Should You Bend Your Knees on Handstand Walks?

 In blog

“Get those heels over your head to speed up!”

We can’t even count how many times at gyms we’ve heard well-meaning coaches tell their athletes some version of this statement. Are they correct? Should you bend your legs to speed up your handstand walk? Yes. And no. Well…it’s complicated. Let’s make this simple.

“I can’t believe how much energy they’re wasting on handstands. I mean…just get stacked!”

This statement was uttered to me by one of my high-level gymnasts, age 16, as she told me the story of her watching a documentary about the CrossFit Games. This athlete had an interest in several sports and understood weightlifting. She elegantly and concisely summed up something we talk about at every single Seminar we run: don’t waste energy on handstands–get stacked.

In order to be efficient on your hands, you need to get your skeleton aligned so it can bear weight effectively. Unfortunately, many coaches and athletes don’t think their way through how this should work, and things already get crazy when you’re upside-down, so they end up with inefficient shapes that lead to poor handstand technique, increased fatigue, and a higher likelihood of injury.

Here’s an analogy we use to drive home this concept. Imagine putting a barbell that weighs the same as you do up above your head. Now hold that barbell up there and walk it across the gym. You can probably do it just fine if you keep everything in line, with the bar straight above you and stacked shoulders, spine, and hips. Now imagine leaning your head way back, shoving your hips forward and creating an arch in your lower back, and letting your shoulders and hip joints get loose. You’re either dropping that barbell or using a massive amount of strength in order to keep walking. And you’re likely getting injured.

This is exactly what happens with handstand walks, except that most people don’t realize it.

OK. So what about this bent leg thing?

Take the barbell example above and imagine holding it overhead again, only this time while kneeling, both knees on the ground. Again, you can probably do it just fine, as long as you’re stacked. That’s because the force pressing down from the bar to the floor is traveling in a straight line, through an aligned skeleton. Lean your head back, shove your hips forward, and you’re in for a bad time.

Applying these principles to handstands, you need to get stacked and aligned in order to manage handstands effectively. But you can also bend your knees to shift your weight more forward and walk even faster–if the rest of your body remains stacked. And that’s a big “if” for most people. This is why our curriculum starts with a traditional straight-body handstand as the foundation, and why we don’t start training bent-knee handstand walks until an athlete can demonstrate excellent consistency with the aligned straight-body position. When people are new to proper handstands or just haven’t had the proper instruction, as soon as they bend their knees they also arch their backs, stick their heads way out, and close their shoulder angle, creating massive inefficiencies and potential injury points.

So, should you bend your knees on handstand walks? Sure! Doing so, properly, can allow you to walk much more quickly, therefore shortening the amount of time you’re on your hands. That’s a net win for efficiency. But if you bend your knees and everything else in your body, you’re creating so much strain on your joints and muscles that it’s a net energy loss, no matter how fast you’re able to walk.

Like most things, master the basics, learn the technique, and then upgrade to the more advanced version once you’re ready.