Short answer: The goal of the trainee determines the value of each exercise. If you are training primarily for strength and muscle hypertrophy, then the overhead press is a better choice because it offers a great range of motion right away and a straightforward progression unhindered by extreme balancing requirements.
From an athletic standpoint, the handstand push-up is more beneficial. It builds high-end upper body strength and athleticism beneficial to pressing movements and sports activities implementing acrobatic elements.
The Overhead Press Is Better for Strength and Muscular Growth
The barbell overhead press is superior to handstand push-ups when trying to develop strength and trigger muscular growth for the following reasons:
1. Easy-to-modulate progression
Barbell training can adapt to almost anyone’s strength levels without modification of the main exercise pattern. You can always go down in weight and start with just the bar. And if the bar is too heavy, you can lift a lighter one.
Scaling up is also simple – you just add weight.
Those properties diminish the training variables and make programming easier since there are only three parameters left to modulate – volume, intensity and frequency.
Conversely, the handstand push-up is a complex skill to learn that includes many phases. Even holding a basic freestanding handstand would take months and in some cases years to learn depending on a man’s starting level.
If you’re exercising for raw strength and power, all that time would be better invested in less sophisticated exercises such as the overhead press.
Handstand push-ups are intimidating. Most people wouldn’t know where to start. The Internet can help as it contains an ocean of data, but even with access to detailed information, the experience will be humbling, especially for non-fit individuals.
Meanwhile, the overhead press appears simpler even to untrained people. You’re just lifting weights above your head.
3. Low Barrier to Entry
The overhead press is open to all body types whereas the handstand push-up favors lean people with short limbs. Learning handstand push-ups as a high-altitude bro measuring over 6’3”/190.5cm is significantly harder.
The overhead press doesn’t discriminate by body fat percentage either. You can do the exercise effectively even if you are a fatso. The same cannot be said about the handstand push-up. The extra lard complicates balancing and places more strain on the joints and muscles.
4. More Comfortable and Natural
Training with your head upside down is not comfortable because the inversion results in increased head pressure which amplifies even further when exerting intense muscular effort. Holding your breath makes things worse.
People who haven’t adapted to that type of training may experience a condition known as petechiae i.e. burst capillaries under the skin that looks a lot like a rash. Individuals new to handstand training have been known to get this around their necks.
Why does this happen? Because humans aren’t designed to operate with their heads upside down. The position is highly unfunctional.
Of course, by following a proper methodology, people can adapt to spending minutes in an inverted position, but the head pressure issue complicates the introductory stage substantially.
Guess, what? The overhead press doesn’t put you in that uncomfortable position. It will still raise your blood pressure during heavy attempts, but not nearly to the same degree.
5. Great Range of Motion Right from the Start
The basic handstand push-up done on the ground is technically a headstand push-up because the range of motion ends when the head of the lifter brushes the ground. To increase the travel of the exercise to the point where it fully mimics the overhead press, the handstand push-up has to be done on parallettes. Contrariwise, the military press offers a full range of motion by default.
6. Easy-to-Scale Infinite Progression
The difficulty of both movements can be increased until the end of time. But the overhead press accomplishes this task in a more convenient fashion – you just add weight to the bar incrementally.
In the case of handstand push-ups, the choices for progression are a little more complex:
Opt. 1: Add weight with the help of a vest.
Opt. 2: Progress to handstand push-up on rings.
Opt. 3: Combine handstand push-ups with other gymnastic elements.
The first option is the only one that doesn’t force the trainee to drastically change the pattern of the handstand push-up, but it’s limited by the weight that the vest could hold. The other alternatives require you to become an amateur gymnast which may not feasible or desirable by everyone.
7. Easier to Focus on the Deltoids
The handstand push-up comes with too many distractions (extra coordination, balancing) that put the lifter in survival mode. The main focus becomes the completion of the exercise rather than stressing the delts. Of course, the same could happen when doing a heavy overhead press with a barbell, but this tendency may be reduced by lowering the weight or by doing additional “pump” sets after the main work session in order to focus on the targeted muscle groups a little more.
The Benefits of Handstand Push-ups
Handstand push-ups may not be the first choice when it comes to pure muscle construction, but they come with many benefits on their own:
1. No need for equipment
One of handstand push-ups greatest qualities is their availability. They can be done almost anywhere and do not require extra equipment unless you want to increase the range of motion or the difficulty of the exercise. This property makes them a great tool for people who don’t have access to a training facility or don’t have a lot of gear in their home gyms.
2. Strength Training
Push-ups are a good instrument for improving one’s shoulder, chest and triceps endurance, but sooner or later, they become too easy and fail to produce extra strength. Who’s stronger? The guy who can do 50 push-ups or the one doing 70? Exactly. Past a certain point, the extra reps do not tell you much about one’s strength faculties.
Handstand push-ups extend the possibility for developing pressing force through bodyweight training because they require significantly more strength than the basic push-up.
A handstand push-up is considered hot. A clip of a man doing handstand push-ups on the beach generates a lot more attention on social media than a heavy overhead press.
Heavy or light, a barbell always looks like a barbell, especially in the eyes of the unaware. Besides, the overhead press does not allow you to lift monstrous weights anyway. Even if you overhead press something ridiculous like two plates on each side of the bar, the action itself isn’t as spectacular as a handstand push-up and people are less likely to care.
Pro tip: Women would be a lot more impressed by a set of handstand push-ups than military presses, deadlift and squats.
I know that in theory one shouldn’t care about what other people think, but we can’t help ourselves. Most of us haven’t reached the enlightenment necessary to completely disregard normies’ opinion.
4. Encourages leanness
The heavier you are, the easier it is to overhead press more weight. This applies to most barbell exercises. Hence why many strength addicts bulk to epic proportions and turn into grotesque creatures.
The overhead press operates on the opposite principle – the leaner you are, the easier it is to hold a handstand and do push-ups. Therefore, one could say that the handstand push-up creates a direct incentive to keep your body fat low. This is a plus if aesthetics is the goal.
5. Carryover to Acrobatic Skills
If you are an acrobat, a gymnast, a martial artist, a bboy, a free runner…etc., the handstand push-up would have a stronger carryover to your main activity than the overhead press.
6. Great Carryover to the Overhead Barbell Press
A man who can do handstand push-ups would press a decent weight overhead shortly after learning how to do the overhead press properly. The opposite does not happen. The barbell overhead press can build the strength needed to perform handstand push-ups, but it cannot bridge the skill gap.
Overhead pressing is somewhat generic, although some skill training is still required, whereas handstand push-ups are a highly specialized stunt that cannot be obtained without dedicated practicing.
FAQ: I can do handstand push-ups but can’t overhead press my bodyweight. Why?
Two details come to mind:
1. You’re doing classic handstand push-ups/headstand push-ups.
As mentioned earlier, the classic handstand push-up done without parallettes has a short range of motion. It’s training only the final 1/3 of the overhead press.
2. A bodyweight overhead press requires more strength than handstand push-ups.
During handstand push-ups, the trainee isn’t lifting their entire bodyweight. The forearms remain stationary and should be subtracted from the total lifted weight.
For that reason, even a handstand push-up done over a full range of motion is not equal to a bodyweight overhead press in terms of strength.
In most cases, a full range handstand push-up amounts to 80-85% of a bodyweight overhead press.
A lifter who wants to build up the strength needed for a bodyweight overhead press through handstand push-ups will have to increase the reps substantially or progress to a more advanced version of the exercise. Handstand push-ups with a weighted vest would be the most straightforward option.