Growing up, I was a scrawny, geeky kid who spent my free time reading comic books, fantasizing about having mutant powers and dreaming of looking shredded like my heroes in the stories. The first time I ever saw an elbow lever, the kid in me got excited. I’d always wanted to be a superhero, and this was the closest thing to flying that I’d ever seen. I had to try it myself!
Unfortunately on my first attempt, instead of flying I ended up face planting instead! After scarfing that slice of humble pie, I did what any intelligent athlete would do: I took a step back and started practicing foundational movements to help me earn my wings!
#1 – The Plank
As played out as this exercise may seem, it is the perfect place to start. The plank position puts you in the same plane of movement as a lever and helps you build the necessary core strength. Emphasize keeping an open chest while broadening through the collar and retracting the shoulder blades down and back. “Zip-up” your mid-section by squeezing your glutes, engaging your quads and evenly distributing the weight between the top and bottom of the body. Eventually when you can hold the pose for 2 minutes, experiment with gecko plank variations, which involve lifting a leg and/or arm.
#2 – Back Bridge
In a culture where flexion is the norm (sitting for prolonged periods, driving, etc.) the bridge liberates the spine from excessive upper back arching, as well as from a variety of other back pathologies. How does this apply to levers? In order to hold the body upright, you need to have a flexible upper back and strong spinal muscles–and the bridge addresses both! Take your time with this movement as it can be very intense for beginners. There are less difficult variations you can practice like the straight or table bridge, neck bridge, etc.
#3 – Bound Eagle
One of the gnarliest sensations you need to get past when first practicing this move is getting used to having your elbows jammed in your guts! If you have never tried it before, go ahead and try! Not as easy or comfortable as you thought? No sweat! Master PCC Al Kavadlo, suggests in his book Stretching Your Boundaries (definitely a must-have for every regular calisthenics practitioner) a helpful preparatory pose could be the Bound Eagle. This pose can help you gradually develop the flexibility needed to turn your elbows inward.
#4 – Midsection Holds
Speaking of jamming your elbows into your midsection, the L-Sit progressions are ideal to get your abdomen prepped to take all your bodyweight. These holds involve tensing almost every muscle in your body, specifically the abdominal region, much like you’ll need to in order to perform a successful elbow lever. Start with a tucked L-sit and progress from there. I also like to include the frog stand here as it emphasizes lifting the chest while balancing on the hands just like in the lever!
#5 – Elevate yourself
Start practicing your elbow lever on elevated surfaces like plyo boxes, tables, counters, park benches, paralletes, etc. Be creative; the sky’s the limit! Start by letting your legs hang over so your form will resemble less of a straight line and more of an arch. As you get stronger, just like in your midsection holds, you can work from a tuck to a straddle and eventually that perfect expression of the pose with long extended legs!
#6 – Get Grounded
If you’ve mastered step 5 and you’re ready to attempt the elbow lever on level ground, you may still find it difficult to completely clear your legs from the floor. It may be helpful at this point to use a wall-assisted regression, in which you press one or both feet into the wall to spot yourself. From there, it’s just a matter of taking a leap of faith and going for it. If you’ve done the work, it should come without too much of a struggle.
#7 – Next Level Levers
What’s great about progressive calisthenics, is that even after you are finally able to perform the elbow lever, there are even more advanced variations to be conquered! You can try doing an elbow lever on your fingertips, or even just one arm. Be patient during the earlier steps and focus on form. It takes consistency and synergy for your body to learn this unique movement!
Elbow levers are truly the stuff of Superheroes. They take skill, courage, and strength to perform properly! Don’t be shy! Embrace your inner hero and get your lever on!