Earlier this year I created a goal to achieve a 5 second full back lever hold by the end of 2019. This post is an update on my progress.
The full back lever is an intermediate calisthenics exercise. It involves hanging from a bar or rings in a horizontal position:
The back lever is slightly different from its sister exercise, the front lever.
With the back lever your arms extend behind you while the front of your body faces the ground. In contrast, with the front lever your arms extend in front of you while the back of your body faces the ground.
In terms of difficulty most people find the full back lever slightly easier to achieve than the full front lever.
Why I Decided To Train The Back Lever
There are several reasons why I decided to train towards a full back lever:
- Looks cool as hell: Who wouldn’t want to show off this move at the park or gym?
- Connective tissue integrity: The full back lever bulletproofs your connective tissues in preparation for higher level calisthenics exercises.
- Difficulty: The full back lever, although far from easy, is typically less difficult to perform than other popular isometrics such as full planche, front lever, and iron cross.
My Back Lever Progression Journey
I did not start training the back lever until I had a solid foundation in basic calisthenics exercises:
It’s extremely important to build a solid foundation with the basics before moving onto more advanced exercises. The basics not only build strength, but they condition your connective tissues.
If you were to jump straight to back lever training without having built a solid foundation, your risk of injury increases.
Focus on the basics first!
I still keep many of these basic exercises in my current routine. The only change I made was swapping out my horizontal pulling exercise (rows) for the back lever progression.
I also added my back lever training to the beginning of my workout routine.
In general, you should always add exercises you want to progress in most to the beginning of the routine. Your muscles are less fatigued at this stage and you will progress faster.
Step 1: Skin The Cats
The first exercise I added to my routine as I began training back lever is skin the cats.
To perform skin the cats hang from a bar or rings and bring your feet through your arms as you flip over backwards.
Allow your feet to drop towards the floor and hang in the position (known as a German Hang) for several seconds before pulling yourself back to the start position.
Skin the cats are a great prerequisite to the back lever because they take your shoulders through their full range of motion.
To get into the back lever position, you must bring your legs between your hands anyway so it’s important to get comfortable doing so.
After I mastered skin the cats I added them to the mobility portion of my warm-up and do at least 2-3 reps every workout.
A Quick Note On Grip
There are two grips you can use when training the back lever:
- Pronated grip (overhand grip)
- Supinated grip (underhand grip)
As recommended in the Book Overcoming Gravity 2 I chose to use the supinated grip from the beginning.
If you look at pictures and videos of people performing the back lever, most are using the pronated grip. The pronated grip makes the exercise easier for most people:
The supinated grip places much more stress on your biceps, making the exercise more difficult. However, in the long run it pays off:
Just be sure to progress slowly and at your own pace!
At first I felt like my biceps were going to rip in half using a supinated grip. As I continued training it began to feel normal.
Step 2: Tuck Back Lever
Next, I began working the tuck back lever.
The tuck back lever is essentially hanging from the bar or rings in the back lever position, but with your body in a tuck position. It is a static hold.
The tuck position places your body’s center of mass closer to your shoulders, which decreases torque (force * distance) thus making the exercise easier.
Although it took some time to get used to performing this exercise, I found it fairly easy because I had built a solid foundation with the basics.
Here’s a video of me performing the tuck back lever:
Once I was able to work up to about 4-5 sets of 12 second holds, I decided it was time to move on to the advanced tuck back lever.
I worked at the tuck back lever for about 1.5 months before progressing to the advanced tuck back lever.
Step 3: Advanced Tuck Back Lever (Current Progression)
When I first tried an advanced tuck back lever I thought my elbows were going to snap in half. I was VERY surprised at how much more difficult it was to perform than the tuck back lever.
In fact, when I first tried it I could not even get into the proper advanced tuck position with my back horizontal:
After struggling trying to figure out if I should regress back to the tuck back lever, I posted a video of my form on Reddit in the bodyweight fitness group.
The feedback I got was extremely helpful. Someone suggested that I train eccentrics instead of trying to hold the static position.
In other words, instead of pausing at horizontal I would just keep lowering my body down to a German Hang.
Eccentrics are an extremely effective tool when you can’t yet perform an exercise. For example, pull ups respond well to eccentric training.
For some reason I hadn’t thought to do this myself, but after receiving feedback from the community I decided to give it a shot.
This is where I am currently at with my back lever training: Advanced Tuck Back Lever Eccentrics:
I noticed since I started training eccentrics that I can now hold the horizontal position for a few seconds before my form falls apart.
I plan to continue training eccentrics until I can hold the horizontal position with good form for at least 6 seconds, at which time I will transition to advanced tuck back lever isometric holds.
3 Lessons Learned Training The Back Lever
Training the back lever has taught me 3 important lessons:
- Progressing in calisthenics is not a linear path. There will be many frustrations and bumps along the way.
- Filming yourself to ensure proper form is critical. Oftentimes you have no idea if your form is correct without an outside perspective.
- If I’m stuck, there is major value in reaching out to more experienced athletes for help.
I am excited to continue my back lever training and look forward to achieving the full back lever by the end of this year. At my current pace I feel confident I will achieve it.
Are you currently struggling with any calisthenics progressions? Share your journey in the comments below!