The Human Flag

Up for a challenge? Try this.

Al demonstrating the Human Flag.
The Human Flag is one of the greatest bodyweight challenges of all time. When someone can hold a full human flag, it always attracts the attention and admiration of onlookers. It's one thing to be strong - it's another thing to be a human flag! However, brute strength is not the secret to success with the human flag.
Like most things in life, being aware of the subtle nuances of the human flag is the key to performing it skilfully. Most people assume it's strictly an issue of upper body strength, but there are other things to consider when training for the human flag. I believe that achieving a full human flag begins by having a thorough understanding of these considerations. From there it's simply a matter of practice, dedication, and patience.

A lot of people ask me how long it takes to learn to do a human flag. It's natural to ask this question but I think the best way to approach training to do a flag is not to think about the end result. It is a long road to the human flag and people who go in expecting a quick fix will likely be disappointed. It takes a lot of practice - even if you're already fit. However, if you focus on the process rather than the end result, I think you'll find it a more rewarding experience. It also helps to set small bench marks along the way by using easier variations to build your way up to the full human flag.

The key to gradual progression is to practice similar positions where you'll have better leverage. Part of what makes the full human flag so challenging is that you're using a relatively short lever (your arm) to hold up a very long object (your body). Since you can't really make your arms longer, you need to find ways to make your body shorter in order to make the flag more manageable.

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Try doing a variation where your body is closer to being vertical than horizontal. Almost like a crooked handstand (handstands, by the way, are a great way to supplement your human flag training).
Besides being easier on your arms, this puts a lot less stress on the obliques, lower back and abdominal muscles, allowing you to get a feel for having your body up in the air while you build up the strength to fully extend your legs horizontally. Practicing with your knees bent also works well as a precursory way of working up to the full human flag. Remember, any modification that gives you better leverage is a good way to work towards this skill. The important thing is consistent practice.

In the beginning, just holding a bent leg flag for a couple of seconds would leave my obliques sore for days afterward. Additionally, developing shoulder tendonitis can be a concern, especially early on. You want to be warmed up before practicing your flag and make sure to give your body proper rest between efforts. Eventually you may be able to practice flags daily, but in the beginning a few minutes every two or three days is a better way to ease yourself into it. Be patient - anything that's worthwhile takes time. If you want to acquire this skill you can, you just have to really want it and be willing to put in the work.

NB : This article first appeared in the 'Articles & Logs' area of the forums.

Al Kavadlo

Al Kavadlo is a personal trainer based in New York, New York; and the author of superb books such as We're Working Out: A Zen Approach to Everyday Fitness (review), Raising the Bar : The Definitive Guide to Bar Calisthenics and Pushing the Limits! Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

Swing by his blog for regular updates on bodyweight strength-training, conditioning, and nutrition. You'll also find him on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube and Google+. And, of course, in Gymchat 223 - Progressive Calisthenics. Fantastic conversation.

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