Becoming Superhuman: How to Master the Front Lever With Coach Sean Maples

Most of you know by now that I’ve been working on my gymnastics skills as a way to challenge myself and keep learning new skills.

And as someone with zero gymnastics background and pretty much the exact opposite of the idea gymnastics body type, let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy. But I’ve had a TON of fun along the way, and have undoubtedly made progress towards my goals.

So to continue my own pursuit of becoming superhuman, I’m super excited to have Sean Maples, a strength and conditioning coach from movestrong.club showing us how to do an incredibly difficult gymnastics exercise, the front lever.

If you’ve never heard of them before, front levers are a really advanced exercise that require incredibly strong lats and super strong core strength.

It’s an exercise that you’ll definitely see a lot of gymnasts doing, but rarely people at a regular gym, because they’re really hard! Also, the taller and lankier you are, the more difficult this exercise will be (as I found out when trying this exercise).

Yet that doesn’t mean they’re impossible. There are several logical steps to building up to front levers, and just like anything else, with time and consistency you can get there. Yet even if you don’t make it your lifelong goal to do a full one, working on the various progressions is still a great way to build a crazy strong back and core.

Note: We’ll be using rings to work on the progressions today, but you can also use a regular pull up bar to practice these progressions.

Watch the full demonstration video above or browse through the short clips below to see how far I got in the progressions (not very far…) and see Sean demonstrate them for us:

Building superhuman strength with front lever progressions

Krista asked me on to teach you badass 12 Minute Athletes how to do something ridiculously hard. Front levers were the natural choice.

For most, at least one of the front lever progressions will be attainable today. The journey to mastery can be uncommonly long and differs from person to person based on personal history and genetic disposition of mass. If you’ve done rock climbing for the past 5 years and have a strength to weight ratio like Bruce Lee you may be levering like a pro this year! If you spend a lot of time on your lower body and lack foundational shoulder stability you will have a different experience. Enjoy the journey: start, finish and everything between.

All bodyweight levers have a similar acquisition path. Gravity is a constant source of tension. The longer the lever, the greater amount of force to resist. Take a look at the photos below. On the left we see a front lever full tuck. The body is wrapped in a tight tuck position that creates a small lever supported from the shoulders. On right right we see a full front lever. The straight legs create a longer lever. The longer lever not only requires greater support from the shoulders, but also requires core stability at the midline. Master shoulder girdle stability and core strength in this range and boom, front lever!

Form Matters

scapulae movements

Before we dive into lever examples, let’s talk about form.

Shoulder placement is crucial. Shoulders must be down and back: retracted and depressed. This creates the “packed” position required to activate scapular stabilizers and fire the lats. Check out the pictures below for the difference between protracted and retracted scapula and elevated and depressed scapula. Note: you may find benefit in practicing these positions before diving into front lever hold variations.

Here is a video to develop scapular awareness via scapular pushups. And here is a video to develop scapular awareness via scapular shrugs.

Supplementary Work

To keep things simple we can advance any bodyweight levers by simply extending the lever. This method is tried and true, but what if you want to acquire the movement faster? Well, then comes supplementary work. If you anticipate the front lever bringing you great joy, performance or ego superiority then you may have cause to focus your training around this movement. I have. Here are several other exercises that can be paired with front lever training to help advance this movement.

1) Hollow body holds: Notice the similarity between lines. A hollow body hold simply removes shoulder tension and focuses on core strength.

2) Arch pulls (see video below): Check out the shoulder position. Deep retraction at an angle similar to the front lever. Arch pulls can be done for reps or for a hold duration. These are also my go to exercise for getting client past a flat tuck hold and on to a straddle hold.

3) Rotator Cuff: The rotator cuff is the muscle and tendons that surround the shoulder joint and keep the head of the upper arm in the shoulder socket. Important for shoulder stability and crucial for longterm, injury-free performance. Perform YTWLs or Turkish Get-Up speed bumps to strengthen an uninjured rotator cuff.

Before We Get Started

Step #1: Assess your physical condition. Before diving into front lever training make sure you can complete the following 1) 5 chin ups or pull ups 2) 30 second invert hold (upside down hold on the rings) 3) 10 v-ups. If this sounds like you, let’s get to it.

Step #2: Review the progressions below and determine your starting point.

Step #3: Follow the instructions deliberately.

Lever Progressions

#1: Pencil-Pike-Chin Hang

Start from an inverted or “pencil” position. Hold for 1-5 seconds and then lower to a pike position focusing on getting the hips as low your flexibility allows. Hold for 1-5 seconds then tuck your knees to your chest and pull to a chin up position. Hold for 1-5 seconds then pull back to pencil position and repeat.

This routine can be made more difficult be extending the hold duration and extending the lever (e.g. straightening the legs).

Once you’ve mastered 3 set of 5 reps move on to the next progression.

#2: Strict Skin the Cat

Start from a dead hang position with straight elbows. Pull the knees to your chest while pushing the rings down and forward. Hold a tuck position and continue back as deep as you can with control. Pull back to the start position and repeat for reps.

Over time the rear portion or German Hang position of your Skin The Cat will advance, and so too will your ability to pull from a dead hang.

Note: if you cannot pull from a dead hang with straight elbows, put boxes under your feet. Do not bend the elbows or swing. Supplement with toe-to-bar leg raises if necessary.

Once you’ve mastered 5 set of 3 reps move on to the next progression.

#3: Front Lever Full Tuck Hold

From a dead hang pull to an inverted position with straight elbows. If there is bend in your elbows return to step #2 and focus on developing straight arm pulling strength press the rings down and pulling the body up. Hold the inverted position for three seconds. Still inverted, tuck the body into a tight ball with feet and knee together. Retract and depress the scapula. Lower the body to horizontal and hold.

Determining what is horizontal can be tricky. It helps to have a partner or video to determine what is truly horizontal.

Work this progression sub-maximally with strict attention to form. The body is horizontal and the elbows are perfectly straight. Once you can hold the full tuck for 5 sets of 15 second without struggle, you are ready to move on to the next progression.

#4: Front Lever Flat Tuck Hold

Note from Krista: This is the progression where my strength completely gave out on me. I have some work to do!

From a dead hang pull to an inverted position with straight elbows. Hold the inverted position for three seconds. Still inverted, tuck the body into a flat tuck position where there is a 90 degree angle between torso and femur. Retract and depress the scapula. Lower the body to horizontal and hold. The knee should be past the elbow. The low back should be flat.

Work this progression sub-maximally with strict attention to form. The body is horizontal and the elbows are perfectly straight. Once you can hold the flat tuck for 5 sets of 15 second without struggle, you are ready to move on to the next progression.

#5: Arch Pulls

Arch pulls are a plateau buster for front levelers and should be programmed concurrent to or in place of isometric holds. Start from a dead hang on rings or a bar. Retract and depress the scapula allowing the hips to rise to a nearly horizontal position. The legs should hang in a arch. At the top position the scapula is fully retracted. Pretend a pencil is between the shoulder blades and you are squeezing it in place.

Arch pulls can be done for reps or for holds.

Work this progression until you can do 5 sets 3 with 3-5 second holds. Keep the isometric holds in your programming preferable after arch pulls or on a separate day.

#6: Front Lever Easy Straddle Hold

From a dead hang pull to an inverted position with straight elbows. Hold the inverted position for three seconds. Still inverted, place the legs in a wide straddle position with a flat black. Retract and depress the scapula. Lower the body to horizontal and hold. Note that the wider the straddle, the easier the hold.

Work this progression sub-maximally with strict attention to form. The body is horizontal and the elbows are perfectly straight. Once you can hold the easy straddle for 5 sets of 15 second without struggle, you are ready to move on to the next progression.

#7: Ice Cream Makers or Hammer Pulls

Cool/friendly name for a difficult exercise. Ice cream makers can be done with a straddle or in full front lever. Start from a dead hang. Complete a pull up and hold in the hold position. Place your legs either in a straddle or full front lever position. Press the bar away straightening the elbows and lifting the legs to horizontal.

It may be helpful to use a light band when first practicing this movement.

Work this progression maximally with strict attention to form. The body is horizontal and the elbows are perfectly straight. Once you can perform 5 sets of 3-5 reps you are read to advance to the next progression.

Ice cream makers

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#8: Front Lever Straddle Hold

From a dead hang pull to an inverted position with straight elbows. Hold the inverted position for three seconds. Still inverted, place the legs in a flat straddle position (no pike at the hips) with a flat black. Retract and depress the scapula. Lower the body to horizontal and hold.

Because this progression is significantly more difficult than the easy straddle hold you may need to revisit step #5 or #7 for addition front lever foundation work. Be patient.

Work this progression sub-maximally with strict attention to form. The body is horizontal and the elbows are perfectly straight. Once you can hold the easy straddle for 5 sets of 15 second without struggle, you are ready to move on to the next progression.

#9: Front Lever Pulls

From a dead hang retract and depress the scapular to lift the body to an inverted position. This is done with no pike in the hips from either a full front lever position or a straddle position.

Work this progression maximally with strict attention to form. There is no pike and elbows are perfectly straight. Once you can complete 3 consecutive full front lever pulls for 3 sets you are ready to advance to the final front lever progression covered in this article (there are many others).

Front Lever Pull

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#10: Front Lever Hold with False Grip

From a standing position grasp the rings with a false grip. With a slight kick position your body in a front lever. Hold with a strict line for up to 10 seconds.

Now you have a full front lever! Show all of your friends.

BONUS: Front Lever Muscle-Up

This is a more difficult version of the ice cream maker. Pull to a false grip front lever. Hold for as long as you like then pike at the hips and muscle-up. Perform as supplementary work to keep your front lever fresh while playing around with other levers or advancing ring routines.




sean maplesSean is a strength and conditioning coach based out of San Francisco. He combines elements of gymnastics, powerlifting, and general movement to inspire humans to move strong.

More information about Sean and can be found at movestrong.club.

2 thoughts on “Becoming Superhuman: How to Master the Front Lever With Coach Sean Maples”

  1. I love how these exercises really build super strength – but don’t seem to be as likely to cause injury as lifting heavier weights can. I see you can hurt joints, but I think pain might stop you before you injure yourself. I’m inspired.

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