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Tips For Faster Gains With Front Levers, Back Levers, Planches & Human Flags

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The calisthenics world has so many eye-catching moves that when most people see them, even if it’s only in a random YouTube video, and want to try and train for them.

What follows is a series of ‘googling’; trying to find training tips and possible workouts to get these iconic static holds. 90% of Info on the internet will show you the following sequence:

  • Tucked Lever
  • Advanced Tuck Lever
  • One Leg Lever
  • Straddle Lever
  • Half Lay Lever
  • FULL Lever

Simple! Now all you have to do is hold these positions for 20-30 seconds and move on to the next one. You’ll have a Planche, Front Lever, Back Lever etc in weeks.

If only it worked like that……..

Those of you with any static calisthenic/gymnastic holds training experience will know just how hard it can be going from one level to the next. Take for example, the difference between a straddled (legs wide) and a FULL front lever. The difference in difficulty of the 2 is VAST. It’s easy to see how one would be stuck at a particular level for what seems like eternity, if they solely stuck to the restricted ‘hierarchy’ above.

A More Scientific Reason To Do More Than Just Static Holds

These infamous ‘levers’ – as they’re commonly known – require very specific joint angle positions. Check the images below. I’ve annotated the images to explain what joint/muscle actions are involved/required.

Image result for front lever back lever and flag

Front Lever: Shoulder extension. The lats are pulling the arms down towards the hips and the scapula retractors are used, as well as the rear deltoids and minor assistance from the core.

Back Lever: Shoulder flexion. The front deltoids, pectorals and biceps are working to push down towards the hips, while the muscles of the posterior chain are assisting to keep the body horizontal.

Note: You may be confused by these positions and say the shoulder angles are the other way round, but I’d like to clarify – I’m referring to the forces involved; the front lever uses muscles that promote shoulder extension as prime movers, and the back lever uses muscles that promote shoulder flexion.

Image result for calisthenic movement human flag

The Human Flag: Much more complicated. This isn’t as much about the core as it is the shoulders (scapula). The bottom arm is pushing and the top arm is pulling. Meanwhile, the oblique muscles and gluteus medius are working to keep the body horizontal and in a lateral plane.

Image result for calisthenic movement planche

The Planche: Best till last and most certainly the hardest of all the big levers! This is not only strength orientated but also balance plays a role. Again, similar to the back lever, the muscles involved in shoulder flexion are the prime movers here; biceps, front deltoids, pectorals and the posterior chain muscles (glutes, lower back, hamstrings)

These are all isometric holds which means the muscle(s) involved aren’t changing length. Obviously the muscle(s) need to be strong in the exact position along the range of motion that these holds require, but what if you’re only reasonably strong in that position and nowhere else?

Research shows when only isometrics are trained, you develop strength in that range of motion and no more than 10-30 degrees outside of it. The implications of this are, one could be very weak outside of the 10-30 degrees these static holds require and never really address the issue, as they only train the hold itself.

The Best Dynamic Exercises For Each Move

I will list my favourite exercises in order of personal importance for each one. For the sake of simplicity, I won’t describe each move in detail. All moves suggested will be easy to find on google or YouTube. All of the following exercises will target the muscles involved in each hold through as big a range of motion as possible, ensuring no weaknesses in the strength curve.

Front lever

  • Dead hang straight arm pull to inverted hang (at whatever progression you’re at) – pull from a dead hang all the way up to an inverted hang, WITHOUT bending the arms.
  • Negatives/eccentrics – you’ll be able to use a higher progression here as you’re stronger eccentrically than concentrically. For example: you can hold an advanced tuck front lever but you can do straddled negatives from an inverted hang down.
  • Front lever rows – usually you’ll need to use a level lower than your highest static hold level but these are so underrated in developing the scapula retraction aspect of the front lever.
  • Front lever pulls – these are a ‘dumbed down’ version of the pull to inverted hang mentioned first. With this you keep the arms straight and pull to where the body is horizontal……rinse and repeat.
  • ‘Ice Cream Makers’ – these are good as long as you do them with enough control. Assume the top position of a pull up and then lower down in a pendulum type motion to momentarily hit the front lever position, pause and use the momentum to return above the bar in a pull up position. These can be scaled accordingly also.

Image result for ice cream makers front lever

Back Lever

This move I’ve found much easier than the front lever and honestly didn’t have to work that hard for. The moves below have really strengthened my hold though. (Read more about how I achieved my first back lever HERE)

  • Back lever pullouts – I only train these at an advanced tuck level and sometimes half lay but they have really improved my full lever. Lower down from an inverted hang while maintaining the level you can (usually lower than your best hold), and pause when you’re horizontal, keep the same body position and pull out to the inverted hang. Repeat for reps.
  • German Hang pullouts – basically a back lever pullout with a larger range of motion. Relax into a German hang and pull out all the way to an inverted hang, while maintaining whatever lever level you’re using. Usually it will be quite low – sometimes just a basic skin the cat will be all you can manage if your German hang is deep enough.
  • Negatives – I’ve only done back lever negatives a few times and didn’t really feel they did much for me. I can see that they would be a good idea. I guess, like me, experiment with them and see how your body responds.

Human Flag

This is very dependant on shoulder strength; I’ve seen a common pattern between those with strong handstands, handstand push ups and overhead presses finding this move easier than those that don’t. The important thing here is to train BOTH SIDES. Never be the one who can only do it on one side.

  • Human flag kick ups – this is simply using your feet to jump up to horizontal, at whichever level you’re using (often times you can use a higher level than your actual hold here) and attempting to briefly lock the arms out and hold the position, before controlling it back down.
  • Negatives – jump or climb up to an inverted position and attempt to lower down through the human flag position as slow as possible. Sometimes using a lower level and pausing at horizontal works well here, too.
  • Human flag presses – you will need a decent base level for these but they involve pressing up from a loose/low flag position, up through the horizontal positon, to inverted to finish. Needless to say, you will have to use a level lower than your best static hold.

Planche

This really does separate the men from the boys. There’s lots of very strong people who have all the 3 aforementioned moves under their belt but cannot full planche. There’s many street workout athletes who boast ‘full planches’ but when you examine the technique, you see many flaws – piked hips, bent arms, banana backs and people claiming 0.5 seconds as an actual hold.

  • Dynamic planche leans – people underestimate the value of planche leans; do this at your peril. With this move you are trying to achieve the strongest amount of lean possible. If it’s easy on the floor, the move can be progressed by placing your feet on a Swiss ball, which allows you to roll back and forth (just the idea) and vary the angle of lean.
  • Pseudo Planche push ups – find a planche lean, maintain the lean and do push ups. The common fault you see here is people losing the forward lean as they push up. Don’t do this. Even if you’re only leaning a little, maintain it! These can also be progressed in a similar fashion to the planche leans; by elevating the feet.
  • Planche push ups – these are an advanced variation of the pseudo planche push up and best done on parallettes, as you’ll achieve a greater range of motion. The biggest challenge with these is fully locking out at the top and protracting the scapula. Once again, these will probably have to be done at a lower level than your actual hold.

Wrapping Up

This post ended up longer than intended but I like detail. No apology. I want to reiterate: I am by no means saying static holds shouldn’t be trained. I’m saying to only train statics is foolish.

One more thing, weighted moves have their value with achieving static holds too. I just wanted to focus on dynamic variations of the moves themselves. To get into weighted options would’ve made a lengthy article longer.

Good luck with your training. Any questions please leave below or email me.

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JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

10 thoughts on “Tips For Faster Gains With Front Levers, Back Levers, Planches & Human Flags Leave a comment

  1. Nice post! In my own experience the planche progressions actually worked pretty well, and I’ve been able to work up to a solid straddle planche and a shaky full planche over about 2 years (coming off a powerlifting background). I’ve actually had more trouble with the front and back levers and found that assistance work has been more helpful there. That said, I was attacking the planche with a vengeance so my other isometrics lagged behind. I’d say another under-appreciated point is to cycle your training with these holds. I’ve found that *not* training an isometric for two or three weeks after a stretch of consistent training leads to coming back even stronger. Guessing this has a lot to do with giving the soft tissue time to fully recover.

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    • That’s a real solid level for the planche! Nice. Did you not find the planche built the back lever? I’ve found my planche naturally got better as my back lever did, probably due to the similarities in muscles used. The point about cycling is golden and one that I think applies to training in general, not just static holds. Many of us (myself very much included), are so scared to train lower levels of certain moves but they have so much value.

      What structure did you use for your planche isometrics – were they all the same length holds or did you vary the hold times relative to the progression?
      Thanks for such a thought provoking comment!

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      • Agreed on the value of regressions. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard in calisthenics is once you master a move, go back to the beginning and start over. No room for ego if you want to keep improving.

        My hold times for planche definitely tapered off through the progression. My best straddle planche is probably around 8 seconds, and maybe 3 seconds for a full. When I started a couple years ago I could barely hold a tuck planche for 3 seconds though, and that position feel more like a warmup now. At the end of the day you just have to put the time in, be consistent and keep pushing for that next progression. And don’t forget to schedule those deload weeks 😉

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      • That’s really interesting. Have you ever gone back and worked over the progressions again on anything? I suppose it takes something to truly master any move. Amen on the deload sentiments, that’s something I’ve really learnt the hard and slow way; I always struggle to see the value in higher volume, lower intensity approaches. But the battering I feel after too many sessions of high intensity is teaching me otherwise. How often would you deload in a planche training phase – every 4th week?

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      • I’ve been following Steven Low’s mesocycle recommendation for about a year, generally taking a deload week every 6 to 8 weeks. It’s worked well so far and I always come back stronger and more focused after the dedicated recovery time.

        With regressions, I try to work them into my training based on what my current priority movements/holds are. A good example is when I’m not targeting planche as a priority during a mesocyle, I’ll add flat back and straddle planche holds as secondary work, vs. pushing for the full planche like I would if it were my mesocycle priority.

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