Front levers are popularly advocated in the climbing literature as a “core workout” or for training what we call body tension. In this post I will offer an analysis of the front lever describing what muscles are at work in order to perform this demanding activity. In another post I will present an analysis of a few situations of body tension in climbing to see how they might be similar to, or different from the front lever. I want to do this as an example of how movement analysis is helpful for understanding what the body is doing in climbing movement, and how it can help us understand the likely effects of our training.
In movement analysis we examine a number of variables, including, but not limited to:
1- The orientation of the body to the line of gravity. This is essential as the force an athlete is resisting in a front lever and in climbing is gravity. Looking at how gravity acts on each body segment and joint helps us understand what the athlete is doing to resist the force of gravity.
2- The starting and end positions of the movement in question. By comparing the starting and ending positions of a movement we see what joints have moved and the type of movement they have undergone. This allows us to determine what muscles created the movement and the type of muscular contraction used in the movement.
3- The type of balance found in the movement. The position of the Center of Gravity in relation to the base of support. In climbing as well as other activities this is a guide to how strenuous the movement is and other variables such as what as athlete can change to make a move less strenuous.
By looking at these variables, we are able to determine what muscles are working to create the movements we see and we can describe their contribution to the movement.
Here is a photo of a front lever that we will use for analysis:
1) The white circles indicate the joints we will be talking about, these being: The wrist, the elbow, the shoulder joint, the hip joint, the knee and the ankle. We will also be discussing the muscles of the trunk.
2) The blue arrow shows the line of gravity.
3) The large green circle is the approximate position of the center of gravity.
The balance in the front lever is off-set which means that the COG is very close to the limit of the base of support. In this case the base of support is the hands on the rings, so the shoulder joint is held at the angle that allows the athlete to get the COG as close to directly under the hands as possible.
Description by joint:
The ankle: The ankle can move in several different ways but what interests us here are dorsal flexion, which occurs when you pull your toes up towards your knee; and plantar flexion, which occurs when you point your toes like we see in the above photo. With the body in this position the natural action of gravity is plantar flexion but not as extreme as we see in the photo. Thus no effort is being exerted at the ankle to resist the natural action of gravity. The athlete is flexing the ankle and pointing his toes as a matter of style or preference, a front lever can also be done without these actions. There are several muscles that contribute to plantar flexion of the ankle, these being: The Gastrocemius, Soleus, Peroneus, and the Peroneus brevis muscle.
The Knee: In a front lever the natural action of gravity would be to flex the knee to 90 degrees as in the illustration below. Thus in order to keep the knee joint in an extended position as in the photo requires a static (isometric) contraction of the Quadriceps.
This illustration shows the knee in a range of positions from maximal flexion (155) to maximal extension (0).
The Hip: The action of gravity in the front lever position is to extend the hip joint. In the photo it appears that the hip joint is being held in a slightly flexed position, requiring a static contraction of the hip flexors, of which there are several including the Rectus femoris, Illiopsoas, Sartorus, and the Tensor fasciae late. If the athlete relaxed these muscles the hip joint would extend thus lowering the knees and feet somewhat towards the ground.
The Trunk: In the front lever position the natural action of gravity is to extend the trunk. This would mean an arching of the back and a lowering of the pelvis and legs towards the ground. To resist this action the athlete is using static contractions of several trunk muscles, the Rectus abdominis, Internal oblique, and External oblique. It’s hard to tell from this particular photo but it’s often the case that in a front lever the trunk is held in a slightly flexed position. Finally, its important to note that the muscles just mentioned facilitate several actions of the trunk, flexion only being one of them. Training the muscles in one action does not necessarily train the muscles for other actions.
In the top illustration the trunk is flexed forward (the trunk is also capable of lateral flexion, as well as rotation and extension, which we will talk about in another post.)
The shoulder: At the shoulder the action of gravity is to flex the joint so what we see here is that the athlete is resisting this flexion with extension. This is where the real work is occurring in a front lever. As many athletes know it doesn’t take much effort to hold the legs out straight, similarly many athletes are not all that challenged by holding the trunk stable in this position, but at the shoulder the body is a long lever working to flex the shoulder so it takes a great deal of effort to hold the shoulder joint in an extended position. We can only guess that this is why the position is called a Lever. Muscles that contribute to shoulder extension are the Latissimus dorsi, Teres major, Teres minor (Note: not all authorities include extension as actions of the Teres major and minor), Posterior deltoid, Triceps brachii, and the lower fibers of the Pectoralis major.
The elbow: The elbow joint flexes and extends it has no other actions. In the front lever not much is going on at the elbow in that the line of gravity is working across the joint in a direction the joint does not move so there is no effort required to resist gravity at the elbow.
The wrist: The wrist does not contribute much, the natural action of gravity in this position is flexion of the wrist and fingers, but obviously the main action here involves holding the rings.
The front level is a challenging gymnastic pose, in which the greatest muscular effort is exerted at the shoulder in order to hold a static position of shoulder extension. Trunk and hip flexion also play a role in the pose as does knee extension but the effort required at those joints is far less than at the shoulder. Done as a static pose the front lever utilizes isometric muscular contractions in all regions. Climbers also sometimes do front levers by starting in a hanging position and then raising the body up into the lever position. About the only significant change this action creates is that the shoulder starts flexed and moves into extension requiring the muscles that contribute to shoulder extension begin with isotonic (contractions in which muscles change length, shorten or lengthen) contractions and then hold an isometric contraction (contracting in which the muscle does not change length) when holding the pose.
It should also be pointed out that the front lever is an open kinetic chain pose. What I mean by this is that since the feet are not fixed to a surface such as footholds or the floor, any one joint can move separately without necessitating movement of other joints. For example one could choose to flex or extend the knee and that would not force the hip joint to move; additionally movement at the ankle does not require movement of the knee or hip.
What I have tried to do here is to give an accurate description of the joints and muscles working in a front lever position. I have skipped some details to keep the description as simple as possible. This description is the starting point for a comparison between the front lever and moves in climbing that we recognize as requiring what we call body tension. If this description is as clear as mud, or you think I left something important out, or if you have questions please leave a comment and I’ll work on refining what I have here.
Here are a few links showing some of the muscles mentioned above: