Updated: Jul 17
The front lever (FL) is a gymnastic and calisthenic isometric hold that is performed on rings or a bar where the body is held parallel to the floor. The movement is awe inspiring because the performer appears as if they defy the laws of gravity. The feat requires an immense amount of back and core strength to be able to suspend the body horizontally.
This article will explore everything there is to know about the front lever, which includes how to do it, the scapula positioning, and progressions to unlock it. We will also go over a couple of helpful exercises that are beneficial in helping you to unlock this static gymnastic element.
Table of Contents:
The front lever is one of the gymnastic levers that utilizes shoulder extension to hold the body parallel with the floor. The proper form for this static hold requires the arms to be completely straight and the torso as well.
Any bending in the elbows or piking at the hips is considered incorrect or non-ideal form. The elbow bending and hips piking will typically occur when the athlete is not strong enough to hold the movement with their body straight. The exercise becomes easier with the bending because it decreases the lever and thus requires less strength to hold. If the athlete completely straightens out their arms and body, the lever becomes longer thus making it more difficult.
How difficult is this exercise?
To mere mortals and everyday people, the front lever is an incredibly difficult exercise. Most people may never reach the full lay front lever, which is when the body is completely straight with the legs stretched out.
However, for gymnasts the front lever is not very difficult at all because in the gymnastic code of points, it has a difficulty rating of "A". The code of points rates every gymnastic movement from A-F with F being the hardest. Therefore, the front lever is considered one of the easiest movements to perform, at least to gymnasts.
Nonetheless, for ordinary people the movement may feel as if it has a "F difficulty" rather than an A. The reason for why it feels so difficult is because of the poor leverage when the legs are fully extended. You're forced to rely on mostly your upper body muscles to suspend your body in the air.
Muscles used in the front lever
Since the front lever is suspended off of rings or a bar, your hands are the only point of contact you have with it but muscles used are mostly in the upper back. The movement requires approximately 80% back strength and about 20% core strength even though it looks as if it requires 100% core strength. The core is rarely ever the limiting factor to achieving the full lay FL.
Here are the muscles which are used in the front lever:
Shoulder and chest - rear deltoids, pec major, & pec minor
Back - serratus anterior, latissimus dorsi, quadratus lumborum, rhomboids, teres minor
Arms - triceps, wrist and finger flexors, pronator teres, pronator quadratus
Core - transversus abdominus, rectus abdominis, and oblique externus
Other - quadricep muscles, inner thigh, hamstrings, glutes, calves, foot, forearms, hand and neck muscles
A lot of muscles get used to perform the front lever, it is basically a full body exercises. In fact when the body is held completely straight and parallel, you will feel full body tension.
How to do the front lever
The front lever is typically performed on gymnastic rings or a pull up bar but in actuality you can do it on any surface that you can hang off of. That surface just needs to give you enough head and leg clearance for your entire body when it is horizontal. Its not uncommon to see the exercise done underneath dining tables and staircases.
There are multiple ways to enter into and execute the lever. The most common way is the tuck extend:
Hang off of a bar or rings.
Curl your knees into your chest.
Engage the lats with scapula as much scapula depression as possible.
Slight external rotation of the arms.
Use shoulder extension to lift your torso up to parallel.
Maintain shoulder extension while extending your legs.
As your legs extend, you need to generate more and more force in extension.
Sounds simple enough doesn't it but it is extremely difficult. Just make sure you have proper form.
Your arms should be straight with no bending.
The body is completely straight with no piking at the hips.
You can point your toes if you want, if not that is okay.
How long does it take to learn the front lever?
It can take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to learn the full lay front lever. Even then, some people may never achieve it if they happen to be really tall or have poor limb proportions such as long legs. Typically shorter individuals will have an easier time unlocking this movement.
It all varies and depends on the individuals such as their determination and frequency of training for the front lever. Personally for me, the first time around it took me about 6 months to learn it. Since then due to not maintaining it, I've lost it and regained it a total of three times now. Ever time I try to regain it, it'll take me about 3-4 months to work back up to it and I have to restart at the open tuck progression.
When I am well conditioned I can hold the front lay front lever for about 3-4 seconds. Through these multiple journeys of losing it and regaining it, I've learned quite a few interesting things.
Scapula position in front lever
The scapula position in the front lever should be in MILD PROTRACTION. This is a hot topic for debate within the calisthenic community because people are not sure if their scapula should be in retraction or protraction. We will put to rest once and for all where the scapula should be by reasoning through it logically.
Position your scapula in the opposite direction of gravity
A major guiding principle for where to position your scapula comes from setting it in the opposite direction of what gravity is trying to do to it. Examples are listed below:
Protraction in push up. When you're in push up position, gravity is pulling your scapula into retraction. What you want to do is push away from the floor and enter into scapula protraction.
Elevation in handstand. When you're in a handstand, gravity is pulling your scapula into depression. What you want to do is push away from the floor and enter into scapula elevation.
This principle works really well for the pushing exercises but seems to fall a little short for the front lever. If we follow the principle, then the front lever should utilize full scapula retraction but that is counter productive to activating your lats.
Lats are fully activated in protraction but disengage when retracted
There is this myth that you should try to fully retract your scapula while in front lever but unfortunately that is false because the lats shut off and disengage in retraction. Since the lats are one of the prime movers for the lever, you will want them to be fully engaged.
If you don't believe me you can test it out yourself:
Depress and protract your scapula. Feel your lats, they should be engaged and hard.
Fully retract your scapula. Feel your lats, I bet they feel soft because they're disengaged.
If you need further convincing, we can take a cue from the bodybuilding pose known as the lat spread. Bodybuilders will enter into "poses" which show each intended muscle in their glory and the lat spread shows off the lats.
Here is a picture of multiple bodybuilders performing lat spreads:
Look at all of those lats and how activated and engaged they are.
None of the six bodybuilders are in scapula retraction!
The elbows are in front of the plane of their body, in the protraction plane but not full protraction.
Whenever you want to show off a muscle, you will always go into full contraction because that is when the muscle is fully activated. If you wanted to show off your biceps, you would do a bicep curl. Consequently when you want to show off your lats, you go into mild protraction but NOT retraction.
Just to drive the point home, you should watch this video of what Manimal ZYK has to say:
Manimal is very convincing, can you find any fault in his logic? Now are you convinced that your scapula should not be in retraction?
Where did the idea of scapula retraction come from?
Retract your scapula is a misguided cue for what your scapula should be doing, which is mild protraction. We can find a clue for this in Manimal's video where he references US olympic coach Christopher Sommers, who actually recommends "partial protraction". Here is a screenshot from the video of coach sommer's comment:
What coach sommer basically says is that the idea of partial protraction is too abstract for a beginner that they basically tell trainees to use a neutral scapula position. Retraction however is wrong because it disengages the lats.
Hopefully that clarifies why you SHOULDN'T be in scapula retraction but it does not fully explain why there is a "cue" that you should try to retract while in a front lever. That cue is not necessarily wrong but it is misused and misguided and we can take a hint from coach sommer's partial protraction statement.
You don't want to be in full retraction but at the same time you don't want to be in full protraction either. You're supposed to be in partial protraction which is close to "neutral". What people think of when they hear this is that you should full protract and then you should retract enough to be close to neutral scapula position.
That would place you in the correct scapula position but retracting your scapula to be in mild protraction is actually incorrect.
This is what you should do instead:
Protract and depress your scapula hard.
Slightly externally rotate your arms.
Now you're in the ideal scapula position for a front lever.
If you followed these steps, you should be in what coach sommers calls partial protraction but close to neutral. What you will notice when you protract and depress is that you're definitely in protraction. However once you add in the second step of slight external rotation, the amount of protraction actually DECREASES and brings you into more of a neutral position or mild protraction.
That action of external rotation brings you out of full protraction and more into neutral but it is not the same as retraction. People think that if you want to decrease protraction, you should add in retraction which is incorrect. There is a slight nuance and that is you should add in external rotation to decrease the protraction.
In case you were wondering what the external rotation does here is a list:
Decreases full protraction to mild protraction.
Flattens out your upper back because in full protraction you're hunched over. This opens up your chest.
The external rotation slides your scapula about half an inch lower into depression.
That third and last point is incredibly important because it actually allows your scapula to depress just a little bit more, which decreases the leverage in the front lever. The scapula is moved down a little more, which makes it closer to your center of gravity. That makes the front lever just a little bit easier!
Putting it all together
Last but not least, I'll give you one last example to prove to you why it should be mild protraction and not retraction. The front lever is basically generating a ton of body tension in shoulder extension, which is when you bring your arms down towards your thighs. That act of compressing your arms into your thighs is shoulder extension.
Now try to fully retract and do a few repetitions of shoulder extension in the air. Now compare that protract, depress, and externally rotate your arms while doing shoulder extensions. You should notice significantly more body tension in the upper back with the latter. That tension is what you want!
The secret isn't so much in the protraction but rather the last part which is external rotation. You may think its weird that you've never heard of it but oh, you definitely have. It is just that you've never realized what it was.
One cue that people often give is that when you're holding onto the bar in a front lever you should try to grip it and try to bend the bar. That action of gripping and bending the bar externally rotates your arms.
Here is a video of marcus bondi with his tips on the front lever:
Front Lever Progressions
In order to achieve the full front lever you need to work up to it with progressions because you don't have the strength and conditioning to execute it. The gymnastic levers are different from traditional weight lifting in that the levers require progressions. For weight lifting, there are no progressions and you do the movement without needing to work up to it.
Therefore, training for the front lever requires that you master and move through each successive progression. You can't skip the progressions either because with each subsequent one the leverage gets worse and more difficult. They are there to break the movement down so that you can train for it and gain enough strength to move onto the next progression.
Front lever progressions:
Tuck front lever
The tuck is the very first progression that everyone starts off at. In this position your legs are tightly tucked into your chest. This creates the shortest lever arm and consequently makes it the easiest progression.
Open tuck front lever
Once you master the tuck, you can move onto the open tuck. From the tuck position you open up your knees so that your thighs form a 90 degree angle with your torso. This opening of your body increases the length of the lever and makes it more difficult.
One leg open tuck front lever
From the open tuck position, extend one leg straight out. The tuck leg will be perpendicular to the torso while the other leg will remain fully straight. Once again, don't forget to alternate the legs to work both sides of the body.
Once you master the one leg versions, you can move onto a full straddle which is basically spreading your legs out as wide as possible. The wider you can spread them the easier the movement will be. If you try closing the straddle, the exercise will become more difficult.
Consequently you can also use the width of your straddle as a form of progression. The widest straddle will be the easiest. You can try closing the straddle by 30 degrees to make it harder and also as a form of progression. You can keep closing the straddle more and more to make it harder. The only caveat is that it is hard to track how wide or narrow your straddle is, which makes objective assessment of progress difficult.
The second to last progression is the half lay front lever where your body is entirely straight except at your knees where you allow your shins to drop down perpendicular to your thighs. Here your legs are close together unlike the straddle version. You're almost completely straight with the exception of your shins which are bent.
This is the one progression that I rarely did because I trained for the front lever mostly on dip bars and there wasn't enough feet clearance for me to let my shins dangle.
Full lay front lever
Once you are strong enough you can go into the full lay front lever where you fully extend your shins from the half lay position. You can point your toes if you want to, it does make it more visually appealing if you do so.
Here is a review of some form cues:
Push your hips up so they don't pike
Point your toes
Externally rotate your arms
Push down on the bar with your arms to go into shoulder extension
Hold on for your dear life
Helpful exercises to unlock the front lever
One of the most popular training methods to unlock the front lever is the steady state training cycle. This is where you move through all of the front lever progressions by doing isometric holds. You can read more of in in the link to Antranik's site but you basically test your max hold at whatever progression you are at, split that time in half and do 5 sets of it. You keep doing 5 sets of that for about 8-12 weeks and then retest your max.
Based on the new max time, you can start the next cycle of steady state either with the same progression or the next progression. You rinse and repeat the cycles until you reach the full front lever.
That may work for some people but a lot of people have reported getting stuck at their progression after awhile and that is where dynamic front lever exercises come in. These dynamic exercises are helpful in breaking through the plateau and moving onto the next progression. In fact, some trainers and athletes (The Mindful Mover) out there advocate purely for dynamic exercises over static exercises.
Here are some dynamic exercises that are helpful in unlocking the front lever:
Front lever pull ups
This exercise has you in one of the front lever progressions but you would try to row your body up to the bar for reps. It incorporates bent arm strength into the movement and helps condition you for that. If you were doing just isometric holds, you'd have been missing out on the bent arm work.
Here is a video of a front lever pullup:
The rows are typically more difficult and you probably need to scale down one progression to be able to do them. However if you've never done them before, you probably can't do them at all! You'll need to start off with a tuck row.
Critique: These are very helpful in building back strength and one of the few exercises that allow you to work bent arm strength. Feel free to incorporate and use them as you see fit but they aren't mandatory for you to be able to achieve the front lever. When I can hold a full FL for 3-4 seconds, I only had tucked rows.
Front lever raises
A front lever raise or pull is extremely difficult because you have to lift your torso up to at least parallel with straight arms. Therefore this is a straight arm dynamic movement while the front lever pull up is a dynamic bent arm exercise.
You can pull up and come back down for repetitions. Another variation is where you raise your body all way up to vertical and then come back down, making it a 180 degree movement. That of course makes it more difficult but if you want to up the difficulty once more, you can pause at the horizontal position before going all the way back down.
Critique: These are phenomenal for building strength because you are able to work through a greater range of motion. I've always included these in my training and I consider them necessary for breaking through the straddle plateau.
Static holds will only build strength within 10-15% degree range of motion. Therefore if you're only doing statics, you're missing out on strength in the other ranges of motion.
Negatives are extremely helpful in building strength because most people are stronger at the negative than the positive or concentric phase of an exercise. An example would be, you may not be able to curl a 50 lb dumbell but you can certainly let it down slowly in a negative.
The same principle applies for the front lever where you can move up one progression and do negatives with them to build strength. For example if you can hold the straddle, you can do full lay negatives, where you try to come down as slowly as possible. Initially you may be dropping down pretty quickly with the negative but over time you may notice that you can control the negative more and more. You'll eventually be able to even pause at the horizontal position.
How to do them: You pull yourself up to 180 degrees vertical. Use the same progression that you are working on or one level up. Come down as slow as you can and try to pause for a second once you're horizontal before coming down all the way. You can repeat these for reps.
Critique: I believe these are very important for unlocking the higher progressions of the front lever because it allows you to experience the body positioning of the next progression. Since you're able to do negatives with the next level progression, it provides body positioning awareness that the statics won't give you.
Let's face it, an open tuck front lever is very different from a straddle FL. There is a reason why some people never make it to the next progression and it is because they're not use to the change in body positioning. Give the negatives a try, you'll be surprised.
Ice cream makers
An ice cream maker is a dynamic exercise where you go from a pull up position to a front lever and back. You repeat the movement for repetitions.
Critique: Some people like doing them but I would have to agree with Simonster that it isn't really that beneficial. The reasoning is that they're a lot easier to do than holding a full front lever. The rows, raises, and negatives are all more difficult than the ice cream maker. Personally I've never really done these at all.
Straight arm pull down
Since the front lever is utilizes shoulder extension, it is basically a straight arm pull down with your body. If you wanted a weight lifting exercise that can supplement and function as an accessory exercise for a FL, you can give this exercise a try.
Critique: This may be an extremely beneficial exercise because whenever you try progressing to the next progression, there is usually a large jump in difficulty. If you perform this exercise on a cable machine, you're able to scale the exercise with smaller increments. Just make sure to perform this exercise with straight arms, depressed scapulas, and external rotation.
Last but not least, the arc rows are an accessory exercise which can help you to do front lever pull ups where you can row to your waist. This exercise was invented by mindful mover and what it does is basically get you used to rowing to your waist. Most people get stuck with the FL rows where they are only able to row until their forearms are perpendicular to their arm, thus leaving a few inches before their waist reaches the bar.
Critique: Not absolutely necessary to unlock the full FL but these are necessary to do the rows with your waist to the bar.
The front lever is an isometric hold, which holds your body parallel to the ground by utilizing an immense amount of strength while in shoulder extension. The key to performing it properly is by having your scapula in the correct position which is in full depression with mild protraction. Most people understand the depression but miss out on the nuance of externally rotating their arms. That last piece of the puzzle is what brings the entire movement together.
About the author
I started out following bodybuilding routines and until I discovered the Starting Strength program by Mark Rippetoe. From there I learned the importance of compound movements and have always incorporated it in all of my programs thereafter.
Due to my profession's poor ergonomics while working, upper back pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain became very prominent. I've essentially abandoned traditional weight lifting and started seeking answers to ward off pain from my profession.
That is when I discovered gymnastics, whose principles differed greatly from weight lifting. The calisthenic community had a much larger focus on building strength in the end ranges of motion, which weight lifting shied away from. I've noticed that a lot of the muscular issues were from lack of strength at end ranges of motion.
You may be surprised but the front lever seems to ward off upper back and neck pain. There was a point in time where I was practicing the front lever 5-6x a week not because I liked it but because it made my back feel better. Give it a try and let me know...
I've noticed that the full lay front lever does not really have any additional benefits over the open tuck front lever in regards to back and neck pain. Simply doing 2-3 sets of a 20-30 second open tuck hold does WONDERS for your back. My theory is that it has to do with the arm angle and where the stress on your back is for the different progressions. The straddle and full lay are in pretty far extremes where it seems unnecessary at least from a back pain management stand point.
Of course this is just MY opinion and MY experience. You should do whatever feels the best to you. When in doubt you should consult a physical therapist since they're the ones who fix broken athletes.