The back lever is a fundamental exercise in the world of gymnastics. By developing this skill on the rings, it opens the door to immense tendon, ligament and body alignment strength.
And the best part?
It translates to all strength pursuits, not only those exercises used in gymnastics and bodyweight strength training.
The importance of strong tendons and ligaments
Before we step through the back lever progressions, it’s imperative that you understand the role of tendons and ligaments in your body.
Unsure of the difference between them? David Robson from Bodybuilding.com makes the following distinction:
They are very similar in composition, serve different functions and significantly assist with the process of muscular extension and contraction. Both are designed to passively stabilize joints. A tendon connects the ends of a muscle belly to bone tissue and can be likened to a tough strap-like cord.
When properly developed, a tendon has good elasticity and is strong and capable of great power. Tendons essentially cause the bone to move as they transmit tensile load produced by the muscles.
Ligaments are tougher cord-like fibres with greater flexibility. They tie, or bind, bones together at joints and allow for movement in a specific direction.
In short, remember that tendons connect muscle to bone and ligaments connect bone to bone.
To help visualize this, here’s a labelled photo of the human knee:
Notice how the tendons are all very close to the bone?
By strengthening your tendons, you’re also building up joint stabilization. This makes weighted/heavy exercises safer to perform, and allows you to progress to more challenging exercises with a lower risk of injury.
A common tendon injury occurs when new users of anabolic steroids quickly gain muscle, with tendon strength lagging behind.
All the newfound quick* muscle can motivate the person to exponentially increase weights, until one or more tendons give out. Using the bicep tendon as an example, a complete rupture will require surgery and can take 6-9 months of recovery to get back to regular strength.
Lastly, stable joints and strong tendons carry over superbly to straight arm strength work. Think of planche work, front lever practice, or… you guessed it, back lever training!
Warming up for the Back Lever
Now that we understand the importance of tendon and ligament strength, let’s get started with how we should warm up before our back lever training.
To mitigate the risk of injury, we recommend the following warm-up sequence:
1) Shoulder dislocates (15 reps)
- Can be performed standing or seated, with the latter more technically “strict”. Do your best to avoid lumbar overextension.
- Too easy? Make it harder by bringing hands closer together, or adding more weight to the movement.
- Cues: Straight arms, elevate shoulders, retract shoulder blades together, squeeze glutes, chin tucked, chest elevated.
2) German hang lower (5 reps)
- Also known as the “skin the cat” exercise.
- A dynamic movement using the same range of motion as the back lever.
- Make sure the rings are set at a comfortable height so you can drop out of the movement if needed.
- Cues: Lower down slowly, retracted scapulae, squeeze shoulderblades together, chest up, breathe.
3) German hang hold (30 seconds)
- The bottom position of the “German hang lower” warmup exercise.
- Works well for improving shoulder extension.
- For the sake of your shoulders, don’t immediately drop down into the bottom position. It will feel uncomfortable, but it should not be painful.
- Cues: Lower down slowly, retracted scapulae, squeeze shoulder blades together, chest up, breathe.
Back Lever Progressions
Now that you’re ready to start your back lever training, you must do your best to stick to the order of progressions below.
As an example, if you can not do an advanced tuck, you will not progress your full back lever by trying (unsuccessfully) to “brute force” the end version.
This is a common mistake we see beginners making in commercial gyms, especially after watching “motivational” calisthenics videos.
The difference between them and you is that you will achieve a full back lever, but only if you invest the time, patience and intelligence into the process.
However, if an advanced tuck is too easy for you, it’s not worth your time to keep drilling this same progression level. Increase the difficulty, and make sure you keep challenging yourself.
Useful cues for all levels
The following cues for all progressions will make your back lever as strong as it can be. These cues will mean the difference between you progressing safely, and putting yourself at unnecessary risk of injury.
Pay close attention.
- Scapula protraction: Hollow chest posture and spreading the shoulder blades apart.
- Scapula depression: Squeeze hands down towards glutes.
- Glute & abdominal engagement.
- Lean forward and keep your chest up.
For reference, our recommendation is to make sure the rings aren’t more than “shoulder width” apart for all progressions. In the examples below, this roughly worked out to 50 centimeters between the rings.
Level 1: Tuck
This is the German hang with your knees brought up to your chest.
Level 2: Advanced Tuck
Instead of bringing your knees towards your chest, you’re extending them back towards your bum. Make sure you maintain abdominal tension, an upright chest, and a flat back. No arching.
Level 3: “Open”
This level bridges the gap between the advanced tuck being too easy, and the straddle being too difficult. If you’re at this level and have tightness through the hips, we’d advise adding some basic hip stretches to your warm up to avoid unwanted cramping.
Level 4: Straddle
You’re well on your way to achieving a full back lever if you can achieve a comfortable straddle. Glute, abdominal and quad tension is paramount to the success of a satisfactory straddle. Don’t forget to point your toes.
Level 5: Half
This level bridges the gap between the straddle being too easy, and the full back lever being too difficult. Same cues as the straddle, except this time your toes should be pointing up to the sky.
Level 6: Full
You’ve now made it, congratulations. If you’ve learned to develop the requisite body tension throughout your progressions, achieving a full back lever should be no problem for you. However, make sure to film yourself if you’ve reached this stage to check your form.
From experience, you may “feel” that your body is parallel to the ground, but your legs can still be too high. This means you’re lacking the core tension to bring your legs in line with your body, resulting in a banana shape. Don’t do this.
If this is the case, you’re either too fatigued from earlier sets, or you simply need to put in more time with the straddle or “half” variations.
Quality over quality, gentlemen.
Programming for the Back Lever
You now know the importance of tendon and ligament strength, and the necessary progressions to achieve your first back lever. We’ll now explain how you can program it into your own training routine.
Assuming your sleep, diet, and recovery are looked after, we recommend the following:
How many times a week should I be working on this skill? 3 days a week. (2 days static holds, 1 day accessory work mentioned below)
How long should my “holds” be? 3-5 sets of 8-12 seconds at your progression level.
When can I move up a level/progression? When you can hold 5-12 seconds on a progression easily over 3-5 sets.
Accessory: Back lever lifts
Lastly, we’ll add that we use the “lift” as an accessory to our static holds. This involves lowering down into the progression you’re at, briefly holding the bottom position, then moving up into an inverted hang.
Repeat this for 3 sets of 3-4 repetitions.
For example, if you’re working on the advanced tuck, jump up into an inverted hang, lower yourself down into the advanced tuck, hold it briefly, then bring yourself back into the inverted hang. This will count as a single repetition.
For more information, watch Daniel’s original video from September 2013
Like all gymnastics skills, results take time and will not come immediately. We promise that if you follow the progressions detailed above, you’ll achieve a full back lever before you know it. Good luck!
If you have any questions, leave a comment below and we’ll help you out.