Valkyrie Fitness Bits is a twice-weekly series of videos and blog posts covering a single exercise each. Learn to build strength and mobility for your martial arts training, and mix and match your favourite exercises to build a workout that fits your goals and training style.
Front Levers and Back Levers
The Front and Back Lever are very challenging holds that require a lot of back and abdominal strength to pull off. Transitioning from one to the other is also a serious test of shoulder stability and strength, as the body must be kept balanced under load through a very large range of motion. As martial artists who need their shoulders to be in the best shape possible to support a wide range of actions and impacts, we’re more interested in this secondary quality than in being able to pull off a complete hold. Your workouts should focus on moving slowly and smoothly from one position to the other, rather than achieving the most challenging position possible.
Both positions begin from a Standard Grip, with the palms facing forward. For a Front Lever, you can either pull up to a horizontal position with your belly facing the ceiling, or invert into a Straight Hold, and lower into the horizontal position from there. In either case, your final position has you parallel to the ground, with a straight back and legs, and straight arms supporting your weight. A Back Lever begins from an inversion, and then a slow lower into a fully extended horizontal position with the belly facing the ground. Once again, your back and legs are straight, and straight arms support your body’s weight.
Each of these positions puts a lot of leverage onto the shoulders, and is very challenging to maintain. For our purposes, the Tuck or Advanced Tuck variants (shown below) are more than sufficient.
There are a number of variations that allow you to get the shoulder stability benefits of the full Front and Back Levers, without the dedicated training that’s required to hit a full extension. When working on each variant, you should aim to move smoothly and continuously between the most horizontal positions you can manage, hitting each one 2-5 times per set. Don’t worry if you can’t make it all the way to horizontal with each repetition – steady movement is the goal here.
In the Tuck Front Lever and Tuck Back Lever, the knees are tucked tight to the chest throughout your motion. This greatly reduces the leverage on your shoulders, and makes it easier to move all the way through to a horizontal position. You will get some rounding of the back in this variation.
Advanced Tuck Levers
In the Advanced Tuck Front and Back Levers, your knees are left bent, but held further out from the body. Aim for a 90-degree angle, and use this variation to focus on getting your back as straight as possible during your movement. The leverage will be higher than in the Tuck variation, and the change in pelvic tilt that allows you to straighten your back will engage the abdominal and lower back muscles much more strongly.
Single Leg Extension Levers
Begin in an Inverted Straight Hold, and bend one leg into a tucked position, leaving the other fully extended. From here, lower into the Front or Back Lever, maintaining a straight back. This is a very challenging position, and it’s very easy to lose your back alignment and bend at the hips, especially as you lower into the Back Lever. If you find your posture starting to collapse (as in the right-hand image above), stop your movement at that point, and start transitioning back in the other direction.
BONUS: German Hang
The German Hang isn’t actually a variation of the Front or Back Lever, but a related static hold that helps to develop shoulder strength and stability in the most extreme rear arc of its rotation. As a result, it’s a great complement to a Front and Back lever workout, and can also help you build up the strength you need for the Back Lever in particular.
Begin in a Tuck Back Lever, and continue lowering your body while slowly extending your legs. Keep lowering yourself until your legs are in a vertical position, and your shoulders are at the fullest reach of their extension behind you. Make sure to maintain a very strong engagement of your shoulder blades throughout the motion, and stop as soon as you feel any pain in your shoulders, or if you lose tension. For an extra challenge, you can finish this exercise by pulling your body back through your hands, reversing your path into the German Hang.