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August 29, 2022 7 min read

Bodyweight exercises are often associated with push-ups and pull-ups, but there are other calisthenics that require more strength, stability, and mobility, and not to mention make you look like a superhero in the gym.

The back lever is one of these exercises and is a mixture of gymnastics and dead hangs. Often performed on gymnastics rings, it can also be performed on a pull-up bar for a little bit more stability.

For an advanced exercise like the back lever, it’s important to know that no matter how in shape you are, it can take time, practice, and progression.

What Exactly is the Back Lever?

If you saw someone in the gym hanging upside down, you’d likely be curious as to what they were doing. With the back lever however, you may be more impressed than confused.

The back lever is an isometric exercise on gymnastics rings or pull-up bars with a twist. 

Instead of just dead hanging from the bar, you tuck your knees up, flip behind, and slowly transition into a static hold where you’re still holding the bar, but you’re facing the ground.

This impressive exercise requires maximal shoulder mobility, core strength, and tension throughout your entire body.

It gets its name from the conventional lever, a rigid tool typically used to move a heavy object easily and more efficiently. As a tool, a lever is able to move and rotate at a point, and in the back lever’s case, your shoulders are the point.

With more advancement, practice, and mobility, you can rotate your shoulders further to bring your body slightly further away from the bar.

Muscles Worked by the Back Lever

You may forget how difficult isometric exercises can be until you hold a squat for 30 seconds. The same goes for the back lever. Initially, it may look like a simple exercise, but the back lever has the ability to strengthen muscles in your upper body, while also keeping them flexible.

It’s evident how the back lever works your abdominals because they help to stabilize your whole body, but you can also strengthen your back and arms too.

Your lower body muscle groups like your hips can also play an important role in stability and helping keep your body in a straight line. 

Also, the muscles in your posterior chain like your glutes, hamstrings, lats, and erector spinae are activated to keep the position tight, stable, and in good form.

On the front of your body, the biceps are also recruited as they are activated in the supinated grip of the back lever. Your deltoids, or shoulder muscles, need to be strong and flexible as they’re helping protect the shoulder joint from injury and helping it rotate. 

The pectorals also help to move the arms and rotate the shoulder, as they assist in shoulder stability, so keeping a strong chest can help set you up for success during this movement.

Below are the Muscles Worked by the Back Lever:

  • Abdominals
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Erector spinae
  • Deltoids
  • Pectorals
  • Hip flexors
  • Biceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

How to Do the Back Lever

 

Although you may not be ready to try the full back lever just yet, let’s break down a tutorial to help you understand what you’ll be working towards.

A Back Lever Tutorial:

  • Start by hanging from a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings with an overhand grip. It’s important to practice a dead hang and make sure your lats are engaged. You can help to do this by bringing your shoulders down and away from your ears.
  • From the proper dead hang position, bring your knees up to your chest.
  • Keeping your lats engaged and core tight, continue to roll backwards as if you were doing a backflip. It’s important to keep extreme body tension and not move too quickly through the movement.
  • Continue to turn until you thread your legs through your arms and around the other side of the bar. This backflip-type movement is referred to as “skin the cat”.
  • At this point, your hands should be in the same position, but your body should be inverted.
  • From here, you’ll keep tension in your entire body as you extend your legs behind you into a full back lever.
  • Rotate your body forward and pull your legs through the same path to reset in the starting position and get ready for the next rep.

Back Lever Progressions

To set yourself up for success with the back lever, you’ll want to practice progression exercises, so you can move safely and more efficiently.

It’s also important to remember to warm-up before this type of advanced calisthenics movement, so you can prime your muscles and joints to help avoid injury.

Inverted Hang

 

The inverted hang can be a beneficial way to strengthen your core and train your body to stay in a straight line that’s needed in the back lever.

Although it does require full-body strength and stability, it doesn’t require as much shoulder mobility. 

This allows you to work on the back lever hold without needing the extra mobility from your shoulders just yet.

How to Do the Inverted Hang:

  • Start by hanging from a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings with an overhand grip.
  • From the dead hang position, bring your knees up to your chest.
  • Keeping your lats engaged and core tight, continue to turn until you’re upside down.
  • Holding this position, slowly start to straighten your legs until they’re fully extended.
  • Hold for a few seconds before slowly returning to the starting position.

Skin the Cat

 

Skinning the cat is the part of the back lever where you bring your knees to your chest and rotate your body backwards until you’re inverted. Just this movement requires shoulder mobility, upper body strength and stability.

It’s extremely crucial to master skinning the cat before even attempting to get into a back lever position.

You can practice this movement with spotters to help you perform the movement fully and safely, and if you feel comfortable on your own, you can choose a bar or rings low enough where your feet can touch the ground in the beginning and after the pass-through.

How to Do the Skin the Cat:

  • Start by hanging from a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings with an overhand grip.
  • From the dead hang position, bring your knees up to your chest.
  • Keeping your lats engaged and core tight, continue to turn until you thread your legs through your arms and around the other side of the bar.
  • Rotate your body forward and pull your legs through the same path to reset in the starting position.

German Hang

 

Once you’ve mastered skinning the cat, you can move into a German hang, which is where you let your legs hang below you after rotating all the way around.

Practicing the German hang can help mobilize your shoulders and get them primed to move through a full range of motion.

Without mastering the German hang first, you may find that your back lever is limited to your shoulder mobility.

How to Do the German Hang:

  • Start by hanging from a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings with an overhand grip.
  • From the dead hang position, bring your knees up to your chest.
  • Keeping your lats engaged and core tight, continue to turn until you thread your legs through your arms and around the other side of the bar.
  • Slowly start to extend your legs towards the ground and feel the greater extension in your shoulders.
  • Keep your body tense as you hang in this position, then rotate your body forward and pull your legs through the same path to reset in the starting position.

Tuck Back Lever

 

A beneficial progression exercise for various core exercises like straight leg raises or toes-to-bar is to tuck your knees.

The same goes for the back lever, and tucking your knees can be a great way to progress into a full back lever position. 

Tucking the knees helps take pressure off the back and core and makes it less intense.

How to Do the Tuck Back Lever:

  • Start by hanging from a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings with an overhand grip.
  • From the dead hang position, bring your knees up to your chest.
  • Keeping your lats engaged and core tight, continue to turn until you thread your legs through your arms and around the other side of the bar.
  • Hold this inverted position as you keep your knees tight to your chest.
  • Then rotate your body forward and pull your legs through the same path to reset in the starting position.

One Leg Back Lever

 

The next progression exercise is the one leg back lever, which is a combination of the tuck back lever and full back lever.

It can be slightly more intense than the tuck back lever, but not as intense as the full back lever.

Once you’re comfortable with the tuck back lever, try to transition into this progression by extending one leg back. This position can help simulate what the full back lever feels like without the full intensity.

How to Do the One Leg Back Lever:

  • Start by hanging from a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings with an overhand grip.
  • From the dead hang position, bring your knees up to your chest.
  • Keeping your lats engaged and core tight, continue to turn until you thread your legs through your arms and around the other side of the bar.
  • Stay inverted and assume the tuck position.
  • Once you’re in control, slowly start to extend one leg behind you while keeping the other leg tucked to your chest.
  • Hold this position until fatigued, then rotate back to the starting position.

Master the Back Lever

Once you’ve mastered these progressions, you might just be ready to get your first back lever. For a difficult exercise like the back lever, it’s important to continue to practice these progression exercises before trying to jump right into your first rep. 

Like for many lifters, it can be tempting to jump right into the heavy weights without warming up your joints and muscles first, but taking time to work on mobility and flexibility can help you better succeed.

To master the back lever, you must remain consistent and focused.

To help keep your mind focused, check out PRE  for vibrant energy and focus, increased endurance, and more efficient workouts.