How to Build Up to the Back Lever:
The back lever is one of the most powerful exercises for your back. You can perform it with any body part, but its best if you start with your shoulders. Your forearms are strong enough to hold up a barbell or dumbbell, so you will need to use them when performing this exercise. If you have never performed a back lever before, then do not worry; it’s really easy! All you need is a sturdy surface like a floor, and some weight to support your bodyweight.
When you first begin doing this exercise, keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees. Keep your wrists straight and try to squeeze your shoulder blades together while keeping the rest of your upper arms stationary. This position will allow you to lift the weight without losing balance or falling over backwards. Once you’ve mastered the basic movement, move onto other variations such as the one arm back lever, two arm back lever, and even a three-arm variation.
What Is A Back Lever?
A back lever is simply a combination of the traditional pushup and pullup. You’ll probably notice that they both involve pushing up against something (your hands or a bench) and pulling down towards your chest. The difference is that the back lever requires no downward movement at all. Think of the exercise as a one-sided row. When you perform a one-arm back lever, you’re activating your shoulder and upper back muscles in a motion similar to a pull up. The same effect can be achieved with two arms, but it’s much more difficult to perform.
If you’re used to training your back more than your arms, then this exercise could be useful for correcting muscle imbalances. However, if you routinely do many different types of pull-ups then the back lever may not be necessary. Achieving the back lever is certainly impressive and many people find it fun to train, but there are very few exercises that directly target your back as effectively.
Preparing for the back lever is a good idea if you want to do a one-arm pull up. However, there are some people who have mastered the one-arm pull up without ever performing the back lever. It all comes down to your body type and how much time you’re willing to spend training.
The Back Lever Muscles
Your four major muscles groups in your upper back are the trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, and teres major muscles. These muscles are used in the back lever, but to a much lesser degree than your forearms and shoulders. When you build up your forearm strength completely, your upper arm and shoulder muscles don’t need to work as hard to support you. That’s why it’s common to see very muscular weightlifters and bodybuilders with very strong forearms. Your trapezius and rhomboids act as stabilizing muscles, so they don’t tire out as quickly.
Your trapezius is on the top of your shoulders and runs down towards your spine in a triangular shape. The rhomboids are located between your shoulder blades. When performing the back lever, you will feel these muscles contract to keep your body rigid. If you’re doing the exercise correctly, you shouldn’t feel any strain in your lower back.
The teres major is a small muscle located near your shoulder joint. It’s the muscle that allows you to rotate your arms, and it can get fatigued when holding your body up in a back lever. Many people feel this muscle when performing one-arm pull-ups, but the back lever doesn’t involve any arm rotation at all.
The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle located in your upper and lower back. It runs down the entire length of your back and connects to your upper arm bones (humerus). When performing the back lever, you won’t feel this muscle working as hard as the smaller muscles in your upper back. The lever is more balanced since your body is extended over the bar instead of hanging from it.
The Best Way to Train for a Back Lever
The best way to train for a back lever is to perform the exercise itself! Seriously though, if you want to get your first back lever then start off by doing some one-arm pull-ups. If you can’t do one yet, then begin with negatives (lowering yourself as slowly as possible) or use a spotter to help you lift up into the top position.
Next, perform ring rows to strengthen your upper back and shoulders. It will take months of training to build up your strength, so be patient and take your time. Tuck your legs and feet under something sturdy so they don’t swing while you train the back lever.
One common mistake is to use your leg muscles to kick and push your body up. They should only be tucked underneath something sturdy so they stay in place. You don’t want to rely on them for leverage because that defeats the purpose of training your upper body instead.
Performing the Back Lever
Your legs should be tucked under a sturdy piece of furniture or bench so they don’t swing when you train the back lever. You can perform the exercise with your knees bent (pictured above) or with your legs straight. It’s more difficult to hold the position with your legs straight, but you’ll build more core strength.
Beginners should start with their knees bent and their feet flat on the floor. Your arms should be extended directly over your shoulders with your palms facing up. Lift your body off the floor until your arms and shoulders are fully extended. Hold the position as long as you can without swinging or using your legs for leverage.
When you can hold the position for at least a few seconds, then you can try lifting your legs off the floor. You still won’t be supporting your entire body weight, but you will feel it in your upper back and shoulders. Most people find that their shoulders and trapezius muscles fatigue fairly quickly when they perform one-arm pull-ups, so this shouldn’t be any different.
Don’t try to rush through the pain. Make sure you’re fully extended with your shoulders perpendicular to the floor so you get the full effect of the back lever.
If you want to add more of a challenge, try lifting one foot a few inches off the ground at the midway point of your hold time. It will force your obliques to work harder to keep your balance while your shoulders and upper back muscles fatigue.
You can also try lifting one foot and the opposite arm at the same time (i.e. left leg and right arm) or try lifting one leg and the opposite arm for the entire duration of your hold time. Each variation will put a little more stress on your core, so you’ll definitely feel it the next day!
Back levers can also be performed on rings, but it’s a much more technical movement. It might be better to master the basic pull-up bar version before you move on to the ring variety. You can find more information about ring training in our article about the muscle-up.
The back lever is a challenging exercise that will build up your pulling strength, shoulder endurance and core strength all at the same time. Be sure to work your way up to this one and don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to get the feel of it. It will be well worth the effort when you can hold a full back lever at your own body weight!
The back lever is one of the 7 climbing techniques described in our book, which features 5 more techniques to help you get to the top of the climbing gym and beyond. Pick up a copy today!
Sources & references used in this article:
The King of Sunlight: How William Lever Cleaned Up the World by A Macqueen – 2011 – books.google.com
The devil lies in details! How crises build up within organizations by C Roux‐Dufort – Journal of Contingencies and Crisis …, 2009 – Wiley Online Library
How to build collaborative advantage by MT Hansen, N Nohria – MIT Sloan Management Review, 2004 – sloanreview.mit.edu