The HSPU (handstand push-up) is an advanced bodyweight movement seen in many gymnastics, functional fitness, and bodyweight training programs. While this exercise is often performed with bodyweight only (as sometimes this can be done with a weighted vest, deficit/parallel bars, etc), it is an extremely challenging movement for even the experienced lifter/athlete. Regardless of your sport, mastering the handstand push up (HSPU), can result in (1) increased pressing strength, (2) more muscle mass, and (3) better overhead performance and position.
To inspire all strength, power, and fitness athletes to take advantage of this bodyweight exercise, we have put together the HSPU ultimate guide, in which we will discuss:
- Handstand Push Up Form and Technique
- Benefits of the Handstand Push Up
- Muscles Worked by Handstand Push Up
- Handstand Push Up Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Handstand Push Up Variations and Alternatives
- and more…
Handstand Push-Up (HSPU) Disclaimer
Please note, that the handstand push up is NOT a beginner exercise, and should be properly progressed and taught to avoid unnecessary stress to the wrist, elbows, shoulders, and spine (cervical spine). Lack of movement coordination, overhead stability, and control can result in injury, especially in beginner lifters and/or athletes under fatigue. It is suggested that one masters the strict HSPU prior to participating in high amount of volume in either strict or kipping HSPU workouts.
We recommend progressing up to this movement under the guidance of a qualified coach in your area.
How to Do the Handstand Push-Up (HSPU)
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the HSPU.
Step 1: Start by placing your hands about 6 inches from the wall, slightly wider than shoulder width.
Lifters can use a pad and place it between the hands, slightly closer to the wall (for the head). Note, that the head should be closer to the wall than the hands, to create a tripod base of support. The higher the pad, the “easier” the HSPU will be.
Step 2: With the palms and fingers pressed into the floor, have the lifter kick one foot upwards towards the wall, with the back leg following.
This can be done by keeping the head on the pad and kicking the legs up (to start in the bottom position) or by kicking the feet upwards and keeping the arms extended (to start in the top position).
Step 3: Establish a strong overhead position by pulling the belly button into the body (creating a rigid torso, similar to that in the hollow hold position).
Establishing control at the top and bottom of the movement is key, so if you cannot perform this step, perform handstand support holds for time.
Step 4: When starting from the top position, lower yourself downwards so that the head moves backwards towards the pad/wall, making sure to keep the elbows inwards on a 30-45 degree angle.
This will ensure proper loading at the bottom of the movement. If you allow your elbows to flair out you will end with the palms and head to all be in one line, which is incorrect (as you did not establish a proper tripod base of support).
Step 5: When starting from the bottom position, set the upper back and pull the elbows in on a 30-45 degree angle, making sure they do not flair outwards (as this will result in the excessive internal rotation). From here, keep the legs pressed together and core tight, and press yourself upwards.
If you started from the top of the moment, this is the exact way you will push yourself upwards from the bottom.
It is important to note that the above HSPU how-to-guide is specific to the strict handstand push up, with the kipping movement being slightly differently. It is also important to note that the lifter should be able to maintain form and bodily control in all phases of this movement prior to advancing to more ballistic and momentum-based movements such as the kipping HSPU to avoid unnecessary stress and improper joint loading.
Muscles Worked – Handstand Push Ups (HSPUs)
The below muscles groups are targeted with HSPU. Note, that these depth (see variations below), form (strict vs kipping), and hand placement can target slightly different areas of the body, however the below muscle groups are almost always the primary and secondary movers.
The shoulders (deltoids) are one of the main muscle groups targeted with HSPUs. As the range of motion increases (such as in deficit HSPUs) the demands on the shoulders is increased.
The triceps are a primary muscle involved in the HSPU, specifically due to their role in extending the elbows. Seeing that the standard HSPU is very similar to a ¾ range of motion strict press (since the hands do not come down to the shoulders in the loaded position…unless of a deficit HSPU), the triceps are highly involved in this movement.
The trapezius muscles (upper traps) provide stability and strength in the overhead position of the HSPU. These muscles primarily act isometrically to assist the shoulders and triceps in the press.
Upper Pectorals (Chest)
The upper chest muscle (pectorals) act as assistance muscle to the shoulders and triceps in the HSPU. These muscles are often called into play at deeper ranges of motion (such as in the deficit HSPU) and aid in the overhead pressing movement.
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4 Benefits of Handstand Push Ups (HSPUs)
Below are four (4) benefits of the HSPU that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing HSPUs into a training regimen.
Upper Body Pressing Strength
The HSPU is a great movement that can be used to build pressing strength for the shoulders and triceps in the overhead position. Similar to more popular overhead pressing movements, such as the barbell military press, dumbbell shoulder press, etc. the HSPU can be used by most lifters to increase general overhead strength and muscle mass.
Unlike barbells and dumbbells, the HSPU utilizes bodyweight training, with means that a lifter must be able to not only move their own bodyweight in the press, but also be able to maintain proper balance and stability in the core and total body. Once overhead, the lifter must maintain proper stabilization which can increase overhead and lockout strength.
Upper Body Muscle Hypertrophy
Similar to the development of strength, the HSPU can be used to increase shoulder and triceps muscle hypertrophy if the training volume and demands are high enough (see reps, sets, and loading recommendations below). This can be programmed similar to most main movements for the shoulders (such as military presses, strict presses, etc).
Advanced Bodyweight Movement
The ability to perform proper HSPU can be a great tool for lifters to have when looking to get a good shoulder workout on the go and/or with minimal weight. By increasing one’s exercise skills to include this advanced bodyweight movement, they will also increase their general overhead strength, stability, and performance potentials.
Who Should Do Handstand Push Ups (HSPUs)?
The HSPU is an advanced bodyweight movement that can be highly beneficial for all strength, power, and fitness athletes. The below groups can benefit from learning and performing this movement due to the various reasons listed below.
HSPUs for Strength Athletes
While overhead presses, bench press, and other heavy pressing exercise are key, HSPUs can still be a great exercise to build into warm-ups, movement days, or even strength days. It is key, however, to master proper body positioning in the HPSU to not add unnecessary stress to the wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
HSPUs for Weightlifters
HSPUs are a great exercise for strength and power athletes to build into overhead warm-ups or accessory blocks as they mimic the exact position weightlifters are in when performing jerks (and even snatches, just slightly different grip widths). HSPUs can be used also to increase training volume without having to use excessive amounts of loading on the spine.
HSPUs for CrossFit/Competitive Fitness Athletes
Aside from the fact that HSPUs are a necessary skill and movement that CrossFit athletes and members perform on a regular basis in class WODs and competitions, they also can help to increase overhead strength and muscle mass similar to the movements used by strength, power and fitness athletes.
HSPUs for General Fitness
The HSPU is a more advanced bodyweight movement that can be progressed towards with proper technique, skill development, and strength acquisition. The ability to perform a proper strict HSPU also can be used as a general marker for upper body strength capacity, body and core awareness, and advancement into more challenging overhead movements.
How to Program the Handstand Push Up (HSPU)
Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the HSPU into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program HSPUs. Additionally, if you or your athlete is someone who suffers from spinal (neck) and/or shoulder issues, it is best to first consult a medical professional prior to starting a strength and fitness regimen that includes handstand push ups (or any type of exercise for that matter).
Movement Integrity – Reps and Sets
This should be done to pads to the floor. This will help to limit the range of motion into fuller ranges of motion repetitions can occur.
- 3-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes
Strength – Reps and Sets
For strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets. If an athlete needs more resistance, he/she can increase the depth at which the HSPU is performed (see variations below).
- 4-6 sets of 2-5 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes
Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets
Muscle hypertrophy can be accomplished by adding training volume (more reps), time under tension, and/or training towards fatigue.
- 4-6 sets of 6-10 repetitions, resting 1-2 minutes
Muscle Endurance- Reps and Sets
Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.
- 2-3 sets of 10+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)
Handstand Push Up (HSPU) Variations
Below are three (3) HSPU variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.
Deficit Handstand Push Up
The deficit HSPU can be done using parallettes, stacked plates, or any other means that allows the lifter to have their hands closer to their shoulders as they start the movement. In doing so, you increase the range of motion and pressing strength needed in that deeper range of motion, making the handstand push up more challenging.
Tempo Handstand Push Up
The tempo handstand push up can be done to increase time under tension and enhance strength tendencies throughout specific ranges of motion. By using a tempo during the HSPU, coaches increase strength and control needed throughout all phases of the muscle contraction (concentric and eccentric) to build a stronger and healthier HSPU.
Kipping Handstand Push Up
The kipping movement is often seen in gymnastics and functional fitness movements where a lifter is either (1) trying to move more efficiently to use momentum to assist in the movement, or (2) to help them perform a movement using movementum that they would otherwise not be able to do with pure concentric strength.
The kipping HSPU, like most kipping movements (such as the kipping ring dip) works the same muscle groups and allows lifters the opportunity to increase training volume (ability to do more sets and reps due to the usage of momentum) which can increase muscle hypertrophy and endurance.
Handstand Push Up (HSPU) Alternatives
Below are three (3) HSPU alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase explosiveness.
The wall walk is a great movement to build into warm-up segments or to help beginner lifters increase overhead strength and stability in a less demanding manner (however, this is still highly taxing on the upper body core). Have them start with their feet at the base of the wall as they are in the pushup position (feet on wall, head away from wall). By having them walk themselves backwards, they can start to walk the feet up the wall shifting more weight into the upper body and shoulders for support. The more they walk the feet up the wall, the more demanding and inverted they become, helping them to establish greater isometric overhead strength, bodily control, and proper awareness necessary for the HSPU.
Incline Push Up
The incline push up can be done at varying incline heights, with each shifting emphasis on the upper body. Simply have a lifter perform a regular push up with their feet on a bench or box. It is important to note that the lifter must place their hips higher than their shoulders to force a more vertical pressing position. As the height of the bench or box becomes higher, they can even bend their knees and become inverted with the hips much higher than the shoulders to really increascrease upper body strength and pressing capacities.
The Z Press is a pressing movement that can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or any other form of load that can be done to increase overhead pressing strength, build proper overhead pressing awareness, and increase core stability necessary for the HSPU. Many individuals who struggle with performing HSPU can benefit from performing the Z Press in either straight or accessory blocks to build stronger shoulders, upper back muscles, and core strength.
Featured Image: Mike Dewar