding yourself there. Use a training partner if needed.
PRO-TIP: your groove should feel like you’re part of the way through a barbell military press
Next, pike pushups. First, start with your knees bent and elevated on a chair and hands flat on the floor. The position should feel stable. If you feel like you’re going to fall, you’re probably not in the right position. Change it before you start pressing. Once you’ve found your position, push! Practice a few of these in between your headstands – either on different days or within the same session. Once you’re comfortable doing these on your knees, you’ll move on to elevating your feet on the chair and doing the same thing. Practice your pike pushups well – they’ll be invaluable to you in building dynamic strength needed to build up to handstand pushups.
Progression 2: from the feet
PRO-TIP: Your forearms will stay more or less vertical, so your head will touch the ground somewhere in front of your hands, NOT between them.
Once pike pushups and headstands are a piece of cake, you’re ready for handstands! You will keep practicing your pike pushups and headstands, but the addition of handstands will build up some extra upper body strength in short order. Once you are good at these, everything else will seem a lot easier. The same rules apply: use a partner if necessary, and keep your hands at the same width as before. With arms as straight as possible (imagine you are pushing your hands hard through the floor), kick yourself up onto the wall. Stay. Practice this in between pike pushups and make the mind-muscle connection between the two moves.
Now we’ll add another element: the Russian negative. It is like a regular negative, but more awful. These are a bit tricky at first as they require some extra concentration and an emphasis on controlling the descent (you’re not Buzz Lightyear, so no “falling with style”!). From the handstand, “unlock” your triceps while keeping your delts and pecs tight and lower yourself until your head touches the ground (imagine pulling yourself down). If you’re strong enough already, push yourself back up. Congrats! You’ve just done your first handstand pushup! If you are not yet strong enough, hold the headstand position, lower your feet, and repeat. Do enough negatives and pike pushups and you’ll be banging out handstand pushups like it was your job in no time.
Handstand pushups against a wall are great, but you’re leaving a lot of strength on the table if you only push from the top of your head to lockout. Once 5+ handstand pushups are no big deal, it’s time to go beyond.
Step one: Increase the range of motion. My preferred weapon is what I call the souped-up pike pushup. Check out the video below for a quick tutorial.
From here the process toward greater depth follows the same route as before. Practice the souped-up pike pushups as deep as you can go, as well as handstand pushups with your hands slightly elevated (use Russian negatives to build up the strength if needed).
Another tool I’ve used is full range of motion handstand pushup holds at the bottom position (I don’t have a pithy name for it yet, so if you come up with one you can name it after yourself). These suck and will really challenge your balance, but they’ll give you exactly the physical feedback you need to groove the bottom position of your future full ROM handstand pushups.
And (if you’re really insane), you can take it even further by adding weight. Ankle weights and weight vests are both good choices. That, or you could just squat more so your legs get bigger and make the movement more challenging for you. Pick your poison.
There you have it. A crash course in handstand pushup excellence. As far as programming is concerned, don’t overthink it – just practice making them perfect and the reps – and strength – will come. Best yet: your military press will more than likely go up as a result. And don’t forget the wise words of Tae Kwon Do grandmaster and Master SFG Jon Engum: The meaning of life is to put heavy stuff over your head.
Give your life some added meaning; get cracking on your handstand pushups today!
Aleks Salkin is a level 2 StrongFirst-certified kettlebell instructor (SFG II), StrongFirst-certified bodyweight Instructor (SFB), and an Original Strength Certified Coach. He grew up scrawny, unathletic, weak, and goofy, until he was exposed to kettlebells and the teachings and methodology of Pavel in his early 20s. He is currently based out of Jerusalem, Israel and spends his time teaching clients both in person and online as well as spreading the word of StrongFirst and calisthenics. He regularly writes about strength and health both on his website and as a guest author on other websites. Find him on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/alekssalkintraining and online at https://alekssalkin.com.