Developing Powerful Abs with the Dragon Flag

by Adrienne Harvey on April 22, 2014

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PCC Team Leader Adrienne Harvey Dragon Flag in Sweden

Anyone who’s familiar with extreme calisthenics already knows the infamous human flag exercise; the dragon flag variant, however, is an equally awesome move that fewer people are aware of. It looks cool, it’s commonly associated with Bruce Lee, and there’s so much that can be learned by working up to and practicing it. The other great thing about the dragon flag is that learning to do one means learning how to create an incredible amount of tension throughout your whole bodyan essential skill for all advanced calisthenics. While there are many different paths to the dragon flag, the multi-faceted one shared below has worked well for a few clients and myself. Some of these drills led me to the dragon flag before I was ever really trying for it. Oddly enough, even though they require very maximal effort, I’ll usually leave dragon flags for the end of the workout, or focus on them at a separate time of day from my main workout. Regardless, it’s also a good idea to be warmed up. The Trifecta from Convict Conditioning 2 using the bridge, L-sit, and twist is a great sequence to practice before and after your calisthenics work, especially high tension moves like the dragon flag!

It seems like all forms of the flag require an extreme level of tension. Whenever I catch myself not properly respecting that fact on any flag progression, I remember watching Danny Kavadlo psych himself up for one of his human flag demonstrations—that fierce-looking (and sounding) process is nearly as impressive as the feat itself! But the good news is that since most serious bodyweight enthusiasts will naturally already have some of the requisite abdominal strength, the dragon flag may be a little bit “easier” to achieve than a full human flag. It certainly requires a little less skill since it’s usually performed on a solid bench, or from the ground with a low bar, instead of self-suspended in the air while gripping a pole!

Al Kavadlo performs a Dragon Flag on a pole

Al Kavadlo performs a dragon flag on a pole

The dragon flag can also be performed on a pole, but it requires a bit of pain tolerance (pick which trap you want to jam the side of the pole into) and extra time practicing the correct grip—plus you’ll also have to fight the rotation from that off-centered pole! For comfort and simplicity—especially at the beginning—using a bench, a well-secured very low bar, or similar set up is best for learning the dragon flag. Certain types of very simple ab stations on fit trails (look for a flat platform with a low bar attached at one end) can also be appropriate for flags, though I would recommend padding the surface under your shoulders.

Fit Trail ab bench

For safely make sure that whatever you are using, grabbing, and pushing against is sturdy and can support your entire body weight or more.

Alternately, on a flat bench, you can choose to place your hands on the sides of the bench (usually near the ears, but everyone’s placement will be slightly different) or behind your head as shown below:

Hand position choices for dragon flags on a bench

Since the dragon flag requires a lot of tension, proprioception and skill, I’ve used multiple steps and strategies to progress towards it. Many of these moves are good for warming up when you’re able to do the full flag too.

1. The “Hardstyle” plank: The ability to really own the full body tension in this intense version of the plank is crucial. To me the dragon flag feels like an extra serious, less unsupported Hardstyle plank. (Think of doing a plank on just your arms.) The Hardstyle plank differs from the regular variety because the whole body is tensed, the elbows are pulling towards the toes really engaging the abs, and the heels are pushing outwards as well. Similarly, the glutes are engaged too—as they are in the dragon flag!

Hardstyle Plank

2. Lying leg raises from the floor—while these are a LOT easier than a dragon flag, remaining tense with your legs just a few inches off the ground while fully engaging your abdominals will really help you towards the goal of the dragon flag.

Flat Leg Raises Demonstration

3. A yoga-like shoulder stand—learning to balance up on your shoulders and NOT your neck will help you get into the right position at the midpoint of the dragon flag, or the starting point of the negative version. Familiarity with the feeling at this position can help insure that you’re keeping the body in a straight line as you descend, and eventually ascend too. The more balanced you can be at this midpoint, the more chance you have for a little “rest” between the grueling ascent and descent of the full dragon flag.

Shoulder stand demonstration

4. Tuck-flags or roll-ups (I’m sure someone has a better name for this drill). As we know from many other bodyweight exercises (L-sits, front and back bar levers) if we shorten the length of our legs, then the more favorable leverage makes the move much easier. While in a tuck position, use your abs to slowly pull your tucked body up off the floor onto your shoulders while firmly gripping the bench or very low bar, slowly lower back down until your abs are almost screaming! This move is not to be done quickly, and is surprisingly difficult if performed correctly—especially for reps! Gradually straighten the legs more and more to increase difficulty.

Tuck raises demonstration

5. Negative dragon flags. Grasp the bench or very low bar and begin from the shoulder-stand-like top position. After making sure you’re resting on your shoulders, not your neck, tense the whole body (torso, glutes, legs, etc.) and try to lower yourself slowly, and under control without bending at the hips. You may feel like you’re supporting most of your body through your arms at first, but try to mitigate that feeling by really keeping the body tight during every second of your descent. This takes an amazing amount of tension. The closer your legs get to the ground, the more difficult the move becomes. Try to maintain the straight body position and the tension as long as you can without just dropping your legs at the bottom of the movement. The abs, glutes, legs and everything in between are strongly engaged (I’ve even managed to cramp up one or both feet while practicing these!)

Negative dragon flags

6. Full dragon flags up from the ground, towards the shoulder-stand-like position, then descending. It’s very easy to accidentally cheat these on the way up, as your hips will want to fold to help you out. Instead, think of maintaining a slightly flatter version of a hollow position while focusing on keeping the body as one solid plank. I think the most difficult part of this move is initiating the movement from the ground. The first few seconds feel nearly impossible on some days!

Steps 1-4 can be practiced together, but practicing the negative flags and full flags is incredibly taxing. I typically won’t do more than 1-2 per set for negatives, and only 1 full dragon flag per set, for a session total of 3-5 sets. That’s ten reps total for the day at most. You may be able to work up to more over time, but this move takes practice, patience, and long term dedication, so best to ease in gradually.

While some may dismiss moves like the dragon flag and human flag as “party tricks,” these very cool looking moves are rewarding to conquer as they challenge our patience along with building strength, skill, and control. Thankfully, these hard-won concepts will carry over directly and indirectly to many other bodyweight drills, skills and feats of strength.

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About Adrienne Harvey, PCC Team Leader, RKCII, CK-FMS, Primal Move Nat’l Instructor: Originally RKC Certified in 2010, and RKC Level 2 certified in 2011, kettlebell and bodyweight training have been crucial in Adrienne’s personal quest for fitness. A core member of the PCC team, Adrienne loves sharing her knowledge with small groups and individuals. She also loves to develop recipes and workout programs to further support performance, body composition, and of course—FUN.  Go to http://www.giryagirl.com for more information about Adrienne!

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  • Owsky

    Great article Adrienne, thanks! One question: what do you mean by the “hollow position”?

    • Thanks! You’ll see that term sometimes in gymnastics too. Very roughly described, it’s the idea of lying face up, but with the abdominals engaged so that your lower back is pressed into the ground, and your arms, upper back, and at least lower legs are slightly up off the ground. Unfortunately it’s easier shown than described!!!

      • Owsky

        Thanks Adrienne, I think I get it. Another question if I may: in most exercises (but especially abdominal exercises) one is told to breath deeply into the diaphragm, but at the same time, to tense the abdominals. How do you do that? It seems contradictory to me in that the space you’re trying to breathe into is being contracted. Any thoughts?

        • It feels like a contradiction until you get some practice, it’s kind of a study in balance–you’ll breathe deeply but not MAXIMALLY, there’s some experimentation involved. Tts similar to how some folks in martial arts would say “breathe behind the shield”

          • owsky

            Thanks Adrienne!
            Owsky

  • Laurel

    Thanks! I’ll start working on those progressions.

  • healthiswealth

    Exellent article!!,you have amazing strength!

  • Matt Schifferle

    It’s been a while since I learned about a new exercise and got excited to give it a try. Thank you so much Addriene for this tutorial. I’m sure my abs will be feeling it tomorrow!

    • Thanks, Matt I think you’ll do really well with this one and let us know how it goes!

  • Karen Lee

    Ah, very nice, great progressions! Can’t wait to reexamine my plank for total body tension, it’s so easy to forget that that’s the whole point, glad to know it will help me on my way to this cool ‘trick’! Great photos, too!

  • Jesus, this is more like an old school article than a blog post. I’ve read books with less valuable information in–kudos, Adrienne! PCC MVP, now and forever, just beautiful work young lady.

    I’m guessing many, many people will be referring and linking back to this one over the years. It’s almost a shame we can’t list posts like this as “articles” somehow, so they don’t get lost. This MUST go in the next Dragon Door newsletter that goes out, it’s too damn good to be read for a week then kinda vanish.

    • Thanks so much, Coach! Here’s the extra good news, the blog is now organized so that NOTHING ever vanishes… http://pccblog.dragondoor.com/archives/ the archives can be reached from the link on the upper right of the menu now 🙂

      • Awesome job, kid! You have just performed a helluva service for the bodyweight community.

        Thank you!

  • Great article Adrienne, this is pretty much the progression I’ve followed with this move. I’ve conquered the negative, but am yet to give the full dragon flag a go. Will have to see if I have the strength to do it sometime soon.

    • 🙂 Thanks!! The biggest thing is to NOT psych yourself out on the full flag… the first 1 to 1.5 foot off the ground is the worst… past that it feels like “resting” by comparison!!!!!

      • Great, thanks for the tip 🙂 I’ll give this a go tomorrow

        • Wow, you weren’t joking about that first foot and a half! With straight legs I couldn’t do it, but I did just about manage it with a slight kink in my legs

  • Sean;-)

    Great article!!! Since I learned how to download and convert these articles to PDFs on my mac I’ll be adding this one as well to my PCC folder for reference. I add my kudos to your amazing abilities! Well written and very informative. Love that park with the body weight stations made me feel a bit envious. And has anyone really read this article??!! Al’s dragon flag on that pole defies reality! Totally awesome display of skill.

    I had a thought about the progressions you mentioned that came to me when I read you got cramps in your feet. Do you think doing planks on flat feet( much like the hollow position in gymnastics) instead of bent feet on toes would better prep the feet for that straight position? To me it would seem that then you would be able to practise that calve tension ( with toes flat on surface) and replicate the dragon flag position more closely? I’m far from any expert so I could be way off here. I don’t mean to challenge the expertise here, just a passing thought when I read the article. Love this site…

    In fellowship…

    • Glad you liked it! 🙂 As for the foot thing, it wasn’t so much from a position, more from just extreme full body tension (and maybe some jet lag)!!!

      • Sean ;-)

        Hey Adrienne,
        Thanks for the reply. Thought I should put my post where my mouth is and gave these a shot. Extreme tension is an understatement! Nearly lost my lunch trying a full flag (not to mention a damn near hernia lol) . I was surprised how difficult it was to not hinge at the hip when attempting to raise the body. Let it be said though I didn’t have high hopes of getting one off. I could manage a sorta tuck somewhere btw the height of the first and second pics of yours. Needless to say I need a lot more work and really liked how it stimulated the mid section. I then tried my plank idea (flat toes hollow position) against the normal plank version afterwards. I found that since I don’t have the stability of being on a bent foot it forced me to really tighten the core to stay stable and remain in position. Similar feel in my core to trying the tuck flag because it forced me to try to not crush the toes being that I was putting my weight on the top of them. Had to really get that full body tension going, for me anyways. Looking forward to getting better at this using your suggestions. As an aside I visited your cool website and caught your vid of the mace swings. I went to the stronger grip company and they have some crazy cool toys there. Love those sledges he makes, just might have to get my hands on one of those lol. All kinds of benefits hanging out with you guys.

  • Colin Mackay

    Another great article from you guys. Keep them coming!

  • Markus

    This move drives me crazy. I’m practicing now for ca. 2 years and I can only do 2-3 reps
    of negatives in ca. 3 Sets. Maybe I should go back to Step 4? This is definitely
    the hardest exercise I ever tried. Maybe Al can give me some tips in Munich…

    • It is certainly “one of those moves” Fortunately we worked on it some at this most recent PCC, and I’m very sure you’ll gain some insights… It is a VERY high tension exercise, and no one really does high rep with it at all… think on the level of a press flag… What’s happening when you’re practicing it? I’m more than happy to help you troubleshoot too…

      • Markus

        Of course I’ll gladly take your advice! Sorry, it should not sound as if I only refer to Al, but I’m just so excited to be there in June.
        I have never practiced a clutch or press flag, I can’t even hold unto a pole 🙂
        When on a bench, I really have to pull my shoulders with my arms into the bench and I can’t hold my body that straight as you do. I looks more like the Bruce Lee-Pictures where his back is quite arched. Hard to explain. As you noticed, English is not my mother tongue 🙂
        By the way, how about coming to Munich? 😉

        • 🙂 I’d love to come to Munich one day–it’s an all time favorite city! As for the flag, think of maintaining that “hollow” position by STRONGLY contracting the abs and also the glutes… as Al said this past weekend several times, our “core” is often larger than what most people believe–it’s the front AND the back! There’s nothing wrong with the arch style you’re doing, as long as you’re being safe for your back–it works for some people and not for others though.

  • Chloe

    Oh dang! I’ve only been doing ‘negatives’ this whole time. I guess it’s time for me to up the anty and go up into the dragon lag for proper form. Also how long do most of you hold your flag for? I’ve been working up to thirty seconds and have only held it that long a couple of times.

    • I don’t hold for time (though there’s nothing wrong with that at all), just because the difficulty is so varied
      depending on where you are in the hold — I work on going as slow as
      absolutely possible while lowering as low as possible too. Coming up
      from the ground is VERY difficult, but a huge accomplishment! 🙂

  • Hello, Just found this article.

    Some days, am able to do even 5 reps of this, only the negative version. I have lower back issues, so am a bit scared to try the positive version. I have two questions to you, if I may please.
    Am quite confused by how we should use the neck during this exercise. If you look at the BruceLee pictures, it is clear he is not resting his neck on the bench. But lot of people on the web are suggesting to keep the upper shoulder and neck firmly on the ground. I get some neck pain, sometimes after. My hesitation to not use pillows during sleep may not be helping too. (I cant find an ideal bench in my gym for this, and try to give as little stress to the neck as possible)

    The other is regarding the form. Many, like your goodselves, ask to lower the whole body in a straight line. But the Bruce Lee pictures tells a different form. Your upper body upto the hips stays at an angle, and the legs alone stays parallel to the bench. Sorry, am not sure if I explain rightly.
    What I find is, the Bruce Lee position is excellent. When we lower the body, to keep the upper body at an angle (without arching the back), and then lower the legs alone to make it parallel to the bench, your core muscles are really engaged. The incredible part is, if I try to lower the legs a bit more lower, the stress on the abdomen muscles get even high. Its killing, but really makes me feel very good.
    But as you said, When I try to keep the leg fully tensed and straight, when it is parallel to the bench, I can feel a slight cramp for the calf muscles, for one leg. I wont try any more rep for that day then.

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