How to Do Handstand Push-Ups

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Two CrossFit athletes performing handstand push-ups against a wall.

 MoMo Productions/Getty Images.

Also Known As: HSPU

Targets: Entire body; mostly upper body and core

Equipment Needed: Cushion or mat for your head

Level: Advanced

Handstand push-ups aren’t a move you’re likely to see in a commercial gym—your average 24Hour Fitness or Planet Fitness probably doesn’t have the setup for this advanced exercise, nor do most of their members probably care for something like handstand push-ups. 

This exercise is one idolized in CrossFit gyms and among the calisthenics community. To people outside of these communities, handstand push-ups might seem silly or pointless. In reality, however, handstand push-ups offer a unique collection of benefits you’re unlikely to get from another exercise on its own. 

The problem is that handstand push-ups are technical and finicky. One mistake could result in serious injury, which is why it’s so important to move through progressions correctly and modify the movement until you can perform handstand push-ups with grace and confidence. 

To do handstand push-ups, you first have to know how to invert yourself. And if you can make it to that point, you must have finely tuned control of your body while it’s upside-down. To even consider performing handstand push-ups, you should be able to: 

  • Hold a wall-supported handstand for at least one minute
  • Be free of shoulder and back injuries or limitations 
  • Exhibit adequate mobility in your spine, wrists, and shoulders
  • Know what it means to engage your core—and be able to do it

All that said, anyone can learn how to do handstand push-ups. All it takes is some time and some determination. There’s no quick route to achieving handstand push-ups, but the commitment is well worth it. 

Benefits

Again, handstand push-ups offer a special suite of benefits all wrapped up into one exercise—that’s hard to come by. 

Upper Body Strength

The obvious and primary benefit of handstand push-ups is increased upper body strength. This exercise strengthens your shoulders, chest, arms, and back muscles simultaneously. Good upper body strength translates to everyday activities and responsibilities such as playing games with your kids, putting away groceries, or rearranging heavy furniture. Plus, strengthening your shoulder muscles protects the integrity of your joints and helps prevent injuries such as rotator cuff tears.

Core Strength

In addition to upper body strength, handstand push-ups improve core strength. To protect your spine during handstand push-ups, you must engage your core to create a strong cylinder that prevents your spine from flexing, extending, or bending too much. A strong core, like strong shoulders, can protect you from injuries. Strong and stable core muscles keep your spine positioned correctly during movement and can prevent back pain.

Glute Strength

Your glutes are technically part of your core, but it’s worth singling them out here. Whether you do strict handstand push-ups or kipping handstand push-ups (differences explained under Modifications and Variations), you must use your glutes to keep your body upright and stable. During strict handstand push-ups, you’ll engage your glutes the entire time in an isometric fashion. During kipping handstand push-ups, you’ll intermittently squeeze your glutes to propel your body upward. 

Balance, Stability, and Body Awareness

Perhaps the greatest benefit of handstand push-ups is that they teach you to truly control your body. Most people don’t realize how little control they have of their bodies. Try this test: Close your eyes, stand on one foot, and bend over to touch your toes three times. If you wobble, teeter, or fall, you have room to work on your proprioception. 

Proprioception refers to the awareness of your body as it moves through space. Balance, coordination, stability, and strength are all important factors in proprioception. Handstand push-ups can help you develop and improve proprioception due to their inverted and explosive nature. 

Gymnastics Skills

In CrossFit and calisthenics, the best athletes have fine-tuned gymnastics skills. Practicing handstand push-ups, modified or not, can help you develop the skills it takes to be a great CrossFit or calisthenics athlete

Super Fun

Fitness should be fun—no one stays consistent with a routine they don’t like. Handstand push-ups can add fun and variety to your workout routine. They’re unique, challenging, and gratifying. When you hit a milestone, such as your first handstand push-up or stringing together five in a row, you’ll feel so proud, excited, and invigorated. 

Step-By-Step Instructions

This step-by-step guide covers strict handstand push-ups. It’s important to master the strict version before attempting kipping handstand push-ups, which are explosive and can easily lead to injuries if performed incorrectly. Everyone should consider kipping handstand push-ups a progression from strict handstand push-ups. 

  1. Before attempting a handstand push-up, set up a cushion (like an ab mat or a yoga mat) against the wall to protect your head and neck. 
  2. Stand facing the wall. Bend down and place your hands six to 12 inches away from the wall, fingers spread and pressing into the ground. Kick up into a handstand. Kick hard enough so that you get up in one swoop, but not so hard that your heels bounce off the wall. 
  3. Once you’re inverted, steady yourself by tucking your tailbone under, drawing your navel to your spine, tightening your abs, and squeezing your glutes. Your body should form one solid, straight line. 
  4. Bend your elbows to lower yourself to the mat beneath your head. Use control so you don’t slam your head into the ground. Even if you have a cushion, that would hurt. 
  5. Once the top of your head grazes the floor, press your body back up by extending your arms. Think of pressing into the floor as if you were pressing a barbell over your head. Keep your core tight and engaged to prevent your spine from overextending. 
  6. At the top of the press, fully extend your arms (lock out your elbows) and reset to descend for another rep. Unless you're an advanced athlete, don't rush into the next rep. Make sure you re-engage your core first.

Common Mistakes

As a complex and technical exercise, handstand push-ups have a lot of room for error. This is especially true for kipping handstand push-ups, but all of the common mistakes below also apply to strict handstand push-ups. 

Arched Back

Your spine should remain in its natural position throughout the entire movement. If your back arches or your ribs seem to “flare,” it’s a sign that your lower back is hyperextending, which can be dangerous and painful.

Kicking the Wall

Some people have trouble minimizing horizontal movement during handstand push-ups. If you keep bouncing off of the wall because your heels kick it during the ascent, it could be due to extraneous back-and-forth movement. Engaging your core and squeezing your glutes can help you keep the movement pattern strictly vertical. 

Pushing Away From the Wall

If you find yourself falling over at the top of every rep, you might be hyperextending your back. It’s common to see people push themselves away from the wall as they become tired—it’s comparable to arching one’s back during an overhead barbell press. Once again, engaging your core is the solution to this common mistake.

Uncontrolled Descent

Perhaps the most common mistake of them all, this generally occurs when people try handstand push-ups before they’re ready, but it can also happen to experienced athletes when their muscles fatigue. Controlling your descent prevents you from slamming your head into the ground, which hurts at best and can lead to a concussion or a neck injury at worst.

Arms Too Wide or Narrow

Identifying the correct hand positioning is key to successful handstand push-ups. If you place your hands too wide or too narrow, you create more work for yourself because the movement becomes inefficient. Experiment with hand placements to find what works for you. 

Modifications and Variations

If you can’t do handstand push-ups yet, you can choose from plenty of alternatives. The modifications below are listed in order of easiest to most advanced, with some non-gymnastics options at the end.

Modified Push-Ups

To start developing “pushing strength”—upper body strength in your chest, shoulders, and triceps—try modified push-ups. Doing push-ups on your knees or against a wall can help you establish baseline strength before moving onto more difficult exercises.

Pike Push-Ups

This is a great place to start for beginners. Box pike push-ups mimic the handstand push-up movement pattern without so much risk for injury. They help strengthen your upper body and core. 

To try pike push-ups, get into the downward-facing dog position. You can keep your feet flat or rise onto your toes. Once in position, lower your head to the ground until it gently taps, and then press yourself back up. 

Regular Push-Ups

Once you’ve mastered modified push-ups, you can move onto standard push-ups, which challenge your core and upper body even more. Regular push-ups serve as a phenomenal handstand push-up alternative because they develop pushing strength and teach you to engage your core to keep your spine neutral. 

Box Pike Push-Ups

Box pike push-ups provide a bit more of a challenge than regular pike push-ups and standard push-ups, because your lower body will be elevated, thus creating more tension during the push-up. 

To do box pike push-ups, set up a sturdy box against a wall. The higher the box, the more difficult the exercise. You can use your toes or your knees as your base. If using your toes, position them in the middle of the box and ensure your shoes have good grip. If using your knees, you may want to place a cushion of sorts on the box. 

Place your hands 10 to 12 inches in front of the box, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Press into the floor, straighten your back, and engage your core. Slowly lower your head to the ground and press back up. 

Barbell Shoulder Press

If you can’t perform any of the above modifications due to an injury, pregnancy, or other condition, try doing a barbell shoulder press in place of handstand push-ups. Though this move doesn’t quite develop the same skills as a handstand push-up, it does reinforce core engagement and develop shoulder strength.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Finally, dumbbell shoulder presses can take the place of handstand push-ups for people who can’t be upside down, have limited shoulder mobility, and can’t perform any of the push-up variations. 

Safety and Precautions

As always, it’s critical to take precautions before and during exercise—particularly before trying a movement like handstand push-ups. Stay safe by taking the following precautions. 

Prime Your Shoulders

Warm up with movements like arm circles, band pull-aparts, PVC pass-throughs, and lightweight shoulder presses. Get the blood flowing and loosen up your joints to ensure you have a full range of motion going into the exercise. Not only will you feel primed and ready, but research shows that warming up before exercise can prevent injuries and improve athletic performance.

Set Up for Comfort

Don’t forget to place a cushion under your head, whether you have a fancy ab mat or your trusty old yoga mat. Protect that noggin. 

Don’t Rush

Take it slow. Handstand push-ups are not a type of exercise you can rush through (although you should reconsider rushing through any exercise). This movement requires keen body awareness and fine motor control. It takes as much out of your brain as it does your body.

Modify

There is no shame in scaling back on any movement, especially advanced (ahem, super-advanced) movements like handstand push-ups. In fact, modifying is admirable, as it displays a willingness to learn and improve. 

Try it Out 

If you’re ready for a challenge, try this move and others like it in these fun workouts: 

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • CrossFit Level One Training Guide, Second Edition. CrossFit; 2019.

  • Glassman G. What Is Fitness? The CrossFit Journal. October 2002. https://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/CFJ-trial.pdf.

  • The Handstand Push-Up. Demos, Scaling, Progressions, & Warmup. WODWell; 2019. https://wodwell.com/movement/handstand-push-up/