Let’s Front Lever – The Mega Meta Review

Overview

  • 13 Front Lever Tutorials Condensed + 1 Book
  • Approximately 3900 words
  • Progressions, Coaching Cues, Preparation Work and Advanced Positions

Cause I’m all about that front lever? Yea, that song is terrible but hopefully this blog post won’t be, for a better version check out all about those gains. The front lever is one of the more impressive feats of bodyweight strength. The level of control and overall musculature you need to get into the position and hold it are through the roof. I’ve gone through
a number of different sources to look at the best way of obtaining this move and ascertain where they share similarities and where they differ. My two “canonical” sources are the articles by Coach Sommer and Ryan Hurst. This post is an aggregation of tutorials, I will do my best to cite sources for all of the recommendations within. What you should take away from this post is a meta review of the most prominent Front Lever articles on the net.

Note, I don’t have a copy of Overcoming Gravity but I hear that it is an excellent resource.

Okay, now that we got that out of the way let’s run through the four elements of this post:

  1. Preparatory Exercises
  2. Progressions
  3. Coaching Cues
  4. Training the Movement

But first, the most important thing to understand about tutorials of the Front Lever is that they all must have the same photo. The photo is ripped from Wikipedia and has been included in numerous blog posts. In keeping with that tradition I’m going to include it here, mainly because it’s kind of awesome. John Gill is 6’2″ at 180lb or 188cm and 82kg, genetics are not an excuse. To be fair though Gill was a pro rock climber who invented bouldering.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s move on to the actual interesting stuff:

Preparatory Exercises

A few of the sources have also included preparatory work for the Front Lever in order to build up the strength. Most notably Beast Skills as well as Ryan Hurst. For some more exercises (I don’t know the usefulness of this source) you can try this article which appears to have some kind of funky movements with a broomstick involved. If it helps it helps right?

Ryan Hurst has a strong focus on pulling prep in his eight step guide. In particular these movements emphasise the level of scapular retraction necessary to obtain the Front Lever. The movement differs from other abdominal movements due to the level of core strength AND the level of scapular strength you need in order to hold yourself in the appropriate position. For an overview of the pulling prep recommended see the following video.

The second source of recommendations to get yourself in the position to perform a Front Lever comes from Beast Skills. For the full overview of these with pictures go here. I don’t want to rip off his valuable work, seriously, go check it out it’s awesome. The recommendations he proposes are, note these are the same as the recommendations from Fitstream:

  • Straight arm pullovers
  • Weighted Pullups
  • Straight arm pullup
  • Inverted Row

The straight arm pull over has been rumoured to be a classic of old school bodybuilders such as Arnold and Steeve Reeves. However if we look at the mechanics of the movement we see why it is recommended. Straight arm strength is some of the most difficult to develop, it takes months if not years to get your tendons in the position where they can support your load. Pullovers can be a useful bridging exercise to help you develop strength. For a full complete resource on this exercise see this article

Weighted Pullups are basically a no brainer. From personal experience there is no better exercise to build a huge base of strength in all manner of movements.

The straight arm pullup appears to be a slightly modified version of a regular pullup where you attempt to pull yourself outwards. It is almost as though the recommendation is to rotate yourself around the bar with your arms straight if that visual imagery makes sense. Obviously this isn’t possible. However, the key cue appears to be the inclusion of the horizontal plane into the movement. This should help with holding the Front Lever position.

Look at the position of an inverted row, compare it to a Front Lever. The only difference between the movements is that the feet are supported. That being said the support makes all the difference, fundamentally changing the movement. I can only recommend the inverted row if you don’t have the arm strength necessary to hold yourself in position.

A final note is on the role of flexibility in the movement. Obviously the big one here is scapular mobility. To improve upon the general range of motion in the shoulder the best exercise I’ve found is skinning the cat which has one of the best names for all bodyweight movements. When you skin the cat you roll up and over your shoulders, see the video below for a better example. I’ve implemented these as a warm up for all my movements and my shoulders are feeling significantly better. Note, this is one of the few exercises which is easier on the rings than it is on a bar, mainly as your feet will get in the way and you need to awkwardly tuck them when doing it with a fixed bar.

Progressions

The progressions recommended for the Front lever are fairly uncontroversial amongst the different sources. There is a second method of progressing the exercise which I’ll detail at the end of this section. The progressions are in order of appearance:

  1. Tuck Front Lever
  2. Flat Back Tuck Front Lever (Advanced Tuck)
  3. One Leg Front Lever
  4. Straddle Front Lever
  5. Front Lever

Most tutorials seem to ignore the straddle front lever with the reason given that it depends too much upon flexibility. Simply put if you’re able to hold an incredible straddle then this move poses no issue, if you cannot then you’re out of luck and stick to the one leg front lever. By far the best images I’ve found of the Front Lever progressions have been developed by Beast Skills. Full credit to the original author.

Tuck Front Lever

The first progression in every tutorial I looked through is the tuck Front Lever. In this position you’re simply building the strength required to hold yourself for a period of time. You may be able to reach into the advanced tuck (or Flat back) tuck lever but if you can’t hold yourself then it’s going to take a period of time to adjust. A visual view is always nice, this one is from Beast Skills Tutorial:

tucklever

Two things you should be focussing on here:

  1. Core tightness and holding a braced position.
  2. Scapular retraction.

One thing to get used to here is that straight arm strength is very very different to bent arm (e.g. contractions). Holding your body out away from a position places huge amounts of stress on tendons as well as muscles. The metabolic rate of tendons is estimated to be only 2-3% every twenty four hours [1]. To place this in perspective your body only regenerates the collagen every 50 days give or take.

Tendon strength is one of the reasons why such a slow progression is specified in programs such as Gymnastic Bodies. It takes time to build this strength and the risk of injuring yourself by jumping ahead is high.

Typical benchmarks before moving on to the next progression are:

  • 3x60s
  • 5x30s
  • 5x60s

Flat Back Tuck Front Lever

The second progression is surprisingly difficult from personal experience. The Advanced tuck FL or Flat Back tuck FL (I’ve seen it referred to as both in the tutorials that I have compared) retains a tuck in the leg but strives to straighten out the back.

This is best illustrated visually (This image is from Beast Skills Tutorial):

advancedtucklever

Notice here how the legs are still in the tuck position but the entire movement has been opened out a bit. Now the first time you try this you’re going to say holy fuck, how is this even possible. The secret is tension.

At this point you’re holding a bent leg hollow body position in the air. You need to be squeezing your glutes as hard as possible. I find it helpful to squeeze my quads and ankles together as well, the goal being to create a single unit from the lower body.

Once again get some decent time spent in this position before moving on to the next progression.

One Leg Front Lever

Now we’re starting to move on to the movements which are a little bit more exciting and visually spectacular. The One Leg FL begins in the same position as the advanced tuck FL. At this point simply extend a leg out straight. First time you try this you’re hips are going to pike and your ass will sag down towards the ground. Relax, try again.

For this one don’t try to force the movement at all. You don’t want to be thrusting your leg out into space hoping that it will stay there. It won’t.

onelegfrontlever

Instead, gently extend the leg maintaining tension the entire time. Keep pressing the quads in towards one another. If you can try to return to the tucked position and then try the other leg. Build up to doing reps of the two and you’ll be in a great position to perform the Front Lever.

Once again our beautiful example comes from Beast Skills. The only thing I would note here is that he has lifted his head up. This is natural as you don’t have much perception of your body in space during this movement, especially when learning it. Instead try to lean with the head back and lengthen the neck, it helps to straighten out the upper body and avoids any upper back rounding.

Try to get sets of repetitions going on, alternating each leg backwards and forwards and returning to the neutral tuck position each time. Though you can hold each position for time I find doing “reps” to be less boring, especially when you’re going for extended holds.

Straddle Front Lever (Optional)

The straddle front lever is an option progression on the way to the full Front Lever. Why? Because it depends almost entirely upon your ability to hold the straddle position. If you have a crazy insane straddle then this will be no problem. If you’re like me with your hips completely locked up into pieces then this movement just won’t happen no matter how hard you try.

lionel-straddle-fl-on-rogue-rings

Personally I find the straddle Front Lever difficult as I lose the tightness in my legs. I like to lock my legs together in order to feel them as a single unit. Getting into the straddle breaks this.

I’d recommend training it anyway, it does look quite cool.

Front Lever

The full Front Lever is the next step in the progression. You can build into this movement via two different preliminary progressions. The straddle or the single tucked leg. From the straddle position work on incrementally closing the gap in your legs. From the tucked position gradually extend the second leg.

The key thing to avoid here is the piking in the hips. You don’t want to sag at all and if you find yourself dropping down then you probably need to work on the hollow body position quite a bit more. If this is still too intense try to bend at the knees into a half front lever. In this position your body is straight from shoulders to knees but your feet hang down below to lessen the torque applied to the body. You can then build up the movement by gradually straightening the knees.

john_gill_front_lever

Alternative Progression

An alternative method of advancing the Front Lever is an approach based upon range of motion in the movement. In this position you maintain the full Front Lever position the entire time. There is no tucking or straddling at all.

You begin in the entirely vertical position, legs pointed towards the roof with arms straight. At this point you must remember to point your toes. Begin by lowering your feet towards the ground a couple of inches. Stop when you feel the strain beginning to become too much and then raise yourself back to the starting position.

The goal with this method is to continually increase the range of motion at the movement until you can reach into the Front Lever effortlessly. As a secondary benefit this approach helps to train straight arm strength into and out of the movement which is an awesome method of improving strength in general.

I’ve found that this approach is practical when using rings but not when attempting the move on a straight bar. There is something about the locked hand positions which make the move feel uncomfortable. On rings it is fantastic. The excellent side effect of this method is the ability to lower yourself into and pull yourself out of the position. This can lead to some advanced positions such as stepping the movement. When you follow the approach recommended here you may not gain that.

For a visual reference see the Crossfit Journal article (note PDF)

Coaching Cues

Cues are some of my favourite little nuggets of wisdom to glean from reading strength training articles and tutorials. A cue is an attempt to lead an athlete into the desired position through effective verbal pointers. For example if I say squeeze your ass I may be attempting to get you into a straight line position, what I won’t be saying is get straighter. In a cue you want to get the desired effect without thinking about it. Likewise rip the bar apart is a useful tip to maximise muscular tension when benching. I’m going to run through the cues in order of source:

Beast Skills

via Source

  • Squeeze the rings or the bar
  • Keep arms glued to the side of the body
  • Flex the back and the chest
  • Actively push down with your hands
  • Squeeze the butt and the legs tightly

Ido Portal

via Source

  • Try to rip the bar apart with your hands
  • Try to depress and retract the scapula
  • Try to lean with your head back – lengthening your neck behind while pressing
    down the bar towards your hips

Breaking Muscle

via Source

  • Not only pull down try to pull the hands apart (bar only, not rings)

Building the Gymnastic Body

via Source

  • Think of pulling your shoulders back away from your hands while pushing your hands down towards your hips

  • If you cannot maintain a flat back (straight body) it is due to a weakness in the core.

  • If you cannot maintain your feet elevated it is due to a weakness in the shoulder girdle and lats

  • Keeping the elbows straight is necessary to gain the maximum strength gains from the movement.

Kinobody

via Source

Though this doesn’t fall precisely under coaching cues I’m including it here. The author behind Kinobody recommends to work into the Front Lever by practising a huge number of hanging leg raises as well as lever pulls. Broadly to actively train the abs and the lats to be able to hold the position. This approach may have merit especially if the overall strength is the weak point for you.

Training The Movement

The Front Lever is a highly intense movement which actively engages all aspects of the musculature. As such it can be highly intense to train it to failure multiple times in a week.

One strategy that I’ve seen recommended a few times is Greasing The Groove (GTG) style training popularised by Pavel. In this method the Front Lever is trained with high frequency but low single session intensity throughout the day. E.g. by using a doorway pull up bar or other similar apparatus. At this point you may do 5-10 lever holds spread throughout the day and never doing two sets in a row. This predominately trains the movement pattern which can help you familiarise yourself with how the body is moving.

Alternative strategies that have been recommended is dedicating ten minutes of your workout towards working the Front Lever Progressions at every workout (or at least 3x per week, you may want to scale this according to how the body is feeling).

I have not seen many references to low frequency high intensity training. E.g. once per week to a huge number of sets. This is predominately due to the lack of benefit once fatigue has begun to set in. The movement has a very high entry requirement and prohibits common high intensity techniques such as drop sets or other similar strategies. A common concern is that practice makes permanent for many athletes. If you become used to holding a sloppy Front Lever under fatigue then most of your Front Levers will be sloppy. Instead, going for quality, tight reps may be the best option.

The most common progression scheme I’ve seen is to work through the various progressions until you can hold each of them for a period of thirty to sixty seconds, if not more. Endurance seems to be primarily recommended as a strategy as opposed to overreaching. In terms of the concepts outlined in [2] this may be considered as a training to repetition failure type approach.

The final approach is to consider the modified Prilepin’s chart created by the author of Overcoming Gravity which can be found [here] (http://www.eatmoveimprove.com/2012/05/prilepin-tables-for-bodyweight-strength-isometric-and-eccentric-exercises/) To use this you need to know the maximum time you can hold the particular movement. E.g. 10s or 30s. From there it is a percentage based scheme which translates into reps and sets. E.g. if you want to train at 90% of your maximum you do between 2 and 4 sets. For lower percentages you do more sets. Simple right?

Advanced Movements

Ice Cream Makers

This is a combination of a pull up and a Front Lever and is illustrated by Ring Training and Beast Skills. In this move you begin by pulling up and holding the body horizontal in the Front Lever. This is can either be used as a progression or a strengthening move in its own right. It requires a huge amount of power to pull yourself straight armed (or bent) into the front lever position. This is the one exercise which is most heavily recommended in the various articles I’ve come across.

IceCreamMaker

Front Lever Pullup

Pretty self explanatory. From the Front Lever position perform a pull up keeping your body horizontal to the ground at all times.

One Armed Front Lever

Hold the Front Lever with just a single arm, you may need to turn the body sideways to accomplish this.

johngill

Conclusions

This has been quite a long article but hopefully you’ve found it helpful. In general I’ve found that the classically trained gymnasts (Sommers and Hurst) tend to recommend
the progression approach where you begin from the Tuck. Other approaches have been identified as well but these were found through individuals who are more than likely self taught.

As such I have to recommend the tuck progression scheme and holding for a large number of repetitions and seconds in a slow progression scheme. You can expect to train for months in order to reach the full Front Lever hold position and it is a feat which is worthy of admiration.

Do not be discounted by the sheer volume of training you’ll need to do. In reality this is easily accomplished in less than ten minutes performed three times a week. Beyond this point fatigue will begin to set in and you’re training and progress will more than likely slow down.

When you’re having trouble with the movement always look at the source of the failure. If, for example you can hold your body in a straight line but you keep drooping down to the ground then your shoulder and lat strength is insufficient. Work on Lever Pulls as well as the scapular retraction necessary in the movement. Alternatively if you can get up fine but pike in the hips a lot your core is weak.

I’ve provided a number of different coaching cues to think about during the movement. These are principally designed to maximise tension. If you can hold total body tension and feel the body moving as a single unit the movement becomes significantly easier.

If you have any questions feel free to get in touch via the comments.

Other References

[1] Kjaer, M. et al. Metabolic activity and collagen turnover in human tendon in response to physical activity. J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact 5, 41–52 (2005).

[2] Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., and William J. Kraemer. Science and practice of strength training. Human Kinetics, 2006.

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