The Front and Back Levers on the rings or bar are essential calisthenic strength movements, and working toward them provides incredible stimulation for total body strength.
The full skills themselves can be intimidating, but just like any other move, the levers must start with the fundamentals if you want to go from zero to the complete movement with as few problems as possible.
You’ll definitely still need to put in the hard work, but there’s no reason to set up blockades to your progress if you can help it.
Here’s How to Get the Most out of Each Variation of the Front and Back Levers
The front and back levers are both examples of good strength and control, but there are some differences between them.
The Front Lever – How it Works and What to Expect
The Front Lever is performed with straight arms and an aligned torso and legs, wherein you grab the rings or bar, and lean back to make your body horizontal to the ground.
It’s a move that requires a great deal of strength, especially with the arms locked straight. With the elbows locked out, you’ll be relying on the muscles of shoulder extension – pulling your arms back behind you – and won’t have the biceps to help you out.
It also requires incredible core strength, with the abdominals working hard to keep your lower body up and in line with your upper body. And to prevent your hips from dropping down, your low back has to work hard as well.
From your grip to your legs, the Front Lever works your whole body.
The Back Lever – How it Works and What to Expect
The Back Lever is also performed with straight arms, but this time you begin by hanging upside down and pulling your lower body over and around to get to the horizontal positioning.
Whereas the front lever has your chest facing upwards, in the back lever your chest is facing the ground.
Since this has the opposite posture as the front lever, the emphasis is more on the posterior chain muscles of the body. The lower back and hips are used strongly here, though you’ll also need good abdominal and arm strength to keep you in a nice horizontal line from your neck to your toes.
The work done to achieve the back lever develops the coordination of varying muscle groups – pectorals, lats, biceps, triceps, abdominals, low back – that are sometimes at odds with one another in other actions. In the back lever, you learn how to use them all together to make a solid position.
You can work on all these muscles separately, but it can be more efficient and effective to train these muscles to work together at the same time in one move.
The Right Way to Learn the Levers (with 2 Video Tutorials)
There are many progressions and methods for learning the front and back levers. Below, I’ll describe what has worked well for me and my clients.
As I’ll say again and again, it’s not the particular “magical” progressions that are the key. Those can be tweaked and adjusted as needed for people. What’s key are the fundamental concepts underlying those progressions. The basics never go out of style and you’ll gain so much by always returning to the fundamentals.
(Quoted from my front lever post on A Shot of Adrenaline)
Let’s take a look at some progressions that can help you get the front and back levers.
Working Your Way to the Front Lever
The progressions I’ll describe in this video are a little different than most front lever progressions you’ll find. I like to start a couple steps back, so you can build up sufficient shoulder strength and mobility.
As you can see, I break the front lever down into eight progressions:
- Pulling prep
- Pulling prep with chest pull
- Pulling prep with knees up
- Front tuck
- Open front tuck
- Tuck repeats
- Tuck with leg extension (AKA “can opener”)
- Full front lever
Work through each step carefully and move on when you feel comfortable. It’s not an exact process and you may need to take a step back some workouts, but keep consistent and you’ll find what you’ll need to do.
There are other effective methods of approaching the front lever, but these progressions will definitely get you to the full front lever with the appropriate time and effort.
Working Your Way to the Back Lever
There are already some very good tutorials out there on the back lever such as by our friend Daniel Vadnal of Fitness FAQs.
In that video, he shares the basic progressions and structure of your training with details to achieve the back lever from scratch to the full movement.
You’d do well to follow his plan for it.
With this in mind, the following video focuses on the reasoning for different hand positions in the back lever and what it means to perform them one way or the other.
As I describe and demonstrate in the video, the two primary hand positions for the back lever – underhand or overhand grip – are both perfectly fine. It’s just a matter of where the emphasis lies.
In the overhand grip, the palms are facing forward when you grip the rings, and the emphasis will be on the biceps and elbows. With the underhand grip, the palms will be facing back when you grip the rings, and the stress is less on the biceps and more on the shoulder.
Choose the hand position you feel more comfortable with, and work on improving your strength there. Then if you’d like to change, build back up again with the different hand position.
What Can You Look Forward to From Practicing the Ring Levers?
Being able to perform the front and back levers clearly demonstrates a very good level of strength and skill.
At GMB, we don’t think it’s necessarily the skill itself that matters. Rather, we’re after a mindful awareness of the journey toward it. The front and back levers are good examples of moves that require you to pay close attention to how you are moving, in order to fully develop the skills.
With the progressions suggested in this post, you can make adjustments based on your body’s abilities, by changing leverages to gradually increase or decrease resistance as needed.
If you approach your skill practice with mindful awareness, you’ll be doing all you can to progress toward whatever goal you desire.
Front and back levers are covered in greater detail in our advanced rings course. Click below to find out more.
Build Advanced Rings Skills
R2 is an advanced-level program for building building up to difficult gymnastic rings skills like levers and the iron cross.