back lever

Back lever: the ultimate guide (2024)

The back lever is a static calisthenics exercise where you hang horizontally beneath the bar. Not only does it look fantastic, but it also builds significant strength.

It’s certainly not an easy skill to master, but with the right training structure, progressions, and supporting exercises, almost anyone can learn it. So, if you want to master the back lever, you’ve come to the right place.

This blog is structured as follows. First, we’ll discuss the prerequisites you need to meet before safely starting. Then, we’ll move on to the proper technique and explore various progressions.


Back lever - Strength Requirement

The back lever is a calisthenics exercise where you hang horizontally beneath the bar with your chest facing the ground.

For this, you need a considerable amount of strength, roughly equivalent to the strength required for a weighted pull-up with 50% of your body weight. Source: ‘Overcoming Gravity.’

Hence, it’s wise to focus on building your pull strength before embarking on the initial progression.

Set a goal to perform at least 5 pull-ups with an additional weight of 30-40% of your body weight. For example, if you weigh 80kg, your goal is to execute 5 pull-ups with 24-32kg added weight.

If you haven’t reached this yet, check out our blog on how to work on your weighted pull-ups.

Back lever - Mobility Requirement

During the execution of the back lever, you hang in your shoulders. This naturally creates a lot of pressure on your shoulder joint and the surrounding muscles and tendons.

Before you begin training, it’s crucial to work on your shoulder mobility. You can do this effectively with the routine in the video below.

The objective of your mobility training is to be able to hang in the German hang exercise without discomfort. You can see this stretch below.

german hang
german hang - back lever progressie

When you transition from a dead hang position to the German hang and back to the dead hang, it’s called a ‘skin the cat.’ The goal here is to be able to perform 5 skin the cats cleanly.

Skin the cat

Backlever requirements:

– 5 pull ups with 30-40% of bodyweight added
– 5 skin the cats

Body positioning in the back lever

Which position your shoulders and hands should maintain during training.

Scapula positioning

Shoulderblades (Scapula) should be protracted and depressed:

  • Protracted: Shoulders forward
  • Depressed: Shoulders downward

By pushing the shoulders forward and downward (protracted and depressed), you stabilize the shoulder blades and reduce the risk of injuries.

Hand positioning

Place your hands approximately shoulder-width apart on the bar/rings. There are two different types of grips: the supinated grip and the pronated grip.

The pronated grip is the grip used in a standard pull-up, while the supinated grip is typically used in a chin-up.

The supinated grip puts significantly more tension on your biceps and is therefore more prone to injuries. That’s why it’s wise to train with a pronated grip.

Progressions back lever

The back lever is learned by using progressions. These are lighter variations of the exercise that allow you to gradually work towards the ultimate goal.

If you meet the previously mentioned strength and mobility requirements, you have enough strength to start with the first progression.

To train the back lever, we use the following 3 progressions:

tucked back lever

tucked back lever

advanced tucked back lever

advanced tucked back lever

straddle back lever

How to train for the back lever?

Start with the first progression:

  • Train 2 to 3 times per week.
  • Perform 4 to 5 sets of your current progression per workout.
  • Each set should last a minimum of 4 seconds and a maximum of 10 seconds.
  • Rest for at least 3 minutes between sets.

Do not go for a maximum hold in every set. It’s better to distribute your energy across the sets. Constantly training for maximum holds increases the risk of injuries. Therefore, always stop 1 to 2 seconds before complete fatigue.

How should it be done? Example of building your back lever training: In this example, we assume a 1 rep max on the tucked variant of 7 seconds.

1st Training: 4 sets of 5 seconds hold (Reps in Reserve 2). 2nd training: 2 sets of 6 seconds and 2 sets of 5 seconds.

This way, you build strength in a structured manner. Your body recovers, gets stronger, and eventually, you achieve 10 seconds per set. This is the moment to progress to the next variation.

Next, train the advanced tucked variant and start again with sets of approximately 4-5 seconds.

Training frequency

The speed at which athletes learn the back lever varies due to multiple factors, with the most significant being the lever effect.

Your shoulder muscles must exert all the force to keep your body straight, and the longer you are, the greater this lever effect becomes.

This means that the intensity of training the back lever increases as you get taller. When training at higher intensity, it’s important to allow for sufficient rest.

If you are taller than 180cm, it’s advisable to train the back lever a maximum of 2 times per week. If you are shorter than 180cm, you might consider adding a third session.

These are guidelines, and you know your body and how it feels best. If the back lever feels easy for you and requires little energy/strength, you can add another training session.

If 2 times per week is too much, you can still make progress with one back lever training session per week.

Additional tips

Take off your shoes during training. The extra weight at the end of the lever has a significant effect on the force it requires.

  1. Train weighted pull-ups

With the pull-up, you train many of the same muscles as in the back lever. Strengthening your weighted pull-up directly impacts your strength in the back lever.

The advantage of the weighted pull-up / chin-up is that you can scale it more easily. You can simply add extra weight.

The best way to add weight to your pull-ups is with a pull-up belt.

  1. Use resistance bands

Use resistance bands when practicing a new progression for the first time. This allows you to get used to the exercise gradually. See how to do this in the video below.

Want to know what equipment you can use more? Read our calisthenics equipment blogpost

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