Zero To Dragon Flag To Back Lever: The Ultimate Guide To Building A Bulletproof Core
Note: The following is a guest post from my buddy Steve over at Man Vs. Weight. He lays down the exact step by step guide for people who want to master the dragon flag and the back lever, both very advanced bodyweight movements that will help you build a core of steel. Plus it just looks really cool.
In this post, you’ll learn how to build a core of steel as you train your body for two bodyweight movements:
- The Dragon Flag
- The Back Lever
(In that order)
Both look really cool and are very important if you want to master even more impressive exercises such as The Front Lever or the infamous Planche.
First of all, let me be honest.
While I’m a huge fan of bodyweight training, I’m still just a student, like you. These skill training movements are all about practice, practice, and more practice – no matter how strong you are.
In other words, if you want to master a specific movement, you need to follow a specific plan. You can’t just pump out a bunch of crunches and leg raises and expect your abs and core to be strong enough to do a Dragon Flag.
Instead, you need to have a workout that’s specifically designed to teach your body the Dragon Flag. It’s all about progression, practice, and patience.
Which brings us to the following…
If your goal is only to look good naked and get a six pack as soon as possible (which is totally fine) this post isn’t for you.
In that case, you’re better off doing knee raises, leg raises, ab wheel rollouts, and taking Keith’s advice in general.
While training for the dragon flag and back lever builds an insanely strong core and midsection, these movements aren’t about aesthetics.
As I said, you need to follow a very specific workout routine to develop these skills, and it takes an awful lot of time and practice. So unless you’re genuinely interested in dedicated skills training, I suggest you stick to a more conventional abdominal workout.
With that out of the way, let’s see how you need to change your usual ab workout to master these epic moves.
Of course there are many different progressions depending on your goals and current abilities. My approach is just one example. It is based on the recommendations of a gymnastics coach who happens to be a friend of mine.
Let’s get started!
The first prerequisite is to lose excess weight. It will make everything much easier.
Before you attempt your first Dragon Flag, I highly recommend you make sure you can do the following exercises:
- Plank – 60-second hold
- Side plank – 60-second hold
- Reverse plank – 60-second hold
- Hollow body position – 60-second hold
If you’re not familiar with these exercises, Antranik has an awesome tutorial here.
Being able to do 5-10 leg raises, 5-10 kneeling ab wheel rollouts, and holding a shoulder stand for 20-25 seconds is also recommended before you attempt your first Dragon Flag.
There’s no point in starting this challenging move without building some basic core strength first.
How can you fit this progression into your regular workouts?
These bodyweight moves will hit your abs and core hard, so I suggest you don’t do any other ab training while you’re following this plan.
Simply switch your regular ab workout with this progression.
If you’re wondering how often you should do this workout, I suggest two or three times per week – three being the maximum. Don’t risk overtraining and practicing with bad form due to fatigue.
Your “Zero to Dragon Flag to Back Lever” Progression Workout
From now on, your ab workouts will consist of three parts:
- Warm up
- Skill training practice
- Dynamic exercises
Let’s take a closer look at each:
Let’s face it. Warming up and stretching are the most boring workouts on the planet. Still, they are very important, so whatever you do, don’t skip them.
Many of these advanced gymnastics movements require you to bend into strange and very uncomfortable positions. For example, when you’re practicing the dragon flag, your entire body weight is placed on your upper back.
Since you rarely carry your weight on your upper back, this will feel weird and possibly even hurt at first. Similarly, when you’re doing the back lever, you have to support your whole bodyweight with your arms twisted behind your back.
This can also be very uncomfortable.
Failing to warm up only makes these exercises more painful and risks serious injury. So while I totally understand your urge to skip warming up and jump straight into the workout, do yourself a favor, and don’t skip it.
Luckily, you don’t have to spend more than 3-5 minutes on step one.
Here’s my usual routine:
- Start with joint rotations for each major joint: neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hips. I do 5-5 of these in both directions.
- Do some dynamic stretching exercises.
- Do a few pushups or try to hold a handstand for 10-15 seconds. (This is great for warming up the shoulders, even if you need to use a wall for support.)
- You can even do a little running or rope jumping for a minute or two.
Again, there’s no need to get carried away with this. Just make sure you are properly warmed up before you start your main workout.
2. Skill Training Practice
Next, it’s time to start skill training.
In other words, you will be practicing the skill you’d like to master. It’s important to do it while you’re still fresh and full of energy.
That’s why it should come right after warming up. This way, you can focus on performing these difficult exercises with the right form.
What exactly should you do to start “skill training”?
- If you have yet to learn the Dragon Flag, follow the advice in the “From Zero To Dragon Flag” section below.
- If you already learned the Dragon Flag, follow the advice in the “From Dragon Flag to Back Lever” section below.
Once you’re done with skill practice, it’s time for part three: Dynamic Exercises.
3. Dynamic Exercises
After skill training, it’s recommended that you do a few dynamic ab exercises. This will feel great after practicing so many static holds.
Again, there’s no need to get carried away.
I suggest you focus on exercises that can hit your abs hard with just a few reps. Instead of doing a gazillion crunches, do five or six kneeling ab wheel rollouts and/or hanging leg raises.
Personally, I do two sets of six kneeling ab wheel rollouts and two sets of six hanging leg raises. (You can change these numbers if this is too much or too little for you.)
Now that you know how to properly structure your workouts, we can finally take a closer look at the skill training.
From Zero To Dragon Flag Progression
The Dragon Flag is the easier of the two exercises mentioned in the beginning of this article, so this is the skill you should learn first.
In case you’re not familiar with the exercise, here’s a quick video demonstration:
As you can see, you need to lie down on your back and brace something sturdy (like a bench or a pole) behind your head.
Then lift your legs as if you were doing a reverse crunch but with one difference: Instead of lifting only your legs, lift your entire torso so that only the upper part of your back is in contact with the floor. Lift as high as you can (or until your torso is vertical) and then slowly lower yourself down, all the while making sure that only your upper back is touching the floor.
Hint: The lower you go, the harder the exercise is. Holding yourself while you’re almost parallel to the ground is the most difficult part of the movement.
Here are some important form cues
- Make sure you don’t bend at the hips as that will ruin the form and the effectiveness of the exercise. Keep your body straight.
- Don’t let your elbows flare out. Keep them tucked in close to your ears.
- Most importantly: Put the weight of your body on the shoulders and/or the upper back and NOT on the neck. As you can imagine, that would be very dangerous.
I think that if you can master the prerequisites, then you’ll quickly be able to do an isometric Dragon Flag hold for 5-10 seconds. But if you’re really struggling, here are some smaller progression steps:
- Instead of straightening your legs, try bending your knees. This will decrease the lever, making the exercise easier.
- Once you’re good at the bent-knee dragon flag, try to straighten just one of your legs. This is called a one-legged dragon flag, which is obviously easier than the two-legged version.
- Try the straddle leg version. Open both your legs in a straddle position. The wider you open your legs, the closer the center of gravity is to your upper back and the easier the exercise. From here, there’s only one thing you need to do until you get to the full blown dragon flag: Gradually decrease the angle between your legs until they are perfectly straight and close to each other.
Side Note from Keith
Static Vs. Dynamic Practice
There’s both a static and a dynamic way to practice the Dragon Flag.
The static version simply involves doing an isometric hold in a difficult position for 5-6 seconds. You then rest and repeat. The dynamic version requires you to continuously lift yourself up and down as is demonstrated in the video.
For the purpose of progressing as quickly to the back lever as possible, I suggest the static version becausethe back lever doesn’t require dynamic movements.
Here’s the skill training part of your workout: Try to hold yourself in the most challenging position you can (ideally very close to the floor) for five to six seconds, then rest. Repeat this five times. Afterwards, you can finish your ab session with the dynamic exercises.
Keep doing this workout as long as you’re able to confidently hold the dragon flag in proper form very close to the floor for five to six seconds, five times, with little rests between.
Depending on your starting conditions, reaching this level can take anywhere from two to six weeks.
Once you can confidently do this, it’s time to change your ab skill training practice to the following:
From Dragon Flag to Back Lever Progression
Before you do anything else, the first step will be to find a horizontal bar for practice.
Even if you have a pull up bar at home, you will most likely you’ll need to visit a playground or a properly equipped gym to do this.
That’s because you need plenty of space around the bar to practice the Back Lever.
Alternatively, you can get some gymnastic rings and hang them from a tree in your backyard. This is what I did, and it’s also a perfect way to practice.
Once you take care of this, you’re ready for Back Lever practice. This is a challenging exercise which consists of many components, so let’s take a look at each of them.
Skin the Cat
Before you try to do your first Back Lever, you need to learn the “skin the cat” movement.
It’s a relatively easy exercise which, frankly, requires more courage than strength.
Start from a standard hanging position, then lift your legs and try to wiggle your feet between your hands.
Then lower your legs behind until you arrive in a position where you support your whole bodyweight with your arms twisted behind your back.
See the video below if you have a hard time visualizing the move.
If this is already very challenging for you, then spend a few days or even a week focusing only on the skin the cat movement as your skill training practice.
Perform it six to eight times as best as you can, then move on to the dynamic exercises.
Once you reach the bottom position of kin the Cat, you’ll be in what’s called the “German Hang.” This is the position of full shoulder extension where you support your full bodyweight with your arms behind your back.
You can check out a quick demonstration of the German hang here:
After you have mastered Skin the Cat, try to increase the maximum time you can hang in this position.
I suggest fifteen to twenty seconds before you go to the next progression step.
This will ensure you have proper grip strength, and it will also loosen up your shoulders to prepare them for the full Back Lever.
If this feels strange at first, don’t worry. You’ll get the “hang” of it soon enough.
It might take one to two weeks until you get comfortable doing this, so don’t rush the process. Once you feel you’re ready to take the next progression step, here’s what you need to do:
Tuck Back Lever
Get in the German Hang position, and tuck your knees very close to your chest while lifting your upper back so that it’s parallel to the ground. This is called the Tuck Back Lever, and it’s easier to do than the full back lever since the “lever” is shorter with bent knees.
Here’s the skill training part of your workout: Gradually increase the angle between your upper thighs and torso, up to ninety degrees, where your knees are aligned under your hips (like in the video above). Hop on the bar (or rings), try to hold it for five to ten seconds, then rest. Repeat this five to six times.
Work on being able to hold this position for fifteen to twenty seconds before you go to the next progression step:
Single Leg Tuck Back Lever
You start from the ninety-degree Tuck Back Lever position. Slowly extend one of your legs behind you while keeping the other knee aligned under your hips.
Try to hold this position for a few seconds, and then switch legs. The goal is to be able to hold each leg in this position for ten to fifteen seconds.
Here’s the same guy progressing to the one-legged version:
Once you have mastered this, you’re basically ready for:
The Back Lever
As you can imagine, the only thing separating the single leg tuck back lever from the full blown back lever is extending both of your legs at the same time.
There are no magical progression steps here. All you can do is practice.
If you can’t seem to hold yourself even for just a few seconds in this position, then you can try the Straddle Back Lever.
With this, you open your legs in a straddle position so as to bring the center of gravity closer to your shoulders. Again, your job is to gradually decrease the angle between your legs until they are so close to each other that you’re basically doing a perfect Back Lever.
Finally, here’s how the back lever looks after the smaller progression steps:
Wrapping It All Up
Let me emphasize this again: Only attempt this progression workout if you’re really interested in skill training.
If all you care about is getting a “Greek god physique,” these gymnastics moves are totally unnecessary.
If, however, you’d like to impress everyone (including yourself) with these epic moves, replacing your regular ab workouts with this one is totally worth it. The incredible core strength will pay off in other aspects of your training and life as well.
Heck, you might even fall in love with bodyweight training like I did. If you find yourself daydreaming about “leaving weights behind,” my Ultimate Guide to Bodyweight Workouts is a good place to start.
Finally, I admit: These instructions can easily cause information overload.
If you’ve been unfamiliar with bodyweight training so far, there are a lot of new concepts to take in.
Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below.