Monday, June 4, 2018

The 20 Second Front Lever

Several people have asked me how I trained to do a 20 second front lever. It certainly wasn’t easier being 6’3”, a +3” ape index, and weighing 175 lbs. I’ve always loved trying to figure out “strength tricks” like front levers and one-arm pull-ups. The most interesting part to me is the part that other people seem to find the most challenging: the fact that when you can’t do the exercise, it’s not clear how to even start. This is much more true of front levers than one-arms.
   What follows is, as best I can remember, what I actually did to start at zero (can’t do a front lever) and progress to a very long front lever. Yes, I have heard of (and tested) many other approaches not listed here. I’m convinced that there are many inefficient and counter-productive ways to train front levers; so I’m mentioning only what I did.

Primary Theory
Since a proper front lever requires a straight line from ankles, to knees, to hips, to the shoulders, and to head head, all the exercises I do maintain as much of that structure as possible. The only one that we will adjust is the position of the ankles. (This is why I never believed in the approach of kicking the legs in/out to train front levers. And to be honest, I’ve never seen it result in success.)

I am a big believer in form. Fewer reps or shorter hangs with perfect form is always better. Poor form through the steps below will only set you back. To this end, have a partner around whenever possible; preferably the same one. I have been fortunate to train with Bob Banks for the last 20+ years and he has timed all my front lever attempts and been there to comment on my form. This is immensely valuable and I doubt many people would have very good form without a partner commenting along the way. Also, the stricter the partner the better—their job isn’t to encourage you, it’s to tell you what you’re doing wrong.

Use a bar if possible, it’s easier than rings. Also, I was incredibly lucky and happened to mount my bar so that when I’m in a front lever, my toes hit the bottom of my hangboard. It was just dumb luck, but it really helped keep my form in shape when I didn’t have a training partner around.

Step 1: Ab-Rollers
I hate watching people do this exercise—form is always crap. Keep a straight line from knees, to hips, to shoulder. Keep your feet tucked up towards your butt, as this prevents cheating and protects your lower back. Don’t slack off on form on the last rep, which is easy to do (finish the last rep fully, then bend at the hips to get up.) Watch my video below. Do these 3-4 days a week until you can do 3 sets of 25 reps with a 2-3 minute rest between sets. It takes me 36 seconds to do 14 reps below, so a set of 25 should take about 64 seconds. Since muscles don't count reps, a better goal might be 3 sets of 60 seconds.

Step 2: Front Lever Raises
Hang from a bar. Tuck your feet up behind you. Rotate your body up to just past level; then lower back to the starting position. Do the motion at a slow, consistent rate both up and down. Remember not to bend the elbows. Let the head rotate in line with the knees, hips, and shoulders. Watch my video. Do these 3 days a week until you can do 3 sets of 7-8 reps with a 2-3 minute rest between sets.

Step 3: Front Lever
If you’ve done the steps above in good form, I think you can now do a 2-4 second front lever. Try it. If not, go back to step 2 for a few weeks adding a slight pause when your body is horizontal.

Step 4: Longer Front Lever
Two factors will need to improve for longer front levers: strength and breathing. My understanding is that you can’t breathe if you abdominal muscles are contracted at 50% or more of your maximum strength. (This is based on old research; does anyone know if this is accurate?) So as you get stronger, you will find it easier to take very quick breaths. These breaths make a long front lever possible. Practice taking little gasps of air. What I noticed is that even one or two little breaths moves my time from about 4 seconds to around 8 seconds. This shows how important breathing is, as I clearly didn’t get twice as strong in a few weeks. Focus on breathing and do 2-3 maximum length holds (3-4 minute rests between sets) 2-3 days per week. You want to feel fresh for these workouts, so if you don’t, do 2 sets 2 days a week. I think this should get you to doing 10-15 second front levers. Once you hit maybe 13-14 seconds, move on to step 5.

Step 5: Very Long Front Lever
On June 16, 2017, I did a 15 second front lever; my longest in maybe 15 years. I trained them lightly until January, 2018 when I switched my routine up and trained front levers twice a week and only 5 minutes per workout. Then on March 27, 2018, I hit 20.5 seconds. I was pretty blown away by a 33% improvement in 9 months given that I was only training them 10 minutes a week. The format I used was 10 seconds on and 60 seconds off for 5 sets. Focus on completing all 5 sets for the full 10 seconds. So start with both knees bent. Once you can do two consecutive workouts holding it the full time on all sets, increase to one leg bent. Then once you can do two consecutive workouts, increase to both legs straight. Once I could do two consecutive workouts with both legs straight, I hit my 20.5 second front lever.

Fine Tuning
There are a few things that are minor elements when you’re starting out, but make a difference when you’re pushing your limit. These are:
  1. The position of the head. Everyone wants to look down at their feet to help judge level and their form. Don’t do this as tilting the head forward pushes weight towards the bar and we want every ounce as far from the bar as possible to counter our legs. I stare at one exact spot behind me every time, which helps me focus and puts my head in the proper position.
  2. Feet. In the video, I point my feet. This is a mistake as it moves weight even further from the bar. Ankles should be at 90 degrees.
  3. Thumbs. I’m still deciding if thumbs should be around the bar or not. Try it both ways a do whatever feels best. On my longest front lever, my thumbs are with my fingers, not wrapped around the bar.
Setbacks, Plateaus, Etc.
I did not just fly through the steps above in one continuous push. I did a 19 second front lever around 2000/2001 and trained them sporadically until 2017. If you take a break, or simply hit a plateau, go back to step 1 or do some other abdominal routines for a while. Russian twists (on a machine, not the floor) are my favorite exercise to mix in. I also have a light 30 minute routine that probably helps build a base. Still, motivation is king and if you’re psyched, I think you’ll see steady gains using the steps above.