Unless you’re a trapeze artist, hanging upside down probably isn’t part of your daily routine. But maybe it should be.
Spending a little time with your feet in the air every day has more benefits than you might expect: Handstands and other inversions build strength while helping you expand your yoga repertoire with new challenges. Similarly, inversion tables have been shown to improve spinal flexibility and relieve lower back pain.
If you’re curious about the physical and mental health benefits of hanging upside down, follow this advice for giving inversions a try as part of your regular workout routine.
BODY BENEFITS OF HANGING UPSIDE DOWN
Among their many selling points, inversions improve circulation, develop core and arm strength and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your immune system. They might also make you sharper. “When the head is below the heart, blood flow to the brain is heightened, giving it more oxygen and nutrients so the brain can function better,” says Sara Pittman, a yoga teacher in Chicago.
Doing handstands and headstands can also benefit your mobility and endurance, adds Franco Calabrese, a physical therapist at React Physical Therapy in Chicago. “The position requires strength and flexibility in the lats, deltoids, triceps, rotator cuff and forearm muscles in the upper body, while also stressing your core and trunk muscles,” he explains.
If handstands are too hard on your shoulders, inversion tables are another option for relieving lower back pain without taxing your upper body. “When the body is in the inverted position, intervertebral pressure between bones in the spine can decrease, which reduces the stress on the discs,” says Calabrese. “This can be a game changer for those who have been experiencing chronic back pain or any numbness or tingling down the legs, frequently seen in those diagnosed with sciatica.”
The benefits go beyond back pain, too. “Inversion therapy can allow pressure relief in places where tension may build in the joints,” Calabrese says. “It may also assist with nervous system regulation of heart rate, blood pressure and lymphatic circulation.”
MENTAL PERKS OF INVERSION
Learning to get comfortable seeing the world from an upside-down POV also has psychological benefits. “Inversions require immense mind-body awareness which helps increase focus,” says Pittman, who adds that these exercises build confidence, patience and courage as well.
Yogis divide inversions into two categories: Heating and cooling. Heated inversions, which include headstands, handstands and forearm stands, are great for a boost of natural energy, says Pittman. These asanas direct blood flow toward your brain for instant revitalization, giving you increased energy and mental clarity. Cooling inversions, meanwhile, are more restorative. “Inversions like legs up the wall and shoulder stands activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm the body and mind,” she says.
GIVING UPSIDE DOWN A TRY
Before you start kicking your way into a handstand, there are a few checkpoints for you to clear. “Ask yourself some questions first,” Calabrese advises. “Are you able to bend your wrists toward you in an extended position at 90 degrees? Can you fully bend and straighten your elbows without pain? Can you raise your arms overhead without strain or discomfort?”
If you answer yes to all three, you’re good to move forward. (Pro tip: If you’re trying these handstands at the gym, wear a high-neck sports bra to prevent any wardrobe malfunctions.) Be prepared for some next-day soreness: A handstand or a full inversion position can be stressful on your body at first. If that’s the case, says Calabrese, there are a few ways to ease into it. “A starting point can be achieved by lying flat on the ground with your lower legs and feet elevated on a couch, chair or bed, and your hips and knees bent to a 90-degree angle,” he says. “It may feel awkward at first, but you should feel relief quickly. If your symptoms worsen, it is best to not force this position; instead, find a variation that is more comfortable.” (If you have high blood pressure, a history of heart disease or larger body mass, consult with your health care professional before starting inversion therapy.)
And finally, a little advice: It’s OK if you’re not a yogi or if kicking up into a wall-assisted handstand makes you nervous. Inversions are not easy, but if you start slow—one minute a day, every day for a week—you’ll get the hang of it. It’s a great break during the workday if you’re working from home and need a creative boost. If you’re at the gym, just be sure to tuck your tank top into your leggings before giving the handstand a try. Don’t give up if the first few days are hard. Allow yourself a week to adjust to life upside down; shifting perspectives is never easy, but seeing the world in a whole new way is worth it.