I love HSPU or Handstand pushups as they are called. Reason for that is that I’m pretty good at them and being a lighter athlete makes them slightly easier 🙂
HSPU is an advanced vertical press exercise and the only bodyweight exercise where we can get a good overhead press. Mastering them is, therefore, mandatory for any serious bodyweight athlete as well as for athletes doing Crossfit, where it’s a standard exercise.
Just to be clear in this article, we will look at HSPU Crossfit style where we work in a supported handstand. The more advanced freestanding handstand push as we know it from advanced calisthenics will be dealt with in another article.
What we will cover in this article:
How to do a proper HSPU
Which muscles does a HSPU work
Mobility and handstand pushups
Progression towards HSPU
More advanced versions
How to do a proper handstand pushup
Pressing vertically always puts a lot of stress on our shoulders. Therefore to avoid shoulder injuries, it’s extremely important to learn the correct form of a handstand pushup. Here are the steps to achieve it.
Place your hands a bit more than shoulder width on the ground. Fingers should point towards the wall or slightly turned outward for better shoulder position. Distance to the wall around 15-20 inches. The closer to the wall the harder the exercise.
Kick up to a handstand. Heels resting against the wall. Body as straight as possible with core engaged. Arms extended and head pressed in between arms.
Bend elbows and lower head to a position in line with the top of your fingers. Elbows should be kept at a 45-degree angle to the body and not flapping out. Body straight and core engaged.
Now press your body up. Keep elbows in the 45-degree position. Keep body straight and core engaged. Return to top position and press head in between arms.
The main reason why we want to do a vertical press is that it involves a lot of the shoulder muscles which are normally not that easy to reach.
Triceps (When elbows are kept in a 45 degree to body)
Chest (If you overextend the body on your way up)
In the top position, we would like the head to go in between the arms. The reason for that is to avoid any unnecessary stress on the shoulder. In any vertical press above head, we want to keep the press as close to the bodies midline as possible, as this puts the shoulder in a better position.
However, for some people, this can be a challenge. Especially guys with big arm muscles can have an issue with this.
Therefore some people need to work on mobility in order to achieve this good movement pattern.
If that’s the case, then head over to MobilityWOD where you can find great stretches for your shoulders like this one.
One thing is how we do a proper HSPU another is how to reach the point where we actually are strong enough to do one.
As mentioned in the beginning, this is an advanced exercise and most people will need a good progression template in order to achieve their first HSPU.
Also even if you are able to do one HSPU, it might be a good idea to use a progression template to become stronger in order to avoid overtraining the sensitive shoulder joints. Once a shoulder injury occurs, it might take long to heal.
This is where everybody can and should start.
The key points are the same as with the handstand pushup, however, instead of placing the feet against a wall, we place them on the ground.
When reaching a point where you can do 5 rounds of 10 repetitions of pike pushups with feet on the ground, it’s time to elevate them. This will bring your torso in a more vertical position and therefore add more weight to the push. Everything remains the same as described above. I have a detailed article about pike pushups here if you are interested.
Holds or isometric exercise is when we engage a muscle without shorten nor lengthen it.
As soon as possible you should add some handstand holds to your progression template.
For some, the challenge will be just to kick up to a handstand and for others to hold the handstand with a good posture.
We want to aim for bullet number 1 & 2 as described in proper HSPU performance.
Try to hold the position as long as possible. Then simply add some seconds to that every session. Five rounds of max hold is fine. As mentioned, this exercise can be combined with some of the other steps.
A wall climber is not a vertical push but actually more horizontal. But what it gives us is a way to get comfortable with the top position of the handstand and add some strength to that position.
Do them now and then as part of your progression and especially if you are struggling with reaching a full handstand. Also, they can be good if you reach a plateau in your progression.
Aim for 3-5 sets of what’s doable.
How to do them:
Start with chest on the ground, hands in a traditional pushup position under your shoulders and feet against a wall. Core engaged.
Now with small steps start to climb the wall with your feet and walk backward towards the wall with your hands. Keep core tight – no hammock body.
Continue to walk to as high position as possible. Preferably until your chest touches the wall.
Walk down again to starting position.
When you master a good handstand, we want to work the scapular.
Often we have issues with weak and stiff shoulders do to our modern living style. The scapular is often one part that is suffering a lot, and therefore we need to train it.
From the handstand position, we simply want to move up and down utilizing the scapular and nothing else.
See the video in order to understand the movement and read more about this movement here.
This is what we call a stabilization exercise and should be applied together with some of the other exercises. Also for people who already have master HSPU, it’s a great exercise for maintaining a healthy shoulder.
Doing an exercise negatively is a great way to achieve more strength. However, it’s important not to implement it too early, in order to avoid overtraining or injuries.
Kick up to the starting position of a handstand pushup as described in bullet 1 & 2.
Now lower yourself as described in bullet number 3 but do it as slowly as possible. When done kick off from the wall and then back up again and repeat.
Normally these are the ones that people tend to get stuck with.
What it means is that you will add something between your head and the ground, so the range of motion becomes less.
In my Crossfit box, I often see people stuck with this form for years. They simply don’t get any further.
I fully understand why it happens. During a workout, they want to perform as good as possible and doing a HSPU with three ab mats under their head still looks more correct, than doing a pike pushup.
I’m not saying that these are completely wrong to do. But you need to combine them with the other exercises I have mentioned here if you want to master a real handstand pushup.
Do them now and then but don’t get stuck.
These are the best exercises to focus on, in order to achieve a HSPU. Of course you could also work on your military press and push press, but in this case, we focus more on bodyweight exercises.
The next topic we will discuss has also been used by some to progress. In some cases, it’s okay while in others, it’s a direct road towards injuries.
In Crossfit, we are often working against the clock and want as many receptions as possible inside a set timeframe. For that reason, we use kipping to simply make the exercise less hard and thereby being able to do more reps.
Another way to use the kipping can also be to compensate for our lacking strength. So instead of doing negative handstand pushups, we could kip ourselves up to top position.
As I said above, this can both be good and bad. Let’s look at two examples.
An athlete who does not have the strength yet nor proper skills to do a handstand pushup.
In this case, a kip will often lead to an injury as the correct movement pattern is not in place yet and the kipping will be used to repeat a bad pattern.
An athlete who doesn’t have strength to do more than 1-2 handstand push-up with good form.
Here the correct movement pattern is in place, and the kipp will just make the HSPU a bit easier so more can be done.
Conclusion: You need to have a good movement pattern as well as some strength before doing several kipping handstand pushups.
Just like with the less range of motion, they are good to do now and then, but other exercises need to be implemented in order to build proper strength.
How to do kipping HSPU:
Lower the knees towards your chest
Extend your leg aggressively and utilize the movement to “pull” your body up.
Press to extend arms.