A (much) younger me did 10 to 30 minutes of floor core exercises every day. I would hold planks for five to 10 minutes straight. I’d do hollow bodies, leg raises, crunches, or boats, for a minute each and then repeat. Not to toot my own horn, but my core was strong. And you know what? I still couldn’t do a front lever.
Front levers are just plain hard. And mysterious, because they are complex movements that involve so much more than your core. The abdominal muscles, as you might guess, create tension and help prevent your hips from tipping forward. But the lats, along with a few supporting back and shoulder muscles, are perhaps more important than the abs as they produce shoulder extension. Your trapezius aids in keeping your scapulas pulled together. Your glutes and hip flexors play a role, too. A multifaceted approach is thus key, and, since individual strengths, weaknesses, and body type also plays a role (more on that later), there’s no one road to success.
It’s worth noting that front levers, like one-arms, have limited applicability to climbing hard. I know plenty of climbers who climb 5.14-plus (even 5.15) or V14 and still can’t do a front lever. In my own experience, I’ve been able to do two or three-second long front levers only in peak shape—after a heavy training cycle and following a period of tapering prior to important redpoint attempts. Front levers are hard exercises that are great for training and can be a worthy aspirational goal, but for some climbers (again: body type) they’re not necessary for climbing hard.
Before diving into the front lever progression, there are some supplemental exercises that I’ve found to be helpful. Bonus: they’re helpful for your climbing, too.
L-sits: These are excellent for strengthening your lower core, but they also hit your pecs, shoulders, quads, and triceps. To perform an L-sit, grab a set of parallettes. Push up on the parallettes and raise your legs in an L or V position. Hold. L-sits are simple, yet challenging, and for added challenge may also be performed on the floor.
Dragonflies: These are floor versions of the front lever. Lay back down next to something solid that you can grab onto overhead, such as a support beam or a heavy workout machine. Raise your feet directly overhead so that you’re supported by your upper back and shoulders. Then lower. The slower the better, keeping your body flat and being careful not to pike at the end of the movement (keep your butt engaged!).
Skin-the-Cats: Skin-the-cats may primarily be considered a shoulder mobility exercise. I find them important when I’m in a training cycle that requires me to perform many other hanging exercises, which can cause inflammation and tightening in my shoulders. You simply can’t expect to strengthen tight shoulders without getting injured. Skin-the-cats will help keep everything loose and are also great for increasing core strength and stability. Begin by hanging from a bar. Keeping your legs straight, thread them through your arms and all the way around so that you do a 360 flip without letting go. Then reverse. Be sure to maintain control throughout the entirety of the exercise.
Weighted Pull-ups: Weighted pull-ups will strengthen your lats, shoulders, and the other back muscles important for performing a front lever. Interestingly, calisthenics coach “Frinks” (see his YouTube channel Frinksmovement TV) conducted a survey to see if there was a correlation between weighted pull-ups and front levers. He received 322 responses. Of the group that could do a maximum weighted pull-up that was 30 to 50 percent of their body weight, most could only perform an advanced tuck (see below for what that is). Same for those pulling 50 to 65 percent of their weight. But once respondents could do weighted pull-ups at 60 to 85 percent of their body weight, most could do a full front lever.
Bench Press: This one may seem strange, but, believe it or not, I’ve seen the most gains in my front levers after adding bench press (and other pressing maneuvers, such as overhead press) to my routine. Weak antagonists limit agonistic movement, so it makes sense that once I started improving my bench press, my weighted pull-up also increased, as did my front lever ability. (Likewise, adding dips to your routine would also be helpful!)
Tuck Lever: Start in a dead hang from a bar. Roll your legs up to your chest and rotate so that your back is parallel to the ground. Once you can hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds, try advancing.
Advanced Tuck: Same as the tuck lever, except extend both of your legs slightly so that your knees are stacked over your hips. (Think of this as being a hanging version of the tabletop position.) Aim to hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Assisted Levers: These can be performed at any point in the progression. Attach resistance bands to the bar or rings and thread your legs through them. Then hold the front lever position. I recommend doing interval training here, such as 10 seconds on and 5 seconds off for a minute, repeating reps until you reach one minute. Repeat for 3 to 5 sets. You can increase difficulty by decreasing the resistance of the band or adding ankle weights.
Negative Levers: Start from an inverted hang (with your legs and torso pointed straight up) and the lower as slowly as possible. Aim to do three to five (or more!) reps.
One Leg Levers: Start in a tucked lever position and then extend one leg. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Increase the difficulty by slightly extending the tucked leg.
Straddle Levers: Straddle levers are performed when your legs are spread out in a V-position. It may be easier to perform them as negative levers first and then advance to holding the straddle.
Ice-cream Makers: Pull into a front lever position and lower as slowly as possible. Perform five or more sets.
Like it or not, weight distribution matters when it comes to being able to do a front lever. The lower your center of mass is, the longer the moment arm. So those of us endowed with heavier legs will need to produce greater force to hold the lever.
It’s also worth remembering that skillswise, we as climbers are not going for points on the gymnastics rings, but rather the ability to suspend our body out in front of us while hanging. The difference there is huge, in terms of required strength, but, in my humble opinion, negligible when it comes to climbing crossover. In other words, I think the greatest applicability to our sport comes from doing an OK front lever with a sagging butt. I think anything beyond that earns you more style points but fewer climbing gains.