This post has always been floating in my brain, but finally came to surface after a conversation I had with my man Rupert Egan a few months back. I’ve written about proper breathing patterns and how multiple body systems are involved, which you can find here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). However, in relation to proper breathing in handstands specifically there are a few important points I think about.
To be proficient in a handstand position and handstand type skills (walking, balance, handstand push ups, etc), maintaining a proper spine position of neutral/ braced hollow is crucial. The diaphragm serves as the top of the “canister” that is utilized to maintain this good spinal position.
The diaphragm has a role in both respiration and core control, and in order be maximally efficient a person must learn to coordinate both functions simultaneously. Proper breathing entails being able to maintain a strong braced core position, while simultaneously cycling breaths that promote 360 deg rib expansion and getting full exhalation. An improper breathing strategy that we often see tends to display an openly rib flared position, with apical upper chest dominated inhalation, a lack of full exhalation, and a dramatically over extended lumbar spine position.
During handstand work (especially in a fatigued state) if the central nervous system has a choice between “gas exchange to live” and “keep ideal spine alignment”, it will go with “gas exchange to live”. This is regulated by the brainstem subconsciously in an effort to maintain pH levels in a the narrow homeostatic range and clear metabolic biproducts during times of increasing activity. This shift brings on more rapid and heavier breathing, which in many people manifests as the non ideal pattern of apical breathing and spine hyper extension from above during their handstands. This is where the importance of training proper breathing comes in. Like noted, we need the dual role of the diaphragm to be in effect so that we can maintain ideal spine position, but at the same time still promote gas exchange/metabolic byproduct clearance. Although there will ultimately become a part when metabolic demand hits a tipping point and we loose optimal control, it still can be highly prioritized. This can be a little tough for people, so it has to be specifically taught.
I highly suggest that during the time put into progressions and drill work, proper core bracing with simultaneous 360 diaphragmatic breathing should be emphasized. This will help to
Maintain dual function of the diaphragm for both respiration and core control
Help maintain proper spinal neutral/hollowed position during handstands, which builds into proper basics for high level skill
Increase stability of the midline, thus causing the upper body to not work as hard to control excessive balance errors
Increase metabolic efficiency as proper diaphragmatic positioning/breathing can help optimize gas exchange but also optimize force transfer to the arms overhead.
Starting with a basic assessment and some drills is important (See part 3 of the article), but for people already training handstands you can try these 2 drills. The first is a 90/90 handstand drill Rupert posted on his Instagram, and the second is a wall walk up drill I have our gymnasts do focusing on breathing cycles at the start (push up position) and top (full wall facing handstand).
If someone has not gone through proper drill progression to develop their handstand, they may have missed out on the importance of prioritizing their midline position. Even if they have gone through the progressions, they may have missed out on the importance of diaphragmatic breathing while simultaneously maintaining a strong core brace. I think this may be a big root to why we see many over extended handstand positions during fatigued states, as the body loses its active core control and seeks for passive facet joint lockout as an alternative point of stability. This isn’t ideal, as it can be costly over time both in terms of injury risk, movement efficiency, and establishing proper technique for higher level skills down the road. That’s all for now,