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Learning How to Front Lever for Climbing

Learning any exercise is hard. How can we progress in our front lever while maintaining our climbing fitness?

Where one-arm pull ups and one-arm hangs have relatively direct methods for progression, front levers offer something a little more complicated. A person might argue that repetition of the following exercise will eventually yield a result, but in terms of climbing, the following exercises may feel too exhausting to maintain.

First, it is important to examine why a person may want to front lever. As shown on Magnus Midtbo’s Youtube channel, core is one of the key elements of strength training in climbing. His video is based on the Climbing Bible, a book written by two coaches from Norway. In the end, it is all anecdotal, but an anecdote from three professionals likely carries more weight than a person from the gym.

To that effect, core is significant to movement. All movements in sport utilize core to some extent. It’s significance, then, is apparent. In climbing, the effect is more pronounced. For climbers that move on steep terrain, the core muscles of the lower back provide stability. They allow the climber to keep their hips close to the wall.

Regardless of the angle, the muscles surrounding the lumbar push the climber’s hips inward. This is significant because it means that the climber does not have to pull quite as hard with their hands to remain on the wall. Instead, they can rely on the larger muscles of the lower body.

As the holds become worse, it becomes more challenging to put weight through the feet. Smaller holds provide less leverage. Large foot holds allow a climber to hang off the friction of their shoe, while small footholds tend to require more body-generated tension for use. Creating this tension is why we might look to learn to lever. It isolates the lower back’s core muscles and it even asks our lats and scapulae to overcompensate where our core is weak. In climbing, it is an easily transferable exercise.

The Exercise

Learning how to front lever is easy. It takes time and repetition, but if the goal is only to lever, a person can attain this through mere consistency. We will discuss two repeatable and popular exercises.

The Pseudo Lever

This is often called the quarter-lever, but here we call it the pseudo-lever because quarter implies a regular distance. While many climbers will complete one quarter of the front lever motion, and stay there, it could be argued that this does not provide enough stimulus. If the goal is to complete a front lever, then strive to complete a front lever.

Instead of pulling into a quarter lever, or 25% of a front lever by angle, simply strive to pull as high into a Front lever as you can with perfect form. At first, it will not seem that you are doing a very good job. That is okay. The short-term goal is not to do a front lever, but to provide stimulus. If you have been climbing for awhile, you have many of the muscles required to complete this exercise. Telling them how you wish to proceed is essential to progression. For climbers that have been in the game for a little while they will notice progression in the first few sessions. This will result from their body learning the exercise.

For newer climbers, progression will come slower. It could come so much slower, in fact, that it might be recommended to try some of the strengthening exercises listed at the bottom of this article before embarking on the front lever journey. In either case, this is what your week of sessions will look like:

  • Complete 3-6 sets of max-height, perfect-form puedo levers for 10 seconds. Rest three minutes between attempts
    • Set-count will depend on ability
    • Even if your legs drop over the period, that is okay so long as the form is maintained. If you cannot maintain the form, then do not aim so high. Form, here, means straight arms and a straight body, it does not refer to height. You will have to try very hard. as such, it is helpful to have someone else time you.
    • Complete three times a week, ideally separated by one rest day between each lever session
    • a person should commit to this for at least a month to see significant results. Testing yourself is important, but strive to do so when you are rested as in after a double rest day.

The Single Leg Front Lever

This exercise is a front lever, except you bring one-leg into your chest. Another variation is bringing both legs into the chest. The benefits of this exercise come primarily from learning the motion. It does not put enough stimulus through muscles surrounding the lower back to strengthen the lumbar as quickly as possible. However, it is a nice alternative.

One reason to complete single leg levers comes from the shoulder strengthening component of the exercise. It centres the person’s weight closer to their body and provides a less distressing way to improve the upper body’s stability.  It does strengthen the lower back as well, just to a lesser degree. This exercise might be a way to work on levers during heavy gym sessions.

For this exercise:

  • Complete 3-6 sets of max-height, perfect-form single-leg levers for 10 seconds. Rest three minutes between attempts
    • Complete three times a week, ideally separated by one rest day between each lever session.

The only issue the Gripped editor has with this exercise comes from the manner by which it pursues the lever. It offers a more passive approach. If you seek a more passive approach, then the following exercise offers the best improvement for climbing and front levers at the same time.

Board Climbing

It seems like we always end up talking about board climbing, but that is just because it is so good for strength training. The reason a person might board climb for core training is simple. While the pseudo-lever exercise will fast track your front lever, it will do so in a manner that makes climbing difficult. You will become weaker than you might expect and will have difficulty climbing well in the gym. For some, this sacrifice might make sense. For others, it may not.

We included the single-leg lever because of its popularity, but board climbing might make a more comprehensive alternative. If you choose not to fast track, then take the board climbing approach. You will have to focus on keeping your feet on the wall. If you do this, your lumbar will become strong.

Aim to build up to two hour sessions on the board. If you are newer to climbing, even a single hour of your session dedicated to board climbing will prove very helpful. The powerful, square style of climbing will ask the user to move utilizing the lats and scapulae. These muscles are important for the upper-body’s portion of the lever. Maintaining foot tension and keeping the feet low on board-based boulder problems will not only make you a better climber, but it will also strengthen your core.

The Gripped editor found progress through the pseudo levers, but could only break through to a 10 second lever by board climbing consistently. Consistently, in this case, means at least twice week for at least two hours a session. Naturally, board climbing offers greater fatigue that regular climbing and so he was only able to climb a total of three times per week.

This begins to bleed into the anecdotal, so take it with a grain of salt. This last point segways into the final aspect of this article.

Supplemental Exercises

Not everyone will benefit most from the same thing. If your muscles feel underdeveloped for front levers, and you have never tried basic hanging core exercises before, hanging leg-lifts may be the best place to start.

It will isolate the abdominals on the way up and the lumbar on the way down. It will never give you a front lever, but it will strengthen your shoulders and scapulae. This will prove fruitful. Furthermore, consider pull-up training if you have never done it before. Pull-ups fast-track lat development and can make the lever easier by spreading the stress of the exercise over a larger system of muscles.

The path to a front lever, for the newer climber, will likely incorporate a bit of everything if they wish to progress in the lever while maintaining their focus on climbing. Recognize what is working and embrace it before switching exercises.

Featured image of Sienna Kopf by Daniel Gajda